VFX: BBC's 'Dr. Who'
Issue: October 1, 2014

VFX: BBC's 'Dr. Who'

BRISTOL, UK — AxisVFX (www.axis-vfx.com), which has facilities in Bristol and Glasgow, created the visual effects for the latest episode the BBC’s Doctor Who. The “Flatline” episode was directed by Douglas Mackinnon and contains 66 VFX shots created by AxisVFX, including a new, multi-dimensional menace called The Boneless. 

In addition to executing the visual effect, the AxisVFX team also conceived, designed and developed the look and performance of this new creature. The Boneless are a race that exists in just two dimensions. The audience is introduced to them as they explore Earth, distorting three dimensional surfaces as they go. As the creatures spend more time in Earth’s three dimensional world, they begin to evolve and explore the third dimension themselves, bringing forth a potentially devastating effect.

“The script described how these creatures move, grow and evolve over time but everyone who read the words on the page imagined it differently in their head,” recalls AisVFX 3D VFX supervisor, Grant Hewlett. “So this was our biggest challenge, visualizing something that had never been seen before, something that initially had to be flat but at the same time become sinister, threatening and frightening.”

Following the initial meetings with executive producers Steven Moffat and Brian Minchin, and director Douglas Mackinnon, the AxisVFX design and concept team set about producing concept artwork that explored how The Boneless could look. VFX art director Ste Dalton worked with the concept artists, taking influences from many different places, from Ferro fluids to Francis Bacon. 

“We presented over 30 different design explorations for The Boneless creatures,” explains 2D VFX supervisor, Howard Jones. “We knew whatever we created in a piece of digital concept art had to be producible under the challenging constraints of a TV production schedule. With that in mind, we very quickly moved from 2D concepts into doing test sequences utilizing 3D tools in Houdini and 2D tools in Nuke. These tests and explorations were led by our FX lead Joe Thornley-Heard.” 

“After testing a number of solutions for The Boneless, including using Kinetic cameras from the Xbox to recreate 3D dimensional creatures live with real actors, we settled on a more flexible way of working,” says Hewlett.

Hewlett and AxisVFX creative director Stu Aitken worked together to deliver a plan leveraging high-end performance capture techniques from the animation team, including 3D body scanning and motion capture.

“These are techniques we have honed on multiple projects and we have it down to a fine art,” says Aitken. “The speed of shooting on Doctor Who meant we needed a robust and flexible approach, which would accommodate last minute changes easily. We arranged to 3D scan all of the actors in costume and then set up a motion capture shoot which was directed by Douglas.” 

Hewlett worked closely on-set with Douglas Mackinnon, providing on-the-spot technical and creative solutions, including shooting plates.

“Due to the complex nature of the script and the demanding shooting schedule I really had to get hands-on, shooting plates that would later become shots, suggesting alternatives to save valuable shooting time and re-designing shots as we went,” says Hewlett. “Douglas was great to work with as he is always asking questions and pushing what’s possible. I really enjoyed the journey.”

Lighting The Boneless and placing them into the shots seamlessly was paramount for authenticity and believability for the audience. The lighting and rendering team, led by CG supervisor Sergio Caires, used all of the reference materials shot on set to light the creatures accurately. These rendered passes were then finessed by the compositing team and added to the 2D effects that were being applied to the shots.

For the 2D version of The Boneless, director Douglas Mackinnon brought in reference of some sea slugs that he felt had an appropriately unnerving sort of motion to them. 

VFX supervisor Grant Hewlett explains: "Myself and lead FX artist Joe Thornley Heard worked on creating a CG version of the slug, giving it similar properties in the way it moved. These could then be combined and driven by various fluid dynamic processes, making them move together as one mass."

Creating the two-dimensional Boneless effect was a fun challenge for our compositing team led by Carl Chittneden," adds Jones. “At this point the 2D boneless have no solidity, existing solely within the surface of the world. Taking the creatures Joe created in Houdini, we settled on a treatment where they would start out invisibly hidden in the textures of the surrounding environment, then gradually reveal themselves as they move, dragging and displacing those surfaces with them. We accomplished this by using the rendered passes from Joe’s Houdini 3D setup to smear and distort the original plate in a variety of ways within Nuke. The result was a look that gave Douglas exactly what he wanted: a subtle yet 'impossible' treatment of the boneless that felt unnerving and other-worldly.”

In addition to The Boneless creatures, the AxisVFX crew’s work included creating the flattening of various CG props and live action actors, a shape shifting Tardis, and energy-based force fields and blasts. 

“It has been a fantastic experience to work on the UK’s biggest and most famous sci-fi show,” says AxisVFX managing director, Richard Scott. “The show is loved by so many it is amazing to think that our work on ‘Flatline’ will still be watched 30 years from now by diehard fans of Doctor Who.”