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April 01
2020

ISSUE

Spring 2020

World-Building and Monster-Hunting with THE WITCHER

By IAN FAILES

The swamp arachnid creature known as the Kikimora, which Geralt battles right at the top of the series (All images © copyright 2019 Netflix.)

Already a popular book and game series, The Witcher has now also made the move to a streaming series on Netflix, created by Lauren Schmidt Hissrich. With a story that centers around monster hunter Geralt of Rivia (Henry Cavill) making his way in a fantastical world, the show was always going to involve some level of visual effects work.

That effort was overseen by Visual Effects Supervisor Julian Parry and Visual Effects Producer Gavin Round, with a host of visual effects studios delivering shots for the show. These included Cinesite, Framestore, One of Us, Nviz and Platige Image.

“When I read the scripts, I realized I was not looking at a standard TV series,” discusses Parry. “I realized it had a whole world-building sub-story. I did some further research and saw that it was actually a really big book series, and it dawned on me that we were going to have to do this justice.”

The show was to be filmed in Hungary, the Canary Islands and Poland. From a visual effects point of view, live-action photography was a jumping off point for environment extensions, battles, creatures, magical effects and a host of weapons, blood and gore.

Says Parry, “Cinesite supplied a couple of our creatures and environments. Framestore worked on mainly environments and 2D effects. One of Us had a mixture of 3D creatures and environments. Nviz were supplying predominantly the eye coloration effects. Platige Image, who were closely tied into the show from the game series, also supplied us with 2D and 3D effects.”

CREATURE FEATURES

One of the first major VFX sequences audiences encounter in The Witcher is a fight between Geralt and a swamp-based creature called the Kikimora. The scene plays out almost like hand-to-hand combat. “Our aquatic arachnid here lived in a bog swamp, so I knew we had to deal with water interaction and other occlusions,” outlines Parry. “We started out with previs to get an idea of what action was required, and from that we worked backwards to work with Production Designer Andrew Laws and Stunt Coordinator Franklin Henson to plan things out.

“Alex Pejic, the Visual Effects Supervisor from Cinesite, came out to the shoot,” continues Parry. “We chose to have a couple of prosthetic pieces made. We felt we would benefit from the interaction. The eyelines and scale of the creature was all previs’d so Henry could see what this thing looked like and what space it would take up in the environment. Then it went to Cinesite for post.”

“The shots that challenged us the most,” details Pejic, “were mainly to do with the movements of the creature in relationship to Henry. Also, the viscosity of the water, since the movement would drive the water simulations.”

A clash between soldiers was filmed with minimal actors and horses.

The final shot made use of crowd simulation software to fill the frame.

CG geometry for Cintra Castle.

The final shot of the city under siege.

Cinesite was also responsible for visual effects related to the Striga, which Geralt battles. Here, both a practical prosthetic suit creation and a completely CG creature were utilized for final scenes. “They shot everything, but there were some safety and physical limitations with what could be done practically,” outlines Pejic. “We ended up with a hybrid version of the creature. Certain shots were kept as is, but we’d sometimes trim down or extend particularly parts of the body.

“We body tracked every single shot where we had to do those adjustments, and also built a fully 3D creature,” says Pejic. “Then, with a specific script that we created in Nuke, the walk was blended between the plates and CG elements to create this particular look. A number of shots also involved a fully CG creature where we wanted the animation to be a little ‘crazier.’”

Cinesite’s creature work continued with the green and dragons seen later in the series. Gold, in particular, presented a number of design hurdles for the team, as did the various components making up the dragons, including alligator-like features and wings. “It was a major challenge to make it look gold, but not look ridiculous,” admits Pejic. “But I don’t think it had been done before – I don’t remember having seen a golden dragon in any other work.”

A plate shot in the Canary Islands for the sorceresses academy at Aretuza.

The composited shot with the added structures.

A plate showing the result of an attack from the Roach Hound.

The rendered Roach Hound, realized as a Frankenstein’d creature with extra armor and appendages.

Actress Anya Chalotra as Yennefer mocks leaping through a portal.

The final shot where the portal appears as if made up of sand.

CG golden dragons featured in Episode 6 of the series.

The dragon completed with fire effects simulation.

BUILDING THE MAGIC

The Witcher covers vast tracks of land. Some locations were built practically, or took advantage of existing locations. For instance, the exterior of Cintra Castle in the show included a fort near the Slovakian border in Komárom, which was then extended with visual effects.

“Cintra was one of the main builds we did,” attests Framestore Visual Effects Producer Christopher Gray. “There was a lot of research that went into medieval castles. We looked at 11th century Paris and the logic of the way a city and castle needed to feel together.”

“Our original inspiration was Carcassonne in France, which is obviously a real place,” adds Framestore Visual Effects Supervisor Pedro Sabrosa. “Our version just became a bigger version of that city, a more exaggerated version treading the line between it being fantasy and being real.”

Establishers were part of this environment work, as were moments when the city is under siege. Fire and smoke simulations were required here. Many of the final shots during the siege ended up being split across multiple vendors.

Among the many other environments Framestore delivered for the show was the female sorceresses academy at Aretuza on a rocky outcrop situated on Thanedd Island in Temeria. Framestore took a live-action location and added brutalist-like CG buildings to the shots.

“This was a tricky one because it was always envisaged as two structures that would sit on an island with water in the middle,” details Sabrosa. “It was purely by chance that they found this location in the Canary Islands when they were filming a whole other sequence.”

Aretuza is, of course, the location for a bunch of magical effects. One of those is the portal created by the characters Yennefer and Istredd. This was produced by Platige. “It was one of the first magical effects that we started developing very early in the production,” notes Platige Visual Effects Producer Krzysztof Krok. “It was evolving and needed some adjustments when we got plates from set. We understood then how flexible the FX setups as well as our thinking about magic had to be.”

Just as practical locations often informed the final environments, practical photography was also a major part of shooting the various battle sequences. Where vast amounts of soldiers could not be filmed, these shots were sometimes supplemented with digital crowds, including work by Cinesite.

“On this show we decided to introduce a new crowd system, which was Atom Crowd from Toolchefs,” states Pejic. “We had a lot of groundwork to do first, although we had experimented with this a little in the past. It worked out really well for us, making sure we could accommodate all kinds of creatures, integrate with Houdini and other tools, for driving different secondary dynamics, hair simulations and so forth.”

Platige was also a contributor to environments, including Shan Keyan Tree in the enchanted forest. “We had to show it in shots during the day and in the character Ciri’s vision as well,” says Platige Visual Effects Supervisor Mateusz Tokarz. “It has very vibrant color correction in trailers and fans loved it. On the other hand, in some shots from this sequence we’ve replaced around 75% of the screen with CG renders, and it was demanding to match to the very stylized look that was used there.”

 

MANAGING A TV VFX SHOW

The VFX shot count on Season 1 of The Witcher approached 2,000 in number over the seven hours of content. This was post-produced in a six-month period, a relatively fast turnaround. “And the expectation isn’t any lower because it’s television,” notes Parry.

Most of the vendors were based in London; Platige was the only remote vendor. “But in this day and age,” says Parry, “sharing the work like that and having different sorts of review tools available such as cineSync and Skype, that’s all pretty straightforward now. By dividing the work up, you get the opportunity to cherry pick where work can go, you don’t over-stress one particular company, and you just manage a nice workflow with the multiple vendors.”

Rearing a Roach Hound

During the series, the sorceress Yennefer at one point attempts to evade a Mage and his Roach Hound. One of Us tackled the Roach Hound as a CG creation.

“I remember asking at the time, what is the Roach Hound?” recalls The Witcher Visual Effects Supervisor Julian Parry. “Is it a hound that looks like a moth-bitten threadbare mangy dog, or was it literally a roach and a hound? The answer that came back was, ‘No, it’s a Roach Hound.’ We sent over some notes to One of Us and very simply said to the team, ‘We need a Roach Hound, something that looks like a cockroach but moves like a hound.’

“We did a bit of tinkering with the design,” continues Parry. “We embellished it with some markings and gave it a backstory with regards to the way that the Mages took these creatures and then turned them into these little Frankenstein’d things. Some of their limbs have been replaced with blades and some of their shells had been replaced with armor. So there’s a bit of a hybrid thing going on there with the poor souls.”

One of Us also worked on the portals that Yennefer and the Mage make their way through during that sequence. “We wanted these portals to look very different from other shows,” notes Parry. “They are formed from the elements that surround their environments. There’s a portal made up of water from the pool, then sand when they’re in the desert, and so on with snow and dust and dirt.”


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