By TREVOR HOGG
Images courtesy of Netflix.
The award-winning definitive authority on all things visual effects in the world of film, TV, gaming, virtual reality, commercials, theme parks, and other new media.
Winner of three prestigious Folio Awards for excellence in publishing.
By TREVOR HOGG
Images courtesy of Netflix.
While Season 1 of The Witcher was driven by Geralt of Rivia (Henry Cavill) trying to find Princess Cirilla (Freya Allan) of Cintra before the Kingdom of Nilfgaard has an opportunity to capture and use her as a supernatural weapon of mass destruction, Season 2 brings them together and explores the theme of fatherhood as kings, elves, humans and demons battle for control of the Continent. An outside force that had to be accounted for was the pandemic that caused the production to go on hiatus a couple of times and shift the locations from Hungary to the U.K. Enabling the Netflix series creator, Executive Producer and showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich (The Umbrella Academy), not to compromise her vision was the visual effects team led by Visual Effects Supervisor Dadi Einarsson (Everest) and Visual Effects Producer Gavin Round (Adrift), as well as Production Designer Andrew Laws (Warrior) and Special Effects Supervisor Stefano Pepin (The Last Duel).
Traveling with a production crew that consists of 400 to 800 members into other countries was not a viable option. “We had to look to expand the world of The Witcher in a virtual rather than real way,” states Schmidt Hissrich. “Dadi Einarsson was living back home in Iceland during the pandemic and organized a huge plate shoot there that ended up being integral to our entire season.”
Andrew Laws is an integral part of the world building as he has been involved with the first two seasons and is looking after the spinoff, The Witcher: Blood Origin. “For the most part we were looking at entirely new environments,” remarks Laws. “Sets were rebuilt in the U.K. Some locations were moved to the studio where there was enough space to create environments that worked for us. Because of already having an understanding of the world, we were able to concentrate on a lot more detail in Season 2.”
From the beginning of the production, the department heads are given a season arc document. “Better prepared departments lead to a better product, and I want people’s opinions and honesty,” notes Schmidt Hissirch. “I will fight for what I believe in, too. For instance, in Season 2 there is a large sequence that from the beginning we knew was going to be incredibly expensive. I wanted Ciri to be on an obstacle course situated on the edge of a cliff running drills. It was so important to see Ciri grow from being a princess to a warrior. Because early on all of the departments saw things in outline, we were able to appropriately prepare for it. If you have prep you can do anything. There was only one shot that did not have visual effects in it. There were set extensions, wire removal and snow. It’s an incredible sequence.”
Combining the ambition of Season 2 with the travel restrictions caused by the pandemic and actor availability, the visual effects shots increased to 2,500 from 1,100 for the eight episodes of Season 1. “We brought in more vendors because we were keen to leapfrog certain vendors with each episode,” reveals Gavin Round. “We wanted to avoid the bottleneck situation that we had on Season 1 by having our main vendor on Episode 201 not being the main one on Episode 202.” RVX, Rodeo FX, Mr. X and ILM were brought in to share the workload with returning vendors Cinesite, One of Us and Platige. “There are 50 shared shots, which isn’t very much. Things get invented and developed in the cut that we didn’t necessarily plan for. We had our own in-house team of five compositors who looked after 600 shots that involved cosmetic fixes like wire removals.”
It was important to plan ahead rather than wait for editorial turnovers. “We would try to get a couple of key shots that we thought were going to stay in each episode and turn those over just after the director’s cut,” explains Round. “Then at a certain point in the editorial process we would grab the whole creature sequence within a given episode.” No new technology had to be invented to complete the work. States Dadi Einarsson, “Gavin and I would breakdown the script together. We would imagine the technique and methodology, and fit the right vendor to that based on our experiences or ideas of who would be a good fit.”
An AR software called Cyclops was provided by The Third Floor. “It has a low intrusiveness,” notes Einarsson. “You walk around with an iPad that has been calibrated and can see around you a set extension or a creature. It was particularly useful in helping the director, DP and camera operators to frame shots.” A virtual reality approach was adopted by the art department. “We had moved into a much more symbiotic process with visual effects that we decided to move a lot of the modeling into Unreal Engine,” notes Laws. “It allowed us to know where the baton was being handed between the physical and digital environment, while directors were able to stand in the environment and know over that wall was an extension of a crumbling tower.”
Story always comes first for Schmidt Hissrich. “In Season 2 there are sentient monsters that aren’t just bloodthirsty. It is important for us to understand that they are thinking and feeling.” The creatures from Season 1 will not be reappearing. “We don’t like to repeat ourselves,” states Laws. “There has been real growth on the monster side. We work in ZBrush from the ground up to understand the movement and how the creature is going to take shape in all dimensions. It’s a much more fluid process. Once we have established a ZBrush model that has an organic shape, we’ll do some overpainting to get the mood of the creature. When it is agreed upon how that is going to work then the 3D model goes out to visual effects and the vendors to bring in the detail and movement.”
There is no shortage of great creature sequences. “ILM was a perfect partner for a talking character,” remarks Einarsson. “Rodeo FX is doing Eskel [played by Basil Eidenbenz], a witcher who gets infected by the Queen Leshy [woodland spirit] and turns into an eight-foot-tall sprouting vine monster that has an epic fight with Geralt. The pace and way that the fight pans out is believable in cinema language. They also did the Myriapod, which is like a big, mutated centipede. Cinesite is doing Basilisk, which are traditionally a mashup of a bird and snake. It’s huge as well. Three of them have a massive fight with all of the witchers. It spills out in the terrace bridge area in Kaer Morhen. That looks quite epic. Any kind of mashup of creatures we will find good reference and, if you veer away from that, you go until it feels unbelievable and back off a bit.” Stunts had a key role to play when choreographing the creature fight scenes. “We had a good relationship with stunt coordinator Adam Horton [The Outpost],” states Round. “We could riff back and forth on ideas on how to kill the monster. Stunt performers wore green suits with proxy creature parts which was a big help in composing shots and providing something that the actors could see and hit.”
Time was always a looming factor. “In modern-day film and TV productions you get time to prep in pre-production, but once that ball starts to roll you have to think on your feet,” observes Stefano Pepin. “We did a lot of testing and show-and-tells. We had specific meetings about particular gags for episodes and also had liaisons with the first ADs. Dadi and the visual effects team did a lot of previs for us. We did two to three days of element shoots and did elements all the way through the show. A lot of stuff that was going on in the monster fights wasn’t actually there, so we were making things crash, break, drop and move. There’s constant fire in The Witcher, such as campfires and lanterns. For the Great Hall, we had 40 sources of fire which were fed with gas. Rarely did a scene not have any atmospherics. We had movement platforms with the biggest ones being for the boats in the harbor. Also, a series of doors were made in different states of melting; that was a good combination of special and visual effects.”
A significant setting in Season 2 that was introduced in the animated spinoff The Witcher: Nightmare of the Wolf is Kaer Morhen, where Geralt spent his childhood. The destroyed castle serves as a safe refuge and training ground for him and Ciri. “Ciri has lost her entire family and Geralt still has some family left, so it felt that next right step is for Geralt to take her to his home,” remarks Schmidt Hissrich. “Andrew Laws, Dadi and I talked about how do we build something that feels as if people live in it and is also a hidden gem in the mountains.” Interiors and exteriors within the castle were constructed at Arborfield Studios. “Kaer Morhen has such a great backstory of what’s in it,” notes Laws. “The lower bailey walls where you enter the castle are left completely damaged, and the witchers utilize the remnant structure for training.”
A full CG asset was built of the castle, and the surrounding environment was composited with practical elements. “It was based on Old Man of Storr in Scotland and augmented with glaciers from Iceland,” states Round. “There was practical destruction constructed by Andrew that we could riff off of for CG. We had a skeleton of a creature that had been left there for years to rot.”
A cliff wall was built for the obstacle course, which is supposed to be a 10-minute walk from Kaer Morhen. “It is a training gauntlet with swinging pendulums and spikes that Ciri has to figure out how to dodge, and that’s part of her training to become a witcher,” states Einarsson. “Once we had match moved all of our cameras, in every view behind Ciri, Kaer Morhen can be seen in the background. Within non-contrived cinematography, we were able to give people a sense of where they sit in that environment. There is the piece that she’s on, a backing rockface, and then all of the views left to right are greenscreen. The special effects department blew wind and practical snow to get that base-level snowdrift and interaction. Stunts figured out all of the action that Ciri does on the obstacle course and put her on a safety wire and did the mats.”
When it comes to magic, a little goes a long way. “My goal is to see the impact of the magic more than the magic itself,” remarks Schmidt Hissrich. “I like to see how people escape into a portal, but don’t necessarily need to seem them vomited out on the other side.” Einarsson agrees. “Given that it’s a magic show, we do try to be elegant and subtle in how it’s visually represented, rather than super-saturated and in your face.” New magic is introduced for the witchers, reveals Round. “We get to see Igni [pyrokinetic bursts that can start fires and ignite opponents] and Yrden [a magical sign inscribed on a solid surface that scares off monsters].” The greatest threat to the Continent is the supernatural force within Ciri that is influenced by her emotional state. “One of the things that Ciri tries to do in Season 2 is to restrain her power even more,” states Schmidt Hissrich. “That never goes well! We see some more explosions of power coming from her, and it’s fun because we’ve not been able to play with it that often. This time she is present and seeing the impact of this power. It drives her into stories for future seasons.”
“Once we had a successful Season 1 under our belt, we started dreaming a lot bigger for Season 2,” remarks Schmidt Hissrich. “The perfect example of that is a character that we introduce in Episode 201 called Nivellen [Kristofer Hivju], a boar bear of a man who has been cursed and turned into a monster.” Nivelle is also a season highlight for Einarsson. “Nivellen spends half the episode acting opposite Geralt. It was basically a head-mounted camera taking the performance from Kristofer Hivju and mapping and interpreting that into a boar monster. He is a biped, so we basically used Kristofer’s body and recreated the head completely. It’s very intuitive for the acting. The eyelines matched. Nivellen is a charming and compelling character. I can’t imagine the process going any better than it did.”
“Because we had more prep on Episode 208, which may have been on the part of COVID-19, we were able to plan the big creature finale really well with stunts and the director,” states Round. “We honed it down so we knew exactly what and how we were going to shoot it. When it came to cut the scene with the editor, he had all of the storyboards, previs and stuntvis to work from. We sat with him, and the scene is satisfyingly close to how we imagined it.”
Schmidt Hissrich is proud of the obstacle course sequence. “If only because at the beginning there were conversations about it being too expensive and whether we should cut it. Because of the growth that it shows in Ciri, I can’t fathom not having it. There is a great monster sequence that I’m constantly in visual effects reviews saying, ‘I can’t believe how often we see the monster.’ It’s everywhere! That’s something the team has excelled at this year. These monsters are so thoroughly integrated into the show that it’s incredible.”