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August 18
2020

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

BELGRAVIA: How Do You Turn Old Buildings Into New?

By IAN FAILES

One of the methods visual effects artists use to help integrate computer graphics into their scenes is by adding weathering, wear and tear, grime and extra dirt. It can help make things feel ‘lived in’.

But what if, instead, you needed to turn some buildings that already had that wear and tear into something incredibly new? That was a task faced by the team at BlueBolt on the historical TV drama, Belgravia.

BlueBolt Co-VFX Supervisor Henry Badgett during the aerial shoot.

Original plate shot in Edinburgh with dark stone buildings. (All Belgravia images copyright © 2020 Carnival Films. Courtesy of BlueBolt.)

BlueBolt crafted CG Belgravia buildings to replace the plate photography.

“The story setting was that the Belgravia streets had just been built, so they needed to look as if Master Builder Thomas Cubitt had just signed them off.”

—Henry Badgett, Co-Visual Effects Supervisor, BlueBolt

In the show, scenes showing the affluent London district’s distinctive white stucco buildings in their ‘fresh’ 1840s state were achieved by augmenting live-action present-day aerial Belgravia plates for wide shots, with street-level scenes being augmentations of plates filmed in Edinburgh.

Historical material sourced by BlueBolt and the show’s art department served as reference, as did a comprehensive photo shoot of modern-day Belgravia. “The story setting was that the Belgravia streets had just been built, so they needed to look as if Master Builder Thomas Cubitt had just signed them off,” outlines BlueBolt co-VFX Supervisor Henry Badgett (BlueBolt’s Creative Director Angela Barson was Overall Visual Effects Supervisor on Belgravia).

“Blocks of the surrounding area were replaced with building sites showing new housing under construction. We did a lot of period research into road and landscape layout at the time in the area, adjusting Buckingham Palace to an earlier incarnation, replacing modern train lines with canals and inventing the view of central London.”

An aerial plate of modern-day Belgravia.

For the final shot, BlueBolt removed modern-day artefacts and inserted its 3D build.

“The helicopter plates were tricky because the civil aviation authority impose strict limits on how long you can fly over central London and there is a minimum height you can fly at, so we essentially only had two passes to get what we needed.”

—Henry Badgett, Co-Visual Effects Supervisor, BlueBolt

BELGRAVIA FROM THE AIR

For the aerial shots, BlueBolt started by creating previs in Google Earth to determine camera moves. “There was then a day of filming from a helicopter to get those plates,” details Badgett. “The helicopter plates were tricky because the civil aviation authority impose strict limits on how long you can fly over central London and there is a minimum height you can fly at, so we essentially only had two passes to get what we needed.”

The Belgravia district was ultimately a full CG build; just some areas of the aerial plates were retained, such as the parks, trees and single church. “There were a lot of non-period correct modifications and roofs covered in air-conditioning units to replace,” notes Badgett. “The roads and pavements all had to be replaced with cobbled streets and period street lighting.

“We used 3D in the near to middle distance with the farthest area from the camera being created with a combination of 3D layout and digital matte painting,” adds Badgett. “The streets and parks were populated with CG crowd, horses and carriages to give them some life.”

Street-level scenes included people, horses, and other action.

These elements all had to be rotoscoped from the plate for the final shots.

“Matching and viewing the white color of the facades was an unexpected challenge, even after deciding on the exact shade required, plunging us into a world of strict monitor calibration routine. In the aerial shots, it was tricky to produce long terraces and squares of neat new buildings and have them not look CG, the amount of detail and texture added was finely calibrated.”

—Henry Badgett, Co-Visual Effects Supervisor, BlueBolt

STREET-LEVEL SCENES

Moray Place in Edinburgh served as the shooting location for Belgravia street-level scenes. Here, the buildings were dark stone rather than white stucco. That meant replacing the facades of the buildings while preserving the live-action elements that were filmed.

“We lidar’d the Moray Place buildings to give accurate geometry reference,” says Badgett. “We wanted to retain the steps and pavements, doors and window, so everything had to line up accurately. We then added key geometry such as the iconic Belgravia porticos and columns, and many, many CG railings.”

Key shots were created using a CG replacement method. This involved, explains Badgett, “roto’ing the foreground and replacing large parts of the background with our CG Belgravia buildings. For secondary shots where the buildings were only glimpsed in the background or through foliage, we were able to grade them white to match, which was much quicker.

“Since the dressing such as flower borders, curtains and decorative lights added so much to the look of the piece,” continues Badgett, “we aimed to retain as much of this as possible, which meant choosing careful points of transition between areas of the plate and the CG on a shot-by-shot basis.”

Getting the ‘right’ look of the white color for the facades of the Belgravia buildings proved a major challenge for BlueBolt.

“Matching and viewing the white color of the facades was an unexpected challenge, even after deciding on the exact shade required, plunging us into a world of strict monitor calibration routine,” discusses Badgett. “In the aerial shots, it was tricky to produce long terraces and squares of neat new buildings and have them not look CG, the amount of detail and texture added was finely calibrated.”

Watch BlueBolt’s VFX breakdown for Belgravia.

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