In Starz's original series, Outlander, 18th century Scotland is alive and well — and looking better than ever. With its expansive highlands, authentic Scottish castles, and lush valleys wrapped in a thick mist, it’s hard to believe the show is actually shot in the 21st century. But thanks to its high-quality production team (production design, cinematography, costumes, editing, etc.) and the outstanding work of VFX supervisor Jonathan Privett and the artists at UK’s Double Negative (Dneg), 1743 Scotland couldn’t look more real. And, according to Privett, keeping it real was one of the early mandates from show producers.
“The production value on this show is very high,” he says. “And we understood right from the beginning that we needed to make sure it was all as authentic and real-looking as possible.”
With a show that is shot in present-day Scotland, taking place in two other distinct periods of time, Dneg had its work cut out for them. By the time the Season 1 finale aired end of May, the studio completed just under 700 VFX shots.
Starz debuted Outlander in 2014, which was extremely well received by both viewers and critics alike. Executive produced by Ron Moore and based on the epic novels by Diana Gabaldon,
Outlander is now back in production for Season 2.
Predominantly a period piece with a dash of sci-fi, the series follows the story of 1940s military nurse Claire Randall (played by Caitriona Balfe), who mysteriously gets swept back in time to a turbulent 1743 Scotland — when being British does not put the odds in her favour.
The show opens in 1945, with the end of WWII, and flashbacks to that time period when Claire was with her husband, a historian, visiting the same Scottish lands she travels back in time to, continue throughout the series. In fact, in the series opener, Claire and her husband visit the ruins of the very same castle she ends up “living” in after she transports to the 1700s.
Doune Castle is the location used for the show’s Castle Leoch. Fairly well-preserved, Double Negative needed to make several changes digitally (as well as some practical changes), to make it look like medieval ruins when seen in 1945.
Privett says that since the show is actually shot on-location in Scotland (on Arri Alexa’s in ProRes 4:4:4 format but delivered in 4:2:2), a great deal of the work is removing anything that would be seemingly out of place and time, and replacing with other elements more fitting for the period. By using matte paintings and set extensions, a lot was also done to make that same run-down, decrepit castle in the early scenes look new when viewers see it again in the 1700s. Or, rather, the other way around. Privett says that there are many castles and landmark buildings still standing and in good shape in Scotland.
“There’s a lot of architectural and environment work we do on Outlander,” he explains. “The show is shot in Scotland and in some instances, it wasn’t possible to get all the highlands — some of that scenery is added to the background. Contrary to popular belief, some of Scotland is actually quite flat. So we did add in the highlands. In some instances, there are a few non-period things we needed to remove, or buildings that were in more disrepair than they would have been in the 18th century.”
With much of the work completed with a combination of Maya, Nuke, Photoshop and RenderMan, Privett points out that one of the biggest challenges was more character-based. One of the show’s lead characters, Colum MacKenzie (played by actor Gary Lewis), suffers from Toulouse-Lautrec Syndrome, making his legs horribly deformed and curved. Dneg needed to replace the actor’s actual legs with digital limbs. Lewis wore special socks that Dneg could manipulate so that they would appear bent. Wedged shoes worn by the actor also helped create Colum’s unique gait caused by his deformity.
“In a way, Colum’s legs, which we entirely made in CG, are the highest end visual effects in the show,” says Privett. “There’s also one scene, technically speaking, that was the hardest, where he gets massaged by Claire. I think it was Episode 3, and we had to make his legs naked for that …”
Through a combination of tools, including Maya, ZBrush, RenderMan, and Dneg’s own proprietary shader/creation tool (that is render agnostic), Privett describes the work on Colum’s legs as “technically, the most interesting — it’s not something that’s done very often on that level for television.
“We were initially going to replace the bottom half of his legs from the knee down, and we thought of a way to do that. With the special stockings we made for him to wear, we were able to track the position of the bottom of his legs, because the other thing was, he was always walking around and moving. So we needed to make sure that the bottom and top of his leg completely matched. And that’s actually not that easy to do, with a moving camera and a moving person.
“Once we actually got into it, we found that it wasn’t exaggerated enough with just the bottom of his legs because from hip to knee, it was actually a straight line and we needed him to be much more bent. So, in the end, we replaced all of his legs, right from the top. He was wearing short trousers, so they had to be simulated in cloth. It was a real challenge but it ended up being an amazing character because of the legs — quite a lot of work.”
Privett again stresses that it’s “great to work on a show with such a high production value” and reveals that the production team now has an on-location VFX supervisor, indicating that perhaps they are upping the ante on the visual effects. “This next season should really be quite interesting.”