When the story concerns the very fabric of the universe and the human characters require a CGI daemon – a creature that embodies the person’s soul – the VFX bar for a TV production is going to be set sky-high. So it was with “His Dark Materials,” the lavish new series that has just bowed on HBO in the U.S. and the BBC in the U.K.
Heading the team responsible for meeting that challenge was Russell Dodgson, the Framestore creative director and on-set VFX supervisor for the series. Framestore put together a visual effects team at Wolf Studios in Wales for the show, which is produced by Jane Tranter’s Bad Wolf. The VFX team produced more than 2,000 shots of animation and CGI environments, but the job was about more than handling the volume of work. It required populating a world in which millions of readers of Philip Pullman’s metaphysical book series are deeply invested.
“I am a gigantic fan of the books. Then I saw the film and was hugely disappointed that it didn’t hit all the themes of the novel,” Dodgson said of 2007’s “The Golden Compass,” which starred Nicole Kidman. “I asked, ‘Can it be done on screen?’ When I spoke to Jane Tranter, I said yes, it can, but it needs to be done in a different way and with a different mindset. One thing I said when I talked to Jane was: ‘If this is going to work, you have to give us a seat at the table creatively . We can’t just be the VFX vendor. We need to be a creative partner.'”
Tranter got on board. “His Dark Materials” does not have a single showrunner but rather a showrunning team, and Dodgson was inducted into that inner sanctum. When it came to the daemons, the idea was to focus on those of the major figures. “We didn’t want it to be like ‘Doctor Doolittle.’ We didn’t want a menagerie. We wanted to focus on the key characters,” Dodgson said.
One of the key daemons is the heroine Lyra’s Pantaleimon. In Pullman’s fantasy universe, daemons don’t take on a fixed animal form until a person becomes an adult, but the VFX team had to rein in the author’s inventiveness to make the character work on screen. “Pan in the book takes 35 forms, but if we made 35 different Pans, the viewer would never fall in love with him as a character,” Dogdson said. The team ultimately settled on eight forms.
How – and when – the daemons should appear was a deeper question altogether. “We could have had daemons only turn up when people speak, and [visually] we could have had them hyper-real or naturalistic,” Dodgson said. “We knew straight away it should be naturalistic. And we knew that we shouldn’t anthropomorphize their faces and get a performance as much through movement as much as lip sync.”
The overall concept was simple in theory but complicated in execution. “We needed to create complete characters rather than creatures that just run around and attack, which can often be the remit.” Dodgson said.
In practice, that cast Dodgson in a director-like role when it came to the characters, and cast the animators – there were 62 in London and 62 in Montreal – as actors. Less was considered more. “It’s the art of reductive performance,” he said. “With CG you can go big and bold, but our job was also to say, ‘What’s the minimal expressiveness required?'”
When the CG characters require such nuance, the research also has to go deep. Ruth Wilson, Dafne Keen, and James McAvoy all appear in the opening episode. Dodgson describes a two-hour meeting with Wilson, who plays the enigmatic Mrs. Coulter, to get her backstory and that of her daemon, a golden monkey. Dodgson acknowledges the pressure that comes with ensuring that the CGI characters’ performance stands up next to that of the human actors. “A lot of them said they have the same fear, of [its] being a show with bad CGI,” he said.
For practice, the actors went through scenes with puppets in the place of the daemons, before tackling their scenes for real.
“In a normal show you have larger individual set pieces. This has VFX all the way through,” said Dodgson, who is a few weeks away from delivering the work for the series’ second season, which has already been shot. “For what we do, it was a gift of a show.”