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WATCH: ‘A Discovery of Witches’ VFX Breakdown

Axis Studios creates an entire historically accurate CG Elizabethan London, delivering 100 shots for 10 episodes over a span of 18 months.

Double, double toil and trouble! The second season of Sky One’s A Discovery of Witches premiered in January, but the on-screen magic isn’t only for the coven! Axis Studios recreated an entire historically accurate Elizabethan London in CG for the season, delivering 100 shots for 10 episodes over a span of 18 months, which included working throughout the challenging COVID-19 pandemic.

The TV series, based on Deborah Harkness’ “All Souls” trilogy, is produced by Bad Wolf and Sky Productions. The first season, released in 2018, pulled in two million viewers and was quickly renewed for two more seasons.

Axis’s Elizabethan London landscape is witnessed from above in several of ADoW’s full-CG aerial establishing shots, and from within for numerous scenes set inside the city. Axis’s multidisciplinary team worked on the reconstruction across multiple sites and departments in Bristol and London, leveraging twenty years of world-building experience to create a historically accurate and detailed city.

Ross Gilbert, CG supervisor at Axis, comments, "Creating ADoW’s Elizabethan London was a case of harmonizing the client's narrative vision with the authentic historical world. The Axis creative team did excellent work: the city was plausible, aesthetically intriguing and furnished a visceral feeling of a post-medieval capital conurbation."

Journey back in time as you watch the enchanting VFX breakdown:

Axis's VFX team charted London's bygone layout using period street maps, illustrations, and modern terrain data. The team then created Maya and Houdini pipelines that could automatically populate assets - such as people, buildings, courtyards, carts, boats, foliage, and fauna - across the cityscape, rivers, and wharves.

Grant Hewlett, VFX Supervisor at Axis, comments, "Being invited onto ADoW Season 2 was a huge honor. The massive-scale period environment work was the largest award on the show and presented no small challenge. We saw it as an opportunity to unite Axis's experience in FX, animation and environments and deliver something that matched the show's ambition."

To ensure historical veracity, iconic London buildings like St. Paul's Cathedral and London Bridge were recreated using cross-referenced, 450-year-old pencil sketches. No expense was spared on the micro details of Elizabethan life; the studio meticulously researched everything from street furniture to the types of bridle used on horses.

Axis's Lighting and Rendering department worked to evoke the moody character of Elizabethan London. The team created versions of the CG city at different times of day, night, and year to ensure that whenever an establishing shot appeared, the cityscape was consistent with ADoW's storyline and current timescale, and that its tone and appearance matched that of the surrounding scenes in the edit.

For street-level city shots, Axis extended in-camera plates filmed on a physical set constructed outside of Cardiff. The Axis team scanned the entire construction of streets, buildings and courtyards using a Leica BLK 360 laser scanner, with the resulting scans used for previs or to select shot perspectives with CG cameras.

Binge both seasons of A Discovery of Witches now on AMC+, Shudder, and Sundance Now. For UK viewers, catch the magical series on Sky One.

Laurén Alexa's picture

Laurén Alexa acts as social content producer and journalist for AWN. 

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