Over the weekend, History Channel’s The Bible miniseries premiered with an impressive and record viewership of 13.1 million. The show is a 10-hour series from producer Mark Burnett and Roma Downey of Lightworkers Media, and features visual effects by London’s Lola. We talk to creative director Rob Harvey about how Lola used some very practical means to replicate iconic scenes such as Noah’s journey in the ark, the parting of the Red Sea, Moses’ encounter with the burning bush, grand armies and crows, and views of Jerusalem. (See the making of video below).
Production filmed in Morocco, with Lola VFX shoot supervisor Garrett Honn on hand to take photo references and conduct set surveys. The overall visual effects supervisor for The Bible was James Jordan. Shots of Jerusalem were initially envisaged as distant views, but became crucial scenes as the planning got underway. “We were going to do a Terragen background for instance or take a helicopter plate to show the entire walled city from a great height,” says Harvey. “But when we got into the previs, it just sort of grew. We’d add tents and bits and bobs. We wanted to show a crane up over the wall of the whole temple, and it basically just got built up and built up.”
Lola purchased an off-the-shelf model for the city, which was then refined in XSI and rendered in Arnold. Various angles were required for the series, including wide vistas showing armies and tents. In one episode, the walls of Jerusalem are attacked. For wall destruction, Lola elected to combine shot elements with the principal photography and their CG city. “We filmed rocks and dust high speed in the studio with a Phantom camera,” notes Harvey. “You can do this stuff in CG and make it look amazing, but if the camera’s not doing some big sweeping move then we just line up a load of rubble and film that with fuller’s earth and bits of breeze blocks.”
Moses’ encounter with the burning bush was filmed on location with the actor and a bush either set to move with wind or wires pulling on its branches. Lola then augmented the shots with practical high speed elements of a paraffin sponge set alight and thrown at the floor or wall. “What you get are these beautiful drips,” notes Harvey. “It’s also kind of animated because we would add bursts at certain points where it appears that God is speaking or reacting to him. It made it more of a character. We also used the paraffin trick in a fire angel sequence in a later episode that gave it a really trippy look.”
To depict Noah’s stormy ark journey, Lola looked to its earlier experience on a Discovery Channel show about Krakatoa. “For that show,” describes Harvey, “we had sourced some stock footage of an oil tanker in a storm and we basically then shot a model boat lined up to the tanker and stuck it on top of the tanker and painted back all the spray. For the ark in The Bible, we built a CG boat and then took some footage from a show featuring a fishing trawler in a storm. We took the trawler out and tracked our CG model over the top. We time-warped the ocean to be a little slower and therefore appear larger, and then we keyed loads of water effects over the top.”
These ocean shots were complemented with high speed elements filmed on the Phantom. “We would shoot salt or sand being blasted through an air canon which looks like water spray,” says Harvey. “It’s got the right kind of surface tension and particles and it gives us something real and lets us do a 2D comp instead of having to spend time on particle animation. You get these accidents and shots that you can’t get necessarily in CG without a lot of trial and error.”
Parting of the Red Sea
This Red Sea parting again saw the combination of practical and CG elements. Lola began by experimenting with RealFlow to do the whole simulation of the sea being blown into separate walls of water. “But what we were asking the water to do was just physically incredibly hard,” admits Harvey. “We had decided as a concept that it was a blast of air that blew a gap to get the water to go up. We also experimented by say turning a waterfall upside down, but realized that that looks completely wrong – it had to be more of a wall of water being held there by a force. Plus we had to match to the practical tip tanks and rainmakers that had been used on set.” Ultimately, Lola filmed blasted sand and flour with the Phantom to get a kind of surface spray, then relied on RealFlow for the wall of water. “We also made our own tornado machine with dry ice that gave us all these little eddies,” says Harvey. “Then it was a lot of layers in Nuke for the final shots.”
Armies and crowds
Although hundreds of extras were employed for crowd and army sequences, Lola was charged with extending plates. Most shots made use of crowd replication and tiling, rather than digital extras. “We also captured individual performances on greenscreen from a variety of angles in open shade or bright light,” explains Harvey. “We used them as a library of people milling around markets or distant armies marching or fighting. They’re taken straight from the main unit shoot one at a time so they’re in costume and filmed in the same light.”
“Sometimes we even had a running machine so people could jog,” adds Harvey. “And then in comp we have a little program where it will slightly alter the grade and timing of each performance from say 30 performances to generate huge armies, which we combine with a bit of atmos for the final shots.”
Harvey considers the hybrid of practical and digital elements created for The Bible not only served to render the effects more realistic; they were also crucial in helping editorial cut the show efficiently. “With an empty plate you might have 20 extras in the middle of nowhere and only a partially built set,” he says. “So we use shot elements and our massive library – everything from eruptions to volcanoes – and we can take one of those elements, key them in roughly, give it to the edit, and they can come back very quickly with shot revisions that help them cut the effect and give us a more accurate idea of what needs to be done in CG, which saves time and money.”
VFX Shoot Supervisor – Garrett Honn
VFX Producer – Michelle Martin
Creative Director – Rob Harvey
Lead CG Artist – Rhys Williams
CG Artists – Tim Zaccheo, Alex Jevon, , Rasik Gorecha, Richard Costin, Lawrence Pankhurst, David Cook, Gerald Chrome.
Lead 2D Artists – Max Wright, Joe Cork, Garrett Honn.
Compositors – James Cattell, Ben Turner, Steve Bray, Dylan Owen, Blake Laing-Smith.
Roto – Helen Brownell, Harry Collins.
VFX Editor – Struan Farquhar
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