Written by Shona Smith on Nov 5, 2019. Posted in On Location

VFX heavy His Dark Materials shot on location in Wales, Oxford and Bristol

While the budget has not been revealed by the BBC, the series is the UK broadcaster’s most expensive show to date. The series was heavily filmed in studios, with much of the budget going to VFX, provided in its entirety by Framestore.

Sets for the series were built at Wolf Studios in Cardiff. In comments to the Radio Times, Executive Producer Jane Tranter (Succession, Da Vinci's Demons) co-founder of Bad Wolf and Executive Producer explained “I always had a strong spidey sense that the way to do His Dark Materials was to do it indoors. And that because it’s a fantasy world, you’re not building Oxford you’re building fantasy Oxford, you’re not building the north you’re building fantasy north. But it’s not that far fantasy. It has to have slightly different feel to it for an audience than just going out and shooting a snowy wasteland. And I always thought that the clue to everything was to almost turn in on ourselves. And make it all about the text and performance. And then let the people who do the rest of it, really do the rest of it. And just really, really let them off the leash”.

Production Designer Joel Collins (Black Mirror) says, "I wanted to be part of a show that would challenge every bone in my body. I was looking for something that would be a true test of my mettle. The hardest thing in fantasy is trying to show a mass group of people what they’ve only previously seen in their minds.”

An important element in creating the fantasy series was the VFX work. Framestore delivered over two thousand shots of CG and animation, and was involved as a key creative advisor from the earliest stages of production and established a production-side visual effects team at Wolf Studios, Cardiff and work was split between London and Montreal offices.

Senior VFX Supervisor Russell Dodgson says “His Dark Materials demanded an extraordinarily high VFX baseline. It also required us to really live and breathe the show if we were to bring it to life. The team at Bad Wolf understood this from the get-go, helping us immerse ourselves in the script, the characters and the physical production so that the VFX work was embedded in the story from day one”. Over fifty distinctive dæmons, and Panserbjørn a bear-like creature was created for the show. During filming, first-pass takes were conducted with puppets, then removed from set and clean plates featuring the actors were shot.

“You’re building each one of these characters from the ground up, which means crafting their skeletons and musculature, and that’s before you even get on to the intricacies of feathers, fur, eyes ad claw” says Dodgson, “it was obviously important to imbue each dæmon with its own personality. A deeper concern, however, was how they interacted with their humans, and how their gestures and behaviour augmented, reflected or concealed what their human was thinking or feeling”.

Fiona Walinshaw, Framestore’s Global Managing Director, Film notes “it was a team effort on a grand scale. We’re no stranger to huge projects and tight deadlines, but His Dark Materials really feels like a landmark in terms of both the quantity and quality of VFX shots TV audience will witness. It’s a perfect example of how film and high-end TV are converging: there's a heightened demand from clients and audience alike for VFX work that would look as good in your living room as it would at the IMAX”.

However, some key scenes were filmed on location in Wales and the South West. Exterior Oxford scenes were shot in the city, where New College doubled for the fictional Jordan College. Other eminent Oxford locations to feature in the series include the Bridge of Sighs and the Botanical Garden.The River Severn also takes a starring role as the locations where the nomadic boat dwelling Gyptians lived and a set for the Lapland town of Trollesund was built on location near Abergavenny (pictured below).

With Bristol in easy reach of South Wales, the production visited the city a number of times, including for a chase sequence, consisting of a moving vehicle and a tracking vehicle in Bristol’s streets. Bristol Film Office’s Natalie Moore notes “This was a fast-paced shoot full of action, running and stunts which really made the most of the different looks Bristol has to offer, like the tall sheets and alleyways around Colston Yard and the stunning setting of Blaise Orangery. We’d like to thank all the individual locations involved for their help and cooperation”.

Image credits: Bad Wolf / Bristol Film Office

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