THE BORGIAS: Doug Campbell – VFX Supervisor – Spin VFX

Doug Campbell began working in visual effects since over 25 years. He participated in many TV series like STARGATE: SG-1, STARGATE: ATLANTIS or KINGDOM HOSPITAL. At Spin VFX, he worked on films such as OUTLANDER, LEGION or BATTLE LOS ANGELES. In the following interview, he talks about his supervision work for the series The Borgias for which he received an Emmy Awards nomination.

What is your background?
In the early 80’s, I graduated from classical animation at Sheridan College. I then started working at a small, but cutting edge, visual effects company where I did every job a VFX artist could do but specialized in motion control cinematography. When digital came to be, we bought the first Quantel Harry in Canada and we were one of the first adopters of Alias PowerAnimator and Discreet Logic’s Flame. Since then, I’ve always been immersed in new technology that is critical for projects like the THE BORGIAS.

How did you get involved on this project?
I was asked to join the SPIN team by their Executive Producer, Neishaw Ali. I then met with the producers from Take 5, we got along really well and were on the same page creatively. They asked if I would do some set supervision for production in Budapest and then return back to SPIN in Toronto to do the post.


How was your collaboration with show creator Neil Jordan? What did he expect for the visual effects?
Neil is a fabulously creative director. Working on his production of THE BORGIAS was truly an honor. He has a clear vision for authenticity and historical accuracy to reflect 15th century Rome.

Can you tell us the real size of the sets?
The Korda studio backlot, which was a recreation of St. Peter’s Square, was built for the most part, between 2 or 3 stories high. We had to top up everything above that or extend their depths, which included St. Peters Basilica, the Chancelaria, the Bell Tower, The Leontine Wall, and all of Rome beyond the physical set. One third of the Basilica interior was built up to 20 feet tall and we then extended and/or topped it up to look so vast.


Can you explain to us, step by step, how you created the different set extensions?
We had Lidar scans taken of everything we were extending which helped immensely in doing proper asset builds and layout. Undistorts were done on the plates, PFtrack was used to get camera data, and geo was all laid out in Maya. Rendering was PRMan and we comp’ed in Nuke.


How did you proceed for the crowd multiplication?
We created our own assets and animations and used Massive to drive them. Cloth sims of woman’s dresses, flags and banners were done after that. Most of the time, when large crowds of Nobles, Peasants, French or Papal Armies were seen, they were Massive.

Can you tell us a little more about the shots showing the huge armies?
We had to build shots with 25,000 French soldiers and 2500 Papal soldiers, including various cannons, wagons, men on horseback, and their campgrounds. This was always utilizing Massive. We created the required animations and our FX team sim’ed it all together, and placed them onto Lidars of the backgrounds. Our CG Supervisor built a bunch of tools to make it all render efficiently in PRMan. Sounds easy but it’s not!


About the matte-paintings, how did you create the shot with the riders and the coast?
Pesaro Castle, far back on the distant hillside was created as a matte painting and in Nuke we tracked it to the plate, warped some sky movement, created cloud shadows moving over the terrain, added fishing boats, crashing waves, and of course, birds.


How did you create the shot of the blond girl flying to the ceiling and being part of the painting?
After some previz, Lucrezia (Pope Alexander’s daughter) was shot on greenscreen where we did a track and got her into a 3D environment in Nuke. We built the BG with primitives and projected high res textures onto them then, added some lighting and shadows. We exported the Nuke camera to Maya where we did a very subtle fx sim of dust floating by in the air. Her final ethereal look was done with creative compositing.


Did you create digital doubles for the stunt and gore scenes when soldiers are being hit by a cannonball?
Yes digital doubles were primarily used for these gruesome scenes. We also shot prosthetic limb elements on greenscreen. Blood was always added digitally.

What was the biggest challenge on this project and how did you achieve it?
We had created some amazing models but with all the details we needed, they became very large. We also wanted all the subtleties that make up a photo realistic render but had a television delivery schedule which was extremely tight. Our CG Supervisor decided that PRman was the only way to do this so he developed some cutting edge tools to do full ray tracing, GI including full color bleeds, deep shadows, volumetric lighting, etc with fantastic turn around times of a few minutes per frame. Once all the dev time was in place, the schedule was attainable and we had amazing CG elements to work with.

Is your pipeline different for a TV show than a feature film?
We were using SPIN’s feature film pipeline with a few modifications that were made to accommodate the tight schedule. We treat all our shots with feature quality in mind.


What is your feeling to be nominated for an Emmy award?
I feel grateful and honored. Our team worked extremely hard on this project and a formal recognition in the form of an Emmy nomination is absolutely wonderful.

Was there a shot or a sequence that prevented you from sleep?
There were some big episodes, especially episodes 7 and 8, where we had the same time frame to do 3 times the volume of other episodes. There may have been some lost sleep at that time.

What do you keep from this experience?
I had so many great experiences, but the most inspiring was working with the SPIN crew. The sense of camaraderie and creativity that ignited during this project made for one of the best working environments I have ever had.

How long have you worked on this project?
We were building assets in June 2010 and deliveries started in November. We wrapped in early May 2011.

What was the size of your team?
We had between 30 to 40 artists working on THE BORGIAS.

What is your next project?
I’m presently back in Budapest filming season 2 of THE BORGIAS. It’s going to be really great!

What are the four films that gave you the passion of cinema?
BLADE RUNNER is my top film, inspiring me hugely.
2001
STAR WARS
FANTASIA (all of Disney’s early animated films were very influential).

A big thanks for your time.

// WANT TO KNOW MORE?

Spin VFX: Dedicated THE BORGIAS page on Spin VFX website.

// THE BORGIAS – VFX BREAKDOWN – SPIN VFX

© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2011

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Vincent Frei

Founder & Editor-in-Chief // VES Member // Former comp artist

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