Award winning Milk and the state of UK episodic effects

The changing UK TV landscape

Milk is an award winning VFX house in London, with an incredible track record for a company so young.This incredible track record has coincided with recent dynamic changes in television production. Not only has Milk faced with the rise of streaming giants such as Amazon and Netflix but also dramatic changes in television production at the BBC. At the same time, audiences are changing the very nature of “TV” shows and how they are being watched. “I had dinner the other night and some of my friends said they got rid of their television, they don’t have a TV in their house anymore, – but that doesn’t mean they are not consuming content anymore. They are just doing it on tablets and computers – phones… I was shocked – how do you watch a football match? – I mean you can but it is not the same” explained Milk’s CEO Will Cohen. “We are living in the middle of a transient period for television – of how people consume television, of how TV shows are created, how deals are made – and it is all becoming very International”.

Posted on their Instagram account from the Emmys
Posted on their Instagram account from the Emmys

The UK is a leading world hub for the production of programming and for Milk this means  that increasingly the shows they are working on are not made for just the domestic UK audience. Programs like Dr Who, Sherlock and alike are global brands with vast international audiences, yet not long ago such shows were made primarily for British viewers and overseas sales were a bonus. Currently Milk is working on a new children’s show which is funded from Germany, Netflix and the BBC, with a budget “akin to what a high end domestic drama would have been” he explains, “that’s a huge change”.

Independent UK VFX studio Milk Visual Effects won the Emmy this year for their work on the BBC/Hartswood’s Sherlock. This marked the young studio’s third major award of the season, having already been recognised with an Academy award and a BAFTA earlier this year.


Independent UK VFX studio Milk opened for business just over three years ago and has in that time created an impressive range of multi-award winning visual effects for TV and films including Sherlock, Doctor Who, Thunderbirds Are Go, 24: Live Another Day, David Attenborough’s Natural History Museum Alive 3D; Ben Wheatley’s High Rise, Ex-Machina, The Martian, Everest, The Divergent Series: Insurgent, and 47 Ronin.


We featured earlier the team’s third consecutive British Academy Television Craft Award – this year for BBC TV series ‘Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell’. The BBC is such a dominant force and thus the huge shake up last year for the Beeb sent shockwaves through the industry that are still being felt. 

In April  BBC launched BBC Studios, it combines the majority of BBC Television’s in-house production departments; Comedy, Drama, Entertainment, Music & Events and Factual. (BBC News, Children’s and Sports departments remain separate divisions of the BBC). BBC Studios was split from BBC Television with the intention of it becoming a wholly owned commercial subsidiary next year (possibly in April 2017). The new venture controls around £400m of show commissions. The BBC Studios now control and produce many of the most internationally known BBC in-house shows such as Top Gear and Strictly Come Dancing.

The move shifted about 2,000 staff who officially transferred over to BBC Studios and was seen as one of the biggest shake-ups in the Corporation’s 94-year history. But it is more than just a management restructure. Many more series are now tendered out to the market, and it will change again when the Studios are commercialised and stand separately, allowing BBC Studios to make shows for rival broadcasters.  “In exchange, a deal was struck with the producers’ Alliance Pact to open up “a minimum amount of 40%” of its programmes to tender over the next two years – potentially slicing around £160m off BBC Studios’ bottom line, according to the UK’s Guardian newspaper.

For Milk most of their TV work is for domestic producers, but the audience is increasingly international, and with London such a production hub their work may start to be commissioned more from outside the UK. “BREXIT has certainly stimulated activity in US television terms” he says, “Already London is home to Warner Bros film and Marvel films – feature film tax incentives have made a difference – but we are now seeing a lot of interest in US production companies using UK companies for television effects”. BREXIT has caused the pound to move from $1.55 to approximately $1.21 against the US Dollar. In other words, A project quoted by Milk a year ago would have been almost 30% more just on exchange rates alone. Milk is now bidding for much more work for Amazon and Netflix, for example, “on a weekly basis… so it is just coming”.

Cohen thinks the effect of programs (and their budgets) such as Game of Thrones can not be under estimated, but it is not just overseas interest that is changing the London production landscape. The whole space is in a period of upheaval. Not only has the BBC changed but outside the BBC has seen the rise of “super-indies” and what The Guardian Newspaper refers to as “mega-indies” as a result of the consolidation of TV’s independent production sector over the last couple of decades.

An example of the power of the super-indies was seen last month. While it may not be known much outside the UK, one of the most successful and highest rating shows in the UK was the BBC’s star domestic show, Great British Bakeoff. When the BBC refused to pay £25 million a year to hold on to the hit baking show, Love Productions, the company behind Bake Off, withdrew the programme from the BBC and two hours later, Channel 4 announced that it had agreed a three-year deal for Bake Off. Cohen points out that the show (which Milk is not involved with) gets ratings unheard of since the 1970s – upwards of 15 million people “that is world cup final levels”.

Sherlock is another extraordinary BBC program, now on an international stage, “the program is the most popular British export in China – for example” explains Cohen. China is a new export market for the BBC. Sherlock is a co-production between the BBC and WGBH Boston for its Masterpiece anthology series on PBS.

The game is afoot

Cohen is in no doubt that the show’s star producers (show runners), Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, made the show for themselves as they are huge fans of the original Sherlock.

The show stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman as Doctor John Watson. Both of whom have gone on to make massive feature films: the Hobbit for Freeman and most recently Dr Strange for Cumberbatch. While the series is set in the present day, the Emmy award winning one-off special episode: Sherlock: “The Abominable Bride’ partly featured a Victorian period plot line that closely resembled the original Holmes stories.

Milk’s work on Sherlock was recognised by the TV Academy for outstanding special and visual effects in a supporting role in the ninety-minute Sherlock special episode ‘The Abominable Bride’ alongside special effects company Real SFX.

Milk created over 100 VFX shots for ‘Sherlock: the Abominable Bride’ working closely with Hartswood Films’ creative team: producer Sue Vertue, executive producer and writer Mark Gattis, writer, Steven Moffat and director Douglas McKinnon’s to support their vision for the special episode which is set in both Victorian London and the present day. Cohen commented: “We are very lucky indeed to be involved in such a brilliant TV series and proud to be recognised as part of the incredibly, talented Sherlock production team.”

Milk’s work included enhancing and perfecting Victorian London, Sherlock’s cliff top scene at the Reichenbach Falls and the ‘freeze frame’ sequence in which Sherlock enters his mind palace to dissect a shooting.  Set in 1895 in Victorian London, Sherlock and Watson try to crack an unsolved case.  Milk had fun referencing a lot of classic Sherlock lore such as Reichenbach Falls. “That was a huge element – and done in part – for the fun of it.. to let Mark and Steven and the actors have a crack at a classic version of Sherlock,.. while keeping it in the creative boundaries they set up for the show – so it was rife to reference imagery from the classic canons  of Sherlock – books, artwork and material from the source original”. 

The team researched London of the period and their work highlights some interesting aspects of Victorian London. For a start, there was no Underground in London so the streets were incredibly busy and crowded.”It was just chaos – back to back carriages, carts horses, people walking – you literally took your life in your hands just crossing the road… so for us in visual effects it was hard to show that, – the denser the crowds are, the more simulations – the harder it is”. The team solved much of the crowds in 2D with green screen pods tracked into moving shots, rather than using crowd simulation software.

Cohen remembers first discussing the special on the set of Dr Who in Cardiff with Steven Moffat, “I had a meal with him afterwards in Cardiff and he was discussing it without Sue Vertue (Producer) around – which is always a very dangerous affair” he joked, “and he said If you look at some of the original engravings of people crossing Waterloo Bridge in the 1890’s – it is teaming with life” – and he was very conscious that it was only now possible to show that version of London with today’s visual effects – he wanted to show London that was not grey – brown and bland…”  explained Jean-Claude Deguara VFX supervisor and joint head of 3D Milk London. The team also was careful to get the timing accurate, as this period of London saw London changing rapidly, the skyline was unfolding in this period very quickly.

Deguara wanted to keep the same visual style as they had in the modern day, when jumping back to Victorian England. He points out that Suzie Lavelle, the DOP on the show, even explored filming the same moving sweeping camera moves and style but with period or vintage lenses in an effort to explore this mix of new and old.

Mind Mapping freeze
Mind Mapping freeze, second half of the shot looking back to the actors.

For the mind mapping shot where Sherlock visual examines a shooting, Deguara pulled off one of the most technical shots of the show, but without the budget of a major US network drama. In the original script it was written that there is a man running down the street – he freezes and the camera swings around him to reveal that Sherlock and much of his flat are in the street.

“We were on a recce (location survey) and the director said ‘look this is what’s written and I really want to do it – and I think we need to do it – as it is written on the page’, ” explains Deguara. “I came up with an idea, that we would have the camera on Benedict, we would have the camera on a track as we’d need a few passes, but then the track would have to extend pass the guy – after he’d frozen .. but we can’t have a track at that point (!)”


sherlock-tv-bbc-one-and-pbs-the-abominable-bride-special-victorian-episodeDeguara solved this by having half the track at first, but at the point where the guy crosses the camera they built in a lock off. The actor ran through the whole move once, but the team know only half his initial performance will be used, since the track was only half laid.

Once this had been filmed (the first half) they marked everything up, relaid the track and filmed the second half at a much higher frame rate. The actor who was a performance artist then had to start from a position where he could stand comfortably supporting his own weight and after some line up on the video split they filmed the second half of him running. Of course it was not only the foreground actor but all the background actors, including when the camera swings around –  the lead actors sitting on a set built in the street.

On the day of filming there was about a 90 minute break between the first and second takes. To help hide the transition they did projection map some of the background to avoid any popping and to blend the transition. The higher frame rate allowed greater flexibility in lining up the two halves. There was no motion control used at all, and the lock off was not perfect but the final result on scene was ‘hard core – old school vfx problem solving’.. “Which for me is much more personally satisfying.. trying to come up with a solution to make something like that work is all part of the fun of this job” comments Deguara.

Deguara who came from the Harry Potter films to work in TV on Dr Who, feels that while there is still a difference between feature film crews and the budgets involved, the gaps has narrowed dramatically. He points to the jump from 35mm film down to Digi Beta that he experienced between his time on the Potter films and his first Dr Who episode as being a vast technical difference. This is in contrast today when both TV episodes and feature films could be shot on the same Arri Alexa. But still ” we get a lot less takes (in TV compared to feature films) and the pre-production time has not changed !” he comments.

Milk has just finished production on Warner Bros’ Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them, and is in production on Sherlock series 4, BBC 3’s Doctor Who spin-off Class, Doctor Who series 10, and a second series of Thunderbirds (ITV) for television.