Andrew Scrase started his career in visual effects in 2007 at DNEG. He then worked at One of Us before joining Framestore in 2019. He has worked on various shows including KICK-ASS, INTERSTELLAR, PACIFIC RIM: UPRISING and ALADDIN.
Standish Millennas began working in VFX in 2007 at Machine. She then joined Prime Focus and One of Us then Framestore in 2019. She has worked on projects such as ROBIN HOOD, THE EAGLE, THE OA and TOLKIEN.
What is your background?
Andrew Scrase, VFX Supervisor (AS) // I started in VFX as a runner back at DNEG in 2007 having studied a degree in illustration and a masters degree in digital moving image and animation. From there I worked my way up, gaining experience in a range of 3D disciplines while at the same time acquiring lots of on set knowledge as I performed a dual role by covering shoots with VFX Supervisors. I moved from DNEG on to One Of Us before then making a move to the TV department at Framestore London as a VFX Supervisor.
How did you and Framestore get involved on this show?
AS: Our involvement in THE CROWN started on Season three. I’d worked with the show’s overall VFX Supervisor, Ben Turner, when we were at another facility. He knew I’d moved to Framestore and was interested in us taking a look at some sequences for S3 involving a vintage VC10 aircraft and London Airport in the 1960s and 1970s. The success of that work led us on to being much more heavily involved on Season 4.
Standish Millennas, VFX Producer (SM) // Ben Turner and I had also worked on seasons one and two together with another facility, and I happened to join Framestore at the same time that they were in discussion about taking on season four, so it was perfect timing to get back on board.
How was the collaboration with Showrunner Peter Morgan and the various directors?
SM: We’d get director feedback relayed to us by Ben Turner, and would have calls with the directors during the grading sessions to get the final note in person. We didn’t have regular direct contact with Peter Morgan, but would occasionally have messages/feedback passed on from him. On one occasion we were told that he wanted to ensure that we’d received his personal thank you for how well the stag shots turned out.
How did you organize the work?
SM: Episodic work tends to be a little tricky to schedule as you have to take into account each episode’s individual schedules, and in the case of THE CROWN, multiple directors to juggle too. It’s like having ten much smaller shows on the go at the same time, and yet you have some of the same VFX work across the whole show, so you need to have some artists jumping from episode to episode.
We try to get as much of an estimate of the work from scripts as possible to roughly schedule out the types of artists we need and when, then we work together amending it on the go as we start to see what makes it into the edit.
How was the work split between the various Framestore offices?
AS: In keeping with the British-ness of THE CROWN, all work was done at our London facility. However this did involve everyone working remotely at home due to the restrictions from the COVID-19 pandemic. That was a challenge everyone rose to really well.
What was your approach about the environments work?
AS: The obvious objective for this work is seamless integration of our digital additions into the shots. THE CROWN is set in our historic, real world. There’s absolutely nothing fantasy about it. The environments we create have to be extremely accurate and either fully replicate a real world place or display all the characteristics of it (if some creative license has been used). An example of this would be our St. Paul’s environment from episode 3:Fairytale which is very close to the real thing, making it work with the shooting location (British Museum). In comparison our ‘uptown’ New York night time street environment from episode 10: War wasn’t based on a specific street. Instead it incorporated characteristics from areas like Maddison Avenue, 5th Avenue and Park Avenue in late 1980s New York.
What kind of references and influences did you receive to create the various environments?
AS: Since accuracy and attention to detail was required for all our environments, real life photographic reference was key. For most of our digital environments based around London, it meant we could gather our own information in the form of reference images and large high res tiled photography. For everything outside of the UK, detailed searches on the internet was our tool. Most of the places we’re recreating are quite well known and therefore decent online reference can be found.
One exception to this was our reference for Ayers Rock (Uluru) and Sydney. Whilst I was on a three week holiday in Australia last year, Ben Turner asked if I could get reference of both locations. I did and it served us extremely well when we were awarded the sequences in episode 6: Terra Nullius. It was essential with guiding the work, especially with Ayers Rock which is such an unusual and unique natural rock formation when you see it for real.
Can you elaborates about the creation of Buckingham Palace?
SM: We inherited the CG asset from another facility that worked on seasons 1-3. The front gates and main archway from the Palace were set pieces in a car park in Elstree studios and we had to integrate the CG asset into the shots to complete the rest of the Palace.
How did you enhance the model from the previous season?
SM: Interestingly Buckingham Palace was very dirty around the time that season 1 was set, and over the seasons the CG Palace got cleaner and cleaner to reflect how it looked at the time. However, now we’re at season 4, it’s probably as clean as it’s ever going to be.
Can you explain in detail about the Australian and New York environments?
AS: The challenge for Australia was changing the shooting location to resemble areas such as Sydney, Ayers Rock and the different Australian airports shown in that particular episode. The production shot these sequences in Spain, making use of the country’s weather and light. The Sydney Opera House location was good, with the production design team finding an area with concrete steps very similar to those outside the real Opera House. This meant that we only needed to add what was beyond those wide steps along with adding crowd. The first hand photographic reference gathered in Australia was vital with this as I’d happened to have photographed the Opera House from very similar angles.
The approach to Sydney Opera House, which features at the beginning of this sequence, was again greatly aided by photography I’d taken at the real world location. Everything except the fg crowd and walkway was added by us.
The Ayers Rock sequence was a bigger challenge. For this they’d shot on a hill which wasn’t large enough to match the real one, the surface was the wrong colour and recent bad weather had made the it soft under foot. Very different to the real Ayers Rock. Therefore we replaced everything except the actors, creating a surface that matched the general shape of the ‘in camera’ hill, especially around any foot placement. All aspects of the surface were made to replicate the real Ayers Rock, which has a very unusual look to it. The task was made slightly more challenging by the absence of any on set Lidar or photogrammetry of the original hill.
New York was more about getting the characteristics and personality of the city in the late 1980s, represented on screen. The production shot in streets around Manchester, where the architecture is quite similar in parts to certain areas of New York. When it came to us working on the sequence we were vertically extending foreground buildings in the plate, adding fire escapes and water towers, background high rise buildings as well as traffic lights and additional cars on the roads. Again for reference we were relying on images from the internet, but fortunately again I’d visited New York a couple of years previously so I had a bit of an idea of the city. On top of that, the shows overall VFX Producer, Reece Ewing, had lived there for several years so we had that experience to draw on as well.
Can you tell us more about the creation and animation of the crowd shots?
AS: For all our crowd work we took a 2D approach. Using sprites shot on set and from our own Framestore library, we populated shots using a crowd tool in Nuke. Some shots were quite challenging because of how close we were getting to the digital crowd or how much screen space they filled.
Which environment was the most complicate to create and why?
AS: Ayers Rock was probably our most challenging environment. As touched on earlier, we had to replace the whole environment in about half the shots and Ayers Rock itself has a unique look to it when up close, which we needed to recreate.
The challenge of there being no on set 3D geographical reference meant we had to use other ways of creating geometry for the rock’s surface, which was particularly important around any foot placement from the actors. Due to the soft quality of the ground on set, there was the added complication that their feet were sinking into the surface. Therefore this was something we had to address in our shots as that obviously wouldn’t happen if they’re treading on solid rock!
Can you explain in detail about the creation of the beautiful stag?
AS: This was our most ambitious challenge on the show and a big decision from the makers of THE CROWN, introducing a full CG creature into such a grounded, real life drama. THE CROWN is obviously one of Netflix’s biggest series and therefore I knew our Stag would be thoroughly scrutinised. It would be playing an important role in the storyline of episode 2 and so we had to be as fully focused on realism as possible.
Initial discussions with the show’s overall VFX Supervisor, Ben Turner, centred around what the Stag should look like and what it would be doing. The biggest challenges for me were how close to the camera we’d get with it and the movements and actions it was going to have to perform through animation: walking, roaring, being shot, running, and limping.
For the overall appearance of the Stag, we wanted to create this majestic ‘beast’, a 12 or 14 pointer mature alpha male Stag. It needed to be grand enough to trigger the excitement and anticipation of the Royal Family characters motivations in the episode.
The groundwork for achieving this was based around a lot of research: watching lots of footage (including some captured during filming) and sifting through hundreds of images of different Stags. We never found the perfect image, but one that stood out to me was the photo of a large, male red stag which was rumoured to be known as the ‘Emperor’, who use to reside in Devon. He had this strong pose, big chest and gorgeous shaggy mane. This particular image, along with a handful of others carefully selected, served as inspiration. Our Stag was essentially an amalgamation of these references.
From there we created the asset. Overseen by the shows Creature Supervisor, Ahmed Gharraph, we had two highly skilled artists, Joel Best (model/texture/LDEV) and Gabriela Rach Salmeron (groom), set about making our Stag. The little details they added like moss on the antlers, small bits of vegetation debris and water droplets in the fur were all really nice touches.
Framestore is probably one of the best VFX studios around for CG creatures, proven by some of the work it’s produced over the last few years. I knew this would give us good ‘know-how’ in creating the CG Stag.
How did you handle his rigging and animation?
AS: This side of things was done through Maya. The animation team certainly had a tough challenge, making the Stag move in a life like way in all the actions it had to perform. But they did an excellent job and were supervised by our Head of Animation in Framestore IA, Ross Burgess.
Initially we were given an animatic for all the episode 2 Stag sequences from the client, these acted as our blueprints. Our first pass of animation consisted of finding real life footage of a Stag (or deer) performing a very similar action in each shot and presenting that side by side with the animatic. This gave client side, especially the Director (Paul Whittington), a really good idea of what we were aiming to produce for our Stag performance in each shot. The animation team then set about matching to this, and having seen the comparisons myself between our animation and the real life footage, it was pretty much an exact match. There were two or three shots which required a bit of tweaking or creative license, but apart from those all the other shots stuck to what was established in our first pass reference.
Can you tell us more about his fur?
AS: The Stag required a complex groom, each little detail manually placed to help add to the realism. The section that took the most time was the shaggy mane around his neck as it was such a distinct feature. This was a key area in helping portray the ‘majestic’ look we wanted to achieve.
Gabriela Rach Salmeron, our groom artist, did an outstanding job creating all this in Houdini, using a combination of a toolset she’d created with RnD. We created a dry and wet fur version, then blended the two together as the weather in the shots is damp with moisture in the air.
The hair simulation itself was done through Houdini’s vellum system, combined with a custom wind setup created for the show. The way the different wetness of fur reacted to wind all over the body was achieved through a custom hair deformer.
The groom took approximately 7 weeks to fully complete with over 15 million hairs of the Stag’s entire body, almost 200 million segments.
Can you elaborate on the various planes and boats creation?
AS: Royal transport is something that features fairly regularly in THE CROWN. In Season 3 we’d put a BOAC VC10 passenger plane into various shots and I think we were successful in doing that seamlessly. For Season 4 we made use of the VC10 asset again for some of the earlier episodes, changing the livery to mimic an RAF VC10 aircraft of the time.
For Charles and Diana’s royal tour of Australia, we created a new aircraft asset, an Australian Royal Airforce Boeing 737. We researched this particular aircraft that they used, even finding its name that was painted below the cockpit windows, before creating a matching CG asset. The aircraft would be used in two situations, either parked up on an airport runway somewhere with Charles and Diana getting on or off, or in the skies flying around Australia. In both instances we were replacing an actual aircraft in the original plate, sometimes just a fuselage section and doorway for certain shots when the aircraft was parked. Having the ‘stand-in’ aircraft in the original plates is obviously something we’d use to our advantage as it was great for lighting or movement reference. We’d even occasionally make use of sections in our final comps.
Britannia was actually a reuse of the same asset used in previous seasons, with some minor updates made to the model, textures and LDEV.
How did you handle the water simulations?
AS: We actually didn’t do any water simulations on the show. Any water we digitally added was through the use of 2D elements.
Which sequence or shot was the most challenging?
AS: Probably quite obvious, but the Stag was our biggest challenge due to its complexity. There were plenty of challenges regarding the realism of the asset in the way it looked as well as the variations in performance it needed to do. I’d say creating a believable CG creature is second only to creating a realistic CG human!
SM: On top of all this, when it came to the selection of plates for the Stag sequences, quite a few of the shots picked were originally shot as establishing shots of the highlands. That meant there was very little on set data for us to refer to with there being no grey / chrome balls or MacBeth, no fur reference and no lidar or photogrammetry of the environment to help with Stag interaction.
This is when our teams’ experience,‘artistic eye’ and ‘gut feeling’ come into play. All things that make Framestore great at photoreal CG creatures like this.
Did you want to reveal any other invisible effects?
AS: Hopefully there’s quite a few that people won’t spot whilst watching the show?! All our exterior Buckingham Palace work feels pretty invisible and I thought it was believable in the way we turned the exterior of the British Museum into St. Paul’s Cathedral.
SM: I think the background work in the show jumping scene hides itself pretty well, not only the crowds but all the marquees and food stalls too.
Is there something specific that gives you some really short nights?
AS: I think you always get the odd shot here or there that takes a while before everyone feels it’s right. Waiting for final approval from the client side on the Stag sequence shots was probably the most anxious I felt about any particular work on the show.
SM: The stag sequence was the first one we needed to get approved by the client out of the whole show, so waiting for that approval was pretty stressful as we had no prior idea of how our work was being received. From a production point of view, changes to creature work at that stage would mean a lot of artist wrangling, so there was a lot riding on it going well. Thankfully it did.
What is your favorite shot or sequence?
AS: Since I’ve spoken so much about the Stag sequence I’d probably have to pick one from that. For me it would have to be the close up shot of the Stag as he looks up reacting to the sound of the rifle trigger lock being released. In that one moment you can see all the detail that the team put into that asset, from the way it looked with all its tiny details, to the way it moved with the small movements in his ears and nostrils. I still maintain I won’t be happy until I see that playing on the giant TV screens at reception in the Framestore London building!
SM: I’m always a fan of the air-to-air aeroplane shots. They’ve been done in every season, but I still enjoy watching them. We’ve been lucky that we have good plates to start with, but when the CG planes are lit correctly it just looks flawless. Other than that, I’ll always be proud of the stag sequence.
What is your best memory on this show?
AS: Virtual dailies. I always want them to be enjoyable yet very constructive and a positive place where we can discuss work. I felt there was even more emphasis on this during the ‘lockdown’ period in the UK. Essentially we were working separately from one another in our own homes, but I wanted everyone to feel ‘together’ and part of a creative unit. That essence of a team working together is extremely important to me. Therefore it was always great to chat with everyone daily in our review sessions and bring everyone together.
SM: I don’t know about best, but the most memorable aspect was that we had to move into lockdown with no time to prepare, and I’m very proud of how Framestore carried that out as a whole, and how our team adapted to the new situation without it impacting too heavily on our schedule.
How long have you worked on this show?
SM: We started talking to the production team about the project around December 2019, we officially started on the show in January this year and delivered all our work in October ahead of the November release.
AS: The majority of this time involved everyone working remotely, which certainly made the UK ‘lockdown’ period go quickly!
What’s the VFX shots count?
AS: All together we worked on 230 shots.
What was the size of your team?
SM: It peaked at about 60
What is your next project?
AS: I’m currently waiting for a new one.
SM: Without being able to go into too much detail, Framestore’s TV teams have a few shows coming out shortly and several others in production including some more projects for Netflix, Apple TV and Disney+.
What are the four movies that gave you the passion for cinema?
AS: Tough to just narrow it down to four! However the films you watch when you’re still a kid have the biggest influence on you. In that regard BACK TO THE FUTURE, RETURN OF THE JEDI (everyone picks Empire, but Jedi influenced me more) and INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM would be three. Finally the one that probably had the biggest influence on me was Tim Burton’s original BATMAN (1989). I was 9 years old when I saw it and thought it was amazing in the way it looked and the way it portrayed the Batman character in a dark way. The fact I also was given a ‘Making Of’ book for the film meant it opened my eyes into how the films I enjoyed were made.
SM: I have early memories of marveling at the world created in LABYRINTH, all the costumes, sets and ways to trick the eye just fascinated me. I also remember my dad getting me to watch METROPOLIS with him, which I loved for all the same reasons. It really is the visuals that stick with me most, it could be any style, from THE TREE OF LIFE to MOULIN ROUGE!, when it’s done well it just makes me wish I was involved.
A big thanks for your time.
WANT TO KNOW MORE?
Framestore: Dedicated page about THE CROWN – SEASON 4 on Framestore website.
Netflix: You can watch THE CROWN – SEASON 4 on Netflix now.
© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2020