April 27, 2020
Designing sets and action sequences on “His Dark Materials” with virtual production
To help design and visualize the enormous sets and complex action sequences required, the production team turned to Painting Practice, an award-winning design studio whose services include—among other things—previs, animation, VFX, production design, concept art, and digital matte painting.
The team at Painting Practice, who had previously dabbled in real-time rendering on a couple of other shows, started implementing Unreal Engine at the earliest stages of preproduction for His Dark Materials.
One of the challenging sets they needed to design was Trollesund, the main port of Lapland in the world of Lyra Belacqua, the story’s heroine. For this, the team made a scan of a quarry using photogrammetry drones and used it to create a high-resolution model to import into Unreal Engine. With a few additional models and some textures, the real-time mock-up was complete.
The previs enabled the director and producers to explore the conceptual environment and make key decisions on the scale of the buildings and the set. “Unreal was a great way of getting people to physically be in a space that was not even conceived,” says Dan May, Creative Director at Painting Practice, and one of the company’s co-founders.
Joel Collins, Executive Producer and Production Designer on the show, elaborates. “These are very expensive sets, and on a show like His Dark Materials, where you're building an entire town for one episode, you've got to make really good decisions that are practical and financial and creative, and they're all combined,” he says.
“What Painting Practice's team created gave us an ability to make critical judgments that meant that we could get it right on the edge of affordable and absolutely on the edge of shootable, in the sense of there was no fat on what we built.”
Another critical piece of previs was for a fight scene between two of the story’s armored polar bears. Episode 7, The Fight to the Death, involves mortal combat between Lyra’s friend Iorek Byrnison and the usurping king Iofur Raknison. The episode’s director, Jamie Childs, explains that being able to experiment with a virtual camera on a set that did not yet exist enabled him to explore the best camera angles to maximize the scene’s believability.
“I wanted to walk around and look at the bear fight, because I wanted that fight to feel like it was a real fight being shot, not a CG fight,” he says. “I could actually do that with Unreal, I could move around that room physically, get the camera in the position I wanted to, and see on my camera monitor what was going on, and record those shots and cut it together—and that was really freeing for a director.”
Childs goes on to explain how the sensation reminded him of his early days learning his craft, when he would go out and just film things to try them out, letting his creativity find the essence of the story.
“I didn't really think that previs would help me do that side of things,” he says. “I thought it might help me with technically where to put a camera and stuff like that, but it actually made me go ‘Right, I don’t need to worry about any of the noise; I can actually just go and create something.’ ”
Real-time technology is already moving beyond preproduction into some elements of full production, and Collins sees a time when it will span the entire production process.
“I'm now really excited by the next 10 years because of this Unreal thing, in terms of it will just almost be start to finish,” he says. “Maybe all production will end up like that.”
Painting Practice is also looking to increase the reach of real-time technology within the industry by launching Plan V, a new software app based on Unreal Engine. Plan V is a virtual reality bespoke studio environment that enables artists, producers, directors, and many other members of a production crew to experiment with lenses, storyboards, previs, and more.
With a simplified workflow and a user-friendly interface, Plan V is designed to enable less technically inclined users to interact in a high-quality 3D environment and design worlds, sets, and scenes for films, television, advertising, or games. It supports both local and remote collaboration.
A first version of the free app will be available to download on May 1 via Steam and on the Painting Practice website.
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