VFX on TV: how to build planets, androids and Dalek saucers

fxguide goes behind the scenes of the visual effects work in three recent television shows – The Day of the Doctor, Almost Human and Richard Hammond Builds A Planet – featuring interviews with the VFX artists and showcasing before and after images and clips.

The Day of the Doctor: Milk artists go back to their roots

Dalek saucers created by Milk for The Day of the Doctor.
Dalek saucers created by Milk for The Day of the Doctor.

The Doctor Who 50th anniversary special, The Day Of The Doctor, recently proved to be an enormous hit worldwide, both on television and in cinemas. For the studio behind the show’s visual effects, Milk, that wasn’t a bad start for the first ever piece of work seen by an audience.

Many of Milk’s artists in London are in fact veterans of Doctor Who, having worked on the series previously in The Mill’s TV department. This time they were called on by the BBC to create a wide range of effects including 3D paintings, Dalek saucers, portals, vast cities and space battles – all in stereoscopic 3D.

Above: watch a breakdown of Milk’s VFX for the show.

“You can imagine it would have made life a lot easier not to shoot in stereo,” notes Milk CEO Will Cohen, “but everybody knew it would be really special for a celebration of one of the world’s longest running TV series. What really worked well was the BBC deciding to shoot with lighter weight ARRI Alexa Ms, which made the stere rig more manageable on set.”

One particularly immersive effect, enhanced further in stereo, was the 3D painting in the National Gallery through which the Doctor and Clara witness the fall of Arcadia. “When we first read the script,” recalls Milk visual effects supervisor Murray Barber, “there was a little aside in Steven Moffat’s script which said, ‘We now look at the painting and see it in all its wonderful 3Dness.’ And coming up with a solution to make something look like it’s 3D but also bearing in mind the majority of people will be watching it in 2D, making it have that 2D look as well was quite a difficult concept to get your head around at first.”

A final shot of the painting.
A final shot of the painting.

Ultimately the scene was filmed with a window like greenscreen box on set so that the scene could have parallax and 3D depth. The script also called for the camera to ‘fly through’ the painting. Final shots involved matte painting, 3D environments of Gallifrey’s Arcadia environment based on on-set scans and a greenscreen plate of the three Doctors plus an exploding Dalek care of the art department. “We then had to put an explosion inside that, which we did in Houdini,” explains Barber. “The Arcadia build was done in Maya, with flames and fluids in Houdini. Then we rendered through Arnold and composited in NUKE. Our stereo fixes were done using OCULA.”

Shots of the Gallifrey Citadel were accomplished with a matte painting built in Cinema4D. “That whole shot over the top and down into the Citadel was originally done as a render test,” says Barber, “just to see what it looked like. We showed it to the director and he asked for it to be in the show!”

The Gallifrey Citadel.
The Gallifrey Citadel.

The Gallifrey shots formed just some of the 129 created for The Day of the Doctor by Milk, which is currently working on the visual effects for the pivotal Doctor Who Christmas Special: The Time of the Doctor, and the forthcoming eighth series of the show. “Doctor Who is always fresh and exciting,” says Cohen. “You get to do lots of weird and different sorts of work that you just don’t get to do normally on a television series. You’re a spaceship one week, or a dinosaur the next – or a dinosaur on a spaceship in the same week!”

Almost Human peeks into the near-future

A scene from Almost Human.
A scene from Almost Human.

Set in 2048, Fox’s new series Almost Human isn’t necessarily a future sci-fi show, but there are, certainly, glimpses of hyper-realistic tech. That’s where visual effects supervisor Jay Worth comes in. He oversees the creation of cityscapes, futuristic cars, holograms and robot augmentations for the Bad Robot production, which follows detective John Kennex (Karl Urban) who, as part of a new police policy, is paired with a lifelike ‘MX’ android.

“The challenge we had on this show was that it might be set 35 years in the future, but how futuristic do you make things?,” says Worth. “We had these amazing humanoid robots, but at the same time people still drive cars and still talk on phones. It’s been a balancing act of how much is too much.”

VFX work on Almost Human includes cybernetic leg replacement for Kennex’s character after he survived an explosion in a failed raid.

The pilot episode features a raft of 3D holograms, most of these by CoSA VFX. On set, the actors would generally be given some guidance as to what the final hologram would be, or they would mime the relevant movements. “Rudy in the lab, for example,” explains Worth, “well he basically just made up stuff and we fit graphics to match. We would reverse-engineer them, even though we had a basic idea that he would be manipulating a brain. The artists over at CoSA did an amazing job in making them make sense.”

Cityscape shots in the pilot were ultimately added as transition elements late in the game, with Artifex Studios creating the environments. Moving forward, the studio has continued to provide visual effects for the continuing series. “For some of the city aerial shots,” outlines Worth, “we were able to use some stock footage and shoot some helicopter shots over Vancouver. We could even drive a car around – and then add in monorails and flying things and the city in the background. Artifex have really nailed how much is too much, how big the buildings should be, when they should be covered in neon. CoSA and Zoic did some of those shots as well.”

Watch a clip of Kennex’s first Android partner being hit in traffic.

Also in the pilot, Kennex is not impressed with his first standard-issue MX and ends up throwing him from a moving car after which he is quickly wiped out by other traffic. The stunt was filmed on a Vancouver stretch of road, with a stand-in green bean bag thrown out of a moving car so other drivers had something to react to. Zoic Studios then realized shots of the MX being hit and destroyed.

“Initially the car was going to swerve around him,” says Worth, “and then he was going to tumble and get hit by the truck. But the further we got into it, the better it worked out for the first truck to clip him and have him spin around and then have the delivery truck decimate him. The guys up at Zoic did an incredible job on that – even simple things like the bounce of the truck going over the MX at the end was just a 2D gag.”

A cityscape before and after from Almost Human.

Worth says that in upcoming episodes audiences will see more drones and MX action contributed from the vendors, including Branit FX, as well as some incredible prosthetics effects from MASTERS FX. The visual effects supervisor suggests that the show has benefited greatly from a close production, especially between editorial and VFX. “Sometimes editorial will call on us to augment say the cars to sort of future retro-fit them,” recounts Worth. “And we also had some sub-dermal effects that we were told weren’t possible for the whole series but they were really successful so now they want to see those things in every episode.”

Building a planet – with visual effects

Lola created vast environments, a tower, and occasionally a digital Richard Hammond for the show.
Lola created vast environments, a tower, and occasionally a digital Richard Hammond for the show.

The premise of Richard Hammond Builds A Planet was to have the popular TV presenter atop a mile-high tower orchestrating the coming together of elements to form the universe – Sorcerer’s Apprentice-style. Simple, right? In the end, the tower in fact needed to be two miles high and the planet creation represented months of planning, on-set shooting and complicated visual effects by Lola Post Production.

In order to create the most dramatic shots of Hammond on the tower, Lola inserted both a live action version (shot on greenscreen) and a digi-double. “The digital Hammond came in really handy both for wide shots and also to integrate him into the tower and environment,” says Lola head of 3D Tim Zaccheo. “We had him cyberscanned by sample & hold and they gave us back a model with displacement and texture maps to then put materials on him and rig him.”

How Lola built a digital Richard Hammond.

The tower was also a CG creation that was modeled in Softimage and rendered in Arnold. “For live action integration, we filmed Richard Hammond in a greenscreen studio and would mark out the precise area he could go so he wouldn’t walk through any barriers on the tower,” explains Zaccheo. “We also had a rough environment to show Richard what he would be in and then explained to him the sorts of things that would be going on.”

Around Hammond and the tower, Lola had to create 60,000 kilometers of terrain, including clouds – a feat achieved with some live action plates as well as scenery rendering software Terragen. “We could download very accurate elevation data about this particular part of America and then could render full CG environment maps that were full floating point EXRs with full intensity sunlight and bounce light,” says Zaccheo. “That meant when our tower was lit we weren’t light it with lights at all, we were lighting it with the environment maps we got out of Terragen.”

Watch a breakdown of Lola’s work for Richard Hammond Builds a Planet.

The universe-building process came together with masses of particles, rocks and planets. For this, Lola relied on a Softimage and ICE setup. “One of the new things we had to get to grips with was rendering voluminous particles,” adds Zaccheo. “For that we bought a few licenses of Exocortex’s Fury. We realized early on that just rendering individual particles wasn’t going to cut it.” “Once we’d tamed it, Fury was the perfect solution for rendering – especially the sand shots coming out the back of the trucks and off up to the top of the tower and surrounds Hammond for the first part of the show. We did have to buy some new graphics cards, though.”

The particle shots were composited in NUKE, aided by practical measures. “One of the main things that makes the rock sequence work as well,” notes Zaccheo, “was the incredibly fine special effects dust that the 2D department added to what had also been done in 3D.”

Stay tuned to fxguide for more on visual effects in TV when we shortly break down the work in Sleepy Hollow.

4 thoughts on “VFX on TV: how to build planets, androids and Dalek saucers”

  1. Great articles indeed. Unfortunately, I can’t hear the audio in the Milk video about the Doctor Who sequences.

  2. Pingback: How to build planets, androids and Dalek saucers with Visual Effects - wolfcrow

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