How to build a dæmon: Behind the scenes of the BBC’s His Dark Materials
We go behind the scenes of Philip Pullman’s newly adapted magnum opus for screen and delve into the artistry that goes into bringing one of the best-loved ideas in modern literature, the dæmon, to life through visual effects.
Just over three weeks ago, on 2 November, millennials up and down the country (and all over the world for that matter) nuzzled into their sofas and switched the telly over to BBC One for, arguably, one of the most anticipated viewing experiences of the year. These are the people who grew up with dæmons by their side – albeit imaginary ones – in a world of anbaric lights, whirring gyropters and alethiometers. In Pullmanian spirit, we voyaged north to discover armoured bears and ethereal witches, cut into new worlds with a peculiar knife, and told stories to harpies in the world of the dead.
No matter what their age at present, these eager Dust enthusiasts can be transported back to the world (or worlds) of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials quicker than a young dæmon can flit between forms. This ultimate children’s saga, seen through the eyes of two wild and complex characters, Lyra and Will, has recently been adapted into a new television series by the BBC and HBO. It’s not your usual good-versus-evil tale. Instead, it widened a generation of children’s minds to see beyond that binary, asking its readers to question what “good”, “evil” or even “god” really mean. Though its content is supernatural, its themes are ultimately existential, weaving through a torrent of alternate realities and introducing a cast of fierce, original characters in the process.
A historically difficult tale to visually interpret due to its whole-new-level-of-otherworldliness, for Framestore, the visual effects studio tasked with bringing the dæmons and the armoured bear Iorek Byrnison to life, the challenge was all too real. And, it probably didn’t help that the studio was burdened with realising thousands of Pullman fans’ internal universes (myself included), who willed the London-based studio to do their fully-formed imaginings justice.
As expected, Russell Dodgson, the visual effects supervisor behind the production, took the job extremely seriously. A fan of the books prior to working on the show, Russell has “probably seen all its episodes more than anyone else”. He tells It’s Nice That of the mammoth levels of intricacy that go into a project of this scale. With approximately 720 visual effects artists, working across three international locations (London, Montreal and India) for a little over a year, the project became “a real labour of artistic love”, not only because of the manual craftsmanship chiseled into every dæmon’s personality but also because, astonishingly, none of it is automated.
What he means by manual can be more easily understood as artistry. There’s a common misconception with visual effects, which Russell is keen to debunk, and that is that visual effects are purely computer-based. “We are still limited by computers because our artistry exceeds the ability of a computer,” he explains. Though the computer renders the final output of the work, the idiosyncrasies behind each character are developed through manual touches.
Lyra’s dæmon, Pantalaimon, in pine marten form, for example, isn’t operated by some clever coding – “it’s actually a human sitting at a computer for days, moving around all the joints and bones on the animal to make it feel real,” Russell explains. In Pullman’s universe, a dæmon is an external, physical manifestation of a human’s self. It takes the form of an animal, and its shape can change when the person is young, before finally settling in a single form around puberty. Everyone in Lyra’s world has one, and if you die, so does the dæmon. In short, they’re an integral aspect of the fantastical universe and much of the books’ flowing dialogue is down to the relationship between the human characters and their dæmons. So for Framestore and its artists, the task of developing these animal-shaped beings with human emotion and intelligence was several degrees more difficult.
GalleryBBC/© Bad Wolf/HBO: His Dark Materials, Image Copyright: Bad Wolf, courtesy of the BBC
In turn, the visual effects artists considered all manner of detail. Moving the eyes in painstaking fragments, for instance, constantly referring back to real expressions in order to portray the right kind of character, one with an imagination. “The idea that visual effects are just a computer-generated image is only true in the end, when the computer basically spits out an image, but a human paints the picture and moves the animal,” says Russell. “It’s a manually, artist-driven, labour of love.”
Back at the very beginning of the process, however, Russell and his team at Framestore, along with Jane Tranter, the head of Bad Wolf productions and “the one who made it all happen”, set about casting real animals for the basic character movement. Having won an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects for the 2007 film The Golden Compass, Framestore was no stranger to fabricating believable worlds. For starters, the studio knew how to tap into the psychology of the viewer, purposely editing down the number of Pantalaimon’s transformations so the audience could grow attached to his character more easily.
GalleryBBC/© Bad Wolf/HBO: His Dark Materials, Image Copyright: Bad Wolf, courtesy of the BBC
For each dæmon’s form, Framestore sought out a specific animal which embodies said dæmon’s character traits. For Pan’s pine marten form, for example, the team wanted to find an animal to reference which was “a little bit adolescent and a bit scraggly with a cool pattern running through its fur”. Once the animal was decided upon, Russell spent a bit of time in the cage with the pine marten, filming it from all angles and taking a multitude of photos to understand as much about the animal as possible.
Then came the highly technical part, handing the information to a team of talented artists who could digitally scope the creature. “That basically gives us the character without its skin,” says Russell. Another person then creates the rigging around this digital structure – the rigging being a combination of maths and art to produce the animal’s internal bone structure resulting in its skeletal foundations. Constantly testing the digital animal’s movement for accuracy, flexibility but also limitations, the character was then handed over to animators to breath life into the intricately built creatures. “Then, we take the initial sculpt, which is the skin, and wrap that around the bone and the muscle,” adds Russell. “Subsequently, we make it simulate, the skin slides over the bone and muscle like when you see a horse gallop and the skin slides over the ribs, it’s the same kind of thing we’re doing.”
After that, two things happen simultaneously. One group of people work out how the dæmon’s exterior responds to light. Then another person works on “the groom”, which is basically a digital haircut. “They comb the hair in different directions, making it shorter or longer in different areas, for example, clumping it or twisting it where the belly of the creature touches the floor,” Russell says. Astonishingly, all of these features were also done by hand.
Once these minute details were finalised, when it came to shooting, the production team placed to-scale puppets in the scene with the actors for reference. With the puppets in place, the camera crew could then set up their shot and the actors would perform two different takes, the first with the puppet, the second without, in some cases replacing the puppet with an eye line (something like a ping-pong ball on a stick for the actors to maintain eye contact with.)
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Framestore: His Dark Materials
With the second version of the shots without the puppet, the visual effects artists then had a near-clean shot which they could digitally compose the dæmons into, cleaning up the frames every now and again when necessary. All in all, the team moulded over 1,500 creatures and over 2,000 shots, a colossal process which has resulted in something spectacular, evident to anyone who’s watched the show so far and observed the fluid movements unmistakably characteristic of the animal in question.
“Really, the whole game has been about trust and efficiency, with a clarity of vision, and all of those things are interlinked by a family of people which is really loving this project onto the screen,” the supervisor goes on to say. In just over a year, Framestore has delivered over three hours of visual effects on the show, a staggering amount even by Russell’s standards. Though seven minutes of dialogue between Lyra and a giant armoured bear may not seem like that long to the greedy audience in front of the TV, when you consider the amount of non-verbal information read through gait, body language and gesture, seven minutes is a hell of a long time to sustain a fully realised character.
Then, for the climax of Lyra’s time among the panserbjørne (Danish for “armoured bears”), Russell was again tasked with realising the fight between Iorek and Iofur Raknison. A set designed by Joe Collins was built in full bear palace glory, and then, to precisely capture the authenticity of movement, Russell “wrestled a stunt guy for about an hour while the director filmed it to work out all of the main beats [for the scene] and the shape of what we were going to do”.
This material then went through animators and a pre-visualisation department, which built “an unreal game engine version of the bear palace”. Back at Framestore, the team put the animation of the bear into the game engine, which was then virtually filmed by the director using an iPad. The virtual camera shoot was then edited together, following which, on set, the bear fight was superimposed live with the live action taking place at the same time. In short, it was a delicate balancing act of “filming the virtual bears on the real set”. And in this way, through the attentive unravellings of the visual effects artists’ process, Russell achieves what he set out to do. He’s evidenced the artistry that goes into his and his colleagues’ work. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not all about the tech; “it’s a real hybrid of really lo-fi physical, practice techniques combined with a high-tech methodology to create this really visceral, National Geographic-looking vibe.” Ultimately, ends Russell, “there’s a lot of me in the show.”