Image courtesy of HBO & Framestore

Framestore uses AR to put His Dark Materials’ daemons in your pocket

Today’s film fans have opportunities to immerse themselves in the worlds they love like never before. They can swoop through the air with Superman on virtual reality roller coasters, and step into the world of their favorite characters simply by putting on a VR headset.

Where location-based entertainment can immerse you inside a story's universe, XR platforms on consumer hardware provide ways to bring elements of that universe to you. Many opportunities to engage and delight fans are now possible using AR content that can be activated on personal smart devices.
Unreal offers a lot of tools out of the box that make it easy to create high-quality experiences. With powerful lighting, surfacing, and animation tools that integrate into our existing workflow more easily than others, it puts the fine control in the hands of our artists, letting them work their magic. "
- Christine Cattano, Global Head of VR & Executive Producer at Framestore
Some of the earliest examples we saw of this were on Snapchat. Users could add a filter to transform themselves into the film’s anti-hero for the release of Deadpool, or become one of the many famous X-Men mutants for the release of 20th Century Fox’s ‘X-Men: Apocalypse’. As XR technology has become more sophisticated, so have the AR experiences on offer. 

The Immersive team at creative studio Framestore knows a thing or two about expanding the boundaries of imagined worlds. It’s worked on XR projects for some of the world’s best-loved franchises, including Jurassic World, Game of Thrones, and Guardians of the Galaxy

For the recently aired second season of His Dark Materials that premiered on HBO and BBC, Framestore partnered with the network to create a new iOS and Apple Watch app called His Dark Materials: My Daemon.

Fans of the show are able to interact with their very own “daemons”— the magical animal companions that serve as an extension of characters’ souls in the show. 

After answering a few exploratory questions, users are assigned a personalized daemon they can interact with by providing basic updates on their current mental state (like whether they’re feeling focused or unmotivated). Based on that information, the daemon will recommend tasks tied to physical and emotional wellness, like going for a walk or watching a movie.

The more wellness tasks the user performs, the healthier and happier their daemon becomes. Users are also encouraged to undertake “journeys” that require them to perform a series of wellness-related activities that are tied to the characters on the show. The app incorporates augmented reality through animations where you daemon interacts with the world around you. 

Engaging fans with AR content

As Global Head of VR & Executive Producer at Framestore, Christine Cattano leads the Immersive team at Framestore New York, overseeing XR/experiential projects and the teams working on them. 

Much of her team’s work revolves around leveraging interactive and immersive platforms and emerging technologies to offer clients new ways of engaging with their audiences. For the last decade, game engines like Unreal Engine have been at the heart of that endeavor, as Framestore has sought to bring the iconic imagery it creates on TV and film screens to new media that natively function and respond in real time.
A significant portion of Cattano’s work in the XR space to date has been with the goal of giving fans new entry points into the storyworlds and IPs they know and love. “Our very first VR project for Game of Thrones in 2013 brought fans to the top of the 700-foot ice Wall in the North,” she recalls. “As a huge fan of the show, what’s more compelling and wish-fulfilling than that?”

Film studio demand for this type of XR content correlates with growing audience demand for deeper levels of engagement and immersion in the content they consume, as trends sway towards seeking out more participatory “experiences.”

As demand for experiences continues to swell and is fueled further by the growing supply and sophistication of immersive hardware, IP holders are in stronger positions than ever to keep audiences deeply and continuously engaged throughout more aspects of their everyday life. “For My Daemon, this goal of continuous engagement is exactly what we set out to do when we created a daemon companion that interacts with your activities throughout the day,” explains Cattano. 
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“As characters in the series have their daemon companion with them at all times, we knew the one thing people in this world have with them at all times is their phone! Bringing those pieces together—daemon, phone, AR, wellness—all felt really natural to the IP.”

Achieving realistic hair and fur 

The team used Unreal Engine for asset work from pre-production through to the final product. “Starting with many of the assets from the actual show as an initial point of reference, Unreal’s artist-friendly tools helped us to understand the limitations both on the rigging/animation and asset side for our desired platform and range of target mobile devices,” says Cattano. “We were able to iterate upon the assets to make sure they all ran smoothly while not compromising on quality. We also relied on the Sequencer in order to mimic our CG environment—both for animation and lighting purposes—in order to perform and render our lookdev work.”

In designing the app, the team felt that the most important feature—and the one that was going to be most shared among fans—is the menagerie of animal character AR daemons. “As they were the stars of the app, we knew we could get the best visual fidelity for these using Unreal Engine,” says Cattano. “Knowing that several of our animals were going to have fur, and several variations for each animal, it was also an easy decision to use Unreal Engine because of its fur support.”
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Unreal Engine’s strand-based hair and fur system has seen huge advances since its initial release in 2019, as a recent short film by Weta Digital attests. 

Being a company with a deep heritage in VFX—and having won a BAFTA for the VFX work on the show itself—the quality bar is always set high for Framestore’s Immersive team. It’s important for its artists to have access to the most powerful tools for creating visual imagery across any platform. “Unreal offers a lot of tools out of the box that make it easy to create high-quality experiences,” says Cattano. “With powerful lighting, surfacing, and animation tools that integrate into our existing workflow more easily than others, it puts the fine control in the hands of our artists, letting them work their magic.”

XR experiences for future film IP

Looking to the future, Cattano anticipates the arrival of many more different types of XR experience to enhance storyworlds. “Where to begin? Prior to the pandemic, we saw massive growth in the theme park industry surrounding big IPs, especially those utilizing cutting-edge tech to deliver immersive experiences,” she says. 

“More elaborate hardware, including displays and sensors, and advanced AI coupled with increasing fidelity in real-time graphics is going to massively propel how audiences can immerse and participate in themed entertainment, which is actively expanding beyond the parks to other destinations that—we hope—will be making a post-pandemic comeback around the time we see even more maturity in the aforementioned areas.”

At the same time, consumer hardware is becoming more robust and accessible. After the events of 2020, people are experimenting more with technology to supplement “experiences'' in the comfort of their home. “There’s always that inherent push-and-pull that compels location-based businesses to deliver more state-of-the-art experiences as the at-home offerings become more advanced and convenient,” explains Cattano.
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As someone who has spent much of her career working on transmedia campaigns for notable IPs, Cattano knows it’s crucial to select the platforms and technology that not only resonate best with the audience, but also complement the IP. “My hope is that XR tech advancing over the next decade to become a key part of our everyday devices will drive this type of content from being “supplementary”—that is, content made available to consume in lieu of the primary mode of consumption like film or TV—to “complementary”, meaning they tell the story together as part of a larger whole,” she says. 

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