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January 28
2021

ISSUE

Winter 2021

Wielding The Subtle Knife For HIS DARK MATERIALS

By TREVOR HOGG

A mandate for the visual effects team was to make sure that the fantasy elements felt grounded, not magical. (Image courtesy of HBO and Framestore)

Embarking on Season 2 of the HBO production of His Dark Materials has enabled showrunner Jane Tranter to expand the cast of characters and creatures, as well introduce new environments in the seven-episode adaptation of the second book in the trilogy called The Subtle Knife. Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen) pursues her father Lord Asriel (James McAvoy) after he kills her best friend in order to enter another dimension; she journeys to a mysterious abandoned city where Will Parry (Amir Wilson), a young boy with a troubled past, becomes her travel companion. Returning to the alternative fantasy adventure conceived by Philip Pullman is the visual effects team that includes Senior Visual Effects Supervisor Russell Dodgson, Senior Visual Effects Producer James Whitlam and Visual Effects Art Director Daniel May.

“It’s a reduction in visual effects shots from Season 1 to 2, which is rare,” notes Whitlam. “It will jump back up again on Season 3. We went from a bit over 2,000 shots in Season 1 to 1,400 shots on Season 2. That’s predominantly because of losing an episode due to COVID-19. We went from eight episodes down to seven and reduced the appearances of the polar bears.”

Episode 204 was going to be devoted to Lord Asriel. “It was a standalone that assisted the main narrative, but once COVID-19 hit we had to stop the shoot,” states Dodgson. “We then had to back into the edit and restructure things to have the other episodes finished at different places. We had about a week where we dropped to 75% or 80% productivity. Then we got back up to 90% to 95%, which means we will all have to work that bit harder to match the results that come from all being together.”

Whereas Season 1 was divided between Framestore facilities in London and Montreal, Season 2 saw the addition of New York in order to relieve the scheduling pressure caused by the global pandemic. “There is always the sharing of assets and we try to minimize the amount of shot sharing as much a possible,” explains Whitlam. “Framestore New York was brought into the mix and took on a big set piece at the end of Episode 207. We brought in another team from London that worked on another set piece in Episode 203. In terms of the actual split, we flipped it this time and more work was done in London than in Montreal. It was 50/50 between North America and U.K. We always try to make sure to cast individuals or teams for particular work and consistently keep that work with them. For instance, all of the Spectre work was done out of London.”

Previs assisted in determining the appropriate camera angles for the balloon shots. (Image courtesy of HBO and Framestore)

The Northern Lights is more of a child’s odyssey, so every episode is a complete new world, plus we had a lot more background creatures with the last two episodes being Iorek Byrnison and the bears. The Subtle Knife is a more personal story. It’s exciting because we visit new worlds but bounce between them more, rather than introducing new ones every episode, so it is a different challenge.”
—Russell Dodgson, Senior Visual Effects Supervisor

The budget had to be kept in mind when deciding upon the balance of visual effects work. “We had to figure out the best mix of effects we need to tell the story and how do we work around that,” states Whitlam. “Obviously, the daemons have to be there. The Golden Monkey and Pan [Kit Connor] are in a way as important as the actual actors who are in the show. There’s that baseline. Then you get into that place where you’re going between additional daemons, establishing shots and environment extensions. We want to create a world that is big enough to draw audiences in and dramatic enough to hold their attention.” 

There is a significant difference between the first book in the His Dark Materials trilogy, The Northern Lights, and the second one, The Subtle Knife. “The Northern Lights is more of a child’s odyssey, so every episode is a complete new world, plus we had a lot more background creatures with the last two episodes being Iorek Byrnison [Joe Tandberg] and the bears,” observes Dodgson. “The Subtle Knife is a more personal story. It’s exciting because we visit new worlds but bounce between them more, rather than introducing new ones every episode, so it is a different challenge.” 

“One of the things about the design stage is not to be afraid to sometimes pull the whole thing apart and re-do it, because we had a model with a lot of different ideas and out-of-date parts in it,” notes May. “It was all getting to be unwieldy, so we made the call to re-do from scratch and build based on the set. We made loads of what you call decals in video gaming language. We did a bitmap for all of the doors and windows so that they had all of the right details and felt in line with the set. A lot of the times the art department will have a lot of specialist artists who have spent their lifework doing architecture, and sometimes the CG guys, mine included, don’t get those proportions right. To go back to use the real set is always useful.”

Fantasy concept art is to be viewed as a guideline. “It is the more visually rich version that would never fit within the TV show,” remarks Dodgson. “You make that and begin stripping back layers to bring it down to reality.” 

Various atmospherics were simulated by Framestore such as the fire. (Image courtesy of HBO and Framestore)

Some of the major set pieces in Season 2 take place in stormy environments. (Image courtesy of HBO and Framestore)

The effect simulation-driven monster known as a Spectre appears behind Will Parry (Amir Wilson). (Image courtesy of HBO)

Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen) stands alongside the wolverine form of Pan. (Image courtesy of HBO and Framestore)

Previs fits into different categories for His Dark Materials. “There is the speculative previs, which is when I work out the set design and environments ahead of directors, because they often start quite late and in order to get the production value that you want, it takes a lot of time,” states May. “Substantial sets can take two to three months to build. In Season 1, I had quite good relationships with Otto Bathurst and Jamie Childs, and they took a lot of the ideas that we had, but naturally wanted to change things. You tweak the previs to suit their needs. Some of it can be changed and others can’t because the set is being made. The major set piece previs involves extensive planning and a lot of involvement with visual effects and stunts. Sometimes you’re not sure which directors are going to do the sequence. You have to be prepared to have some fails.” 

Virtual production methodology with Unreal Engine was adopted from the beginning of the television series. “The modus operandi for His Dark Materials is to be collaborative with the different creatives at the concept design and previs stages, as that allows for ideas to be explored with a higher fidelity early in the process,” states May. “In Season 1, we were able to build the bear palace at quite a nice level of detail. Even though the set had yet to be built, we could look at it in VR or with a virtual camera to get the sense of the scale. “The same with Season 2,” adds May. “The main project for us was the town of Cittàgazze. We had a repeat of the physical set and copied and pasted it around the virtual version so when looking at a staircase you could understand what angles were possible. Russell had the previs as a guide when he was doing the plate photography in Kauai. We attached and tweaked our rugged landscape and city with the physical accurate geometry from Kauai to get the realworld scale.” 

Introduced in Season 1 were daemons, which are animals that physically represent the soul of their human counterparts. “In Season 2, it is more of a focus around the main hero daemons, because we’re in a world where there are fewer of them around,” states Dodgson. “A few new daemons and characters for Pan were introduced, so we had to make some new assets along with new body movements to explore.” 

Pan is spiritually connected to Lyra and for the first time appears as a red panda and wolverine. “We’re still 100% hand-animated for all of our creature work,” continues Dodgson, “but we did extensive research on the movements of red pandas and wolverines. Red pandas are great but sometimes lumber when walking, so we had to find a way of balancing that new movement style while maintaining the feel and energy of Pan in his other forms. This lumbering nature also worked quite well for the stage Lyra is at in life. It helped to physically show the slight emotional awkwardness she finds herself in as she is spending more and more time with this new boy.”

Aerial plates were shot in Kauai and incorporated into the environment build for Cittàgazze. (Image courtesy of HBO and Framestore)

“The main project for us [in Season 2] was the town of Cittàgazze. We had a repeat of the physical set and copied and pasted it around the virtual version so when looking at a staircase you could understand what angles were possible. Russell [Dodgson] had the previs as a guide when he was doing the plate photography in Kauai. We attached and tweaked our rugged landscape and city with the physical, accurate geometry from Kauai to get the real-world scale.”
—Daniel May, Visual Effects Art Director

Each time the Subtle Knife cuts a new window to a world, a malevolent spirit referred to as a Spectre escapes from the void between universes. “Anytime you have to do a monster or creature that is predominately effects driven, you open up this broad range of outcomes that happen through simulation,” remarks Dodgson. “You’re not only doing Spectres that appear regularly throughout the season, but when they attack people and other daemons you have effects monsters interacting with furry and feathered creatures, which is tricky. The thing that makes it hard is needing to create a system that becomes slightly more predictable.

A partial backlot set of Cittàgazze was built with incredible detail along with an internal stage with a lot of side streets that could double as other streets. (Image courtesy of HBO and Framestore)

Aeronaut Lee Scoresby (Lin-Manuel Miranda) finds himself pursued by Magisterium airships. (Image courtesy of HBO)

“The Spectres,” Dodgson explains, “and a lot of effects-driven creatures are actually a conversation about things that you’re trying to avoid, rather than the things you want. If you avoid the things you don’t want then you end up with something that you like. We didn’t want the Spectres to feel too gunky and oily. It’s definitely this iterative abstract process that is always hard to bid and predict how long it’s going to take. Sometimes you nail it quickly and in other cases it takes longer than you thought.” 

Creating the windows between worlds were difficult for a different reason. “If you’ve got two people standing in front of a window to another world, where do you put the focus?” explains Dodgson. “Do you put the focus deep in the other world, but then suddenly everything in front and behind the window in your real space is out of focus? It throws a lot of weird unpredictable problems at you. Also, we’re trying to make the window grounded in that it is subtle; that’s way harder to do than doing a Doctor Strange-style portal, because with that you’re creating so much effects work to place it in the space. Trying to show the window in 3D space with minimal visual tricks is complex. Most of it is rule-based with the windows. You want to give a sense of dimensionality, which doesn’t work if both sides look the same. One side always has to have more definition and the other side has more of an ethereal softness; this gives you a sense of what is further away and what is closer. Our Montreal team built a system that allowed you to create theses cuts that had a repeatable aesthetic result.”

Witches have a major role in the storyline for Season 2. “When you get people flying it’s hard to make them look convincing,” reveals Dodgson. “Everything from Superman through to Wonder Woman, convincingly flying is always a hard sell, especially when they don’t have anything to hold onto. We didn’t want our witches on brooms. Our witches are literally flying humans. We made great digital doubles of them in order to do things that we can’t do in the real world. When shooting them, we used a tuning fork rig which is a common technique used for anything from Harry Potter to Wonder Woman. The tuning fork rig enabled us to get the close-up of their performances, but that also required a lot of paint-out and digital limbs.

“There was a concept in Season 1 that was utilized a lot in Season 2 called ‘bamfing,’” Dodgson adds, “which is the ability to break apart like a cloud of ash and smoke, and re-form somewhere else quickly. It’s the way the witches move around quickly and gives them an edge. It makes the witches more three-dimensional as they can do more than just taking off and flying.” 

Guiding the way for Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen) are her daemon Pan (Kit Connor) and the alethiometer, which can determine if someone is telling the truth. (Image courtesy of HBO and Framestore)

Iorek Byrnison (Joe Tandberg) and the polar bears have a less significant role in Season 2. (Image courtesy of HBO and Framestore)

Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson) and her daemon The Golden Monkey are determined to find Lyra. (Image courtesy of HBO and Framestore)

Not everything takes place on the ground. “Because Unreal is a game engine, you can lean on its programming technology,” states May. “We were able to set up a simple system that allowed us to be in the balloon with a camera and get a sense of different types of scenes as it flew over the city and what kind of angles were effective. It helped with choosing shots. In the end, they used a physical set, getting a crane up there and shooting some drone stuff. We could have done that in a more traditional sense, but once we built that virtual world, you could re-use it for quite a lot of things. The storm sequence with the airships was a mixture of Unreal and Photoshop, but ultimately it was down to what Russell used as a plate.” 

Flat light storm plates were shot in Kauai. “That gave us a grounded landscape that we could then turn to night,” remarks Dodgson. “Then we did a combination of CG, compositing and DMP.” 

The VFX team each has their Season 2 highlight. For Dodgson, one is when the Spectres attack someone and their daemon. “That’s a dark and cool scene,” he states. “There is another fight between Mrs. Coulter [Ruth Wilson] and Lyra that is cool and a nice surprise to people.” The world building and new environments are what continues to intrigue May, while Whitlam enjoys the aerial moments. “I like the storm sequence in Episode 201,” Whitlam says. “It’s a great beginning to the show that sucks you in and is dynamic. Likewise, there’s a fantastic sequence with the balloon being chased by Magisterium airships in another storm towards the end of the season.” 

As for what to expect from the third season, which will be adapting The Amber Spyglass, Dodgson remarks, “Add angels to the list of the slightly intangible. We had a small amount of trying to visualize them in Season 2, but in Season 3 they become a much bigger thing. 

“What we had to do,” he offers, “was to find something that we liked but gives us some wiggle room as we go deeper into Season 3, and develop that. We ended up looking at lot of references of statues which were made of thin strips of metal that caused some interesting plays on the light that were then used to drive the physical way that we made them in CG. The angels have been tricky and fun to do. It’s that exercise of leveraging real life to try to inspire the abstract.”


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