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Revisiting a fantasy classic with “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance”

Visual Effects Supervisor Sean Mathiesen breaks down the VFX work created for the rebirth of “The Dark Crystal” in “Age of Resistance”…

Introduction

Originally conceived by legendary puppeteer Jim Henson and co-directed with Frank Oz, The Dark Crystal (1982) told the story of a Gelfing attempting to restore world order by searching for a shard from a magical crystal. 37 years later the fantasy adventure gets a prequel series on Netflix created by Jeffrey Addiss and Will Matthews called The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance. Directing all of the 10 episodes was filmmaker Louis Leterrier (The Transporter) who had a habit of making on-the-day alterations which meant crew members such as Visual Effects Supervisor Sean Mathiesen (28 Weeks Later) had to be flexible during principal photography.

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Practical puppets were built by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop while DNEG was the sole visual effects vendor. Puppets were scanned, 3D tracked and brought into Nuke where a special script made use of a slider setup that could increase the smile or lower the brow or raise the cheekbone or add blinks. “In preproduction, we had to find the line where you break the real-world puppet by adding this visual effect on top of it,” explains Mathiesen. “It was a subtle amount of work that we wanted to do to enhance whatever the puppeteers were doing onset.”

Finding the right balance

Mathiesen watched The Dark Crystal many times alone as it was important to honor the ethos and aesthetic established by Jim Henson and the fanbase by not being overly CG. “The entire episode series was divided into three blocks,” remarks Mathiesen. “The first three scripts were sorted out in advance and the next set of scripts were worked on while shooting was going on. There were storyboards for everything but Louis’ style is about being in the moment and that threw all of us for a loop at times. The only sequence that I did previs for consisted of 35 shots in the carriage chase which ended up being 105 shots long.”

“I was able to manufacture the story structure and several of the shots were verbatim; however, everything else was Louis figuring out what is the best action sequence. Louis kept things in the edit for quite a long time so the show didn’t turnover in a traditional fashion. There were times where we would be working on Episode 1 until the cut-off date so postvis ended not being a part of it.”

Visual Freedom

A major difference between the movie and the series is the amount of freedom with the camera. “Once upon a time cleaning up a puppeteer was not even a possibility. In the mid-1980s, you had to take your camera, lock it off, and dress the set around your camera view like a real-world 3D matte painting,” states Mathiesen. “Louis Leterrier wanted to loosen up the camera because there is a much more sophisticated viewing audience, and bring his Steadicam style to the show.

It fell to visual effects to clean-up puppeteers who would be constantly seen on the bottom of the frame.”

In the original, children dressed as Gelfings for wide shots was problematic as human anatomy is quite different from the fantasy creature. “The puppeteers and the visual effects team went through a long R&D cycle to figure out what does a Gelfing really walk like. Puppeteers Kevin Clash and Neil Sterenberg talked at various times about Jim Henson’s style of using his knees to drive the up and down motion to convey to the viewer that the characters were walking. Different puppeteers would give us various walk cycles. We would match move the head of the puppet and work out how would the legs move to make that head move in that way. That was a substantial project to find out what the walk cycle from a Marquette would be when there was no reference to go on.”

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Flying Gelflings

Some of the Gelfings can fly. “We had originally scanned and planned on making every puppet that flies as a digital double,” reveals Mathiesen. “But the problem is that you often get puppets fly up and they are very close to camera. Regularly characters would come around a bend far off, fly to camera which would pull back so they could deliver a line, and then fly off in the distance. One of the original budgetary agreements was that digital doubles would only be good to a third of the screen height. Most of the flying Gelfing were puppeteered which was in keeping with the original movie with smaller amounts of camera motion on them so you get a perspective shift.”

“We would take those, put them on cards in Nuke, move them off in the distance, and do whatever was possible to take the parallax around any character and push that slightly more. Then we added CG wings to every Gelfing that would fly. We went through a long R&D process to figure out how the wings worked. Is it a butterfly, bird, or dragonfly? Finding that mix between all of the different kinds of wing beating patterns and the material the wings were made of. Toby Froud, the head of the creature workshop, built a set of wings that we scanned and adapted quite a bit by making it more transparent and dragonfly-like.”

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Into the woods

Puzzlewood, situated on the border of England and Wales, serves as the background for the carriage chase. “I made a cardboard cut-out of the carriage that was 10-percent of the real-world size, took photos and showed them to Louis; he gave us the broad strokes of things that would work for him,” states Mathiesen. “I divided the location into five or six different zones. We couldn’t get an array camera because of being in such a small place as well as the camera height and freedom of the movement of the camera relative to the real-world carriage.”

“We had to get an underslung Steadicam three inches off of the ground at 10 miles per hour running down these tiny footpaths in the middle of the woods. We made a poor man’s version of an array rig by getting the camera operator to run down the forest with the camera pointing forward, and panning over 30 degrees and running down again. We stitched together a 360-degree environment that could be sorted out in post. We got to do postvis and were able to figure out that camera at that angle told the right story of the carriage up on a ridge about to dive down into a channel in-between some rocks in the forest. In postvis, we were able to stitch together this story and put it in front of Louis; that process went on for many months.”

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Dreamfasting

Postvis was important for the scenes involving dreamfasting, the psychic form of communication between Gelfings. “We explored 3D ways but decided that wasn’t a good use of the budget,” explains Mathiesen. “2D was too flat and too many cards. There was some astro geometry drug trippy imagery that went on from the 2D exploration which worked well. We went back and made this 3D version of a few environments and added in some of the 2D astro geometry imagery that worked from that, and the colors from the original designs and glyphs by Brian Froud.”

“We wove those back together into an idea that we were able to sell Louis on. It was such a complex assembly. Trying to get something drug trippy is hard even if you’re doing it for real! It would have been incredibly slow to render out if we didn’t have the ability to postvis it and then finally execute everything.”

Collaboration

4,286 visual effects shots were produced by DNEG with the post-production scheduling lasting 15 months. “A lot of research was done with DNEG to get the show off the ground,” notes Mathiesen. “When I came on in pre-production as a supervisor, I had to look at how it was possible to do 3,000 to 5,000 shots. Everyone was equally adaptable and malleable to get all of the 10 episodes to air on time.”

Various techniques were deployed to populate shots with additional characters. “The world breaks down into seven different Gelfing clans and in this series not every one of those clans are represented. The clans that we do see are sometimes only three puppets. We would go through a shot and see if there were any characters that could be roto out of an alternative take that could be swapped, color graded, and dropped into shadows, anything that would give us already existing correctly lit footage that might work.”

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“The second port of call was our digital doubles. We did an enormous amount of the crowds in the final battle with spears and flags. Every clan has symbols and a color pallet that represents them. If you’re at the level of a person in a crowd you can only see one or two layers back and then it’s only flags, spears or anything that sticks up over the standard head height. We were able to populate the world by using various icons of the different clans to make it feel like there were a lot more characters than there were.”

Endless forest

Skies were mostly sky domes and matte paintings while heavy simulations were needed for the Endless Forest. “For the extension of the Endless Forest every leaf is a unique asset with some of them have to be dropping off and trees are blowing in the wind,” reveals Mathiesen. “In the original movie everything moves to create the feeling that the entire world is alive. That meant that the forest was real leaves, moss, grass, and vines. The art department would come in and on top of that they would find these amazing vines that were a ribbon that had fibres coming off of it which blew in the wind nicely.”

“Every single part of the frame was moving so it would take days to render out a shot for our CG portion of the forest.” Noise patterns were created to simulate water for the wide shot of Rian jumping out of the castle. For Rian falling into the water, we were able to do most of it with 2D elements such as bubbles and splashes that DNEG had in their library. There was only a little bit of simulation work for direct contact bubbles. The place where we had a lot of Houdini time was in the final battle with the electricity.”

“Onset we would shoot off these air pods with cork and dirt which were recreated digitally. There were some fluorescent tubes to get some interactive lighting and in order to remove them, the entire floor of the set had to be recreated digitally. We added in the sparks of electricity that went everywhere. Deet has the ability to throw out electricity and it affects her and goes into her eyes; that sometimes was a matte painting but in other occasions we got into simulations.”

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Crystal chamber

Lengthy render times were had in the Crystal Chamber when a character was being drained. “The Crystal’s ray locks onto whatever its positive or negative counterpoint is and either draws energy out or puts energy into it,” states Mathiesen. “In the movie, it was an optical printer and became a straight line that connected with the Skeksis’ eyes. Louis wanted it to be fluid like something in water. We had to figure out a simulation process to create these beams of energy that would connect the Crystal to the eyes of the Skeksis. Then we had to simulate the algae and sometimes it was pushing or pulling. We were able to create the purple beams as a 2D effect but had to populate the inside of that with 3D particulate. All of that was hidden under a layer of lens flare work.”

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“We shot for two or three days every single lens, light source, and angle. All of those we were able to use to flicker back and forth to produce a kinetic energy out of the lens flare.” The pill bug-inspired Armalig exists strictly as a CG creature. “The mudguards are real-world sculpts that live on the carriage and the Armaligs rollup inside, go into their roly poly form and become the wheels of the carriage. That was a cool bug. They’re allergic to Podlings which cause them to sneeze. There were odd bits of character that we could add into this thing which is ultimately just a wheel to a car. But because it’s a Dark Crystal world it becomes much more of a character in its own right.”

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Ha’rar

A major set was Ha'rar which is about the size of the ancient Mayan city of Machu Picchu. “Gavin Bocquet [The Bank Job], the production designer, built a cobblestone street with four houses on either side; he also did rapid prototyping of what various buildings might look like,” remarks Mathiesen. “We were able to take those low-resolution models and create many more buildings by creating a kit of parts out of them. There was an inside of the library but no exterior. We picked that up as a 3D printed model and did some design work. We also built the exterior of the Citadel and placed it into the big wide shots of the city.”

“Originally, it was going to be simple matte painting going onto stock footage. We found this mountain range in Alaska that made a crown of thorns around the outside. It nestled the city into this high reaching spiky new mountain range that was imposing and defensible; that lives on the edge of the ocean.”

Skeksis Castle

An iconic setting is the Skeksis castle. “There was scan of an original model that is in the Museum of Moving Image in New York. In the movie it is shown from only one angle so the sculpt was built to camera. We used the style of the frontside to go into the backside to make a 360-degree version of the model. From there we had to resurface and texture it as cameras would be skimming over the surface. I worked with DNEG to sculpt a 2.5D environment in Nuke where three different rivers converge into a single lake that has the castle in its centre. We created a terrain that we could project imagery in Nuke onto and the distant background are mountains in every direction which were 2D matte paintings as well as a sky dome that reflects in the CG water.”

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