Russell Dodson Is working on Framestore For more than 10 years and before taking care of the visual effects of His Dark Material series, he worked on such projects as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, Black Mirror, And Mars.
What is your background?
I originally come from a commercial background and was the Global Head of the Nuke Department in the Integrated Advertising Division of Framestore for many years. I finally took up the challenge of working with a small group at Framestore to reinvent the company’s Episode Division 6 years ago.
What was your feeling for coming back in the second season of His Dark Materials?
It’s always great to reconnect with a team you are so fond of, it feels like getting the family back together. It was a little unique on their Dark Materials because we knew the season started shooting Before we were greening up the second season. The team really wanted to maximize the age limit of Daphne Keane and Aamir Wilson, so there was a really very sharp turn between the two seasons. Finally, we were prepping on season 2 and starting shooting for the film.
How did the collaborators with the directors and directors collaborate?
They have a really collaborative spirit in Dark Material so the experience is always very rewarding. We benefited from Jamie Children returning after season 1 as our lead director was with the fabulous Lean Welham. I work closely with the directors (around busy shooting schedules) to help plan those best VFX moments. We spend time thinking about how we can execute these moments within our schedule and budget. The process is supported in the painting practice by Dan May and his team, who are working with us to create the show’s terrific concept art, as well as ideas in Previs and Postvis.
VFX is such a central piece of the series, so collaboration with the listener and producer team in it should be really strong. We spend a lot of time where the VFX budget is used to support the narrative in general, as well as crafting the right moments to punch episodes with set pieces.
What were his expectations and attitudes about visual effects?
We all know that there is never enough money to do what you want, even if the money is five times more, our ambitions will exceed it and we will return to where we started. We had already answered the show’s biggest VFX question “What would Demons be like?” Amidst the amazing work is done by the team at Framestore, the brilliant debut puppet and our main cast performed brilliantly, making us definitely exceed the expectations of the show’s creature work. The real question of season 2 was how do we keep the spirit of season 1 with a story that changes tone, location, and rhythm so much. Lyra had more of Odyssey in season 1 and she travels through new, very different, locations in every episode. Season 2 is more about telling the story between repeating locations in different worlds. We also, to a large extent, lose bears but replace them with new things. Therefore the main challenge was to maintain the scale of the show but with different materials.
What are the main changes you made after the first season?
Frankly, it was a very commercial one, as usual, a season flowed directly from a VFX perspective.
How did you organize the work with your VFX Producer?
We have an amazing VFX production team on both the client-side and the Framestore side. On the client-side, I work with James Whitlam and Bryony Duncan, as well as break the rest of our incredible team into pieces that suit them. When VFX shows become of a certain size you start bidding on an average shot level and they do a phenomenal job on that. I go through scripts and make a “creative pass”, where I direct it in my head, ideally with our directors’ style knowledge, and turn it into a shot count. At the same time, James and Briony break it, and then we compare the number and the revision, doing it that way really helps because we’re “kicking the tire” on the bid. This is always the shifting goal and requires cool heads and a strong process.
How did you divide the work between the Framestore offices?
We always try to work within some offices to keep the number of divisive offices to a minimum. The Framestore has an excellent multi-site pipeline that facilitates the division of work, but even with the luxury, it is better to keep the entire shots with a group of artists where you can. In the end, we did a bit more work in London than in Montreal, but they were responsible for delivering some of the show’s biggest scenes. London once again took on all the Golden Monkeys but was also responsible for the creation of Cittagazze and the development and execution of the specters. Montreal was responsible for all of our witch set pieces such as Ruta flying through the storm and attacking the submarine in Episode 1. He had also created and animated Pan’s assets as Red Panda which was an exciting new addition and rerouted in Episode 3 We also split some parcels of work for some of our other teams. A major sequence in episode 7 went to our great team in NY and the Observatory sequence and a few others that had yet to be aired were drafted to our IA team in London, they were also responsible for creating the Lemur property in episode 3 Were.
This new season opens in the beautiful city of Cittàgazze. How did you work with the art department for its design?
Joel Collins and the team at the painting practice did a lot of work in designing the city internally as well as the overall look and feel. They designed it from the overall shape and layout to the iconic stairs that run through the city and have details in the railings and plasterwork. In painting practice, Dan and his team created a version of the city in Unreal Engine, which allowed us to quickly see how shapes are taken from all angles, heights, and distances. Joel always wanted the city to be surrounded by a grand climax by the sea; At first, he was inspired by the mountains in Guilin, but then our VFX producer James Whitlam suggested to Kauai that he had gone there earlier and that the Nepali beach offered a perfect theme. So I traveled there with my plate unit DOP Paul O’Callaghan and we did a couple of days of chopper shooting as well as some normal travel shots to travel from Lyon to the city. Once we returned, Dan and his team integrated the landscape into concepts. By the time we got the concepts to work on, the team had created a base massing model and a packet of low-ply buildings as a guide for the team at Framestore.
Can you elaborate on the construction of this city?
Even with all the above planning and conceptualization, when dealing with assets of this scale is not enough information. The environmental team led by Rob Harrington and Dean O’Keefe worked to transform the less elaborate design property and individual buildings into something that looked real in terms of both detail, shape, and texture. Houdini was then used to procedurally add windows, balconies, and other details and then perform the final crisis manually in Maya. The shading for the building was a mixture of substance and procedural texture. The team also had to integrate and match the parts of the city that were built for real, with the practical set being highly detailed, so they needed to rebalance it with rendering efficiency. We use LIDAR extensively on the set and later high-resolution filter Lidar was reopened in Maya and Ljubush. The Side FX Houdini was used extensively for the layout and scattering of props and rocks. The exposed rock face at Houdini was procedurally constructed, with trees, vines, and plants drawn in the context of animation baked at Speedtree and Houdini. In the end, the city is made up of more than 430 Bespoke models, which were installed over 3,380,000 times to form the city. The final stage of shot execution then uses an ultimate aesthetic paint technique to add the final detail.
Horrific hazards are one of the new threats this season. What were your references and the implications for them?
The Specters present a very unique challenge because they are not really monsters, they were not once alive, they do not speak or eat, they just eat humanity in a fairway. Trying not to be too derivative of a challenge that is hard now has so many fantastic, scary, FX-powered monsters already brought to the screen. We knew that our listener Jane Tranter did not want Spector to be completely black and shiny and they certainly did not want a tangible back and forth. I made little reference to the underwater creatures, but it was to make sure that we did not go down that aesthetic route much further.
Can you elaborate on their creation and animation?
Due to our fast schedule, the FX team opted for a procedural route using Houdini. This allows for relatively rapid asset development but underestimates shot execution (which is a cost). The procedural approach directs less art to creatures but produces some really interesting and often unexpected results. We had a very simple lozenge as our animation proxy which gave us time, position, and rough volume. This was then run through a series of layered procedural simulations that give us different textures and movements within the specters.
The heroes received The Subtle Knife. Can you elaborate on FX when they open a portal to another world?
This was one of the show’s other challenges. First, we had to come up with an aesthetic and logic. We had already set the tone for the journey …