The Meep may not inherit the Earth, thanks to Dr Who and Untold Studios

 

BAFTA and Emmy nominated VFX & Production company Untold Studios recently teamed up with the BBC and Bad Wolf Productions to help bring the hotly anticipated 60th Anniversary Series of Doctor Who to life, and the creation of The Meep in episode: ‘The Star Beast’.

David Tennant returns as Doctor Who (and his trusty Sonic screwdriver!)

Doctor Who’s enduring popularity over six decades has been sustained by its ability to reinvent itself while remaining true to its core values of adventure, imagination, and timeless storytelling. Countless generations of VFX and special effects artists in the UK have worked to allow the Doctor to travel time and space (while seemingly ending up spending a lot of time in London). The 60th Anniversary Series continues this tradition with the three special episodes.

 

Untold’s VFX team contributed 330 shots to the limited series, with a focus on bringing to life the famous and enigmatic Meep character, as seen in this making-of reel:

Untold Studios VFX Supervisor Tom Raynor explains, “It was a total privilege to take on the first of the Doctor Who specials, kickstarting a new season of the iconic TV franchise and the eagerly anticipated return of David Tennant. The brief was all-encompassing, bringing to life a plethora of visual effects and SFX, from complex character work, CG environment builds and set extensions, massive battle scenes, and highly complex FX sequences. This special is a rare example of costume and SFX being seamlessly integrated with high-end VFX in a sensitive and impactful way.

The Meep is an iconic character, well known by fans from the early comic books and as it was the character’s first screen appearance, it was extremely important that we got this right. The character posed a unique set of challenges as it required both a full CG approach for some shots and an augmented 2D approach to an actor in a costume for other shots.

 

For the augmented 2D approach, we used the tracked geometry of our CG asset to drive a 2D spline warp/ST map-driven facial rig in Nuke. The rig had sliders to dial in or enhance a range of different facial expressions and emotional states and could modify the mouth performance to match lip-sync accurately. It was used by our compositors in almost every Meep shot in the first half of the episode. Once The Meep turns evil, a CG digital replica of the character was used, complete with fully simulated muscle/fat and hair systems.

“At Untold we do most of our asset building and our rigging in Maya with ZBrush and Substance for sculpting and texturing,” comments  Raynor. “From here we lookdev and render our assets in Houdini. We did start looking into the use of USD and Karma for rendering at the start of this project but decided ultimately due to time constraints that Arnold would be our renderer of choice for this one.” The team had developed a nice collection of Arnold shading nodes and utilities for fur over the last few years which made it particularly appealing for them to work on the Meep Character.

Untold believed that it was extremely important to respect the timeless aesthetic and charm of the Doctor Who franchise along with the artistry of the costume makers and SFX artists. “We took great care to match the range of movement of The Meep to what was achievable for the costume to ensure a consistent look and a seamless invisible transition between full CG shots and augmented costume shots” he adds. Using a CG digidouble enabled Untold to greatly increase the emotional range of The Meep during the later sequences. It also allowed them to do things such as pupil dilation, articulated finger and toe movement, and make The Meep run, “which was a practical limitation of having an actor crouched down in a costume”, he commented. “We paid careful attention to the flow of every part of the groom, the subtle pigmentation changes of the fur and how it bent and flexed as it moved.”

The team also had to handle a range of visual effects shots that included the set extension of the alien rocket to the start of the destruction of London and various mind control effects. The production build an extensive set for the alien spaceship but only to a certain height – this was then digitally extended and integrated into the shot.

As part of the Meep’s evil plan, it could control the minds of people whom it interacted with using a particle-based tendril effect that left the eyes of the controlled glowing.

The team operated an ACES Colour pipeline and worked at and delivered the final picture at 4K. Pretty much all of the plates were shot on Alexa Mini with the exception of a handful of drone plates.

In addition to Drione shots digital see actions of London were used in the climax of the ep, as the Meep tries to collapse the energy of London to effect a takeoff and escape, –  which caused lava like cracks in streets and buildings.

Dr Who holds a special place in VFX, not only for the history of innovative and often times experimental effects techniques but also due to many VFX artists having grown up on episodes of the famous BBC TV show.