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Great Effects for Good Omens: Collaboration with Milk VFX

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CreativeCOW presents Great Effects for Good Omens: Collaboration with Milk VFX -- TV & Movie Appreciation Feature
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Wouldn’t you know it? You’re a demon living on Earth for the past 6000 years, and you’ve finally persuaded your angelic counterpart to help you stop the end of the world, and now you can’t remember where you left the 11 year old Antichrist.

Such are the goings-on of Good Omens, the newly posted Amazon Prime Video series co-produced by the BBC, and based on the beloved 1990 novel by Terry Pratchett (whose other works include 41 books in the Discworld series) and Neil Gaiman (Sandman, American Gods, Coraline, The Ocean at the End of The Lane, and more).

Fans of A Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy and Monty Python (especially the films under their banner) will definitely know their way around, but, in addition to the unique voices of the authors, Good Omens is simultaneously broader in scope (not much is broader than the war between Heaven and Hell for the fate of the world), but also more specific and rather humbler. After firmly inserting themselves into the course of human history, the angel and the demon in charge of Earth on behalf of their respective kingdoms find themselves rather fond of the locals and some of their works, from bookshops to Bentleys to, of course, tea, and they're not ready to set it all aside for anyone's war.

Although having sold millions of copies around the world, Good Omens was widely viewed as all-but-unfilmable. Some of that is because of the scope of the story – Heaven, Hell, Satan, a Kraken, spaceships and aliens, a trip through the internet, and a call center drowned in a sea of maggots, to name just a few of the spectacles -– and the effects required to pull it off.

Even more challenging, though, was finding a way to keep the uniquely whimsical yet endearingly grounded tone crafted by two of fantasy’s most distinctive voices. Fortunately for us all, that's exactly how it has come to pass.

The first decade and a half of moving in the direction of adapting Good Omens was one unsatisfying Hollywood meeting after another, with a potential Terry Gilliam adaptation coming off the rails in 2001 as something of a last straw. A new set of possibilities opened with the recent blooming of the limited TV series storytelling format in the past few years, and with Terry’s 2014 request that Neil himself take on the task of adapting the story, and act as showrunner – the only way that Terry could be confident that those jobs would be done right.

Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, 1990

The end of Terry’s story came too quickly, when he passed away soon after that from early-onset Alzheimer’s, but as the scripts for what became a 6-episode series began to come together, Neil found the perfect team to help him implement his vision, starting with director Douglas Mackinnon, whose credits include Doctor Who and Sherlock, for which he won a BAFTA Award for directing the Victorian-era set episode, “The Abominable Bride.”

That episode happens to be the one that earned Jean-Claude (JC) Deguara an Emmy for Visual Effects, shared with the team at Milk VFX, the independent production company he co-founded in 2014.

We’ve visited with other Milk members on projects such as our conversation with Milk CEO Will Cohen for Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Dr. Who's 50th anniversary spectacular, The Day of the Doctor, and Milk co-founder Sara Bennett's Oscar win for Ex-Machina, among many others.

JC and Douglas had also worked together on Doctor Who, laying the groundwork for JC’s leading one of Milk’s largest teams yet as VFX Supervisor on Good Omens: a crew of over 60 artists spanning every department at Milk working on over 650 shots, with prep work spanning a year and a half, plus five months turnaround from the end of shooting through final delivery, everything from particle systems to weather systems, creatures, thousands of years’ worth of world-building, and a general level of effects mayhem not typically applied to the world of comedy.

JC and Milk VFX Producer Jenna Powell enjoyed a unique level of collaboration with both Douglas and Neil.

Milk VFX Supervisor JC Deguara and VFX Producer Jenna Powell

Not only had they been able to work intimately together from the earliest stages of pre-production, but JC was frequently on-set during shooting, and Neil and Douglas were on-site at Milk’s London office for virtually the entire post-production process. Ideas freely flowed in every direction, and constant contact also contributed to maximum efficiency. The best ideas were identified early, iterations moved quickly, and the entire team was able to maximize every effort.

(A quick word about spoilers from here: we won’t be speaking directly to plot points, and most of the characters and scenes have already been exposed in the trailer above and this BTS clip below, but only you know much you’d like to know or not know, so there you go.)

Having become familiar with Milk’s VFX work over the years, I couldn’t help but think that Good Omens was exactly in their wheelhouse: epic scale, covering a wide range of effects disciplines, and an approach I’ve come to think of as “grounded fantasy”. Neil was very specific about, the war between Heaven and Hell notwithstanding, wanting a world that’s recognizably this one. That’s what’s driving the story, after all, that this world is worth saving.

There were still many hundreds of effects shots to provide in a remarkably tight timeframe, six hours of finished work produced in considerably less time than a typical two-hour feature film is typically afforded, with quality needing to very much hold its own against those very feature films that might be viewed in the same streaming sitting as these episodes.

The planning actually began before Milk even bid on the job. Both JC and Jenna agreed with my assessment that Good Omens was right up Milk’s alley – “That variety of work, those kinds of creative challenges: that’s exactly what our crew relishes,” says Jenna – which is what sent JC to check out the book of Good Omens for himself.

One of the 1990 editions of Good Omens

“Our company was set up with something of a Doctor Who foundation, with everyone coming from the world of film to make that work. It wasn’t surprising to hear about Good Omens and connect it to Neil Gaiman, who wrote a few episodes of Doctor Who over the years” – but to know exactly what might be involved in doing the job, JC wanted to be more specific than that.

“I didn’t know the book before, so even before we went into the pitching stage, I started reading it. I could see some challenges right away, and we had some additional ones pointed out to us as we started to build our pitch.

"One of the first to jump out at me – and really, out of all the challenges we've done over the years, one of the ones that sticks out to me even now is the Bentley in the book. Some of the challenge was that it was an old Bentley that we couldn't actually drive around, not the way it is in the book, driving 90 miles an hour tearing in and out of London traffic, and setting it on fire while it’s being driven -- the car has its own journey in the production!

“Before we could start on that, though, we had to break the production down into chunks, and start assigning tasks to different teams. We sat down with direector Douglas Mackinnon and started breaking down the scripts a scene at a time, to see what he was thinking about how to solve some of these problems from a directing point of view.

A quick shot from the Good Omens green screen stage courtesy of Douglas Mackinnon's highly entertaining Twitter feed.

"I was surprised that some of the shots that I assumed would be visual effects, he wanted to solve in kind of an old-fashioned way – to have someone go through a mirror, first they’re standing in front of the mirror, then you cut and they’re gone. He had lots of cool, clever, in-camera effects that he wanted to build, and then from there, we started mapping out the stages to do the rest of the effects on a TV budget.”

The nature of what “TV budget” means has changed considerably in JC’s career, and not just in terms of money. “I started working with film, but my first TV jobs were on DigiBeta!” (Much laughter in the room, with more than a little cringing, certainly on my end.) “I mean, we had to track our own plates, and there’s just not much there to work with. No depth of field, and we didn’t have much time, maybe 2 days for a shot at most, compared to 20 days on a film shot. It was brutal.”

One thing that changed was higher-resolution raw materials for television, of course, and another is improved toolsets for the kind of compositing work that was formerly excruciating. What’s also changed is the idea that TV work is disposable, so it didn’t need to be as good. People will see it once when it airs, maybe once more in re-runs, and that’s it.

Now, the assumption is that TV work has to last for years, to be seen repeatedly. And even if a particular project is only seen once by any individual, their first viewing might be years from now, so the work has to hold up not just to today’s standards, but needs to make a meaningful effort to still look good when viewed much, much later.

“It was never about not getting talented people in the room back in the day,” says JC. “It’s that we weren’t able to get an abundance of talented people in the room. The biggest thing that we’ve been able to get from today’s budgets is that we bring in specialists, and specialized teams, and have the resources to spread the work across multiple teams.

"We still have to be conscious of limits – 60 people is more than the 6 we used to have on early jobs, but it’s not 200 people either – but regardless of staffing or budgets, our goal is to make the work hold up against any film or high-end TV show, and to be believable.”

One of the first challenges was building London’s Soho district, not just in a way that looked persuasive on screen, but that looked right to people who’d been there. That proved harder than anticipated.

Douglas and Neil considered shooting in Soho, but they very quickly realized that it wouldn’t be possible. It would have taken six or seven days to do what we wanted to do there, which neither the schedule nor the budget would allow. But to build a believable set that could fit anywhere from 50 to 200 extras, plus vehicles, was a major undertaking of its own.

“There’s a specific street in Soho called Berwick Street that we wanted to focus on, and there’s a pub on the corner of Broadwick Street called The Blue Post that we wanted to use for an exterior. We built the street-level set and wanted to model set extensions above that. We have an extensive library of London architecture models and started by trying to add those, and straight away you realize that doesn't work because that looks like any street in London., but it didn’t look like Soho.

“For some reason, Soho is a really strange part of London, that if you're in it, you don't even know that you're in it. But from a photographic point of view, you know it straight away. For me, thinking about it, it’s that all buildings are individual, even the top parts, the ones above the shops -- every single house was a different style, different color, different windows. For such a small, tight area, it’s just so architecturally diverse.

"So we went back and photographically scanned the area, and modeled it specifically. As soon as we dropped it into the shots, you just got it instantaneously that this looks like Soho.”

Street-level set

First render pass for the upper floors of buildings

Final pass, with Bentley coming down the street

Among the elements you can see in the shots of Soho is the vintage Bentley driven by the demon Crowley, who’d owned it since it was new. As was the way pre-Google, Terry and Neil made their best guess about the right year for the Bentley (1928 sounded about right, they thought, and wrote it as such), but Neil discovered in production that the 1934 model was closer to what they had in mind.

The production did in fact have a real Bentley on hand, but as noted earlier, vintage Bentleys don’t do what the story calls on them to do, and no actual vintage Bentleys should (or could) go through what this one does, so to go with the real Bentley, there was a Bentley “set” built for some interior shots to be used with old-school rear-projection, but also a CGI Bentley built by Milk.

As part of their pre-production, Milk had been able to get started on some of the modeling almost immediately. They knew the car was going to be a Bentley, for example. ¬As with Soho, though, and with all of Neil’s goals for the production, specificity was the key.

The real Bentley on the "Soho" set with actors David Tennant and Michael Sheen

“Once we had found a Bentley that everyone was happy with, we set out to do a full CG build of it because we knew that we would have to do shots of it, driving down the street a very fast speed,” says JC. “They did shoot a lot of scenes with the real actors in the real car, pulling up to places and driving away, but we did realize quite early on that any serious driving down the street shot had to be CG.

“One day when they were shooting with the car wrapped mid-day, so we got them to bring the car over and we got the artists out to look at the car, sit in it, examine it closely, and it gave them a feeling for how old the car is, what it feels like, and all the fine little details that the scans didn’t fully reveal, but that you notice once you render it.

“We also had to come up with a system for setting the car on fire. Sometimes we shoot the actors inside the car as it was being driven down the street with smoke on the inside, and fire on the outside. Sometimes we’d use a stunt double when there was a lot of fire in a long shot, but David Tennant was more than happy to have the car fill up with smoke with the fire outside, which saved us from having to do a lot of extra CG work.”

The Good Omens fandom on Tumblr has been around for pretty much as long as Tumblr has, speaking mostly about the book until now of course, frequently with Neil himself, who has a delightfully engaged presence there: Most recently, Neil has been answering "thank you" email about Good Omens, but go back a little further for conversations about the adaptation process, his relationship with Terry, and much more.

I also mention the Tumblr Good Omens fandom because as you look a little further into the Good Omens hashtag, you'll find some folks outdoing themselves with GIFs from the Amazon series. David Tennant as Crowley in a flaming Bentley? Check.

The giant cephalopod known as The Kraken has been depicted on film since Georges Méliès' 1906 film Under the Seas, and thereafter as often as not by tossing an octopus in a bathtub –- that is, until 1981, and Ray Harryhausen’s Clash of the Titans. (We shall not speak of the 2010 reboot, except to note that that’s the one that gave us the immortal proto-meme, “Release the Kraken!”)

My first question for JC about the Kraken was to what extent Harryhausen influenced Milk’s take. “It’s in the book, so there’s no way weren’t going to NOT do it,” laughs JC, “but the question was HOW. I’m a huge fan of all the Harryhausen stuff, so I wanted to do ours as an homage. I went to talk to Douglas and Neil about it, and Neil straightaway said, ‘I love Harryhausen too, let’s go for it.’

"My challenge was to give it a sense of scale, but still keep the modeling time down. The great thing about our artists is, so many of them love Harryhausen too, so when they saw what we were trying to do, they kept adding more. We still had our time constraints, but within that, they kept pushing and pushing, adding more and more detail. They really went to town on it!”

JC came up with a fiendishly clever idea for how else to minimize rendering time on the monster while also emphasizing its scale: to provide a reveal via an upheaval at sea. Milk had already developed cutting-edge expertise on this in their work as principal VFX vendor on 2018’s Adrift, a movie I enjoyed immensely.
Even knowing that a 100-foot wave is coming early in the film wasn’t enough to prepare me for how hard it emotionally.

Milk really did amazing work on this, which I encourage you to check out in a 4-minute VFX breakdown reel at their website. Good Omens really was the perfect opportunity to put those assets and expertise in the service of revealing a monster.

“We planned out the whole sequence so that, before you see the Kraken, you’re inside a fishing boat,” says JC. “We grooved out all the windows and shot it from the inside out, then added the waves, mist, and rain later.”

(My screencaptures)

Satan posed a somewhat similar set of problems, managing the dynamics of scale and detail against a well-known creature for whom virtually everyone already has some image in mind.

Based on early conversations with Neil, Milk had been moving in the direction of emphasizing the monstrousness of Satan, but Neil wanted to dial that back a bit, and focus on his role as the father of an 11 year old boy. Still the devil, but with elements that we could relate to as personal.

It turns out that Satan was the final actor cast on Good Omens, and when JC learned that they’d hired Benedict Cumberbatch, he knew that he wanted to use close-ups to emphasized that very familiar voice. This involved some new development of muscle systems rigging with Milk’s proprietary CreatureTools software (they also used the ZIVA Anatomy plug-in for Maya), and before it was done, every department in Milk was involved.

“Neil obviously still wanted some key elements," says JC. "He had to be red. And he had to be instantly recognizable. We had six hours, but everything was happening to quickly that you had to immediately know who you were looking at, whether it was the Kraken or Satan. We still wanted to put our own stamp on it, so we devised kind of a crown of horns. It worked really well because when Satan is first revealed, that's the first thing you see.

"We really threw a lot at this, and it was very satisfying how quickly we were able to turn it around."

It’s also an example of the benefits that accrued from having both the director and the writer-producer-showrunner on-hand for so much of the post-production process. “They were brilliant coming around as often as they did, because we couldn’t afford to make mistakes or backwards steps. As it was, there was never a question that we didn’t get an immediate answer to.”

In some ways less dramatic than the Kraken or Satan, the Hell Hound was nevertheless a very satisfying creation. “One of the briefs that we've always had for this job is trying to try to ground it in reality. A Hell Hound is fantastical, but wanted it to look real, so we used a real dog for everything but the head.

"Then for the head, we started with the model of a real dog, then exaggerated it, and scaled the plate way up, and played with the background a bit. So everything from the head up is CG, but the goal wasn’t to make a CG dog. It was to wind up with a really, really angry Great Dane, and I think it works.”

Most collaborators surely get asked at some time or another who did what, and Terry and Neil certainly got asked about who was responsible for which aspect of Good Omens. Terry was quick to answer (at least somewhat jokingly, I suspect) that most of it was a mix of both of them, but he was responsible for the life and prophecies of the witch Agnes Nutter referenced in the book's subtitle, and that the maggots were all Neil.

Not familiar with the book myself, I saw “maggots” on the list of creatures that Milk created, and assumed that it would be the same large-ish but moderate number of maggots that we’re used to seeing in various dead things...but no. For Good Omens, it was millions of them. They take over a call center, filling an entire room (a fate that I’m sure that some of us have wished on a call center now and again).

“The maggots start by coming out of a woman's headset, then they fill up the entire room, then sort of form into a single character who then walks out of the room. Douglas wanted to do this as a single shot, but we came up with another approach that allowed us to do it all with just one transition. We got an old bit of green screen fabric and cut a hole in it for the actress to put her head through, because we wanted the maggots to interact with her hair. We raised up the piece of fabric until it covered her, to show the maggots rising and rising, and then that was our transition point to cut to the maggots filling the room and dissolving to form into this other character.”

(My screencaptures)

And it wouldn’t be an English comic production without murderous rabbits.

There were a number of very different approaches to animation and VFX taken throughout Good Omens, depending on who was experiencing these wonders. Around our demon and angel duo, the effects tended toward mostly natural looking, since for an angel or a demon, supernatural beings and events are all part of the job.

For younger characters, the effects were treated as more exaggerated, because these 11 year olds would have so little reference for what they were seeing. One of them in particular had the ability to bring to life whatever he imagined, and in one sequence that included spaceships with aliens, but visualized as a youngster would. Jenna notes that in trying to add a more playful dimension to them, “the elements need to look more amateurish and childish by design, but hold up to the realism of the rest of the effects, and stand up to anything else that’s being shown.”

JC agrees and adds, “It works, because people laugh. They buy into it, because can imagine themselves at that age coming up with something as bad as that.”

And so, as Crowley sits in an otherwise empty theater (well, save for one person in a cameo we won't spoil) watching what’s ostensibly an animated movie for kids, the cartoon rabbits launch into their comically violent spree.

The description of these events wasn’t too specific in the book, so JC admits that the animators once again took it upon themselves to go as far as they could, making each iteration more and more bloody, at least as much because it made them laugh as anything else. JC toned this considerably back down to show a much tamer version to Douglas and Neil, whose immediate reaction was, "No no no, we want more blood." JC says, “I was able to say to them, ‘Well, it just so happens that I have this...’” (much laughter in the room).

"We'd never intended to show them this version...." laughs Jenna, as JC finishes her sentence: "...and that’s the very one they went for!”

Douglas Mackinnon, David Tennant, Michael Sheen, and Neil Gaiman

I was genuinely struck by the idea of Douglas, and especially Neil, spending virtually every day in the office during post-production, and JC acknowledged that they’ve never had this luxury before.

Having Neil around was of course more than a luxury. For a building full of nerds, it was inspiring to have one of their heroes in their midst, actively collaborating with them, walking from desk to desk, complimenting people on their work, thanking them for their efforts.

Neil was fully cognizant of the energy in the room, as he became as much a fan of their work as these artists have been of Neil’s work. “He said if anyone's got any books, just leave them lying around and if I see them I'll sign them," says JC. "So occasionally there'd be a book of Neil's lying around here on someone’s desk, he’d pick it up and he'd sign it.

"Then everyone caught on, and started bringing books in for him. There was one point where Neil had to step away for a couple of weeks, and he said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll be back, so just get them all ready’ – and we had our board room table literally full of books. When he came back, he sat down and signed them all for us, with individual messages for everyone. It was very cool.”

This seems entirely in keeping with the collaborative process between Terry and Neil that led to the book Good Omens in the first place, that sustained the friendship through frustration with adaptations and Terry's illness, through the entire production and post process, indeed, the story itself, of two unlikely allies.

The story is also blessedly free of contemporary political allegory. Satan is Satan, God is God, there's good and evil, and none of it is artificially ascribed to one political party or the other.

And in case you're wondering, Neil notes with some satisfaction that the Amazon reviews seem to have a roughly equal number of folks complaining that it's too religious or not religious enough, with the majority landing on "just right": an average of 4.5 stars on over 2200 reviews, roughly lining up with the 8.6 on IMDb, and the 84% from critics and 92% from viewers at Rotten Tomatoes.

Deliverance, when it comes, is hinted at as only temporary (Terry and Neil had discussed a sequel to be called 668: The Neighbor of The Beast, so perhaps we'll see the further adventures of Crowley and Aziraphale), and rooted ultimately in friendship, mutual respect, and the embrace of simple, shared pleasures.

And fun. It's a pleasure to watch a comic spectacle that's both comic and spectacular, and a joy to be part of the creative community that in Neil Gaiman, Douglas Mackinnon, Milk VFX, and a remarkable cast and crew, Good Omens truly gets to stretch its wings.

Many thanks to Amazon for their support with this story, including all imagery except where noted.

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