How Mark Rylance transformed into ‘THE BFG’


bfg-movie-2016-mark-rylance-ruby-barnhill-1Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Oscar winner Mark Rylance (BRIDGE OF SPIES) is like you’ve never seen him before in director Steven Spielberg’s THE BFG. That’s because he’s the mo-capped version of himself as a twenty-four-foot tall big friendly giant. In the cinematic adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s novel, an unlikely friendship is formed between human “bean” Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) and the titular hero. Together they set out on an adventurous quest that has them visiting the Queen of England and facing off against nine bigger giants.

Rylance mentioned an accomplished filmmaker such as Spielberg was,

…really quite panicked by the technical complexity of what he was embarking on – which was kind of impressive to see. I suppose on the face of it, the film looks like it’s him re-treading old ground of loving stories between children and kind of alien type beings. But the truth of it is, it’s a technology that’s absolutely new, and very foreign.

The first part of the process was capturing Rylance’s performance in the mo-cap suit.

I have a camera on my head and I’m wearing a funny suit with kind of silver nipples and silver ping pong balls or something on it, all over the place. I’m existing in a computer.   There’s hundreds of cameras. I’ll have a doll on the table, which would be Sophie. Ruby would be kneeling behind the table there so I can actually have eye contact with her. If she then tries to run away, Steven would be standing right here; he would have a tennis ball on a stick, and I’d follow that.

In order to film Barnhill’s part of her scenes with The BFG, Spielberg tried different techniques than a tennis ball on the end of a long stick. Said Rylance,

In the afternoon, we would go to her set next door, and this table would now be much bigger than this room, and these props would be, you know, six foot high. And there’d she be, standing in scale A gentleman with a long stick would be holding an iPad and a camera would be on my face, and my face would be on the iPad, and that would – he’d run around – never faster enough. Steven was always saying, ‘Why are you so slow?’ Steven would be looking at his screen that had a composite, a very rough composite of my performance from the morning here; with the actual image through that of Sophie, and trying to get our eyesight, our eye lines together, and also our performance matching. That was the kind of nature.

It was at Rylance’s request that their scenes were filmed together.

Initially they were worried that Ruby would get tired and they had another wonderful, young actress doing the off camera work for me. But when I went in the afternoon and acted with Ruby, I said to Steven, ‘This girl’s great, but Ruby’s unique, and she makes me laugh, and moves me in a totally different way. So if the film is about a kind of friendship between these two, I think we should always be together.’ And he did that.

Dame Penelope Wilton, who plays Queen Elizabeth, found that having Rylance on set to act against was invaluable part of the process.

I had Mark there on a scaffold, and so it was him and I was relating to him and his face, and his — but he was on a scaffold 20 feet high. Steven had shown me the ears and all the – what he would look like, and I’d actually in Quentin’s cartoon, which is in the book, so I knew what he looked like. But it was Mark, so we all related to Mark. So did Ruby in those scenes. We just related to him up there.

To put himself in the mindset of this ___ foot tall giant, who is really the runt in Giant Country, is one thing. But his physicality proved to be quite another and he found his inspiration close to home.

Steven asked me, ‘Have you got the walk?’ And I thought, Oh, my God! What’s the walk?! Actually, I didn’t know what the walk was for a week or so. I’m a stepfather; and the biological father of my daughter, Juliette. Chris is a wonderful runner. That’s one of the things you can say about BFG is he has a good run every day, doesn’t he? A really good run. And I realized, oh, this is Chris; this walk would be good.

Rylance admitted that he normally can’t stand to watch himself on screen, however, THE BFG provided him with an opportunity to be able to do so.

I had no idea what this would look like. It wasn’t as uncomfortable as seeing myself normally on film, which I usually just can’t bear. This was different enough that it was a little more distanced, and actually it was more comfortable watching it.

THE BFG opens on July 1.


About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.