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Using VFX to turn back time for Downton Abbey film

The feature film Downton Abbey is a continuation of the popular TV series, which followed the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and their domestic help. Created by Julian Fellowes, the film is based in 1927, one year after the show’s final episode, bringing with it the exciting announcement of a royal visit to Downton from King George V and Queen Mary.

Framestore supported the film’s shoot and post, with VFX supervisor Kyle McCulloch and senior producer Ken Dailey leading the team. Following Framestore’s work creating post-war Britain for the BAFTA-nominated Darkest Hour, the VFX studio was approached to work directly with the film’s director, Michael Engler, to help ground the historical accuracy of the film.

Much of the original cast and crew returned, with a screenplay that required the new addition of a VFX department, “although it was important that we had a light footprint,” explains McCulloch. “I want people to see the credits and be surprised that there are visual effects in it.” Supporting VFX on over 170 shots ranged from cleanups and seamless set transitions to extensive environment builds and augmentation.

Transporting the audience to an idealized interpretation of 1920s Britain required careful work on the structures of buildings, including the Abbey (Highclere Castle), Buckingham Palace and Lacock village, a national trust village in the Cotswolds that was used as a location for Downton’s village. Using the available photogrammetry and captured footage, the artists set to work restoring the period, adding layers of dirt and removing contemporary details to existing historical buildings.

Having changed so much since the early 20th century, King’s Cross Station needed a complete rebuild in CG, with digital train carriages, atmospheric smoke and large interior and exterior environment builds.

The team also helped with landscaping the idyllic grounds of the Abbey, replacing the lawn, trees and grass and removing power lines, cars and modern roads. Research was key, with the team collaborating with production designer Donal Woods and historical advisor Alastair Bruce, who came equipped with look books and photographs from the era. “A huge amount of the work was in the detail,” explains McCulloch. “We questioned everything; looking at the street surfaces, the type of asphalt used, down to how the gutters were built. All these tiny elements create the texture of the entire film. Everyone went through it with a very fine-tooth comb — every single frame.”

 

In addition, a long shot that followed the letter from the Royal Household from the exterior of the abbey, through the corridors of the domestic “downstairs” to the aristocratic “upstairs,” was a particular challenge. The scenes based downstairs — including in the kitchen — were shot at Shepperton Studios on a set, with the upstairs being captured on location at Highclere Castle. It was important to keep the illusion of the action all being within one large household, requiring Framestore to stitch the two shots together.

Says McCulloch, “It was brute force, it was months of work and I challenge anyone to spot where the seam is.”


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