From dust till dawn

Posted on Nov 20, 2019 by Alex Fice

DOP Justin Brown stays true to his source materials when recreating Philip Pullman’s series of novels for the screen. Plus, we talk to VFX supervisor Russell Dodgson about how he brought the daemons to life

Words Chelsea Fearnley / Pictures BBC

It’s a truth as old as Hollywood itself that the book is always better than the film. Look at what The Golden Compass (starring Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman) did to Philip Pullman’s first book in the best-selling series of novels, His Dark Materials. It was excised of almost all of the tricky subject matter that doesn’t traditionally go down well in the US – such as the questioning of religion.

 I felt a duty to adapt His Dark Materials in the way I had always imagined it as a kid

But, with similar budgets across six hours or more, recent TV adaptations have shown that the transfer from page to screen doesn’t have to disappoint. The first episode of the BBC’s adaptation of His Dark Materials covers the abduction of Gyptian child Billy, the master’s attempt to poison Lord Asriel, Lyra’s discovery of Dust, her acquisition of the alethiometer and her introduction to Mrs Coulter, who asks Lyra to be her assistant. She and Mrs Coulter then take an airship to London to locate the missing Roger, while the Magisterium and its powers thump in the background.

It seems fair to say that, so far, the series promises to unfold into a beautiful, brooding vision of Pullman’s universe, without holding back on the book’s anti-theocratic undertone.

DOP Justin Brown worked on the series’ first two episodes and felt keen to make amends for the film. Having read all three books as a child, these were the sole basis of his research. He explains: “I didn’t riff off the film. I was so disappointed by it that I felt a duty to adapt it in the way I had always imagined it as a kid. This was something the whole team across each department felt, too.”

In the first episode, it’s explained that the series takes place in a world “both like, and unlike, your own”. It’s a steampunkish parallel universe where electricity is referred to as anbaricity. And there is an Oxford with colleges, but the colleges have names like Balliol, Gabriel and Jordan.

Brown says: “For me, working out how to portray anbaric and naphtha, described as candles or fire, was most difficult. The first ti­me you come across anbaric is in the Retiring Room (a room at Jordan College where the master and his scholars retire after a meal). We posted single-filament lamps that were about 20 inches long around the room; we didn’t want to use table lamps or fitted practicals, because that’s too much like our own world. Tom Hooper (the director) described this world to me as if religion, or the Magisterium, had control of the strings and, in the 1920s, stopped science in its tracks and let everything else continue. It’s sort of prehistoric in that respect.”

Puppet pass

One other obvious way in which this world is unlike our own is that humans’ souls have their own physical form; they take the form of animals, known as daemons, which don’t settle in shape until their human has reached a certain age. Brown found this similarly difficult to conceptualise. He explains: “In the book, it is the interaction between Lyra and Pantalaimon (her daemon) that draws you in, so you have to be able to show this in the TV adaptation. She has to be able to hold him and he has to be able to change form whenever he wants. They can’t just be in different frames the whole time.”

We had chrome balls and grey balls that helped us understand the direction of the light

This is something Hooper and VFX supervisor Russell Dodgson thought about deeply, and it was decided that first-pass takes would be done with puppets to help ensure emotional and realistic interactions between human actors and daemons. It also helped Brown frame his shots, because “it’s sometimes hard as a cinematographer to imagine where a daemon or imaginary character is going to sit within a frame if you don’t at least do a rehearsal shoot for reference”, he says.

They then filmed clean plates featuring actors and an eyeline, such as a small stick fixed with a ping-pong ball on top, in place of the puppets. Dodgson explains: “We wanted clean plates, because we didn’t want to be in a situation where 2000 shots needed a puppeteer painted out and a daemon painted in. It’s a lot of work. Imagine a shot of a daemon sitting in front of a fire, like Asriel’s daemon does in the Retiring Room in the first episode. If that was a puppet, we would need to paint that puppet out, rebuild the fire, paint the daemon in, but also get rid of the puppet’s huge shadow that has inevitably been cast by the fire’s light.”

He adds: “There were, of course, some instances where we had to use the puppet passes for VFX, just because the actors’ performances were better, which is totally understandable.”

The VFX team weren’t just confined to their dark rooms for this production. They were on-set each day and brought with them photorealistic animals, which they’d place in-scene during the prelights to work out how to light and shade the daemons. Some of the animals were also licenced taxidermy, which helped ensure the lighting reference on the animal’s fur was authentic. Brown says: “If you look back to the 2007 film, which for its time was incredible – I think it won an Oscar for VFX – but there wasn’t all that much interaction between humans and daemons, because it’s so expensive. And, unless you take this approach – the approach that Russell’s team took – it would be impossible for the animators to do their job to the best of their ability.”

Dodgson adds: “As well as doing our lighting references, we were on-set to LiDAR scan them and do colour charts. We also had chrome balls and greys balls that helped us understand the direction in which the light was travelling, and we used these each time a scene involving a daemon was shot. The director, DOPs and actors were really respectful of our process, because they knew that if we didn’t get this stuff, the CGI wouldn’t look good.”

Northern exposure

As the series unfolds, we will visit more locations, such as Svalbard and Trollesund in the North, and while Brown wasn’t involved in the photography of these wintery locations, he was able to divulge what the sets looked like.

We could only afford to build a quarter of the set, so we put the rest of it within the VR world

“The whole of Trollesund is a 3D set built within the VR world and, using a headset, you could go into that world and see all the different parts of the city through a very sort of arbitrary video game graphic. And, since it was LiDAR scanned, you could see the topography and the elevation in which it disappeared behind buildings or where it met water. You could also plot the sun path based on the time of the year and build and sunrise and sunset to see where the shadows would fall. This is an incredible tool for a DOP, because it means you can change the geography of a set, so that the shadows are favourable to the time of day you want to shoot.”

Virtual sets helped cut costs and were used in a number of scenes, including the crypt in the depths of Oxford for episode 1. Brown explains: “We could only afford to build a quarter of it, so we put the rest of it within the VR world. In that world, we placed actors based on their positions in rehearsals, and framed up those shots based on our lenses. We got the VFX team to build lenses centred around the Arri Alexa LF, so when we took screenshots, we knew that everything would be within the camera frame.” On the odd occasion Brown did have to shoot into the void, where the set couldn’t be built, the VFX team would allocate some of its budget to digitally extend it. This kind of planning enabled him to understand the constraints of the set before it was even built.

The decision to shoot in 4K with the Alexa LF was Brown’s. Having used this format on the Channel 4 and Netflix lovechild The End of the F**king World, he sensed the BBC would be in a similar position, where a 4K shoot would be needed for other broadcast platforms. “At the time, the Alexa LF had just been released, so we snapped up the opportunity to use it. We were also the first TV project to use the Alexa LF but, because of how late His Dark Materials has come out, we’re probably like the 5000th production to release something shot on this camera,” he laughs. “I’ve trusted the Alexa forever, though; the colour profile, the highlight range and the gain floor is, in my opinion, the most cinematic of all the cameras.”

Brown chose Zeiss Supremes and Zeiss Master Primes, which covered the Super 35 frame he was shooting. The Master Primes, however, were switched out for something wider by the DOP in episode 4, who chose to work with the camera in full-frame mode. Consistency is in the capable hands of colourist Jean-Clément Soret, who Brown says is “confident that the series is consistent with the filmic look” established through a LUT developed by Technicolor in the first two episodes.

Grading the Multiverse

“I discovered when I was working on the project how much excitement and expectation surrounds it,” says Jean-Clément Soret, Technicolor’s senior digital supervising colourist.

Soret was responsible for helping the various directors and cinematographers on the project to maintain a consistent look throughout the series and was brought on early to consult on the colour palette.

“There was no pilot for this series, so episode 1 defined the leading look for the whole of the first season,” says Soret, who worked closely with cinematographer Justin Brown and director Tom Hooper on the first two episodes.

“We had early discussions on how to replicate 35mm colour space, and we had the Technicolor colour science team involved in creating look up tables and emulations of print looks with material provided by Justin that were shot on film and digital.

“When we did the test with Justin on 35mm, we tried to decipher how it would look compared to digital. The decision was made to add a bit of subtle film grain throughout the episode. As a colourist, you play with sharpness, softness, defocus whether on the whole image, whether on some parts of the image, and it’s really playing with textures and that’s part of colour grading.

“In colour grading, there is always lots of yourself you put into the work. It’s your own taste, techniques, your own recipes.”

The retiring room

According to Brown, one of the hardest scenes to do because of set restrictions and lighting contrasts was in episode 1, where Lyra runs across the rooftops of Jordan College. It is here that she and Pan find a spot to look through the window of the Retiring Room, and they witness the master attempt to poison Lord Asriel by pouring a mysterious powder into a bottle of his favourite Tokay.

We tried to be clever with the animals we chose, so they always gave us a range of emotion

Brown says: “Because we had a child actress, Dafne, we weren’t permitted to shoot on location. Everything was done on a stage. The college walls, even the roof she’s sitting on was on a stage. Joel (the production designer) created an incredible set for the Retiring Room. It had a beautiful vaulted ceiling and dark mahogany walls.”

He continues: “And so, we had this dark interior, what was supposed to be daylight on the outside and some windows. Tom also likes to let his actors rehearse and then almost inhabit the space and go where they want to go – so it was quite a tricky scene for me to light. I couldn’t just place marks. The lighting almost needed to be 360, because we shot the whole scene in one go. I think it looks great, though. It’s just how I imagined that scene when I was reading the book as a kid.

A girl’s best friend

Dodgson’s decision to join the TV show hung on whether Jane Tranter, who works at Bad Wolf productions in Cardiff, shared his vision for the daemons. Luckily, she did.

He explains: “When you create creatures that speak, there are a few immediate questions you have to ask yourself. The first is, how human do you make them; should their expressions and gestures be human? The second is, do you make them cartoony or realistic? We both agreed straight away that the daemons should look and act like real animals. It would have been a deal-breaker for me if she had wanted to cartoonify the daemons or warp their faces with the actors’.”

The children’s daemons change form frequently, but this would be difficult to portray in the show without confusing the viewer. Dodgson says: “In the first book, Pan takes about 35 different animal forms. We gave him eight in the series. Not because of budget, but because we wanted the audience to fall in love with the character and become familiar with how he behaves in different circumstances. You can’t do that if Pan is always different. You need a baseline so you can develop and understand the character, and I didn’t feel that – with 35 different characters across eight hours of TV – I would be able to make a consistent, recognisable, understandable and loved performance.”

Pan changes form to reflect Lyra’s feelings and her situation. When she’s sleeping, he’s the comforting stoat. When she’s feeling adventurous, he’s the curious pine marten. However, this changes when Lyra’s adventure takes her north and Pan takes the form of an arctic animal instead. Dodgson adds: “We tried to be clever with the animals we chose, so they always gave us a range of emotion and performance based on their characteristics.”

Pan isn’t the only human’s daemon that got a meticulous casting. This was done for all the daemons, and Dodgson looked at hundreds and hundreds of photographs of different animals to define their disposition on-screen. He also spent time at a zoo and took up the company of pine martens, where he studied and filmed them as reference for Pan.

Creating the daemons is a lengthy process that starts with an initial sculpt to define the animal’s body shape, volume and proportions. It’s a digital sculpt, but it’s done in the same way you’d do an actual physical sculpt with clay – only you’re using digital clay and sculpting tools on a computer.

Then there is a rigger, who fuses art and maths to create the skeleton of the animal. Every single bone joint, from jaw to toe, is constructed and assigned limits, so an elbow would only have the range of movement of an elbow, for example. Muscles are created next and are made to bend and flex just as a muscle would. These are then applied to the skeleton and the sculpt is wrapped around the bones as skin.

Dodgson says: “Then we build our creature effects system, which simulates skin sliding over bone as the muscle moves. The best way to describe this is if you imagine a horse running; you can see its skin sliding over its ribs, and it’s in that moment that you realise an animal is made up of muscle, bone and sinew.”

Fur is next in the VFX pipeline, but before this can be added, the artists have to understand how it responds to light – which proved quite tricky when working with the transparent and tube-like fur of a polar bear. “In this instance, light does three things. If it hits the surface of the bear it either bounces off, travels through (and, as it travels, the light changes colour based on the bits of colour in the fur) or it goes inside the fur and bounces around before coming back out again. We have to know this, so when we light the fur, it still looks like fur, which is its own nightmare,” he laughs.

“There’s also someone that’s grooming the daemon, someone who’s literally giving it a digital haircut. What they do is brush the fur to follow the flow of the fur as the body moves. And then they twist and clump it when the fur touches the ground or gets a bit matted. This is then attached to the skin and simulated in the same way as we simulated skin falling over bone and muscle.” Dodgson explains that if one person sat down to do all this it would have taken them eight months to do just one daemon – and they did 50. He says: “It’s a labour of love, and this was just the beginning. We hadn’t done any shots yet.”

The golden monkey

For Dodgson, the most important thing was defining the daemon’s personalities and making sure they would match the strong performances of their human counterparts. He explains: “This show has Ruth Wilson, who is powerful and emotive as Mrs Coulter – and our job is to put a monkey in the shot next to her. Can you imagine how disastrous that would be if it went wrong?”

The golden monkey is an interesting daemon, because it doesn’t speak. Its personality has to be conveyed through its physicality, which took some time to work out. Before production on the series had started, Dodgson and Wilson discussed what it meant that Mrs Coulter’s daemon had settled as monkey when she was and child; and what she had done to herself emotionally over the years to create such a dysfunctional relationship with him.

He explains: “If your daemon settles as a monkey, it’s likely because you’re a bit cheeky. But for her, the monkey is evil. He’s a sort of self-harm for her. In the book, there is a scene where she grabs the monkey and pinches its fur, which is basically visual externalised self-harm. The pain makes her focus. It’s quite a complex relationship – so we looked into the third book to see where her relationship with the monkey goes and worked our way back to make sure we’ve got a way of getting from one place to another just through physical performance.”

Dodgson resolves by telling us his favourite scene, which is the bit where Mrs Coulter is visited by emissaries working for the Magisterium, who threaten to shut down her research. When Lyra confronts her about it, she sets her monkey on Pan. It is a one-sided conflict, an act of pure bullying, which he describes as being “more like emotional child abuse, since the daemons represent their souls rather than their physicality.”

In the aftermath, Mrs Coulter blurts out the truth: Lord Asriel is Lyra’s father, but fails to mention that she is also Lyra’s mother. “That’s what I love about this scene. Mrs Coulter has just dropped this knowledge bomb on Lyra and wants to give her a hug, because she’s her mum, but Lyra doesn’t know that, so she remains without feeling. But, if you watch the monkey, you will see that we delivered the internal softness and empathy Mrs Coulter feels through his facial expressions.”

It’s a lot of pressure to adapt a series that is so beloved by its readers, but it certainly seems that Brown and Dodgson are determined to do it justice.

His Dark Materials is on BBC ONE/iplayer and HBO/HBO now in the USA

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