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August 22
2023

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

BLUEBOLT CONQUERS THE LAST KINGDOM: SEVEN KINGS MUST DIE

By TREVOR HOGG

Images courtesy of BlueBolt and Netflix.

A last-minute alternation was to give the concluding Valhalla scene more of an epic ethereal quality.

A last-minute alternation was to give the concluding Valhalla scene more of an epic ethereal quality.

A last-minute alternation was to give the concluding Valhalla scene more of an epic ethereal quality.

After being the sole visual effects vendor on 10th century British saga The Last Kingdom, BlueBolt gets to apply five seasons worth of expertise to the Netflix feature film The Last Kingdom: Seven Kings Must Die. The story revolves around Uhtred of Bebbanburg attempting to unite England after the death of King Edward. “This is not a documentary,” observes Richard Frazer, VFX Supervisor at BlueBolt. “We have to start from a point of authenticity and then take some creative license because we’re still making a piece of entertainment.” The methodology did not change going from a series to feature format. “Apart from the Valhalla stuff, there wasn’t anything crazy dissimilar to what we’ve done before. We looked at it as if we were making one and a half or two episodes of the show.” Post-production lasted for seven to eight months. “The shot count of 375 doesn’t sound like much but they were extremely complex,” Frazer explains. “The main difference is that it’s one big linear focus [rather than doing pre-production, shooting and post-production of different episodes at the same time]. There wasn’t any overlap with anything else that was going on.”

Sky replacements were part of the visual effects work, such as turning scenes from day to night.

Sky replacements were part of the visual effects work, such as turning scenes from day to night.

Sky replacements were part of the visual effects work, such as turning scenes from day to night.

Outside of the usual numerous blood shots, the main focus was the battle at the end. “You cut to this wide battle shot [there were four or five of them], and for the three seconds that it’s onscreen there are all of these nuances of the advancement in the configuration of the two sides that have to be communicated,” Frazer states. “The Valhalla sequence was something that came in quite late and wasn’t planned for. It was filmed as scripted with Uhtred in the hall at Beddanburg. He hears this commotion, goes over, and it’s like a mirror of the hall that he has just left. It was shot that way and never meant to be visual effects. The film was locked and sent off for reviews to one of the executives who wanted it to be this much bigger thing at the end. We were nervous because it was going to take quite a significant bunch of money to get it done, and it’s such an important moment. Uhtred is on the cusp between life and death. It couldn’t be cheesy. If you die in battle, you either go to Valhalla, which is an eternal banquet with all of your fallen comrades for the rest of time, or to Fólkvangr. where you can be out in the countryside, if getting drunk for eternity isn’t your thing!”

CG water was avoided for the series but required for the feature version.

CG water was avoided for the series but required for the feature version.

CG water was avoided for the series but required for the feature version.

Classical paintings of Valhalla were too grand and over the top in their scale, which ran counter to the tone of show. “We did reference a shot where we go to the Isle of Man and there is a Viking longhouse, which was based on a real one that was discovered,” Frazer remarks. “For the Hall of Valhalla, we went to the production designer who had designed the Hall of Bebbanburg and said, ‘It has to feel otherworldly but grounded in a reality that Uhtred understands because of the implication that it might be a hallucination that he is having.” A blinding bright light appears in the doorway of the hall. “It was based on the Hall of Beddanburg, which was practically built and expanded into this infinite space. At the end were these giant doors that opened out onto the meadows of Fólkvangr. Originally, you were supposed to see through the doorway to the meadows beyond. We played with the exposure and levels of haze and reached this level where it was blown out and light streaking through. The executives liked that as a look because it implied something ethereal beyond, but still felt quite grounded,” Frazer says.

“The Valhalla sequence was something that came in quite late and wasn’t planned for. It was filmed as scripted with Uhtred in the hall at Beddanburg. He hears this commotion, goes over, and it’s like a mirror of the hall that he has just left. It was shot that way and never meant to be visual effects. The film was locked and sent off for reviews to one of the executives who wanted it to be this much bigger thing at the end. We were nervous because it was going to take quite a significant bunch of money to get it done, and it’s such an important moment. Uhtred is on the cusp between life and death. It couldn’t be cheesy.”

—Richard Frazer, VFX Supervisor, BlueBolt

Motion capture – with a shield and baseball bat in hand – was essential in producing the necessary number of soldiers for battle sequences.

Motion capture – with a shield and baseball bat in hand – was essential in producing the necessary number of soldiers for battle sequences.

Motion capture – with a shield and baseball bat in hand – was essential in producing the necessary number of soldiers for battle sequences.

Epic warfare is a signature part of series storytelling for The Last Kingdom, with the climax of the feature being based on the Battle of Brunanburh. “There were probably more records or poems written about the aftermath,” Frazer notes. “I don’t know how much the specific military beats within it are accurate to the real historical event. They wanted to have Untred and his forces overwhelmed and outnumbered, but by using tactics he manages to save the day. Uhtred concedes ground in order to expose their flank to a pincer maneuver attack. As much as we were trying to shoot that with drones on the battlefield, in the end it was too difficult to do that as a physical maneuver with the number of people we had. We shot a bunch of empty plates of the battlefield and did it completely CG to show the nuances of that maneuvering, which is counter to what I normally do. You should always start from a place of having real people, but at least what we attempted to shoot with the drone served as reference to rebuild all of that with our CG characters.”

It was a challenge to have the opposing armies crushing against each other enough while not making it visually confusing for the viewer.

It was a challenge to have the opposing armies crushing against each other enough while not making it visually confusing for the viewer.

It was a challenge to have the opposing armies crushing against each other enough while not making it visually confusing for the viewer.

“[The Hall of Valhalla] was based on the Hall of Beddanburgh, which was practically built and expanded into this infinite space. At the end were these giant doors that opened out onto the meadows of Fólkvangr. Originally, you were supposed to see through the doorway to the meadows beyond. We played with the exposure and levels of haze and reached this level where it was blown out and light streaking through. The executives liked that as a look because it implied something ethereal beyond, but still felt quite grounded.”

—Richard Frazer, VFX Supervisor, BlueBolt

The Uhtred side consists of Wessex and mercenary soldiers that wear uniforms,  while the opposing Allied side is made of Danes and Islanders dressed entirely different from each other. “We had to find a way to create base characters and then randomize those to make them appear as individuals with the various head dressings, accessories and fur,” Frazer explains. “If you’re in a wide battle shot you need to have many variations of the actions that people are doing, otherwise you quickly start seeing repeats. We had motion capture suits in the office with a shield and baseball bat and would churn out whole new actions. We tried to get as many different people in the suits as possible to vary it up.” The battle was shot in a bowl in Hungary. “The Allied side comes down a raised hill, and Uhtred and his side come in between the treelines. We used that because when you’re in amongst all of the fighting, you need to see things above people’s heads to orientate yourself,” Frazer describes.

Approximately 370 visual effects shots were created by BlueBolt, which was the sole vendor for the feature as well as the five seasons of The Last Kingdom.

Approximately 370 visual effects shots were created by BlueBolt, which was the sole vendor for the feature as well as the five seasons of The Last Kingdom.

Approximately 370 visual effects shots were created by BlueBolt, which was the sole vendor for the feature as well as the five seasons of The Last Kingdom.

“As much as we were trying to shoot [the final battle scene] with drones on the battlefield, in the end it was too difficult to do that as a physical maneuver with the number of people we had. We shot a bunch of empty plates of the battlefield and did it completely CG to show the nuances of that maneuvering, which is counter to what I normally do. You should always start from a place of having real people, but at least what we attempted to shoot with the drone served as reference to rebuild all of that with our CG characters.”

—Richard Frazer, VFX Supervisor, BlueBolt

BlueBolt was responsible for the arrival of the armada. “It was the first shot we started and the last one that was delivered!” Frazer reveals. “It went through a lot of variations. The long shot from Season 2 that I composited of Uhtred on a slave ship, which came from inside the boat, across the bow of the deck and then up and wide, and pulls back showing the ship sailing across the sea – the director originally wanted to create something like that. One area that we haven’t touched on the show is CG water. We tend to use stock plates and work from there. That worked well for all of the shots of ships in the previous seasons, but if there is a specific countermove that is wanted, you’re limited with what you can do based on the spot plates that you were able to source. We tried doing the big pullback as it came through the ships and rigging. It wasn’t quite working. We scrapped it midway through and came back to it. That was the most challenging shot [of the movie]. The ocean itself is some stock footage that we sourced, but then the wake and all of the interaction of the boats are entirely CG. That was the tricky part.”

Watch BlueBolt’s VFX breakdown video of large, complex CG battle scenes and army formations as well as other elaborate environments for Seven Kings Must Die. Click here: https://www.blue-bolt.com/ourwork/seven-kings-must-die.


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