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Getting Lots of Painting Practice on ‘His Dark Materials’

The Cardiff-based design studio, led by co-founders Joel Collins and Daniel May, along with company creative director Erica McEwan, produced visdev, previs, artvis, and UI design, along with virtual scouting, on HBO’s fantasy drama, based on Philip Pullman’s award-winning book trilogy of the same name.

Throughout the three seasons of HBO’s His Dark Materials, the fantasy drama adapted from Philip Pullman’s award-winning book trilogy of the same name, Cardiff-based design studio Painting Practice collaborated with Bad Wolf and Framestore on the visual development, previs, artvis, virtual scouting, and design of visual effects and UI. The company, co-founded more than a decade ago by production designer Joel Collins and art director Daniel May, specializes in motion graphics, visualization, animation, VFX, concept design and production design. May served as the visual effects art director and previs supervisor on the HBO series, supported by the company’s creative director, Erica McEwan, who worked as the art director and was responsible for the graphics. 

Initially, Painting Practice was viewed as the bridge between the production art department and the visual effects team.  “I like to work on client side so our role is to design the look and the producers figure out where to spend the visual effects money,” states May. “We’re generally embedded in the art department as well in terms of the look of the design.  Assets are becoming key especially for tentpole projects, whether it’s designing characters, environments, or props; they need to be visually developed, built or puppeteered, and remade digitally to be extended, animated, or turned into a toy.  If you can keep ownership, control, and continuity early on then the more money you can save and the less painful the process becomes because it’s not going off course as you’re going through the various stages.” 

McEwan emphasizes the importance of working in 3D.  “Working in 3D and integrating those models with what they’re doing with the art department is key, otherwise you’re doing things twice and divergently creating the design.”  Cost is always a factor.  “If you’re shooting plates, doing 2D elements, then carving things if you’re doing traditional visual effects is probably more cost effective but is limited in what you can do with cameras,” observes May.  “The director will tell you what shots are wanted and it’s your job to interpret their vision and extrapolate that information to figure out the most good-looking, cost-effective way through a sequence.  Before anyone tells me anything I’m working in 3D to figure it out myself and moving it around.”

A 2D and 3D hybrid approach was adopted for some of the sequences. “We would have 3D cameras and sets but then 2D character action on top,” explains May.  “Some of the first visuals of these hero creatures, such as the musk-ox and snow leopard, were in 2D and as soon as we got something people were liking, Nandor Moldovan [concept artist] would sculpt the right proportions and think a little bit about anatomy.  You take it so far where it’s going in the right direction enough and do previs.  Framestore would takeover in order to make this creature work.  Before Framestore came onboard I did a test with a bunch of puppeteers to establish how we were going to shoot the daemons.  We also did a 3D that looks like 2D postvis for everybody.  Once the postvis was locked it meant that Framestore’s budget was on shot execution rather than iterative design.”

Computers exist in the world of His Dark Materials, so UI had to be created.  “It was one of the toughest graphics I had to design because it’s graphics and effects, about Dust, angels, and consciousness,” remarks McEwan.  “Dr. Mary Malone has a quantum computer that doesn’t act like any other normal computer and getting that to be accessible and interesting [was hard].  In the end it’s the voices of angels.  That was a tricky brief.  It had to work in the same way as Lyra’s alethiometer   Joel Collin has a grounded sensibility.  It’s sometimes muted, and we wanted the colors to come through with the actual Dust. It’s monochromatic and when the Dust starts to come to life it began to break the bounds of UI and come out of the screen in a way.  The audio is very much linked to the visuals.”   

The original designs for the Mulefa world carried all the way through to the end.  “We found reference of a particular giant tree in Cypress that felt if scaled up would tick all the boxes and discovered a location in Northern Spain to put those in,” states May.   “On Season 1 and 2 we used drone scans or Google Earth to build proxy environments, put them in Ureal Engine, and then go about do a view find. We did some crazy stuff where we were making games of these Mulefa worlds, and making Land Rovers, drones, and helicopters and flying around with them creating shots.  It was the most fun that I’ve had on the show. Working with one of the assistant editors, we spent a lot of time making integration sizzles where we looked at numerous movies, ads, and shots, and make tone videos of what each of these worlds or sequences would be.  We would cut using closeups, mid shots, wide shots, concept art, and previs.  We’d make little trailers of what these worlds would look like.” 

What would have been a perfect set for the volume was the Clouded Mountain; however, there was not enough time and budget.  “It was one the hardest things to wrap your head around,” reveals McEwan.  “In the book, it’s like a chariot in the sky. Joel wanted it more like a cathedral.  Metatron is the regent of the Authority, and he can get into your mind.  There were so many design things to try and hit. As the shoot was getting closer Joel had to start thinking where we were going to put the actors.  Basically, he had to build it from the inside out.   We began iterating with symmetrical and asymmetrical geometry for this cathedral in the sky.  There were hundreds of iterations.  We went from something that was literally in the sky, but it felt too much of our world, to making it more otherworldly by putting it in a black space.  The Clouded Mountain was like a hall of mirrors made of Dust, so it never wanted to be solid. It always had to have movement and life.”

While airships and gargoyles were added to actual plate photography from Oxford for the alternative version that Lyra lives in, Italian towns were the inspiration for Cittàgaze, which was a set build.  “I did a bunch of quick 3D models for Joel to show how we could do the public square and tinkered it a little bit,” remarks May.  “We went full Italy and there was a danger that we build a set on a backlot [in Wales] and it looks like we’re on location [in Italy] but with bad weather!  Partly through that process Joel and I wanted to bring some magic so it’s not so grounded.  There were days where Joel and I would go and sit the café in the piazza, and it felt like we were on holiday!  I worked with one of the concept artists in 2D and photographed some of the sets.  You can’t do mad stuff with architecture, otherwise it will look a bit off. But you can do things with tile designs, gates, and ironworks. We spent quite a lot of time designing little motifs and using the angel as a homage for what was coming up next and statues.  Once we got somewhere with those, then they became our palette to put everywhere.”  May adds, “The world building gets easier as you go along because you create these rules.” 

A custom previz tool called Plan V was integrated with Unreal Engine. “We used that in the postvis, which was not done for the previous two seasons,” explains McEwan.  “It was taking the camera information from the plates and plugging that back into what we did in Unreal Engine and then putting that into the edit as slap comps, which is a different process.  We’ll probably use that again for the next show in postvis.  Normally for postvis we would take our concept art and geometry and do so some quick matte paintings and projections and put those through slap comps to inform the visual effects. But doing that with Unreal Engine using some of the virtual production tools that we’ve been developing is becoming a standard workflow and we’ll take that into the next projects as well.”

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.