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Deep Breath, There’s A New Doctor In Town

// Featured, Interviews, News

It may have escaped your attention, what with all the iced water being thrown around social-media lately, that there’s a new Doctor occupying the TARDIS these days. Saturday (23rd  August 2014) saw the debut episode for Peter Capaldi’s interpretation of the BBC’s iconic Doctor Who. The hotly anticipated 80-minute episode was helmed by British Director Ben Wheatley (Kill List, Sightseers) and simulcast and screened in cinemas globally.

Dino_ben

The purpose of this article isn’t to discuss the finer points of Mr. Capaldi’s performance (although he was rather good) but rather to talk about the stunningly realised Visual-effects, created by BAFTA award winning London Studio,  Milk VFX.  Last year we interviewed Murray Barber (Milk VFX Supervisor) about the work that Milk VFX completed for the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary episode The Day of the Doctor  HERE and recently had the good fortune to interview Murray again regarding their work on Deep Breath. SPOILER ALERT! We will be discussing plot-points of the episode, so if you haven’t watched it yet, don’t scroll past the image of the Doctor.

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NUMBER OF SHOTS –117 including 87 shots featuring the Half-Face Man

SIZE OF CREW – 40

For an 80 minute episode, there wasn’t a massive focus on “in your face” VFX, obviously from a story-point of view, the emphasis needed to be on getting to know the new Doctor and observing his interactions with those around him. Can you run through a brief-list of what MilkVFX were involved in for the opening episode please?

MILK was involved in creating the T-Rex, the surrounding Victorian London DMP including the houses of parliament and Big Ben, the fly over London DMP and the St Paul’s DMP. The focus of Milk’s work was the sinister and mysterious “Half-Face Man” – the principal villain – who appears throughout the episode. Milk replaced one entire side of the actor Peter Ferdinando’s head in 87 of the 117 digital shots produced by Milk.

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Other than the (rather impressive) Dinosaur and the Half-FacedMan, the focus seemed to be on integrating the characters into Period, Victorian-era London. So panoramic vistas of smoke-spewing chimneys that just happen to have a large Dinosaur stomping around. Where do you start with a scene like that and how geographically/historically accurate can you make it on a broadcast budget?

In terms of being geographically and historically correct it’s quite difficult as there aren’t many aerial photographs of London, although there are some at street level and of course there are maps, etc.  The main buildings along the Thames are well known but once you start to go back from the Thames then London is pretty much a maze of narrow streets. So the houses of Parliament, Old Scotland Yard and the bridge, for example, are all correct, the rest are pretty much generic buildings that we have.

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Dinosaurs have been a mainstay of Digital VFX since 1993. How do you begin to ensure that your version of a Dinosaur feels “new” and refreshing? Plus, how do you begin to research how to spontaneously-combust a T-Rex?

Technology keeps it new and refreshing. Our rigging and muscle systems for example, keep evolving with every new creature we do. As for the dinosaur  combusting, we basically look at anything that’s burning and use it as a reference. The main thing is to make sure the flames aren’t too big because then it looks like a model on fire. It’s then down to the animators imagination on how a creature would react if it’s set alight!

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Can you explain a little of the process involved in realising the Half-Faced Man’s facial effects please? Eg. Concept Art, The green-screen process, The CG and motion-tracking (whatever you can/are allowed to explain.)

The production already had a concept of what they wanted The Half Faced Man to look like. We then refined it a bit in terms of how much was missing, mainly around the jaw line. They then built a fully working mannequin which was to be used in various shots and we also used it as a lighting reference for our cg shots. The biggest challenge was to make sure it tracked in properly. The one thing which would make Half Face Man fall apart would be if it wasn’t tracked properly and “floated” on screen, especially as this was a cinema release. Peter Ferdinando, who played The Half Faced Man, had prosthetic make up on the side of his face. This worked three-fold as we were able to use this for tracking and it also gave us a foot print of how much we had to replace and it also meant that for some very wide shots we could get away without doing anything. We also placed tracking markers on his top hat which helped for the rotation when we came to do the object tracking. We also did a photoscan of the actor’s head which again enabled the match move dept to do the most accurate track possible.

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What were the most complex sequences?

The “Half-Face man”. He appeared throughout the episode necessitating a high shot count with face replacement required for the majority of his appearances. The high quality required for the cinema release of this episode had to be achieved on a TV budget, which added to the challenge.

The tracking of the face replacement required extreme precision by Milk’s match move team lead by Amy Felce. To assist with this critical element we took a 360 degree photo scan of actor Peter Ferdinando’s head and subsequently created a highly accurate 3D model of his head. This mesh then helped our tracking team to lock-in reference points to his natural head shape.

The character’s costume included a top hat to which we added tracking markers as well as to the bridge of his nose and the centre of his forehead. This allowed us to accurately matchmove all the rotations and translations of the head. Once we had tracked the movements of the head we were able to line up the accurate 3D model to the live action head. In addition, a full-scale physical model was also built for use on set both for a small number of shots and as lighting reference for us.

The asset build for the internal workings of the Half-Face man’s face involved creating CG cogs and pistons for which we built a fully automated rigging system. Each shot was then animated to add movement and detail to the mechanism as well as animate and line up the CG eye with the actor’s natural eye-line and movement. It was essential to light Half-Face Man’s CG face absolutely accurately – matching it perfectly to the on set lighting environment in order to ensure the complete believability and consistency of the character throughout the episode.

In order to achieve this we photo-scanned all the different environments he appeared in. This provided our lighting and rendering team lead by Darren Byford with a virtual set in which to work. Combined with the reference from the practical dummy and high-resolution photo reference we were able to gather a wealth of information to work with.

Ahead of the compositing process our roto prep team had the monumental task of cleaning up all the tracking markers, removing the prosthetic make up, creating a hollow head, and finally building up the missing bits of his hat and collar. This had to be done on every single shot. The compositing team then worked in each environment to finalise the look and accuracy of Half-Face man’s CG head.

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Milk is currently in production on the new 12-episode eighth series of Doctor Who featuring Peter Capaldi for the BBC and the new TV drama Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, a seven part mini-series (7 x 60’) due to be broadcast on BBC One in the UK in 2015. On the feature film side, Milk has recently completed work on Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures’ Hercules for director Brett Ratner.

 

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