Following the tale of Lyra ‘Silvertongue’ Belacqua (Dafne Keen) and Will Parry (Amir Wilson), the TV show sees the pair embark on a world-crossing adventure in an attempt to bring down forces of evil that plague the universe.
In season 3, the action is ramped up even higher, as are the extraordinary visual effects, with creatures introduced including the mystical Mulefa, the ethereal angels, the terrifying harpies and the nifty Gallivespians.
Metro.co.uk recently had the opportunity to speak to Russell Dodgson, visual supervisor on the series and the creative director of TV at Framestore, about bringing these fantastical elements of the final episodes to life in the third season.
From the changes that were made when examining the original source material to working with other members of the crew including the costume designer and puppeteering team, let us take you behind the scenes of the sensational visual effects on His Dark Materials.
One of the most highly-anticipated elements of season three was always going to be the greater focus placed on angels, after they were teased in the final moments of season two with Lord Asriel (James McAvoy).
Russell explained that the angels were ‘hard to conceptualise’, because the visual effects team needed to ensure that they leant ‘on the familiar’ while also offering ‘something new’ at the same time, as he added: ‘The angels at the beginning took quite a while to get to where we were happy with them.’
The angels are seen in different forms in season three – both in their almost-transparent form, with their outlines bearing similarities to the windows into other worlds that Will would cut open using the subtle knife, as well as in human forms, allowing human beings to see them with the naked eye.
While the angels don’t adopt a human form in the books, Russell outlined why this made sense for the TV adaptation from a storytelling perspective, while also pointing out that the angels in the original source material had the ability to become physical birds, so taking this ability a step further to become a physical person made sense.
‘I think a lot of people mistake that all choices are made because of money, but a lot of the time they are made because of storytelling,’ he stated.
‘If you follow the book, the book describes the angels in lots of different ways, almost in a way where it feels like they’re different depending on the viewer. So there’s times when they’re totally transparent and hardly visible, but then there’s scenes where Asriel picks one up and carries them around.
‘So you’ve got to pick where you pin it on the dartboard, basically. We had lots of scenes where we had emotional conversations between characters, and we didn’t want to just do CGI, barely visible things doing that – we wanted something to connect to.’
He emphasised that the team wanted the scenes ‘to be driven by actors’ but they also ‘needed the fantasy element’ as well.
‘We needed the ethereal element so what we did is we decided that we would use a hybrid technique, so you’ve got a bit of both and you could fire the right technique at the right time.’
Recalling how they came up with the design of the angels, the VFX supervisor described how they strived to create a ‘cohesive aesthetic’ on the show, hence why the angels were made of the same lines on their bodies as the windows to the other worlds.
‘When we had Will initially cutting through the worlds and having the fabric of the universe being these lines, we said we should probably make that part of how the angels are made, so the angels are actually all lines travelling over their form mixed with a bunch of other kinds of nice-looking effects,’ he said.
‘We went back to our rules of dust, lines, and tried to have a cohesive aesthetic throughout all of the different otherworldly elements of the show. Then we just used them at the right time in the right amount.’
In season three of His Dark Materials, two new characters who are introduced are Commander Roke (Jonathan Aris) and Agent Salmakia (Sian Clifford), who are both Gallivespians, who are tiny, humanoid beings and work for Lord Asriel as spies.
Explaining changes that were made to the depiction of the Gallivespians on screen, Russell said: ‘In the book, they ride around on dragonflies, but for us and how we wanted the Gallivespians to work within the story, the dragonflies didn’t work scale-wise.
‘So what we did is we just made sure that the way the Gallivespians flew was reminiscent of dragonflies. So that was our reference for their movement and the way they zip around, they had a dragonfly type quality. Even when we let go of something we always try and nod back to it.’
The visual effects supervisor researched how they were going to make the Gallivespians work by watching multiple films where people had been shrunken down in scale, some of which looked ‘great’, while other examples looked ‘really hokey’.
They conducted tests using 3D-printed characters that were created with the puppeteering team, printing out little grey action figures, some of which could be shifted into different poses.
They would place the little grey figures as stand-ins when scenes were being filmed, which provided them with a reference for how they would frame and light the shot.
The other actors would ‘shoot empty’ by talking to the grey figures instead of their Gallivespian scene partners, and then months later, the shoots with Sian and Jonathan were conducted.
‘In between that time we would have to work out how to scale the camera so that everything would be correct in terms of the scale ratio that we used,’ he recalled, while also recollecting how ‘fun’ it was working with Sian and Jonathan to figure out where they would direct their eyelines to work with the human-sized characters.
‘Then my dear friend Paul O’Callaghan came in and he lit and shot all of the actors and he did such an amazing job that they turned out to be the easiest things to put together. We just dropped them in and they worked,’ Russell shared, while also praising costume designer Caroline McCall for their collaboration.
‘We didn’t want to have that thing that you get sometimes where it’s just human clothes shrunk down. We made sure that we used materials like leathers, where you couldn’t really see a scale and we didn’t see any of the stitching. We simplified their faces so we had makeup that reduced the visibility of their pores, we got rid of their eyebrows so they didn’t have tiny little eyebrows, and we made their hair really smooth,’ he explained.
‘I actually went downstairs and looked at all of my kids’ little dolls, and what’s interesting is because the hair is so fine and light, it doesn’t hang, it just sort of stays in the air. So we made the hair stick down and really slick so you never had that problem as well. There’s lots of little things that you do to make it work across all the departments.’
In season three of His Dark Materials, Lyra and Will make their way to the Land of the Dead, so that they can try and save Lyra’s best friend Roger (Lewin Lloyd), who was killed at the end of season one by her father, Lord Asriel.
When they finally arrive in the Land of the Dead, they cross paths with terrifying-looking creatures called harpies.
In the third book of Sir Philip’s His Dark Materials trilogy, The Amber Spyglass, the harpies are described as having the heads of women, in line with the mythological portayal of the creatures.
However, Russell explained why they decided to veer away from that visual for the TV adaptation.
‘Harpies traditionally are shrieking, horrific women mixed with birds. I can’t remember who made the decision, I think it may have been the showrunning team. We just thought, why do we want to represent the tormentors of the underworld as shrieking women? That seems pretty dated as an idea,’ he said.
He continued: ‘We wanted to lean into what’s important. What’s important about those characters is that they’re scary, grotesque, but you also slightly feel sorry for them because they’ve been given this job of tormenting people in the Land of the Dead, but really all they want is to hear true stories and to have these emotional connections to stories, which is a big part of the book.’
With this in mind, they decided to make the harpies blind, placing a greater focus on their ability to hear, due to their desire to hear true stories from the living world.
In terms of their overall look, with flaky skin, Russell added: ‘There was this line that we had to keep trying to find where you felt sorry for them but also repulsed by them.’
It was also decided that they wanted it to look as though it was painful for the harpies to speak, ‘because of the fact that they’ve been suppressing people communicating and talking to each other in the Land of the Dead’.
‘In the animation, we made it look really strained. So sometimes when the harpy speaks, it has to swallow in a painful way, as if words are a punishment when it speaks.’
The Mulefa are some of the most beloved creatures in the universe of His Dark Materials, so there were plenty of high hopes among fans of the books as they waited with eager anticipation to discover what they’d look like in the live-action adaptation.
Over time, she’s able to learn the language that the intelligent creatures use to communicate, which involves both words and the movement of their trunks.
In the book, the Mulefa are described as having a diamond-shaped skeleton – but when it came to designing them for the TV programme, copying this description exactly wasn’t deemed as important as conveying attributes such as their ‘symbiosis with nature’.
Addressing the original diamond-shaped skeleton description, Russell said: ‘That one sentence, which sounds cool, could really derail the authenticity of the creature or character for the rest of the show.
‘So we decided that we weren’t going to try and come up with exactly that, because at the same time they were meant to be elegant. They were meant to be beautiful and seem super intelligent.
‘We didn’t want everybody to be distracted by unorthodox weird movement, so that you couldn’t land the other bit, which feels more important.’
The Mulefa were therefore designed to combine the look of a tapir with a prehistoric mammal, which had longer front legs and shorter back legs, and therefore offered a ‘slightly different way of moving, but isn’t exactly what was put in the books’.
The crew collaborated with a zoologist who specialises in prehistoric animals, who went on a ‘deep dive’ figuring out the ‘mechanics’ of how the Mulefa would move, such as ‘how the shoulder planes would move, what kind of spine structure it would have, where the muscles would be and how everything would work’.
‘A big thing for us is authenticity. You very quickly have to fall in love with a character and believe that they’re real. So we always want something that’s authentic and grounded so that the audience can get there quickly,’ he added.
His Dark Materials is available to watch on BBC iPlayer.
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