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June 08
2021

ISSUE

Summer 2021

REVISITING THE SCENE OF ‘MY TOUGHEST TV EFFECTS SHOT’

By IAN FAILES

Maintaining a majestic nature was one of the crucial briefs given to Framestore for the stag in The Crown. (Image copyright © 2020 Netflix)

These days, television show and streaming series typically require hundreds, if not thousands of VFX shots to be managed over a season. But amongst those multitude of visual effects, there’s often just one shot or sequence that tends to stand out as being trickier than the others. 

It might be from a highly technical shoot or because a very specific piece of action is required. Sometimes there may be a large number of iterations carried out on the shot, or just the sheer complexity of the VFX called upon to tell the story point may make the specific scene a tough one. 

Several effects practitioners share their toughest scenes on recent television and streaming experiences, with the answers ranging from detailed creature animation on The Crown, to intricate shot choreography for The Mandalorian, to managing a live-action explosion shoot on The Stand, and just the sheer VFX delivery task at hand for Raised by Wolves. 

 

THE CROWN: MAKING A CG STAG LOOK MAJESTIC 

Season 4 of The Crown features a number of scenes in which members of the royal family are hunting a stag, an animal that in the show appears as a completely CG creation by Framestore. For Creature Supervisor Ahmed Gharraph, who is also Joint Head of CG at Framestore, the stag was one of the toughest things to realize since it had to match the drama’s sense of grounded reality. 

“Our aim,” says Gharraph, “was to convince viewers that the stag on their screen was real, rather than a good digital imitation. It’s a goal that’s difficult to achieve, especially on a TV budget, but for us this goal was vital for the integrity of the show.” 

The Krayt dragon in The Mandalorian was almost never shown in its full form, but instead submerged beneath the sand or in its cave. (Image copyright © 2020 Lucasfilm Ltd.)

A combination of elements were composited together by Important Looking Pirates to form this dramatic shot of the blast in The Stand. (Image copyright © 2020 CBS All Access)

Furthermore, the stag would be a key part of the first shots of one of the show’s early episodes, including an opening shot that was almost 500 frames long, “in broad daylight and in 4K resolution,” adds Gharraph. “There was absolutely nowhere to hide. There were wide shots as well as full close-ups of the stag, so the asset had to hold up at all distances.” 

Original plate for a Mother flying scene in Raised by Wolves. (Image copyright © 2020 HBO Max) 

A CG representation of actor Amanda Collin for her transformation into a necromancer. (Image copyright © 2020 HBO Max)

The final Mother shot by MR. X. (Image copyright © 2020 HBO Max)

“It’s the same work. The artists are the artists. The shots are the shots. Because of who we’re working with, we have to have very high-level shot production. There is no difference between my time at Disney on major motion pictures and the level of visual effects shots on this show.” 

—Ruth Hauer, Visual Effects Producer, Raised by Wolves 

To help with crafting the creature, Framestore of course considered photo and video reference of real stags. The shoot also made use of a stand-in blue silhouette stuffy as a size guide, while a 2D animatic provided by the client informed Framestore in terms of staging and animation. In fact, animation was another tricky part of the shots, since one of the main briefs was to maintain a sense of majesty, even after the stag is shot and collapses. “We would see him again throughout different parts of the episode,” notes Gharraph, “where he would continue to hobble on an injured leg and look progressively more tired and worn down, but always having to look majestic.” 

The final principal challenge for the stag came from its fur and convincingly deforming it with an underlying set of muscles, skin and fat. “We generated approximately 15 million hairs, which were then covered in dirt, grass, water droplets, clumps of mud and so on,” describes Gharraph, who still marvels at the level of detail his team went to for the creature. “We even grew moss in the crevices of his antlers.” 

 

THE MANDALORIAN: STORYTELLING TIME WITH A KRAYT DRAGON 

Industrial Light & Magic had plenty of technical challenges in creating the Krayt dragon for Episode 1 of Season 2 of The Mandalorian. Among them were building a massive beast with multiple legs, making the creature ‘swim’ through sand, and finding ways to cleverly hide the full extent of it underneath the ground. But what also made the Krayt dragon scenes particularly tough, according to ILM Animation Supervisor Hal Hickel, was figuring out the key storytelling beats of the scenes. 

For example, at one point, the Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal) manages to be swallowed by the Krayt dragon, only to blow it up from the inside. “Figuring out exactly how much of a big cinematic moment to make that and what angles we were going to use took a lot of time,” says Hickel. “We did lots of different variations on that moment.” 

“Our aim was to convince viewers that the stag on their screen [on Season 4 of The Crown] was real, rather than a good digital imitation. It’s a goal that’s difficult to achieve, especially on a TV budget, but for us this goal was vital for the integrity of the show. [An opening shot was] in broad daylight and in 4K resolution. There was absolutely nowhere to hide. There were wide shots as well as full close-ups of the stag, so the asset had to hold up at all distances.”

—Ahmed Gharraph, Creature Supervisor, The Crown 

Earlier, the Krayt dragon is shown exiting its hideaway cave and fired upon by Tusken Raiders with ballistas. It comes out of the cave, backs up and returns again. These beats were things that Hickel and the whole creative team, including the episode’s director, Jon Favreau, had to consider. “We had to keep re-thinking, ‘Well, what are the goals of the heroes? What are the ballistas for?’ Because they don’t seem powerful enough to keep it from going back in? Oh, they’re not to keep it from going back in. They’re to piss it off.” 

In crafting the Mandalorian’s final battle with the Krayt dragon, ILM was afforded the flexibility of many of the assets being computer-generated – including the lead character at times – although the shots were a combination of live-action filmed on an L.A. backlot with both the principal actors and skilled stunt performers.

“Whatever techniques we use to finally produce the shots,” notes Hickel, “Jon’s motivation was always about, how does it make him feel? If he doesn’t feel the thing he’s supposed to be feeling, whether it’s a laugh, whether it’s a build-up to a kind of a crescendo or an exciting release moment, whatever it is, if he isn’t feeling it, he knows it in his gut. And that final big bang was the button on the whole sequence, so it did need to be just right. It’s not surprising it got a lot of extra scrutiny and discussion.”

THE STAND: MOVING QUICKLY WHEN THINGS DON’T QUITE GO AS PLANNED

Episode 6 of The Stand has a fiery ending for a scene in which explosives go off in one of the character’s homes. A practical explosion on a purpose-built house set was filmed in one take with multiple cameras shooting at various frame rates, including Phantom cameras running at 300 fps. Several stunt performers on wires were also filmed being engulfed in the blast.

While the explosion was suitably spectacular, a large portion of the footage proved to be too overexposed to use. “It was a huge disappointment,” admits Visual Effects Supervisor Jake Braver, who was also a producer on The Stand and was second unit directing that sequence. “It then immediately became a plan to salvage the shots and do a massive restoration effort.

“I walked off set for maybe 20 or 30 minutes, went around the block and had a think about what the options were,” adds Braver.

A Framestore lookdev render of the stag in The Crown, showcasing the fur simulation. (Image courtesy of Framestore) 

Industrial Light & Magic needed to simulate extensive sand and debris for the Krayt dragon sequences in The Mandalorian. (Image copyright © 2020 Lucasfilm Ltd.) 

Important Looking Pirates simulated the house explosion in The Stand, matching what was captured for real. (Image courtesy of Important Looking Pirates) 

Final explosion composite. (Image copyright © 2020 CBS All Access)

“Our explosion permit was only valid at that location through the following day – they weren’t going to let us back again any later than that – so I was weighing all of the production needs versus all of the visual effects needs.”

The same night, Braver devised a solution that would involve restoring sections of the house in order to conduct an additional explosion element shoot, while also working out where digital effects would come in (there was already a plan to use CG in the sequence to depict parts of the house breaking apart). 

Concept art by Doug Chiang for the Krayt dragon as seen in Season 2 of The Mandalorian. (Image copyright © 2020 Lucasfilm Ltd.)

The bluescreen stand-in for the stag on location for The Crown. (Image copyright © 2020 Netflix)

Bluescreen element shoot of stunt performers and explosion for The Stand. (Image courtesy of Jake Braver)
 
CG element crafted by MR. X for Raised by Wolves. (Image copyright © 2020 HBO Max)

An additional shoot did take place, along with the acquisition of bluescreen elements of performers being ratcheted through flames on matching angles. “Then,” details Braver, “Important Looking Pirates took some of the original footage, along with the clean explosion, and the stunt performers and then more elements we shot, and they undertook this remarkably painstaking job of putting it all together. They also did some fantastic simulation work to see the structure of the house rip apart.” 

While the original outcome of the one-take explosion shoot did not go according to plan – Braver still recalls the “knot in my stomach and dread and anxiety from seeing people looking at the overexposed image on the monitors and then looking at me saying ‘How do we fix this?’” The ‘spring-into-action’ response made sure the final result was just as visceral for the audience. 

 

RAISED BY WOLVES: THE TOUGH TASK OF DELIVERING NEARLY 3,000 SHOTS 

When Raised by Wolves Visual Effects Producer Ruth Hauer began working on Season 1 of the Ridley Scott series, it was already in the midst of shooting in South Africa. This presented an early significant challenge for the visual effects team. “We had to jump in and hit the ground running,” recalls Hauer. “The facilities had not been contracted yet. We ended up with 12 vendors worldwide.” 

The spread of vendors around the globe would also provide a hurdle in terms of time zones for dailies and notes sessions. “And then, of course, COVID hit,” says Hauer, “which put a damper on everything, because now all the vendors had to go virtual with their artistry. So, it was challenging working with 12 vendors in different countries with tight deadlines and almost 3,000 shots. I felt like I was on a fast-moving train always trying to keep up.” 

The first season required a wide array of visual effects from creatures to environments, to holograms, and digi-double-type requirements for the main android character, Mother (Amanda Collin). Hauer remembers many individual shots and sequences being hard to nail down, including a moment when the character Marcus (Travis Fimmel) attempts to kill Mother while she is plugged into a simulator. 

“Marcus is going to kill Mother,” describes Hauer, “and she gets up, and then suddenly rocks start lifting and she starts ‘bamming’ them with her screech. That all had to look photoreal and based in reality. It took a while to get those shots done.” 

Hauer worked hand-in-hand with Visual Effects Supervisor Raymond McIntyre Jr. on the show, coordinating CineSync sessions with vendors, and keeping tabs on shots, schedule and budget via a combination of a Filemaker Pro database and Excel spreadsheet. Hauer, who had previously worked predominantly in film visual effects, says that the approach to the VFX of the show was pretty much the same as in film. 

“It’s the same work. The artists are the artists. The shots are the shots. Because of who we’re working with, we have to have very high-level shot production. There is no difference between my time at Disney on major motion pictures and the level of visual effects shots on this show.” 


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