Film production, by its very nature, is an art of world creation. It is a spatial construct that exists at the intersection of the real and the unreal. Players and stories must occupy their places in the physical world as much as in our imaginations. Sometimes, the world of the film is entirely fiction, dreamt up by the director and their team of artists. Sometimes, the world in question is a direct representation of what exists in the real world, captured directly onto celluloid or sensor. More often though, especially in the digital age, that world is a combination of both the real and the imagined.
And this is where things get interesting.
One of our favourite challenges is when we’re called upon to develop an accurate historical recreation of the world as it existed tens and even hundreds of years ago.
Specifically, this usually involves the digital reconstruction of buildings, cities and other architectural sites that still exist, but have been changed so significantly over the years as to be unrecognisable or inappropriate to the historical context of the story. This is because facades have been altered, new, modern layers built on top of older areas, or entirely new buildings inserted where old structures and buildings once stood.
If care is not taken to properly research and understand the original, as well as the historical milieu in which it existed, then the whole affair can end up looking like a cartoony, badly put-together collage.
Two excellent examples of our work in this regard are mentioned here below.
The first is our recreation of part of parts of Prague for the film “Medieval”. This Bohemian city was obviously a very different place end of the Middle Ages when the film was set. Nevertheless, through painstaking research, and the amazing skills of our own VFX artists, we successfully were able to transport viewers back some 600 years to present a historically accurate view of one of the Czech Republic’s most famous and recognisable architectural treasures, the Charles Bridge. In this instance, great care was taken to research the look of the city and to recreate as closely as possible a landscape that has not existed since the 1400s.
The second example is our staging of Victorian London and other parts of England for the BBC production of Dickens classic tale, Great Expectations. Here our mission was not only to present the audience with a believable view of a nineteenth-century industrial city, surrounded by a sometimes dark, dangerous, and mysterious countryside but also to imbue those places with their own gritty personality. The perfect meeting point for visual imagination and historical authenticity.
VFX design and architecture are close cousins.
VFX artists and architects are more similar than you might imagine. We’re both schooled in the same software applications, and in the backend, our technical infrastructure works in pretty much the same way, when all is said and done.
In VFX design we rely on multiple iterations of virtual scenes, objects, and structures, that are often created using architectural design software and then imported into 3D animation applications, where they become live as part of a manipulable cinematic world.
Architects do the same when they deploy virtual cameras in their designs in order to give potential clients and / or investors a visualisation of the total experience of an architectural space.
It’s no coincidence that Autodesk, the same company responsible for Maya, 3ds Max, Flame and the other applications we plug into on a daily basis, is also the maker of AutoCAD, without doubt, the world's most ubiquitous architectural design program.
The script breakdown.
Representing the true character of an architectural site as it might have been centuries prior to the current day is a process that, like many things in the creative realm, starts with a good plan. And that plan traditionally starts with the understanding of the written narrative of the film in question and building visual solutions around that. In other words, breaking down the script and figuring out how best to support it in the VFX world.
Here, the VFX supervisor, traditionally, will work with the key stakeholders in order to establish how much VFX work is required to achieve the desired outcome, within the given budget and timeframe. For example, the VFX SUP considers things like the level of specificity a director is hoping to achieve; how many wide shots vs. detailed shots might be required, the former requiring a more general adherence to historical accuracy than the latter.
This information naturally informs the nature of the shoot (what can be shot, what needs to be built, what needs to be covered up, what can be painted out, what period clean-ups are needed to remove things like traffic lights and road signs), the complexity of equipment on set, the way data is captured at the time of filming (green screens, LiDAR, drones, photogrammetry, HDRIs, texture references) and how it is wrangled post-shoot (VFX toolkit, simulations, tracking data, etc).
Figuring out what’s original and what’s not.
We begin by analysing the given location and figuring out how much of the setting is original. This could mean something as straightforward as simply looking at the architecture in the vicinity and comparing styles. Does one section look older than another? How far back do we think the structures date? Can we see any distinct characteristics that might give us clues as to what an old neighbourhood might have looked?
We scrutinise historical sources such as old paintings and other artworks from the same era. Or books, papers, and writings. Exhibitions and museums offer a tremendous wealth of knowledge in this regard. We will certainly seek out and consult with experts where we can.
Another, perhaps surprising, source of inspiration is to view similar films that deal with the same time period. Perhaps there are even existing 3D models that we can ingest and work with as a starting point.
There really is no magic potion here, it all boils down to looking at and assimilating as much reference material as possible.
Remember that we are recreating historically accurate parts of the world that may not physically exist anymore. Our VFX artists are essentially filling in imaginative pieces of that world which must appear believable and logical for the audience to accept it.
Building out the world to give the best historical representation.
Once the visual reference materials have been collated and understood, it falls to the VFX artists to do their magic. Working from selected references they now must create a believable and immersive historical world for the film. The trick is to balance this historical accuracy with their own artistic vision, as well as that of the director.
This is necessarily an iterative process, with successive iterations often informing other creative decisions around the production and along the way.
Given the dynamic nature of the film and VFX industry, it’s important that this process be simple and fast. Dazzle Pictures’ artists are adept at creating fast turnaround results using a variety of techniques, including sketching, speed painting, photo bashing and 3D paintovers.
Sketching really refers to describing the character of the architecture with a simplified flourish of a pencil or stylus. The technique is quick and allows for a great number of options to be discussed with the artistic supervisors in a short time.
Speedpainting can be thought of as a level up from sketching in that it aims to express compositional, narrative, design and mood qualities. This technique can be achieved very quickly and is useful in the creation of strong visuals that might even serve as keyframe references downstream.
Photobashing is a tried and trusted technique used by visual artists in many fields. The approach can be likened to the digital equivalent of a collage, where the VFX artist uses existing pictures, mixed and mashed together to create a new version of the world.
3D paintovers is a fast and efficient method of using 3D software to develop simple pre-visualisations and allows artists to explore complex concepts such as texture, lighting, perspective and even camera movement very quickly.
The trick is to try and balance historical accuracy with our own artistic vision.
The main ingredient in creating a realistic, historically accurate representation is realistic assets.
From a technical point of view, there are additional aspects to be taken into consideration if the end result is going to be believable.
We know that human brains are engineered to view information contextually. For example, when we look at a building, we don’t just see a series of components such as windows, columns and textures. Rather we see the building as a whole, and in the context of its neighbours. And we understand that the building has volume, reflects light in different ways, and casts and receives shadows.
To deal with all these elements, and to understand how they fit together, we create an asset breakdown that lists each visual element, its importance in the visual hierarchy and its relationship to the other visual elements.
The idea is to identify which visual assets are heroes, which need to be perfect – close-ups, or important storytelling elements – and naturally will be allocated the most time and effort, and which assets make up more of a supporting cast – background, fillers, such as an out of focus skyline or trees or a façade with a large number of windows. These latter elements are often generated procedurally. (See our blog post on Houdini for more about the procedural process in VFX.)
Projects such as those described above are a great opportunity for us to blend our creative imaginations with historic truth.
These, and indeed all other related activities depend on the contributions of the Dazzle Pictures technicians and artists, whose formal training and sheer curiosity about the world around them makes their input invaluable.
Representing the historical architecture of a film's world is not only a technical challenge but also a creative one. It requires a balance between accuracy and artistic vision, between realism and fantasy. It also requires a collaboration between the director, the production designer, the visual effects supervisor and the digital artists. Together, they must decide how much of the original world to preserve, how much to modify and how much to invent. The goal is to create a believable and immersive environment that serves the story and the characters, while also respecting the historical and cultural context of the period.
The art of world (re)creation is an art of transformation, of bringing the past to life in new and exciting ways.