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June 15
2021

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

CREATING PHYSICAL MANIFESTATIONS OF THE SUPERNATURAL FOR SHADOW AND BONE

By TREVOR HOGG

Images courtesy of Netflix.

General Kirigan (Ben Barnes) reveals Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) to be the Sun Summoner.

The highly-rated young-adult fantasy adventure series Shadow and Bone, released in April, literally centers around a battle between light and darkness with the central character of Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) being the messianic Sun Summoner while the adversarial General Kirigan (Ben Barnes) is referred to as The Darkling. The first book of the Grisha trilogy, authored by Leigh Bardugo, was adapted by Oscar-nominee Eric Heisserer (Arrival) with the 1,700 visual effects shots for the eight episodes supervised by Primetime Emmy winner Ted Rae (Game of Thrones).

“What made Shadow and Bone different from previous projects for me was that we were starting from scratch in developing the look of a world that should feel familiar, yet juxtaposes real-world antecedents in a fresh and interesting way,” notes Rae. “When asked in our first meeting for a description of how he envisioned the show’s visual aesthetic, Eric succinctly stated, ‘I’d love for it to feel like live-action anime.’” Post-production was originally scheduled to last seven months, but then the coronavirus pandemic occurred. “Post wound up at almost exactly a year,” comments Rae, “however, it actually helped the show in the end. It gave room for ideas to percolate, to season and mature into ways for the various storylines to echo each other, and afforded us just a bit more breathing room to develop a visual aesthetic for the various Grisha powers that feels as if they are all somehow derived from the same primal source.”

“Every decision becomes a bit subjective while trying to hold something together aesthetically across dozens of vendors and dozens of artists for which there is no-real-world antecedent to reference.”

—Ted Rae, Visual Effects Supervisor

A flashback of The Darkling (Ben Barnes), before becoming General Kirigan, unleashing tendrils of darkness.

Principal photography for Shadow and Bone took place in Hungary.

A dome of light that has elements of lightning and electricity surrounds The Stag.

While travelling through the Shadow Fold, Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) accidentally and unknowingly reveals herself to be the messianic Sum Summoner.

Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) has a bonding moment with The Stag.

Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) makes a valiant but vain attempt to protect The Stag from The Darkling (Ben Barnes).

“The Black Heretic’s creation of The Fold in Episode 107 is probably the most anime effect in the whole season. I’d been wanting to try something visually over-the-top grand and aesthetically ballsy for a while. That three-shot sequence was finally an opportunity to design something outlandishly difficult to sell as convincing. I generally don’t cotton to shots that exist to be a ‘cool shot’ just for sake of a some groovy visual.  But this was an opportunity to be boldly outlandish and make something ‘cool,’ yet still convey the story information needed in the moment…”

—Ted Rae, Visual Effects Supervisor

A signature menacing and supernatural phenomenon is the Shadow Fold, which resembles a massive storm-cloud wall that is five miles wide and 1,200 foot tall. “It is the physical manifestation of an enmity between Grisha and the rest of Ravka, as well as the border/barrier that drives the geopolitical conflict in Leigh Bardugo’s books, so it had to be in the show,” states Rae. “A constant refrain was, ‘It’s Merzost [the power of creation] personified and tied to Kirigan’s darkness, so it’s got to be pure black.’ Even if something of the scale of The Fold was completely non-reflective, like a black hole, and at the distance away from camera there would be a lot of particulate and haze in the air lifting the black values. It meant we really weren’t solving for The Fold. We were solving for solving distinct combinations of scale and lighting, which can be daunting when what you’re creating doesn’t actually obey real-world physics, yet it has to feel like it does. Every decision becomes a bit subjective while trying to hold something together aesthetically across dozens of vendors and dozens of artists for which there is no real-world antecedent to reference.”

“Post wound up at almost exactly a year [due to the pandemic], however, it actually helped the show in the end.  It gave room for ideas to percolate, to season and mature into ways for the various storylines to echo each other, and afforded us just a bit more breathing room to develop a visual aesthetic for the various Grisha powers that feels as if they are all somehow derived from the same primal source.”

—Ted Rae, Visual Effects Supervisor

Interactive light to better integrate the CG version of The Stag into the plate photography.

One of the major visual effects concerns was being able to produce a photorealistic CG version of The Stag.

Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) enters into the Shadow Fold surrounded by greenscreen.

Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) attempts to save The Stag from being killed by using her ability to manipulate light.
The antlers of The Stag eventually disappear into the body of Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) with the help of digital augmentation.

 

A tricky aspect was to have Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) be a light source while retaining her performance. 

Approximiately 1,700 visual effects shots were created for the eight episodes of Shadow and Bone

The Stag has the ability to amplify the powers of a Grisha.

Fellow Grishas Genya Safin (Daisy Head) and Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) share a moment together in Episode 105.

“I talked with several companies about the Stag as I was concerned about being able to pull it off convincingly. DNEG London had done a couple of stags previously, so they weren’t starting from zero, and they were enthusiastic about my asking for jiggling muscles, swaying layers of fat, unkempt and matted fur, broken antlers, battle scars, dirt caked into the belly, eye-boogers, saliva at the corners of the mouth and wet snot in the nose – all the subtle details that can cumulatively help CG imagery register convincingly.”

—Ted Rae, Visual Effects Supervisor

“The most extensive previs of the season was a 19-page stretch aboard the skiff inside The Fold at the beginning of Episode 108,” explains Rae. “[Before we even had a director], Eric and I started getting together on weekends and shot-listing all of the action. Every shot could easily turn into a VFX shot, so we needed to carefully plan for how many shots we’d have to fill in the greenscreen background. Once we had a ‘bare-bones’ shot list, I spent my evenings and what precious ‘free time’ I had turning the shot list into an extensive 21-minute previs with both The Third Floor hit squad on the ground in Budapest, and occasionally flying to London for a long weekend to work with the larger crew of artists there. Since our season finale touches on each the incarnations of The Fold, there was a fair amount of asset sharing back and forth between DNEG and Ranchito, Ranchito and Ghost, and Ghost and DNEG for [Episode]108.”

Tipping the balance of power between the forces of good and evil is a mysterious stag that has ability to amplify the unique ability of a Grisha (an individual who can manipulate matter). “I talked with several companies about the Stag as I was concerned about being able to pull it off convincingly,” reveals Rae. “DNEG London had done a couple of stags previously, so they weren’t starting from zero, and they were enthusiastic about my asking for jiggling muscles, swaying layers of fat, unkempt and matted fur, broken antlers, battle scars, dirt caked into the belly, eye-boogers, saliva at the corners of the mouth and wet snot in the nose – all the subtle details that can cumulatively help CG imagery register convincingly. We even tested the idea of whether or not the antlers could read as The Sun Summoner symbol when the stag looked directly at you, before I shared my idea with Eric. Raphael Hamm and his London team established the Stag through its full reveal at the end of Episode 104, at which point London handed off to DNEG Montreal for the ‘killing of The Stag’ in Episode 107.”

“The Black Heretic’s creation of The Fold in Episode 107 is probably the most anime effect in the whole season,” notes Rae. “I’d been wanting to try something visually over-the-top grand and aesthetically ballsy for a while. That three-shot sequence was finally an opportunity to design something outlandishly difficult to sell as convincing. I generally don’t cotton to shots that exist to be a ‘cool shot’ just for sake of a some groovy visual.  But this was an opportunity to be boldly outlandish and make something ‘cool,’ yet still convey the story information needed in the moment, and I knew from the jump that I wanted [VFX Supervisor] Moshen Mousavi at Scanline to be shepherding that work. The Stag and the killing of it was a huge concern from the very beginning. Especially, since we have a shot of it literally sticking its nose right into camera in Episode 103. It was tough thing to get to the point we did. It’s was an ambitious undertaking for a TV show, and I’m pleased with just how far we were able to push it.”

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