His Dark Materials
Framestore delivered all of the first season’s world-class VFX, and served as a key creative advisor from the earliest stages of production. This saw Framestore build a production-side visual effects team at Wolf Studios, Cardiff led by Senior VFX Supervisor Russell Dodgson, On Set VFX Supervisor Rob Duncan and VFX Executive Producer James Whitlam. They provided guidance, advice and input as to how best bring Philip Pullman’s unique world to life - from feeding back on production notes to creating the show’s lush environments and developing the nuanced relationships between the actors and their dæmons. The result is one of the most ambitious feats of storytelling yet seen on TV, with over 2,000 shots of spectacular CG and animation work bringing the richly-imagined universe and its colourful denizens to life. “His Dark Materials demanded an extraordinarily high VFX baseline,” says Dodgson. “It also required us to really live and breathe the show if we were going to bring it to life. The team at Bad Wolf understood this from the get-go, helping us immerse ourselves in the script, the characters and the physical production so that the VFX work was embedded in the story from day one.”
Crafting a visual spectacle equal to Philip Pullman’s beloved source material drew on a wide range of talent, and presented challenges in terms of scope, scale and storytelling. “Every human character having his or her own dæmon means theoretically every shot that features an actor could also require VFX,” explains Dodgson. “This level of work and detail is unparalleled when it comes to television - the sheer volume of shots requiring the inclusion of a pine marten, a hawk, a monkey or a snow leopard meant our lighters, animators and CG artists really had their work cut out for them.”
Framestore created more than 50 distinctive dæmons as well as the bear-like panserbjørn, effectively bolstering the show’s overall cast with its CGI creations. To ensure emotional, realistic interactions between human actors and fully-CG characters, first-pass takes were conducted with puppets, which helped provide visual and interactional cues. The puppets were then removed from set, and clean plates featuring just the actors in situ were filmed. It was then down to Framestore’s artists to conjure forth the show’s distinctive dæmons. “On the one hand there was the challenge of creating so many photoreal creatures,” says Dodgson of the process. “You’re building each one of these characters from the ground up, which means crafting their skeletons and musculature, and that’s before you even get on to the intricacies of feathers, fur, eyes and claws.” Bringing these characters to life was not just a question of volume, however. “IT was obviously important to imbue each dæmon with its own personality,” says Dodgson. “A deeper concern, however, was how they then interacted with their humans, and how their gestures and behaviour augmented, reflected or concealed what their human was thinking or feeling. This requires a tremendous amount of nuance and subtlety, and our artists deserve full credit for the seamless, intuitive way that they have embodied the characters and helped merge fantasy with reality.”
The scope and scale of the show meant Framestore drew on skills from across the entire company, with the work split between offices in London and Montreal. “It was a team effort on a grand scale,” says Fiona Walkinshaw, Framestore’s Global Managing Director, Film. “We’re no stranger to huge projects and tight deadlines, but His Dark Materials really feels like a landmark in terms of both the quantity and quality of VFX shots TV audiences will witness. It’s a perfect example of how film and high-end TV are converging: there’s a heightened demand from clients and audiences alike for VFX work that would look as good in your living room as it would at the IMAX.”
As well as allowing the company’s artists to flex their creative and technical muscles, the work also tapped another of Framestore’s core skills: the ability to get inside a piece of existing IP and breathe life into complex creatures, characters and settings that exist in the hearts and minds of a great many loyal fans. “Working on a show like His Dark Materials brings with it a lot of responsibility, and it’s not something we take lightly,” says Framestore CEO Sir William Sargent. “This isn’t a world we’re building from scratch - it’s one that millions of readers feel deeply invested in, which means we have them in mind while working closely with the show’s producers, directors and showrunners. It requires a deft touch, a deep understanding of the source material and years of experience working with beloved characters that range from boy wizards to superheroes."
‘His Dark Materials’: Witches, Quests and Talking Animals
The New York Times
Des effets visuels conçus au Québec
Le Journal de Montreal
Framestore Conjures VFX for ‘His Dark Materials’
His Dark Materials: Behind The VFX
Framestore returned to the world of His Dark Materials for the show’s epic second season, delivering 1400+ shots of film-quality VFX and serving as a key creative collaborator.
Season two sees Lyra Silvertongue (Dafne Keen) and Will Parry (Amir Wilson) leave their familiar worlds far behind, encountering new adventures and dangers in a perilous realm that contains faint echoes of their own while proving to be very, very different. Along the way they encounter new friends, new foes and different iterations of old, familiar faces.
Having won a BAFTA for the first season’s VFX it’s no surprise that Framestore’s work shines in every episode, bringing each world to life with explosive action sequences, note-perfect CG environments and, of course, carefully-crafted creature work that ensures the show’s daemons are as much a part of the cast as their human counterparts.
“For Lyra and Will the worlds they’ve known have exploded outwards, it was a lot of fun to explore those while retaining the logic, the aesthetics and the ground rules we established in the first season,” explains Russell Dodgson, the show’s overall VFX Supervisor. “In season two we have vast new cities to explore and new enemies to face, but the second season also gave us a chance to build out characters and ideas from the first season.” When it came to the show’s daemons, Dodgson is keen to explain that it’s character as much as craft that has been developed between the two shows. “It’s almost a given that Framestore’s in-house tech is constantly evolving and developing, but what was really exciting was to see how our artists grew and developed the characters they were working on. Thanks to our riggers, modellers and artists it’s almost like these characters have been off living lives beyond the show - they have more experience, more subtlety of character and emotion. It’s testament to the skill and craft that they bring to their work, and the natural shorthand we’ve developed between ourselves in terms of movement, behaviour and nuance, whether we’re talking about hero characters like Pan or those that you might only catch relatively fleeting glimpses of - a skink or a Chinese pond heron, say. Our artists have been able to immerse themselves in the characters, and the deep-level understanding of performance and storytelling that each member of the team brings to the table makes for some emotionally charged sequences - something that’s so important, given how the daemons riff on, augment or work to conceal the feelings of their humans.”
From intricate conflicts between daemons to huge aerial bombardments and warring airships, Framestore was responsible for the show’s many edge-of-the seat spectacles. Key, too, was seamless world-building - working hand-in-glove with design studio Painting Practice on the construction of awe-inspiring environments like the iconic Cittàgazze, or working with propmasters and costumiers to get reference materials and scans so that CG and real-life match each other seamlessly.
“Being embedded with the Bad Wolf creative team has played a huge part in the success of the show’s VFX,” says VFX Executive Producer James Whitlam. “It feels like we’re really part of the creative firmament and able to offer advice and expertise every step of the way, whether it’s making a minor tweak to achieve a more nuanced performance or explaining why we need to send Russ off in a helicopter somewhere to capture amazing plate photography. It’s a trusting and truly collaborative experience, and there’s a real feeling that we’re all pulling in the exact same direction to service the needs of the story.”
Beyond bringing Philip Pullman’s much-loved epic so wonderfully to life, the Framestore team faced very real logistical concerns. The coronavirus pandemic had - and continues to have - a huge impact on global film and TV production, and limitations to travel and access to certain locations threw up unforeseen hurdles that required creative fixes. “As you’d expect we found ourselves having conversations about how VFX might be used to augment or propel the story,” explains Whitlam. “This occasionally meant extra screen time for some of our CG characters, but more often than not we brought ‘invisible’ FX and our deep understanding of the production process to bear - we found ourselves asking our second unit DoP to shoot pick-ups with props in his garage, or helping coach our daemon voice cast over Zoom, and there was at least one occasion where Russ was quite literally wearing different hats so we could get the framing right when picking up additional VFX plate footage. I think that’s a real benefit of being embedded with the Bad Wolf team - we’re at the table and part of the conversation, and that means we can offer fast, smart, seamless fixes that work for the producers and work for the audience.”
The result is a sumptuous, spellbinding world fit for a story beloved by readers around the world. “I think one of our biggest successes in the first season was making the daemons such a matter-of-fact part of Lyra’s world,” says Dodgson. “The challenge for season two was to maintain this immersive sense of wonder as we add layer upon layer, expanding on the show’s CG cast, pushing forward into new realms and helping Jane Tranter, Jack Thorne and the Bad Wolf team as we develop a visual language for these exciting new changes and developments.”
“This is a real achievement for everyone involved,” concludes Fiona Walkinshaw, Framestore’s Global Managing Director, Film. “Our teams in London, Montreal and New York have been living and breathing this show and I think the results speak for themselves. Our artists raised the bar for episodic VFX with the first season, and it seems like their BAFTA win has spurred them on to even greater creative heights.”
The Daemon Masters
Framestore Returns to the World of ‘His Dark Materials’
Framestore Returns to the World of His Dark Materials
The final season of His Dark Materials premiered globally in December 2022.
Based on The Amber Spyglass – the third book in Philip Pullman’s beloved trilogy – the new season will bring the story of Lyra (Dafne Keen) and Will (Amir Wilson) to a climax, as the duo aid James McAvoy’s Lord Asriel in an epic battle against antagonist the Authority.