Primeval Sees Framestore's Creatures Leap Into The 21st Century
Primeval, which debuts in the UK on ITV on Saturday 10th February at 7.45pm, is a new family drama from Impossible Pictures. Co-created by Impossible's Tim Haines and writer Adrian Hodges, the £6million, six hour-long episodes are aimed squarely at an audience hungry for savvy, contemporary drama with a sci-fi edge. Episodes 1 to 3 were directed by Cilla Ware, and 4 to 6 by Jamie Payne.
For Framestore, who supplied the production with thirteen CG creatures and over 730 animation and VFX shots, the series was a chance to bring their expertise to bear on a contemporary prime-time drama, and to raise the bar on what a television audience could expect from their visual effects.
Primeval stars Douglas Henshall as Professor Nick Cutter, an evolutionary zoologist who is recruited by the government to investigate a series of bizarre creature sightings. Aided by a crack team, Cutter discovers that the creatures have been transported to the UK from a very long way away. Millions of years, in some cases...
The series is one that Tim Haines has been developing for five years, since the Impossible Pictures production of The Lost World in 2002, which also featured CG animation and VFX by Framestore. Further successful collaborations between the two companies followed, with Framestore delivering a huge variety of creatures and visual effects for projects such as the Walking With... series, Space Odyssey, Ocean Odyssey and last year's Prehistoric Park. By December 2005, when ITV gave Primeval the green light, both companies were well prepared for the challenges ahead.
"We were already producing outstanding creature work for big-budget movies," says Mike Milne, Framestore's Director of Computer Animation, "The Hippogriff for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the squirrels for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, for example. This was our chance to put all that expertise to good use in a TV drama series."
Time, as ever, was the enemy for the Framestore team. Primeval's schedule demanded delivery of completed individual shows - six deadlines staggered throughout the work period - as opposed to one final delivery at the end. With 8 months from start of modelling to delivery, as opposed to the usual 18 months, VFX Producer Matt Fox jokes: "If you ask the crew, they'll swear that there was no summer in 2006 - they went from March to October without seeing daylight!"
"I think it was the tightest schedule we've ever worked to," agrees VFX Supervisor Christian Manz, "And it was made even more demanding by being such a departure from shows like the Walking With... series, where you're basing a lot of your animations on run and walk cycles and naturalistic, random behaviour. In Primeval, creatures were effectively players in the scenes - they needed bespoke animation and individual character in almost every shot."
Primeval was Manz's first project as VFX Supervisor, although he had already worked as 2D Sequence Supervisor on film projects such as Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. "I said to the team at the outset that I wanted this series to look better than anything we'd done for television before," he recalls, "And I really think we've raised the benchmark in all departments - animation, lighting and compositing." The creature work was done entirely in Maya, rendered in Mental Ray and composited in Shake. In addition, Inferno was used for a number of spot effects.
As many of the cast had no prior experience working with CG creatures, before shooting began a tour of Framestore was organised for Henshall and the other members of Cutter's team, as well as both directors. "We showed the sort of things they'd need to do in the way of reactions and the all important eyelines," says Manz. "It can be disconcerting, even for professionals, to be playing against nothing but a ball on a stick or an enthusiastic 1st Assistant Director jumping around off camera."
The complete series bestiary comprises:
"Although we're famous for our dinosaurs," points out Manz, "If you look at the list, technically none of the creatures is a dinosaur. Some of the creatures came before the dinosaurs, some of them - the Dodo, for example - after, and some are purely imaginary. But the big difference for us this time around was that this was fiction, so meticulous scientific accuracy was no longer one of the ground rules. This meant that, for dramatic reasons, a few liberties could be taken with the creatures' physiology."
The most obvious example of this licence can be seen in the way many of the creatures look at the actors and each other. The natural way for creatures with eyes at the side of their heads to look at objects is sideways on. For the sake of the drama, however, the creatures were made to confront the actors face on. Other creatures were enhanced to make them more ferocious looking. Double sabre fangs were added to the Gorgonopsid (a mammal/reptile hybrid predator), and the size of the Arthropleura (a giant centipede) was increased. A second injustice was done to the harmless Arthropleura - a vegetarian by nature - as it became a predator in the show.
The Predator - a fearsome mutant monster that arrives from the future - was probably the team's biggest design challenge. It appears in the final episode, and features in a climactic battle with the Gorgonopsid that we've met in the first episode. The creature - a sort of super-evolved bat - was designed by Digital Textures Lead Daren Horley. "The battle lasts for a full minute on screen, and its amazing," enthuses Manz, "Because it was created in a digital environment, we were able to go down to the cutting room and decide where we were going to put the cameras and essentially direct it ourselves as if we were on location. It was great to be able to offer that flexibility to the director. The result is some of the best television work we've ever done."
Besides the 437 CG creature shots, the Framestore team also provided 300 other effects shots. The biggest single non-creature effect they developed were the ‘anomalies' - the rips in the time-space continuum through which creatures (and humans) can travel. "The scripts never nailed down a look for the anomalies," says Manz, "One thing I really wanted to avoid - and I was delighted that Tim Haines felt the same way - was the sort of vertical water-surface, Stargate-type portal - it's just become something of a cliché. We tried various looks, and finally Cilla (Ware, Director) and I developed something based on a shattering process. It looks great -a splintering, amorphous, glowing, pulsing sphere. All of the anomaly shots - there are a lot, and some get pretty complicated due to the different environments it's seen in - were created entirely within Inferno.
Ask Manz which of the sequences gave the team the most problems and he'll smile ruefully - none of it was a doddle. "One thing that I was particularly proud of," he says, "Was the underwater work we did for Episode 3. The action takes place in a reservoir and a Cretaceous lagoon, and involved some 20 shots compositing in creatures - Mosasaurs - and a further 40 shots involving people who'd been filmed swimming against a green screen in a tank. A number of the team members had been involved in the massive underwater sequence we created for the last Harry Potter film, so we could bring a wealth of experience and tools to bear on the work. It's one of the advantages a place like Framestore can offer our television clients."
The last point is echoed by producer Matt Fox. "For an increasingly sophisticated TV audience, producers want to be able to offer them highly accomplished digital visual effects - work that's on a par with what they might see in the movies. We are ideally placed to provide this sort of work."