By Randi Altman
Even Doctor Who celebrates Christmas, but in a very different way than most. Let’s just say the Doctor’s not sitting around a fireplace drinking eggnog and listening to holiday music. In Doctor Who‘s “The Husbands of River Songs” our favorite Tardis traveling character is hurled into a frantic chase across the galaxy. This special premiered on December 25 and featured a typical wacky plot and some pretty cool effects.
UK-based AxisVFX was called on to create over 100 shots for the episode. They split the work between their two studios — one in Bristol, England, and one in Glasgow, Scotland. The Axis team was led by co-owner/VFX supervisor Grant Hewlett and fellow VFX supervisor Stuart Aitken. They worked closely with director Douglas Mackinnon and producer Nikki Wilson while creating shots that ranged from alien planets to giant robots to galactic star-liners.
Services spanned digital matte painting, character animation, fluids and particle simulation work to rigid body simulations and compositing using Autodesk Maya, Side Effects Houdini and The Foundry’s Nuke.
Over the holidays, we reached out to Hewlett to find out more. Let’s dig in.
You provided over 100 VFX shots?
We ended up delivering 119 shots in total, which was about a third more than we bid. This is relatively normal as we pick up A/B shots when editing starts. A/B shots are effectively the same shot chopped up in the edit.
It’s part of our remit as a company to serve the story first, so we rarely charge for this type of addition; flexibility is what’s required on a show like Doctor Who.
How early did you get involved, and have you worked on Doctor Who previously?
We got involved about three or four weeks before shooting. We started breaking down scripts and exploring creative solutions to the many and varied effects required. Previously, we had worked on an episode from Season 8 called “Flatline” with Douglas Mackinnon and Nikki Wilson, so it was great to work with them again.
Working under tight deadlines and juggling multiple issues is tough; you have to live with the decisions you make. Building relationships and allowing space for creativity to blossom is pretty nerve-racking at times but ultimately very rewarding.
What were the types of shots needed? Invisible? Obvious? Both?
Doctor Who is a challenging show for a visual effects company as there is minimal re-use and every story has its own demands. The Christmas special had spaceships, digital matte paintings, set extensions, characters, fluid effects, snow, explosions and even an exploding head!
The majority of fix-it type work is done superbly by the BBC in-house online team. At the center of our work was Hydroflax the Robot, which was a prosthetic/suit/performer in the majority of shots with additional VFX enhancements. We built a full copy of the real suit in Maya using photogrammetry I shot on set with a Sony RX 100, which is great little piece of kit with a F1.8 lens.
The 3D model was textured in Mudbox and Photoshop and we prepped 8K maps for use in our proprietary Houdini shader written by CG supervisor Sergio Caires. Our “stunt” CG Hydroflax was used in a number of sequences in the episode. The most hilarious was Matt Lucas whizzing off like a firework. Awesome!
What was your workflow like? Did you have a supervisor on set?
I supervised the month-long shoot and worked closely with Douglas and Nikki on every scene, advising and suggesting alternatives when required. We had four weeks to deliver all of the shots once we got a locked cut, so my goal was to get as much approval and creative buy-in as we could as we went along.
We created hundreds of concepts and dozens of previz QuickTimes for the feedback loop so we could bring all to a common plan. In practice that works for the majority of shots, but things always evolve as the edit comes together. That’s the nerve-racking time for us — waiting for the edit. Thankfully Douglas and Nikki, while being demanding clients, are also very pragmatic and professional, which makes our job much easier than on some jobs, which I am not going to talk about here! (laughs).
You have mentioned some tools used. What do you call on for collaboration and other parts of the workflow?
We use a whole gamut of DCC tools, but our workhorse is Nuke. Shotgun provides the organization and pipeline tools and we use Alembic to move data around.
Having worked most of my career as a lighting/shots TD, I like to keep things simple so each distinct step in our 3D pipeline has a “publish,” allowing clean data for the next step.
How did the approval process go with the producers?
Approvals of concepts, animation/layout, look-development, lighting and final shots were carried out via the Shotgun Client review site, which is simply fantastic. Pretty much every day from the start of filming to the day before delivery we sent playlists for review by the director, producer, executives and post supervisor. We also had a number of face-to-face meetings in the cutting room, which are much more freeform and immediate. The goal was to generate ideas and approaches to explore.
What’s next for AxisVFX?
Well, we are a few weeks into two seasons of Red Dwarf and we have a number of other projects that I can’t really talk about yet.