Some Very English VFX

by Graham Edwards

Aidan Turner in "Poldark"

With its dramatic coastline, bleak moorlands and rolling hills, the picturesque West Country of England has long been popular with filmmakers seeking landscapes filled with both character, and a sense of history.

The counties of Dorset, Devon and Cornwall have featured in films like Barry Lyndon, The French Lieutenant’s Woman and War Horse – not to mention almost every Jane Austen adaptation ever made. They’ve even made appearances in recent big-budget blockbusters including World War Z and Edge of Tomorrow. Coming right up to date, these very English landscapes play a significant part in two new productions – one made for the big screen, and one for the small.

First up is the feature Far from the Madding Crowd, adapted from the Thomas Hardy novel and directed by Thomas Vinterberg for DNA Films. Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures, the film tells the tempestuous story of Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan), and her attempts to juggle three different suitors, in rural 19th century England.

Second is Poldark, a new television adaptation of the classic novels by Winston Graham. The Mammoth production is directed by Edward Bazalgette and Will McGregor, and stars Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark, recently returned to England after fighting in the American Revolution to find his father dead and his inheritance in tatters.

Both productions feature a range of visual effects by two Soho-based companies, designed to enhance the natural landscape and help in the task of whisking viewers back through time to a bygone age.

Watch a Union VFX breakdown reel showing their work on Far from the Madding Crowd:

Far from the Madding Crowd

As sole vendor on Far from the Madding Crowd, Union VFX created visual effects for a number of key scenes, including a burning-barn sequence using a combination of CG and real fire elements, with embers and smoke created using Houdini.

Equally dramatic was a scene in which a flock of sheep is herded over a cliff by a sheepdog. In order to choreograph this complex action, a small group of sheep was photographed leaping over a small drop. Union took these live-action plates and multiplied them many times over to create the illusion of the entire flock in free-fall. Similar replication techniques were used to enhance additional harvest and snow scenes.

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Tim Caplan, Union’s co-founder and lead VFX producer on the film, commented, “It was inspiring to work in Dorset – such a beautiful part of the world – and re-imagine it as it was at the turn of the 20th century. It was also a privilege to work with one of the film industry’s most exciting directors in Thomas Vinterberg. And the project itself was an exciting challenge. The big fire sequence, for example, came with a host of logistical, and health and safety restrictions. We had to work out how to keep that sense of real jeopardy and authenticity in the picture – but without of course endangering any of the cast or crew. Far From The Madding Crowd has been a fascinating experience and we are hugely proud to have been a part of it.”

Watch a trailer for Far from the Madding Crowd:

Poldark

Visual effects for Poldark were supervised by Alexis Haggar, and include a number of set extensions and digital matte paintings created by Lexhag VFX.

One of the major challenges facing the production was the re-creation of the 18th century Cornish tin mining insdustry. While some mining architecture still survives in the region, much of it is in ruins. The task of restoring it to full working order therefore fell to the Lexhag team.

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The first step towards building a digital tin mine involved a detailed 3D scan of the location. “All of the major set extensions were started with a LiDAR scan,” Haggar explained. “For Wheal Leisure – Ross Poldark’s mine – the art department built the lower areas around an existing mine on the Cornish coast and we took over for the higher elements, such as the roof structure and windows. Grambler, the large mine set into the hillside, was a combination of digital matte painting and 3D elements all composited in Fusion Studio.”

Visual effects artist Ken Turner elaborated, “All the 3D elements were rendered as .exr files and brought into Fusion to relight and grade. The .exr files handle multiple light passes, and masks for all of the separate elements, which gives you a lot of control for interactive adjustments in Fusion. Once the still frame was close to the finished article, I then took it into Photoshop for a final paint, breaking up the clean CG edges with grime and rock before taking it back into Fusion where I added people, smoke, grain, lens aberrations and lots of little tweaks to make the still matte painting come to life.”

Commenting on the demands of television production timescales, Haggar concluded, “Speed is the key for us. Keeping your creativity alive while compositing has always been a challenge. Waiting for elements to render or playback is always frustrating. Fusion provides the best of both worlds: fast compositing or high accuracy “pixel pushing” for absolute perfection.”

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Special thanks to Stephanie Hueter and Cheryl Clarke.