Images courtesy of HBO.
As with the fantasy trilogy written by author Philip Pullman, the HBO, BBC Studios and Bad Wolf production of His Dark Materials concludes with the third season which adapts The Amber Spyglass. Accompanying Lyra Belacqua (Dafne Keen) throughout her travels into alternative dimensions with her animalistic daemon Pantalaimon, discovering her parentage and being drawn into a biblical war are Executive Producer/Production Designer Joel Collins and Series Visual Effects Supervisor Russell Dodgson who previously collaborated on the sci-fi anthology series Black Mirror. That experience made Collins want to collaborate with Dodgson again. Acknowledges Collins, “Russell has done way more as a supervisor than you include in his role, and it has taken that kind of freedom within the process to expand it into all of the areas to fix problems.”
“Right from the onset, when we spoke to Framestore and Russell, the question was, ‘Is there a seat at the showrunning table?’” Collins recalls. “Yes, there was. And that’s how it’s been.” Devising a design language was not the major issue. “Russell and I faced the same problem, which was that we were about to go into multiple worlds that overlap, as well as overlapping characters, creatures, armies and battles. It was like a standing stop. You weren’t going north on a ship from London to Trollesund and then from Trollesund you’re packing up and going to the Bear Palace. We’re literally going ‘boom, boom, boom’ like that across the episode. It was a complexity of tone. We were trying to add hope rather than darkness because this season goes so dark. You go into the world of the dead and the land of Metatron, who has taken over the heavens to control all of the world. Everywhere you look is a layer of darkness, and we were trying to find ways to keep it bright, light and emotionally resonant with people while telling that story. That was probably our big challenge.”
Framestore has produced around 1,800 to 2,000 visual effects shots, which is more than Season 2 and equivalent or a little more than Season 1. “Season 3 definitely takes a deeper leap into fantasy than Season 2,” remarks Dodgson. “We’ve got some new worlds, like where Lord Asriel Belacqua [James McAvoy] is setting up his large military encampment. We have the Land of the Dead, which is a Purgatory. We have the Suburbs of the Dead which is another space. Then we have the Clouded Mountain, which is a metaphysical building that exists inside of a cloud where the narrative version of a false god exists in. Then you have the culmination of that turning up where Asriel’s camp is, and being a giant set piece battle between angels and witches, which is actually the backdrop of another narrative which is the kids, Asriel and Mrs. Coulter doing their thing. You also have an idealized Eden-like world where we are starting to see the ramifications of the negative things happening in all of the other worlds. In that, there are gigantic skyscraper-sized trees and a species of a sentient animal called the Mulefa. The Mulefa is a tricky one because the way they’re described in the book is a visual effects nightmare! Then, on top of that, we’ve got all of the regular daemons, Iorek Byrnison, the Golden Monkey, and all of those interactions.”
The creature work is extensive, as each human character has a daemon which is a physical manifestation of their soul. “Joel has such a depth of experience designing creatures both from a physical and digital perspective,” notes Dodgson. “For me, the most interesting part is taking a design and trying to breathe life into it and find the character within.” Driving the storytelling is the relationship between Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson) and Lyra. “Lyra is this little ball of energy that is the force for good who always does the thing that is good. Mrs. Coulter is a damaged, broken person in the ‘what happened to her?’ kind of way, who spends her entire life repressing her nature, and it’s only through finding the love for her daughter that she manages to accept herself. The intensity of the narrative between Lyra and Pan, and Mrs. Coulter and the Golden Monkey goes deeper, which is why it’s such an exciting season for me. You get to mess with those dynamics, and there is some emotional, moving stuff between humans and CG characters that are going to make some people cry, and that makes me happy, sadly.”
There are new creatures this season. The most difficult of these to design, create and execute was the Mulefa. “When Joel showed me his designs, I was happy because he had managed to find a nice middle ground between otherworldliness and a grounding that we can work with, and use the familiarity of body language to help get across emotion,” Dodgson states.
“We actually found a biological zoologist who has a history in prehistoric creatures as well as large mammals, and he went away and worked out the range of movement of muscles and joints. If the diamond skeleton wasn’t enough, seed pods fall from the trees, the Mulefa wheel around on them and crack them open, the seeds fall out, new trees are born, and that connection is what gives them their consciousness. We had to work out how to get a quadruped to wheel around, and we spent a lot of time looking at how humans move and when animals run quickly their legs go from being side by side to tracking inwards and becoming in line. We started playing with the hands and how the hands could hold a seed pod that could become a wheel, how they push off and balance, and how their legs are the suspension.”
Tiny, flying Gallivespians are also introduced. “I found that the solution to making them work is split evenly between visual effects and camera language, costume and makeup,” Dodgson remarks.
“We decided to utilize used leathers that have a fractal quality to their detail, rather than a definite scale that we’re used to. A nice way was found to reduce facial and hair detail. As for the lensing, we said, ‘Let’s not do shots of them that we can’t achieve with the lenses we already use.’” Gallivespians have a magnetic form of communication known as a Lodestone Resonator. “We decided that they would transmit using their collar [which was just an in-camera action]. Joel designed the practical item, and we created an effects simulation that holds metal particles between two magnets on the prop. Through the particles we see a Gallivespians face transmitting. We actually did a facial capture of Sian Clifford, who plays Gallivespian spy Agent Salmakia, using the DI4D system to make sure we had whatever data we required. In the end, we found that we wanted an analogue quality to the transmission, so we actually ended up abstracting a lot of the capture in Houdini.”
Familiar religious and mythological beings were reinterpreted. “We’re always trying to say, ‘The theory behind the normal child’s drawing of a witch could have been because real witches do this. And if you don’t understand it, you might interpret it the same way,’” Collins explains. “With angels it’s the same.” The decision was made to cast actors for the role, rather than relying entirely on CG. “There is an angel as a human representation, a halfway state, in full angel mode where they have wings and are an effects simulation/asset,” Dodgson states. “Effects-based characters are one of the hardest things to know when you’re finished because they go through such an iterative process that it’s difficult to know when you’ve gone too far or you need to go a bit further.” Harpies, which are traditionally birds with female faces, serve as the prison guards of the Land of the Dead. “The thing the harpies crave the most is hearing the stories from people because it makes them feel alive,” Dodgson explains. “We gave them cataracts, mostly blind eyes so they have to listen, and that would give us a performance and character quirk that was our way into the character. While moving around, they’re looking but also trying to hear. Harpies are eight or nine-feet tall; however, when hunched and posed are six-foot, large ratty birds with slightly turtle-like features. My mission was, you have to be scared of the harpies – think that they’re disgusting but feel sorry for them.”
Collins had to come up with a version of the Land of the Dead which suited the story and tone of the source material. “The Land of the Dead is miles high and humongous. We slightly changed the old-world port town at the entrance to almost a recycling plant. All of the dead are funnelling in and being taken by wraiths to this rocky landscape made of the detritus that we have left ourselves in death. We worked on that and then Russell exploded it.” Another significant set build was the Intention Craft piloted by Asriel. “It is a fragile, spidery kind of thing and is quite complicated mechanically because your mind brings it to life and takes you places. Russell needed to be able to show that if you’re not focused, the ship will do the wrong thing, and if you are focused then you’ll get the result you need. We built the whole thing and put it on a gimbal.” The gimbal was not pre-programmed. “We live-puppeteered it because that’s much more our sort of style of how we like to approach things,” notes Dodgson. “It was fun because from my side, we’ve got a design that allowed me to treat it like a character rather than a lump of metal. It has enough articulate pieces on it that I can play with and that, to a degree, allowed us to slightly use some old 2D principles of squash and stretch, because it has legs that can move, so you can get it to move in an almost octopus-like way.”
Dull creative challenges were nonexistent. “In and amongst the Gallivespians flying around you’ve got angels, witches, the Cliff-ghast and harpies,” observes Collins. “Normally, what we’ve got is daemons. [We’ve got] families of Mulefa, not just a Mulefa. It’s a variable smorgasbord of complexity.” Dodgson has enjoyed the four and half years spent in the His Dark Materials universe. “Because we’re coming to the end of the run of the books, someone said to me the other day, ‘If you were to pick a type of show to make for your next show, what would it be? And if I look at every show on TV and film at the moment, if there was another His Dark Materials-shaped challenge, that would trump anything else that’s out there because it runs such a wide gamut for someone like me.”