‘Visual effects’ has become an all-encompassing term. When people use this term, they could be describing invisible effects, meaning a CG scene where the viewer isn’t supposed to notice that it’s digital, or digital doubles, the exact digital recreation of areal actor, for instance. They could also be describing the screen portrayal of magic, superpowers and other elements that frequently appear in popular TV and film productions.
Creating these parts of TV, films and advertisements is not easy, it takes a huge amount of time, manpower and computer power, as well as a high level of technical know-how. While these demands are covered in many publications, there is one under-discussed area that is no less important: the creativity that makes these visuals stand out.
When we‘re given work at Flipbook Studio (based in Manchester, UK), there are often just a few words or a simple line in a script to work off: ‘Enid takes her potion, unstoppers it and darts away – super, super fast’ or ‘a skinless man emerges from the portal’.
A VFX artist needs to take these statements and get creative, working out ways to achieve the desired outcome in an effective and interesting way. For instance, what will convince the viewer? What do directors envisage in their minds? What is in keeping with the production design and what will not only fit the narrative but also help it? Oh, and the biggest challenge – how can we make it original?
Watching incredible work on-screen that’s unlike anything I’ve seen before makes me very happy and inspired, and with some of the exceptional work on show ‘North of the M25’ right now, I’ve decided to share my thoughts along with some examples of Northern UK VFX.
A Discovery of Witches – Axis Studios
'A Discovery of Witches' (see below), aired on Sky One in January 2021, is a hugely popular TV series based on the ‘All Souls’ trilogy by Deborah Harkness. The show is centred around the witch Diana Bishop and vampire Matthew Clairmont as they embark on a range of mysterious adventures. For any programme or film set in a fantasy world with mythological creatures and magic beings, VFX is hugely important, conveying the fantastical in-place of descriptive words. We have had our own experience with this at Flipbook, working on 'The Worst Witch' television series.
From a visual effects perspective, the environment of ‘A Discovery of Witches’ really catches my attention. It’s clear that a lot of work has gone into ensuring the 16th-century world from which the show is set is accurately portrayed. Recreating an entire computer-generated London from the Elizabethan era is no easy feat, and requires a keen eye for detail combined with a lot of research. Of course, there are no photographs of London during this time, so there’s always a significant degree of creative leeway on the part of the artist. The most important challenge is to capture what the viewer expects to see.
The team of artists needed to create something that viewers would instinctively accept as authentic, and in this context, it will be the details that really count. The artists behind the VFX created accurate street furniture and backdrops, including courtyards, buildings and smaller elements such as accurate horse bridles. It’s a great example of VFX work that marries historical accuracy with creative vision.
Slaughterbots – Space
If you’ve ever gone down a Ted Talks YouTube wormhole, you’ll have almost definitely come across some fairly forbidding takes on A.I. technology. Whether the envisioned threat is that of computers gaining sentience or achieving feats of intellectual processing far beyond the reach of any human, some AI experts offer sincere concern. To reiterate and dramatise the dystopian effects made possible by weaponized A.I., The Future Life Institute (chaired by Elon Musk) created a recent short film called 'Slaughterbots'. The film depicts the creation of fictional, microrobots that can covertly achieve mass destruction using advanced A.I. processing technology. Of course, to achieve this, the filmmakers needed to produce authentic CG animations.
Video: 'Slaughterbots', a dystopian vision created by VFX studio, Space.
There is a huge amount of creativity needed to achieve a convincing depiction of such robots. While a sci-fi novel may contain some detailed descriptions and examples of use, a short film like this will likely have fairly simple directive cues from the director to work from. The general public perception is also saturated with a multitude of fictional dystopian robots taking many forms, and considering this is a film that’s focused on exemplifying a real threat to humanity, it needed to remain within the realms of possibility. Space (VFX Studio) achieved this successfully by merging phone technology and current day drones into something far more deadly and efficient.
The drone-like depiction of these new weapons instantly places them within the current day – they look and behave much like something you could get on Amazon. This is a great example of how important design can be when creating fictional CG elements. It succeeds in effecting an impact on the viewer, serving the film’s core message.
Cutting through reality
The largest resource for visual effects, to me, is the world around us – there is nothing more spectacular than nature. There's a good reason Iceland is used as a location for alien planets, that wisps of smoke are the start point of many magical effects; nature is random and original. Thinking about how an effect would react to Earth physics, how a certain character may project their magic or superpower to coincide with their personality, how we as artists make the effect believable are all key considerations when we’re creating our effects.
We’ve had our own fair share of great experiences developing VFX for a range of different projects: creating a realistic star destroyer in 'Star Wars: Origins' as it appeared out of dunes in the Sahara desert (see top visual); designing an animated CG sheep for the bed manufacturer Harrison Spinks’ first TV advertisement; depicting super-speed running in 'The Worst Witch' series – these were all very individual projects that helped develop our own creative talents further.
The creativity and art in producing, developing and bringing all these effects to screen is one of my favourite parts of the job. Taking a line from a script and discussions with directors and breathing life into something that enhances the visual tapestry of a production is such a skill, I take my hat off to the incredible talent infused among this growing art form.
Ben Haworth is co-founder and creative director at Flipbook Studio.
Star Wars: Origins & Harrison Spinks, Flipbook Studio UK
A Discovery of Witches, Axis Studios
Slaughterbots video created with VFX from Space.