Tag Archives: Doctor Who

AxisVFX celebrates Christmas with ‘Doctor Who’ special

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‘sThe 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.

Grant Hewitt

Grant Hewlett

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.

Milk provides 117 VFX shots for ‘Doctor Who’ debut episode

The BBC’s Doctor Who is back, to the delight of television audiences worldwide. The series, which has gone through eight iterations over the years, recently had its season debut, and London-based VFX house Milk played a role.

The studio created the visual effects for the premiere episode “Deep Breath,” which featured Peter Capaldi as Doctor Who. Ben Wheatley directed the 80-minute episode, which was simulcast and screened in cinemas globally on August 23.

The focus of Milk’s work, 87 shots worth, was the sinister and mysterious “Half-Face Man,” who appears throughout the episode. Milk replaced one entire side of the actor Peter Ferdinando’s head in 87 of the 117 digital shots produced by Milk.

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Milk to create VFX for new ‘Doctor Who’ series

London — Milk Visual Effects (www.milk-vfx.com), which created VFX for the BBC’s Doctor Who 50th Anniversary special episode: Day of the Doctor, has been commissioned by the BBC to create the visual effects for the eighth series of Doctor Who, starring new doctor Peter Capaldi. The new series will be broadcast in 2014.

Milk is currently working with the BBC to create the VFX for the much anticipated one-hour Doctor Who Christmas Special: The Time of the Doctor — in which Matt Smith’s doctor will regenerate into Peter Capaldi’s incoming Thirteenth Doctor — due to air on BBC One on Christmas Day. Doctor Who series eight will start shooting in January 2014.

The news comes on the heels of the BBC’s landmark Doctor Who 50th anniversary special: The Day of The Doctor for which Milk created the VFX work in stereoscopic 3D.

The team at Milk (previously as The Mill’s TV department prior to Milk’s launch in June 2013) has been creating the visual effects for Doctor Who since its regeneration in 2005. During this time they have scooped a raft of awards including a BAFTA, a VES (Visual Effects Society) Award and an RTS Award for their VFX work.

According to Milk CEO Will Cohen, “Many of us on the team have been privileged to enjoy a 10-year love affair with Doctor Who, so to be able to carry on collaborating with the BBC Wales team on telling these incredible stories fills us with joy and provides us with an opportunity as VFX artists to help push the boundaries of what can be done visually on television.”

will cohensmall

CEO Will Cohen

He added: ”A new series with a newly regenerated Doctor is in many ways like starting working on the show all over again. Doctor Who is a show that never, ever gets boring. It’s different every week. This will be our fourth Doctor and we are very, very excited!”

Milk’s current TV projects also include Sherlock: Series Three (Hartswood Films/BBC); new pirate drama series Black Sails for Starz; Sky’s New Year’s Day TV special – David Attenborough’s Natural History Museum Alive (Sky Atlantic); and the new TV drama Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, a seven-part miniseries due to be broadcast on BBC One in the UK in 2015.

On the feature film side, Milk is working on MGM’s upcoming Hercules and has recently completed work on 47 Ronin for Universal.