VFX For TV: 'Penny Dreadful'
Issue: April 1, 2015

VFX For TV: 'Penny Dreadful'

Bringing to television some of literature’s creepiest characters — including Dorian Grey, Dr. Frankenstein and his creature, a feast of vampires, and a black spider with a key role — is creator John Logan’s Showtime drama/horror series, Penny Dreadful. With Season 2 set to premiere next month, the show, which takes place in Victorian-era London, stars Eva Green, Timothy Dalton and Josh Hartnett as the mysterious Vanessa Ives, explorer Sir Malcolm Murray and American gunslinger Ethan Chandler (respectively), who come together to face off against a variety of supernatural threats. With visual effects support from Toronto’s Mr. X (via post vendor Take 5 Productions, also Toronto based), James Cooper, VFX supervisor on the series, says there’s quite a bit of environmental work, such as set extensions, green screens and matte paintings, required to turn Dublin, where the show is shot, into Victorian London.

“One of the big scenes for us was when Frankenstein introduced Proteus to the outside world and we created the environment for the Thames River and the embankment,” says Cooper. “That scene was shot at a Dublin castle, but really all we used out of that was the archway into the interior courtyard for the entrance into the embankment, the cobblestones that existed, and a little bit of the environment on the right-hand side. Otherwise, our artists created the entirety of the Thames River. We used just a small piece of an embankment wall with a couple of dolphin lamps and then we modeled the rest of that — the Thames, the boats and the river traffic. St. Paul’s in the distance was a projected matte painting. Houdini was used for all water and sail simulations, ropes and lines on the boats, and smoke, but everything else was modeled in Maya and matte paintings were a bit of [The Foundry’s] Modo and Photoshop for texture creations.”

Other environments for the show included the Mariner’s Inn, which was actually “just a concrete pier extending into the ocean with a bit of broken pier dressing and a barge,” says Cooper. “The rest of the dilapidated Inn and the entirety of the river Thames, its traffic and environment of the north bank, were created digitally.” The British Museum, too, was shot at Dublin Castle. According to Cooper, “the only real elements in the shot are the front gate and the foreground people. The museum itself and the people closest to it are all digital creations while mid-ground people were meticulously tracked in green-screen elements.” 

For Season 1 of the series, the production team shot on Arri Alexa Plus cameras at HD resolution, but Cooper says they will be moving to 2K for Season 2. Once in post, Cooper says the team worked with DPX files, where they modeled in Autodesk’s Maya, and textured using Adobe Photoshop, The Foundry’s Mari and Maya. The scenes were animated and lit in Maya, rendered in Chaos V-Ray and composited using The Foundry’s Nuke. Side Effects Houdini and Mantra renderer were used for effects simulations of the river, sails, ropes, laundry, steam and chimney smoke. 

A good deal of the VFX pipeline actually came together early on, before Cooper was even officially on board the show. “When I first came to London and met with John Logan, he was very adamantly anti VFX. In as much as he knew we needed to be there to create Victorian London environments, but by his own admission, he was not a big fan of effects work. So, although he liked our reel, he wanted to see a test. So we did a spider test and it was effectively the spider climbing up some preying hands and we had the hands sort of in a palm to palm, fingers not interlaced, praying gesture and the spider crawled up and he said, ‘This is great, but the actress is not praying the way I would want her to in a praying position.’ That’s when I explained to him that the hands were CG as well, and that was kind of the kicker. That got us the gig. Later, when we did the spider for the show, everybody was really pleased with the way it played out. A lot of work went into looking at actual spiders. We did the first simulations in Houdini, animated him in Maya and that basically laid the groundwork for our pipeline for Season 1.”

Cooper says that with all the VFX work on the series, “I’m quite pleased with how many people (including some of our Season 2 directors) wonder where the location of Sir Malcolm’s mansion is, although it is a fully-CG creation. I’ve loved working on the series. The writing is fantastic, the performances are amazing and the production quality is second to none. It’s wonderful to have the bar set that high and we love the challenge of matching that with our work. Just wait for Season 2!”