The BBC miniseries Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell recently concluded on UK television. The 7-part alternative history drama, an adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s novel, follows the magical adventures of Mr Norrell (Eddie Marsan) and Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel) during the Napolenic wars.
The show’s requirements for strange and magical occurrences necessitated a strong visual effects component – more than 1000 shots. These were handled by Milk VFX, which delivered all manner of effects, from sand horses to the Battle of Waterloo, all with a magical bent. We take a look at the final two episodes in the series, where Milk conjured up effects such as a tornado-like black tower, flocking ravens and fighting with leaves.
The mysterious Black Tower features in episode 6, and in 7. “In the book it’s very left to your imagination, it’s like eternal night, so just having it dark wasn’t going to be terribly interesting in shadow,” says Milk CEO Will Cohen. “So we came up with this black tornado,” an effect that was completed in Houdini.
In episode 6, Jonathan Strange also engages in a battle against The Gentleman (Marc Warren) with a surprise twist – leaves. “The Gentleman summons all the leaves around him and there’s a duel going on between them,” says Milk’s Nicolas Hernandez. “That was done in Maya with particles and instanced geometry.”
The next and final episode ramps things up once more – one of the major effects Milk had to complete were swarming ravens, which turn from books to birds, then later turn into The Raven King (Niall Greig Fulton). “We used the crowd tools in Golaem for flocking,” explains Hernandez. “We did quite a complicated flight cycle of a CG raven, and used Golaem to cache the animation. We had to do a lot of match moving and other work to get shadows working on the sets and integration.”
Another challenging shot involved a rose that emerges from Lady Pole’s (Alice Englert) mouth. “She’s had a rose in her mouth the whole time,” says Cohen. “There was this spell on her where she can’t tell anyone what’s going on. She just starts spouting what people think is gibberish but it’s actually the history of fairytales. Tracking that rose was a nightmare. Lady Pole was wriggling her head around in horror on set and you’ve got to track a rose and thorns.”
After causing various forms of havoc during the series, including making one of the character’s ears come off and fly away, The Gentleman meets his match in this episode when he is subsumed by a distinctively shaped tree that involved the actor miming his demise, adding procedurally growing ivy and also a digi-double of the actor for part of the shot.
In addition to landmark-type visual effects work, Milk’s work in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell also featured large amounts of invisible shots – from set extensions, to clean-ups, and shots that solved important story points without impacting too highly on the show’s budget.
For example, a shot of Strange and Norrell conjuring a rain portal was required. “The book describes a ‘bonsai cloud’,” notes Cohen, “and it starts raining in the story and this causes the opening of a portal to walk through. Very quickly we said how can we tell this story without building a 3D rain cloud? Well, we figured we could put a layer of rain over the camera looking back at them, and they will run towards the camera and we’ll cut to the reverse and they’ll disappear. That’s the level of simplification we went to because we wanted to put all the money into the tree eating The Gentleman.”