Computer Graphics World

Edition 2 2020

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e d i t i o n 2 , 2 0 2 0 c g w 4 9 Crafting Daemons Framestore played a key creative and collabo- rative role in the worldbuilding process for His Dark Materials, delivering all of the first sea- son's VFX and served as a key creative advisor from the earliest stages of production. This saw Framestore build a produc- tion-side visual effects team at Wolf Stu- dios in Cardiff led by senior VFX supervisor Russell Dodgson, on-set VFX supervisor Rob Duncan, and VFX executive producer James Whitlam. They provided guidance, advice, and input as to how best to bring Philip Pull- man's unique world to life – from feedback on the production notes to creating the show's lush environments and developing the nuanced relationships between the actors and their daemons. The result is one of the most ambitious feats of storytelling yet seen on TV, with over 2,000 shots of spectacular CG and animation work bringing the richly-imagined universe and its colorful denizens to life. "His Dark Materials demanded an extraordinarily high VFX baseline," says Dodgson. Craing a visual spectacle equal to Pullman's beloved source material drew on a wide range of talent, and presented challenges in terms of scope, scale, and storytelling. "Every human character having his or her own daemon means, theoretically, every shot that features an actor could also require VFX," explains Dodgson. "This level of work and detail is unparalleled when it comes to television – the sheer volume of shots requiring the inclusion of a pine mar- ten, a hawk, a monkey, or a snow leopard meant our lighters, animators, and CG art- ists really had their work cut out for them." Framestore created more than 50 distinctive daemons as well as the bear- like panserbjørn, effectively bolstering the show's overall cast with its CGI creations. To ensure emotional, realistic interactions be- tween human actors and fully-CG charac- ters, first-pass takes were conducted with puppets, which helped provide visual and interactional cues. The puppets were then removed from set, and clean plates featur- ing just the actors in situ were filmed. It was then up to Framestore's artists to conjure forth the show's distinctive daemons. "On the one hand, there was the challenge of creating so many photoreal creatures," says Dodgson of the process. "You're building each one of these char- acters from the ground up, which means craing their skeletons and musculature, and that's before you even get on to the intricacies of feathers, fur, eyes, and claws." Bringing these characters to life was not just a question of volume, however. "It was obviously important to imbue each daemon with its own personality," says Dodgson. "A deeper concern, however, was how they then interacted with their humans, and how their gestures and behavior augmented, reflected, or concealed what their human was thinking or feeling." The scope and scale of Season 1 of the show meant Framestore drew on skills from across the entire company, with the work split between offices in London and Mon- treal. "It was a team effort on a grand scale," says Fiona Walkinshaw, Framestore's global managing director, film. "We're no stranger to huge projects and tight deadlines, but His Dark Materials really feels like a landmark in terms of both the quantity and quality of VFX shots TV audiences witnessed. It's a perfect example of how film and high-end TV are converging: There's a heightened de- mand from clients and audiences alike for VFX work that would look as good in your living room as it would at the IMAX." As well as allowing the company's artists to flex their creative and technical muscles, the work also tapped another of Frame- store's core skills: the ability to get inside a piece of existing IP and breathe life into complex creatures, characters, and settings that exist in the hearts and minds of a great many loyal fans. "This isn't a world we're building from scratch – it's one that millions of readers feel deeply invested in," Framestore CEO William Sargent points out. things in previs that we probably couldn't make for real, ultimately. But doing those techniques and finding discoveries were still useful," says May. "Even though we were limited by our imaginations in Unreal, we had budgets, health and safety, and a million other things to consider. You have to get realistic about what's achievable in terms of time and money." In addition to His Dark Materials, May and Painting Practice are using the virtual pre-production process on other shows, which are under NDA at the moment. "I think we're still in the early stages about how it's going to be used," May adds. Meanwhile, the series recently received two BAFTA awards, including one for visual effects. Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor of CGW.

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