Beautiful creatures: Behind the visual effects of HBO’s His Dark Materials

Just six months after HBO bid farewell to Game of Thrones, the cable network has two new hits on its hands with superhero drama Watchmen and fantasy saga His Dark Materials. The latter adapts author Philip Pullman’s series of the same name, and is set in a fantastic world where humans’ souls take the form of animal companions called daemons.

His Dark Materials follows a young girl named Lyra who becomes caught up in a secret war between powerful forces when she begins investigating a friend’s disappearance, and soon finds herself swept away on an adventure to the farthest reaches of the world she knows — and beyond it. Visual effects studio Framestore was tasked with bringing the extraordinary world of His Dark Materials to life, from the ever-present daemons to the breathtaking skylines that are reminiscent of our own world yet different.

Digital Trends spoke to Framestore’s Russell Dodgson, who serves as the visual effects supervisor on His Dark Materials, to find out about the digital magic that brings Pullman’s story to life.

Digital Trends: It’s not common for one visual effects studio to be the sole studio working on a project like this — usually the work is divided between a bunch of studios. How did it come about that Framestore is the sole studio working on His Dark Materials?

Russell Dodgson: When they came to us to talk about doing it, they were still deciding whether it was going to be a multi-vendor approach or not. I think they came to the conclusion that they wanted a partner that would understand how the world works in every facet. With the amount of different creatures that span all the episodes, it was going to be hard to split that environment between various vendors. When we came onboard [as the sole studio], it allowed us to create an efficiency across the entire show — basically making sure the money goes on-screen rather than being spread around across multiple vendors and all of these other channels.

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With projects like this, there’s usually a set of guidelines or themes that establish the tone of the visual effects and how you approach them. What were the directives for His Dark Materials?

When Framestore was brought on, Joel Collins, the production designer, had been working for months on concepts and ideas regarding the world building. They had very, very rich examples of all the kinds of notes they wanted to hit texturally across the show. It was great, because Joel is incredible. He’s a really amazing production designer and he works closely with [previs artist] Dan May, who has a concept team who do really lovely work as well.

So they fleshed out the world, if you will. When I joined, they were not only looking for someone that could execute those worlds, but someone who could concentrate on the creature work, because they hadn’t really worked that part out. So my job was to sit down with the showrunners and start working out what they needed. It became clear very quickly they weren’t interested in cartoony magical animals, but very real, grounded animals. The intent was to make real animals talk rather than making animals talk like humans.

That seems like it could be a fine line to walk …

One of the big questions in this show was how much to show the daemons, because it could turn into Dr. Doolittle very quickly — which isn’t the goal on the show. So what we wanted to do is to make sure we had enough daemons to retain the concept of a world where people have these animal daemons, but really focus our time and attention on making sure they’re there to assist the narrative and emotions or perform actions that are important to the story. We didn’t want to spend a fortune on animals we then start cutting later because they’re distracting from a heavy performance. It’s a big world-building exercise, and if you distract everyone with a monkey running around you’re probably not doing your job right.

How did you approach that balance of keeping the daemons present without being distracting?

Well, that’s the art: To complement and augment the main actors’ performances without detracting from them. If you take Ruth Wilson, for example, and she’s doing an amazingly powerful emotive performance, and then you chuck a monkey into it doing something wrong, you’re ruining her performance. The daemons are part of the characters, so when you do that, you’re making part of her character be wrong.

So we spent a lot of time working out what the key beats were that we needed the daemons for. We also spent a lot of time looking at the narrative arcs and the emotional arcs of the main characters and discussing the subtext in those scenes with the showrunners, writers, directors, and actors.

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For example, there’s a scene in the second episode when Ms. Coulter sets her daemon, the monkey, on Lyra’s daemon, Pan. It’s basically child abuse, but she keeps her hands clean and lets the monkey do the dirty work. At the end of that scene, she reveals an important plot point, but what also happens is that the monkey backs away. In that moment, we tried to find the right nuance, because Ms. Coulter revealed something important but didn’t give away the full story. She’s talking in one way, but the monkey is showing a slight level of sympathy and sorrow that hints at something else. If we got it right, that scene shows a little bit of what Ms. Coulter is feeling internally. She’s yearning to express something caring after she’s just done something really bad.

There are a lot of powerful performances in the series like the one you described that you needed to account for. Was it difficult to maintain that balance between keeping things subtle but also making sure the daemons are always present?

It was. Our work on a show like this should be amazing when it’s up front and supportive and subtle when it’s not, and never try to steal the show. It’s a very reductive process and we relied on a lot of body movement. We didn’t want to anthropomorphize the daemons’ faces so they felt like humans talking. If a daemon is agreeing, we want the physicality of the body to feel like agreement more than just the mouth saying the word, “Yes.” So it’s a game of nuance and restraint.

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Outside of the daemons, what can you tell me about your work on the rest of the world of His Dark Materials?

Honestly, that was Joel’s baby. We had the joy of realizing his vision. For example, when we worked on Oxford, the way Pullman describes it is that it’s our Oxford, but different. So what we did in the wide shot of it was to remove suburbia, for example. It’s really more like the old city, but then instead of some buildings, we replaced them with Magisterium buildings [the fictional ruling body of that world]. So you have this combination of church and state, if you will, with the Magisterium and the city around it.

Also, when there were statues in the environment, we replaced the statues of people with statues of daemons, because they’re such a huge part of this world. So Joel designed all of these great concepts with textural details and hints here and there to help build up that world and make it richer.

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What’s been your favorite part of working on His Dark Materials so far?

Ms. Coulter’s Golden Monkey is my favorite character. It’s my favorite daemon, because the challenge of having a non-speaking character that has to perform with physicality is beautiful for me and the animators working on it. That was a real challenge to find that character because it evolves a lot over time as the story goes on. So we had to find that arc. We sat down with Ruth Wilson and worked out her character’s backstory and the characteristics of an actual monkey we could take away from that with her harrowing past. We really dug deep on that one.

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One thing we haven’t discussed so far is the bears. Talk to me about the bears.

Making a gigantic polar bear is a challenge — particularly a gigantic polar bear that does about 30 minutes of full-frame talking in the show. That was a big leap of faith, man. Our artists did a great job finding the tone for that character, Iorick, and giving him an arc. Fur is hard, technically-speaking, and early on we said we’re not going to shoot the animals of the show like digital effects. We wanted to shoot them just like actors. In the later episodes, you’ve got Lyra having a conversation with an evil bear in an eight-minute scene where most of the lines are his. That’s intense — especially at 4K [resolution] — but we just leaned into it and said we’re gonna go for it.

His Dark Materials Polar Bear

How many shots did you create for the show’s first season so far?

We’ve done over 2000 shots, and 1500 of them have furred creatures. That’s bonkers for a TV show. And at 4K? That’s unheard of. But we have an incredible system and an amazing team, and the production really embraced the idea of us having a seat at the table. That meant we could get to the final version of the shots quicker, because they trusted me to basically direct the daemons through my team. Jane [Tranter], who is the overall architect of the show and the closest thing to a showrunner it has, viewed it this way: [James] McAvoy plays Asriel, Dafne Keen plays Lyra, and me and the animators play the daemons. So we don’t present her with VFX shots. We present her with scenes. We went really deep early on, and she trusted us to do it.

As a visual effects artist, that has to be extremely validating for you.

It is. I mean, it could have gone horribly wrong, obviously. And she’d have pulled the plug on that really early. But she’s amazing, and it’s become a real work family on this show.

New episodes of His Dark Materials air Mondays at 9 PM ET on HBO

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