Doctor Who 50th Anniversary-Milk's VFX for Day of the Doctor
COW Library : TV & Movie Appreciation : Debra Kaufman : Doctor Who 50th Anniversary-Milk's VFX for Day of the Doctor
The Day of the Doctor: The TV Trailer – Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special by BBC One
Starting a VFX house from scratch is in itself a challenge. But that was child's play for the members of Milk who, on the day their VFX house was launched, were already neck-deep in creating 129 challenging stereo 3D visual effects for a groundbreaking TV show: the BBC's 75-minute special Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Episode: The Day of the Doctor.
The episode was broadcast on Nov. 23 to an audience of 10.2 million in the UK and was simulcast in 94 countries and more than 1,500 cinemas across the world. "We were preparing to work on this episode at The Mill and then they announced they would close our department," says Milk CEO Will Cohen. "Opening Milk gave us the chance to form our indie studio and continue working with our fantastic team. The core creative team came over, and the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special was the first project we started on."
Neither Cohen nor Visual Effects Supervisor Murray Barber were overly concerned that the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special was shot natively in 3D and thus would require stereo 3D effects. "The members of The Mill's TV and Film Department have quite a lot of experience at stereo film, working on The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treaders, Dredd 3D and 47 Ronan," said Cohen. "We were quite adept with our 3D pipeline and knew the pitfalls to be avoided.
The visual effects shots were comprised of sequences featuring the Gallifreyan city of Arcadia under siege at the hands of the Daleks; the 3D Time Lord paintings at the National Gallery (through which the Doctor and Clara witness the battle and fall of Arcadia), which are also an entry point for the viewer to fly into the city; and the new Dalek fighter pods.
The Gallifreyan Citadel
Although the Milk facility is set up for a maximum of 100 people, 60 worked on the Doctor Who special. Milk is a PC/Linux-based house, with a range of HP computers including some newer Z820s among the 600s and 620s. "HP workstations are robust and durable," says Cohen. "Not that we do this, but you can drop them on the floor and they'll still work." The pipeline is Autodesk Maya, with rendering in Arnold, compositing in Nuke and Shotgun as the shot production tool behind the scenes. For 2D, Milk artists rely on Fire and Smoke. Milk has 120 terabytes of storage, and Cohen is thrilled with storage manager PixIT Media. "We just pay for software upgrades, not maintenance," he says. "It's very easy to quickly expand your capabilities in terms of adding more disk storage."
Doctor Who was shot in April to May, and Barber was frequently at the shoot along with Milk VFX coordinator/plate manager John Brown. Milk began getting footage in July, for turnaround in mid-September. "With a stereo 3D movie, you need to be more methodical and plan shots more," explains Barber, who notes that The Mill provided crucial support for Milk as the company got up and running to handle Doctor Who and 47 Ronin.
The Fall of Arcadia in a 3D painting
According to Barber and Cohen, the most challenging shots in the episode were the 3D Time Lord paintings at the National Gallery. The Doctor and Clara witness the catastrophic battle and fall of Arcadia in the painting, which then turns into 3D and allows the viewer to fly into the city. "The script defined it as a normal painting," says Barber. "So we had to come up with a concept to make it look 3D. The other issue is that 90 percent of people would see the episode in 2D. So we had to come up with a solution to creating a 3D object that you see in 2D, which is quite a challenging concept."
The Arcadia Destruction
The solution was to envision the painting as a window in a house that enables the viewer to see the 3D outdoors. "The first time you look at it, you see a 2D painting," says Barber. "And the second time you look at it, it's in 3D. We re-used the Citadel, a building from Gallifreyan, which we'd seen in a previous episode and painted it to create a painterly look."
Painting the Citadel – and all the other assets in the 3D Time Lord painting – was also a challenge since everything was moving. "You can't just put a paint filter on it," says Barber. "The matte department came up with a solution to repaint a lot of textures. Then, when you fly into the 3D environment, that's another department's work. And the Houdini artist is doing the smoke and flames. At the end, there's a greenscreen of Doctor Who, which is a 2D element, with another matte painting behind it. We had to stitch together four of these elements. It was very complicated stuff, especially for TV, and doing it in stereo made it a huge task."
The Doctors together: Matt Smith, David Tennant and John Hurt in Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor
Milk also worked with the production to create new Dalek fighter pods. "[The production] came up with original concepts and we worked on them further," says Barber. "This was a way to increase the speed of the Daleks. We've seen them fly around on their own but they're not very aerodynamic." Cohen notes that adding "something new" is a treat for viewers. "Putting them in a new contraption makes them look cooler while they're flying around," he adds.
The Dalek pods needed to be more formidable in number than ever before.
One of the concerns in taking the job just as Milk was getting up and running was uncertainties about what the hard deadline would be, says Cohen. "The way TV normally works, every thing is last minute, fraught," he says. "We planned out well, we knew we were going to get through it. But we didn't know how much there would be with extra fixes and re-aligning plates and so on." But, says Cohen, he and Barber stressed the necessity of careful planning to the production team. "We probably overly put the fear into them but they had to do lots of research and tests and were very cautious," he says. "Everything went very smooth at their end."
Cohen and Barber both point out that the stereo in Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special is no gimmick. "The stereo is all about depth," says Cohen. "The paintings work in 2D but they're really more enjoyable in stereo. Most it's behind the plane. We're just seeing depth, not objects coming towards you."
The tornado effect had to translate across several locations.
In fact, Cohen calls himself a convert to stereo 3D. "Being a person of a certain age with leanings towards 24 fps film, I now love 3D," he says. "But while we were working on Doctor Who, the BBC announced that won't be doing any more stereo projects. And I'm sad that they won't."
In addition to 47 Ronin, the first motion picture in the door at Milk, the new VFX company is also at work on Hercules and on TV shows Sherlock: Series Three for Hartswood Films/BBC; the new TV drama Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, a seven part mini-series to be broadcast on BBC One in 2015; a new pirate drama series Black Sails for Starz; and Sky's New Year's Day TV special, David Attenborough's Natural History Museum Alive for Sky Atlantic. "Doing an IMAX documentary – stereo 4K with furry animals and Sir David Attenborough – it doesn't get more fun that that," says Cohen.
Milk is also working on the BBC's Doctor Who 60-minute special Christmas episode, which will air on BBC One on Christmas Day, and in addition, MILK has been awarded the work for Series 8 of Doctor Who. For Doctor Who fans, that's bound to be another treat. For VFX aficianados, Milk – with its seasoned artists – is a welcomed addition to the VFX community.
Title graphic: The Day of the Doctor, the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith), the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) and John Hurt. Photo Credit: Adrian Rogers, © BBC. All images courtesy of and © BBC/BBC Worldwide