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January 07
2020

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

Bringing Out the Inner Daemons in HIS DARK MATERIALS

By TREVOR HOGG

In a parallel world conceived by British author Philip Pullman, humans are spiritually connected to animalistic representations of themselves known as daemons. The concept was explored in the His Dark Materials trilogy of novels, which was adapted for the big screen with the release of The Golden Compass (2007), and resulted in an Oscar and BAFTA Award for Best Visual Effects. The coming-of-age fantasy-adventure about an adolescent girl uncovering a sinister plot involving a stolen child and a mysterious phenomenon while searching for a kidnapped friend has been revived by HBO, BBC One, Bad Wolf and New Line Cinema for a television series.

The first season of eight episodes is dedicated to Northern Lights (known as The Golden Compass in North America), the second season will adapt The Subtle Knife and a potential third season to The Amber Spyglass. The cast features Dafne Keen, Ruth Wilson, James McAvoy, Lin-Manuel Miranda, James Cosmo, Anne-Marie Duff, Will Keen and Ariyon Bakare, while Framestore returns to the franchise this time as the sole visual effects vendor. The workload was divided between London and Montreal, with additional support provided by the facility in Pune, India.

The Golden Monkey never speaks, so its ability to emote is all in the movement and posture. (All images courtesy of HBO.)

Russell Dodgson, Visual Effects Supervisor

James Whitlam, Visual Effects Producer

His Dark Materials is an enormous and complicated creature show as each lead actor has a fully CG daemon that needs to act alongside them and convey their emotional state. Half of the 2,000 shots in Season 1 feature a daemon, and 385 had digital bears. “If you put that into the TV realm, nothing has ever been done close to this apart from when Framestore did Walking with Dinosaurs in 1999,” states Series Visual Effects Supervisor Russell Dodgson (Mars).

“The reason why we can manage that many shots is due to us building a deep trust and relationship with the show. Executive Producer/Showrunner Jane Tranter, Executive Producer Dan McCulloch, Executive Producer/Production Designer Joel Collins and Head Writer Jack Thorne have welcomed us to a seat at the core table.” Dodgson and Collins previously collaborated on Black Mirror. “Joel and I work closely together, and he’s brilliant. Joel builds sets and environments, while I deal with the creatures.”

“This is reminiscent of what we’ve recently done on feature films like Christopher Robin, where we had our animation director and visual effects supervisor client-side based at Disney in Los Angeles,” notes Visual Effects Executive Producer James Whitlam (Life). “And similarly, with Paddington, where we were in the room with director Paul King and the producers. Both of those films were split between London and Montreal. We have benefitted from years worth of creature development at Framestore, which allows us to do this amount of work.”

Lord Asriel (voiced by James McAvoy) has a daemon called Stelmaria that takes the form of a snow leopard.

Dodgson is proud of the fact that staff retention is not a problem as several people working on His Dark Materials also contributed to The Golden Compass. “Fundamentally, visual effects is clever people doing complex things in a computer.” Technology has evolved way beyond what was possible on The Golden Compass. “It’s like a city built upon a city,” explains Whitlam. “Every now and then you might uncover a cobblestone. His Dark Materials gave us an opportunity to sit down and think about how to take the wins that we had on certain shows and pull them together. There was quite a bit of work that was done on the redevelopment of the rigging pipeline going into this show to put it on a good footing.”

Referencing the source material, some things were givens when it came to R&D. “Season 1 is daemon and creature heavy,” explains Dodgson. “The bears go on hiatus in Season 2. We know that certain characters are going to live and breathe and be important in Season 2, so we make sure to put the work into their prep. But the truth is that this show burns through environments and locations. Season 2 has no environments that we used in Season 1.”

Daemons are animalistic representations of the human soul, with Pantalaimon appearing alongside Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen).   

The tone of His Dark Materials evolves throughout Season 1. “What’s fascinating about this show is that it’s hard to place with a specific audience,” Dodgson says. “The first two episodes take place in Oxford and London situated in a parallel world. By the time you get to episode four you’re in a northern fishing town and Lin-Manuel Miranda gets introduced flying around in a balloon. Suddenly an armored bear appears. Then there’s a concentration camp episode where kids are being kept and tested upon. At the end of it you’re getting into some heavy fantasy.”

All of the creatures have been rendered in entirety, are anatomically correct and highly detailed so they can be placed into any shot and hold up in 4K. “Prior to us coming onto the show, they had an in-house art department that was closely tied in with Joel do a lot of the concept artwork,” explains Dodgson. “The main thing that I had to do was temper the desire to have upwards of 34 or 40 different forms for Pantalaimon (voiced by Kit Connor), which is Lyra Belacqua’s (Dafne Keen) daemon. My main point was that you’re never going to fall in love with a character changing that much. I tried to give them a nice emotional variety of creature for Lyra to have alongside her. We cast all of the animals that were needed off of photography. Then we had a puppeteering team that was already onboard, we quickly meshed with them, and got puppets made in the proper scale of all the key creatures. In week two of me starting we were rehearsing with primitive puppets to work out movements and the personality of the creatures.”

Lord Asriel leads a revolt against the institution know as the Magisterium. 

Scenes are blocked with puppeteers interacting with the cast so the daemons are properly composed in the frame, and the puppets are then replaced with eyelines, or sometimes the actors mime the interaction. For the intimate moments, puppets are kept and subsequently painted out. “We didn’t want to anthropomorphize our creatures,” remarks Dodgson. “They had to be natural. We never broke any animal jaws or gave them lips. The daemons visually represent the things that make you innately human.” You could never say that Pan is Lyra’s quiet or loud or violent side. It’s all of those things.”

Explains Dodgson. “A lot of it isn’t to do with the face, but the physicality of a creature. For example, we have an ermine, a pine marten and arctic fox that we use for Pan. The ermine is a little stoat that is like a meerkat. You can do curiosity and confusion easily with the physicality of the body, and the face augments that.” When Lyra is having a private or emotional moment, especially during the early episodes, Pan tends to be an ermine. When Lyra is feeling adventurous, she’s a pine marten, which is a much more acrobatic and fast-moving creature. When Lyra goes North, she gets inspired by something in a museum and becomes an arctic fox.”

The Golden Monkey, which is spiritually connected to Marisa Coulter (Ruth Wilson) attacks Pantalaimon.

The other major character that has multiple animalistic representation is the kidnapped childhood friend, Roger Parslow (Lewin Lloyd), who becomes a dog, bird and ferret. “With the lip sync and dialogue, we went minimal because we didn’t want to overplay that,” adds Dodgson. Stretching from a big to small animal was avoided. “We made sure that all of the different forms of Pan have a streak of white in them, so when they jump and move you always get this slight blur of white as they transition.”

Ozymandias takes the form of a Golden Monkey, and is the daemon connected to the antagonist Marisa Coulter (Ruth Wilson). “The Golden Monkey never speaks, so it’s all in the movement and posture,” observes Dodgson. “Ruth Wilson is a powerhouse actress, so I loved the fact that we’re reinforcing her performance but also making sure to be delicate enough not to take away from it.”

Marisa Coulter appears alongside the Golden Monkey, which is the final daemon manifestation of her soul. 

Dodsgon doubled for the iconic armored polar bear, Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Joe Tandberg), when putting together the techvis for his techvis with Iofur Raknison to reclaim his crown and throne, “We had a taxidermy polar bear that was used as a lighting reference,” reveals Framestore Visual Effects Supervisor Shawn Hillier. “I was surprised when looking at some reference of real bears fighting that the fur really shakes around. But then the armor impacts how much jiggle can be put on a bear.”

Basic previs animation was created based on the instructions of Dodgson. “Slowly it started becoming bigger and bigger, and we were able to add some ideas of our own,” remarks Framestore Animation Supervisor Aulo Licinio. “I have to say that as someone with a martial arts background this was a blessing of a sequence! Satisfied with the overall look, Russ took it to set for the shoot. After a few more back and forths we ended up with what we have today. I can’t wait for its debut. Every single department has touched this sequence, which was rewarding to see.”

A fair amount of work went into the bear rig to calibrate the real-life performance with the CG performance. “The puppet team started off by making their rig to the same size and spec as our CG bear,” remarks Robert Harrington, VFX Supervisor, Framestore. “We then took our CG bear rig and matched footage of various real-life polar bears running and walking. We took this as our data to start vaguely reverse-engineering reality. Specific positions on these CG motion cycles were projected via extruded polygons onto a surface, with these intersections playblasted as traces through a camera which matched the spec of a real-life projector we had also purchased. Back on set in Wales, we then re-built the Maya environment in real life and projected our tracer dots through our ‘known lens’ onto one side of a screen, while, on the other side, we matched those specific CG laser positions with real lasers on the real bear rig, played the playblasts, and the puppeteers chased our CG laser traces with the real lasers, getting a feel for the zone they need to be in before adding their own touch.”

Shawn Hillier, Visual Effects Supervisor, Framestore

Robert Harrington, VFX Supervisor, Framestore

Ruth Wilson came to Framestore for a two-hour conversation with Visual Effects Supervisor Russell Dodgson about the childhood of  her character, Marisa Coulter, and her relationship with the Golden Monkey.

“We have to make sure that we are doing the actors justice when putting a CG character next to them.”

—Russell Dodgson, Visual Effects Supervisor

Pantalaimon appears as an ermine when Lyra Belacqua is having a private moment.

ADR from the voice actors helped to guide the animation process. “Russ conveyed to us that the daemons and bears are like another performer within the show,” states Hillier. “The animators were recording themselves, too, and coming up with their own ideas as we would do iterations with the client.”

Dialogue scenes were tended to be straightforward. “Visually matching the puppet gave us a good starting point,” notes Licinio. “Most of our tests were split by locomotion and emotion. Starting off with locomotion to define our characters weight and physicality. Then dialogue tests to understand how the character would perform. We learned a lot from these early tests, which helped us build the rules for each character. We also performed all other sort of motion tests, as development for the integration of a CG character and an actor on set. Or to aid other departments, especially the CFX and FX departments.”

Lin-Manuel Miranda portrays Texan aeronaut Lee Scoresby with his favorite mode of transportation being a balloon. 

“Looking forward into the future, it’s maintaining the benchmark of creature work across multiple seasons of a show. Things will be getting more fantastical and will have a higher demand for environment work. The third book goes utterly insane, so we’re going to have go on a meditative retreat before even considering it! I’m excited for people to see how the daemons compliment the performances.”

—Russell Dodgson, Visual Effects Supervisor

A taxidermy polar bear was used on set as a lighting reference for Iorek Byrnison.

Alvise Avati, Animation Supervisor, Framestore

Reference footage was shot at various zoos around London by Harrington, Animation Supervisor Alvise Avati and CG Supervisor Neil Weatherley. “We also spent plenty of time searching for good video references on the Internet,” remarks Avati. “We also had a lot of interesting footage of ferrets/pine marten and other rodents shot by Russell before I joined the show. Professor John R. Hutchinson from Royal Veterinary College came to Framestore London a few times to talk about the anatomy and the mechanics of movement of various quadrupeds and birds. Those were very useful talks.” It was important to avoid going into ‘acting mode’ with the animals. “Most of the performance is accomplished by the body language and subtle facial performance.”

Principal photography has been taking place at Wolf Studios in Wales. “Joel and his team’s work have been outstanding,” remarks Dodgson. “They made a full-size bear palace that was all finished and absolutely incredible. There are interior sets that look like they’re 200 years old from Oxford. There was a town built in a quarry for Trollesund, which we then extended. We did quite a lot in Oxford which was augmented to become the parallel world version. There was some work in London including aerial shoots. We also shot outside in Wales, but we’re changing so much of that. I spent a week doing helicopter shoots in Iceland to give us the material to turn Wales into the North. We have scenes with Lin-Manuel Miranda in a balloon where there are entire CG cloudscapes, as well as adding a lot of boats in for the Gyptians, building the exterior of the bear palace, and for the Far North, extending mountain tops constructed on stages and the entire world around them along with the Northern Lights and weather.”

There is a prevailing steampunk aesthetic that features airships rather than planes and submarines instead of boats. “It’s a parallel world that is set in the same time as ours, except that the industrial revolution never happened and the microchip wasn’t invented,” explains Whitlam. “A lot of what Philip Pullman has done in the books is to tap into the interconnectivity of everything.”

The shared shot count was not high between Framestore London and Montreal. “Predominantly episodes one to three are London and episodes four to eight are Montreal,” reveals Whitlam. “Montreal did the majority of the North work and polar bears, while London owned the Golden Monkey and Pan.” The only shared shots involve the daemon belonging to Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) called Stelmaria, which takes the form of a snow leopard as well as the Golden Monkey and Pan. “We cast groups of animators to do animals.” Turnover of shots for Season 1 started in November of 2018 and finished in October of 2019. Adds Whitlam, “There are around 200 to 300 visual effects shots per episode.”

Another difficulty has been ensuring that the performances of the daemons are nuanced. “We have to make sure that we are doing the actors justice when putting a CG character next to them,” observes Dodgson. “Looking forward into the future, it’s maintaining the benchmark of creature work across multiple seasons of a show. I’m excited for people to see how the daemons compliment the performances.”

The physical state of Iorek Byrnison (Joe Tandberg) evolves as he goes from being a drunker to regaining his regal heritage.   

The only shared shots between Framestore London and Montreal involved the daemons the Golden Monkey, Pantalaimon and Stelmaria.

CG cloudscapes were created for the sense featuring Lee Scoresby (Lin-Manuel Miranda) in his balloon.

Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Joe Tandberg) protects Lyra Belacqua (Dane Keen) as she travels North to find and rescue her kidnapped friend.

Plates were shot in Iceland to transform Wales into the North, where Lyra and Pan travel with the help of the seafaring Gyptians.

The Golden Monkey has a strong arc that runs throughout the His Dark Materials trilogy.

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