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Conjuring VFX Magic for Netflix’s ‘The Witcher: Blood Origin’

Visual effects supervisor John Moffatt reveals some of ‘The Witcher’ prequel’s magical sequences, roughly 1,000 shots that include portals, creatures, and the startling human transformation into the original monster hunting Witcher prototype.

In order to kill the unwelcomed monsters and assorted beings that came to the Continent after the catastrophic Conjunction of the Spheres, a human was chemically altered to become the first of a line hunters known as Witchers. Such is the backstory premise for the prequel miniseries, The Witcher: Blood Origin, which is set 1,200 years before the events depicted in The Witcher, Netflix’s original adaptation of the fantasy adventure created by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski.

Visual effects supervisor John Moffatt joined the prequel series in post to work with co-creators Declan de Barra and Lauren Schmidt Hissrich. “Approximately 1,000 visual effects shots were created for the four episodes,” reveals Moffatt. “The production team, Rebecca Vujannovic [Visual Effects Producer] and Jack Lewis [Visual Effects Senior Coordinator] did a tremendous job managing multiple VFX vendors.”  

Expectations of The Witcher franchise fans were high… and a major challenge for the production. “I tried to infuse the work that we did with as much pleasing imagery as we possibly could,” states Moffatt.  “I watched the previous series, and the concept art came from Andrew Laws, the production designer across The Witcher shows.” 

In the show, everything leads up to the transformation of Fjall (Laurence O’Fuarain) into the first prototype Witcher. According to Moffatt, “In the sequence in the cave, which was referred to as the Trial of the Grasses, there are some animated vines that come from the ground and travel through the dead creature's heart and then pierce the character’s arms and torso. The first sign of the transformation into the Beast are those initial black veins and then a larger, more contorted muscular version towards the backend of the show. For the final sequence when Fjall transforms fully into the Beast, in the majority of those shots after he rips his shirt off, it was a CG replacement of the entire character except for the face. MPC did that work.”  

The massive insectoid dragon commanded by the elven mage Balor (Lenny Henry) was a still concept. “Ordinarily, you would like to work with that concept in a movement facilitated way,” Moffatt shares. “I inherited all the creature designs and had to get up to speed with the already selected vendors and the inhouse team, which we had to create look development and movement tests for. MPC had already built a model for that creature, and I went, ‘We have to understand how this thing moves.’ It’s an extraordinarily large creature that needs to operate in not necessarily significantly big spaces.  You have to have weight but at the same time it doesn’t look menacing if the movement is too slow and lumbering.  The foreground movement of the characters to some extent was going to determine the speed of this creature.  Like with all things in visual effects, it was a balancing act.”

Establishing shots from Seasons 1 and 2 of The Witcher were a point of reference for the kingdom of Cintra, although in Blood Origin, the city was depicted many, many years earlier. “Rodeo FX picked up Cintra relatively late in the day,” explains Moffatt. “The components were modelled and textured individually, instanced to create the layout of the city, and then rendered from there.  DNEG worked on the Chaos Realm, which is a barren desert type of environment that had some volcanoes off in the distance.  It’s quite a simple environment and the characters don’t interact with it per se.  That was shot with a bluescreen with a small bit of dressed floor. The work that DNEG did was to create a 2.5D environment to extend the terrain.”  

An iconic structure in the show is the monolith, which can serve as a gateway to other dimensions. “There was one set piece that gave people on the production photography side of things a footprint for where the monolith was going to be and provided a certain degree of indication how it was going to be lit,” states Moffatt. “One of the conversations I had with the showrunners relatively early on in my tenure is, ‘We should try to simplify the look so that each time we see one it’s this black obelisk with the same geometry.’”

Portals are a staple of the fantasy genre. “DNEG did the majority of the portals,” Moffatt reveals. “There was some lovely portal work in Seasons 1 and 2 of The Witcher.   I suggested that we repeat that language as closely as possible. It was important to some extent that the portals churn up something from the environment they’re situated in, so we don’t end up with a thing that doesn’t look like it's in the environment.  That was quite fun doing those magic time travelling effects.”  

Depicting magic requires a tricky balance between fantasy and reality. “There’s always this hope that it will be something new, which is a challenging thing to do,” notes Moffatt.  “I really love Caithness paperweights; inside them you can see a whole plethora of things you can riff off in terms of magical effects, the way they reflect and refract the light is a great reference. It’s nice to tell a story using magic effects.  Declan, the showrunner, referred to some of the magic moments as ‘air displacement’ so it wasn’t always sparkly magic.  Visually it was quite understated magic, aside from a few moments where Balor controls the Chaos Magic in his palm. This involved directing and simulating fire moving around his hand as he learns to control it.”  

One of the show’s most dramatic moments is the Conjunction of the Spheres, where the various dimensions collide into one another. “It’s a big part of the story,” states Moffatt.  “Declan and Kelly Luegenbiehl, the creative executive, were keen to ensure it didn’t look like planets colliding but that it was more about planets emerging from other worlds before eclipsing and transferring energy between them. Rodeo FX took the art department concept, and a very simple animatic that we created, to ensure we were all aligned on the conceptual idea and developed the sequence from there.”

“There was a line in the script that said, ‘Night consumes day,’” Moffatt continues. “There is a lot recently on Instagram of heavily processed space photography. For me, it was interesting to look at stuff that is left of center in terms of its visual realism and have fun with that.  One of the key references early on was the classic film stuck in a film projector that burns.  We wanted to have layers of skies that we revealed through this film burn, allowing for these planets to operate on different planes.  The film burn effect was integrated into the layers of clouds that were effects driven.” 

Trevor Hogg's picture

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer best known for composing in-depth filmmaker and movie profiles for VFX Voice, Animation Magazine, and British Cinematographer.