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Giving 'Camelot' the 'National Geographic' Look

Find out how Camelot has been re-imagined.

The landscape and Camelot Castle lent the proper scope and grandeur of Arthurian Britain. Courtesy of Arc Prods.

Sword and sorcery epics are back on TV, with Starz' Camelot facing off with HBO's Game of Thrones. In the case of this post-modern take on the Arthurian legend, Camelot (airing Fridays at 10:00 pm) is all about the romance, the magic, the politics and falling in love with the wrong person, according to head writer Chris Chibnall.

Thus, when chaos threatens to engulf Britain, Merlin (Joseph Fiennes) installs the young and impetuous Arthur (Jamie Campbell Bower), the unknown heir to the throne raised from birth as a commoner. But half-sister Morgan (Eva Green) desires the crown as well and is willing to summon unnatural forces to grab it.

In conjunction with an overall naturalistic look, the vfx achieves a National Geographic quality. Arc Prods. (formerly Starz Animation Toronto) has created about 300 vfx shots throughout the 10-episodes for season one, under the leadership of Bret Culp, the visual effects producer, Patrik Witzman, the CG supervisor and Maria Gordon, the compositing supervisor.

Julian Parry (House of Wax), the overall visual effects supervisor, says Camelot is the perfect blend of practical and CG, and that the bulk of the CG work is divided into four main areas: Camelot Castle, Pendragon Castle, historic period landscapes and Merlin's Magic. Maya, boujou, Nuke and Photoshop were the primary tools.

The before and after shot of Pendragon Castle on the hill side at Luggala.

"We were going to be filming in County Wicklow in Ireland, and we're supposed to be bringing this romantic, epic story to television," Parry suggests. "So I can sum up the challenges by suggesting they were helping the art department deliver Pendragon Castle, Camelot Castle and, ultimately, the ancient Britain landscapes. Because, obviously, Wickow is beautiful country, but when filming there, you're just gonna grab 21st century. It's there in the background, so we needed to bring that scope and keep it going through the whole series.

"We wanted to make the castles look as authentic as possible. There was no twist or hyper styling it: we wanted to keep it real. In some ways, when you stylize something like Lord of the Rings, you've actually got a bit of latitude. But we found that we had to work hard at making sure the construction details were correct, making sure the textures were correct. The build of Camelot and Pendragon, if you were to break it down, you could actually build these castles for real."

In terms of Merlin's magic, most of which has not been viewed yet, Parry says that it's best described as "malevolent" in that it is true sorcery. "We were being asked to do very subtle, almost implied magic, which brought its own nuances," Parry continues.

The Waterfall is cross between matte painting skills and real waterfall references.

The next two big sequences are the Waterfall and Ice Lake, which comprise 80 shots. "The Waterfall was mainly compositing work using a set piece and great location elements to tie this sequence together and one that you'd really only ever see in a big action movie," Parry explains. "The Ice Lake relied more on CGI and, here again, the emphasis was on doing as much for real as possible, especially in the shooting time frame."

The rest of the vfx involves set extensions, blood and guts, split screen work, rig removal and morphs. "This show was, like most, working to a schedule and a budget and, as such, there was no time or the luxury for tests or rehearsals. Save the Waterfall sequence, the visual effects were shot along with the production shooting schedule. These are filmic, National Geographic-type shoots: real-looking, in all kinds of weather, moving at the production's fast pace; this was a mean feat.

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.