Milk's Epic VFX For Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
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Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is an epic BBC television miniseries that first aired in 2015, based on the magical-realistic novel of the same name. A project of remarkable scope for television, London's Milk VFX was responsible for all of the VFX for the 7-part drama: 3D environment, crowd work, water, mud and sand effects simulation, modelling texturing, matte painting, animation and 2D work – and a battle sequence with over 50,000 soldiers. In all, over 1000 VFX shots.
Magical realism? Quite the heritage of the "magic" part in English literature, of course. Stretching back at least 900 years to Merlin, moving forward through Gandalf and Galadriel, to Harry Potter and Hermione and beyond, there's no shortage of variations on every sort of magic.
Here's one you may not have heard before: at the dawn of the 18th century, magic is believed to have vanished from England hundreds of years earlier. At least according to a group of scholars, who are about to be schooled.
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell: Launch Trailer – BBC One
Susanna Clark's 2004 novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell [sic] takes this relatively simple concept and spins it into a spectacular yarn, a mashup of elements including Dickens and Austen, plus comedies of manners, the Napoleonic wars, and yes, magic.
Most important though, the magic is treated as one part of a world that includes reason, science, and a uniquely English propriety. Wizards and such just won't do. (Insert harrumph.)
Many of the nearly 200 footnotes across the novel's 1000 pages (US paperback edition) also tell entire stories unto themselves, not always entirely consistently with the main story. Or stories.
Bertie Carvel and Eddie Marsan as magicians Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
Sound complicated? It is, but it's all executed with wit and an invigorating verve. BUT IT'S COMPLICATED. The storytelling is so vivid that it begs for a visual treatment of some sort, but even the book's biggest fans weren't sure exactly how to approach it.
Among them was Will Cohen, CEO of London-based Milk VFX. His enthusiasm for every part of the project's evolution is palpable. As a result, we took the editorial liberty of more or less turning him loose. It's a complicated enough story that helps to see it through a fan's eyes – a fan who just happens to be tasked with supervising 1000 epic-style VFX shots on a decidedly non-epic budget.
"The book blew me away," Will recalls." I remember thinking, 'Wow, this could look amazing!' It's not an easy read, but I thought maybe someday will do it justice. There have been lots of attempts, but in some ways it's unfilmable as a feature."
In a way, the timing couldn't be better. We're in a golden age of televised storytelling in particular. Not just for TV series, but for the flexibility to make epic storytelling take whatever shape it needs to. For Game of Thrones, it's a book a season. For Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, the adaption landed at 7 one-hour episodes, all directed by Toby Haynes, with a production team that included a client of Will's, Nick Hirschkorn.
"When I heard that Nick had acquired the rights to develop it, I was thinking that we're just now at the point where we can cope with this on television, and the longform epic miniseries is just the format," says Will.
The trope that "CG is ruining movies" isn't exactly the case, he continues. "I love tentpole features, but to simplify storytelling for global audiences, lengthy and complex dialog seems to disappear. Instead, we sit back and are treated to visual splendor."
BALANCING TIME AND MONEY
There's an especially fine line to balance with epic storytelling on television. On the one hand, budgets are necessarily smaller. All seven hours of Strange were a small fraction of the budget for a 2-hour VFX-intensive feature.
"When you dial back, budgets have to be very well thought out," says Will. "Sometimes things wind up getting better, because you have to think really, really, REALLY hard about what goes on the screen, and for how long. But sometimes you undermine a project when you cut back too hard."
"I asked people to think about, 'What would they have done in a pre-visual effects era?' They wouldn't have shied away from telling the story. They'd have done it a different way."
"We always have to start with the question, can we achieve this in camera," says Will. "Is it practical, logistical, affordable? If the answer is no, there's a good reason to use visual effects.
"There was one sequence where I asked specifically, 'What would John Boorman do in 1981 if he was directing Jonathan Strange?'" [Ed. note: In 1981, John Boorman directed the Oscar-nominated Excalibur.] I told the production team, 'We're sure that we can achieve this in-camera, and we'll save you some money for the things we definitely CAN'T."
The additional level of difficulty was "to avoid things that look visual effects-y," says Will. "You know when you look at sand transforming into horses, that's a digital visual effect, but we had enough time for R&D from the beginning to work on some of these set pieces.
"We started prep in the summer of 2013, and we had the director for a good 3 or 4 months to kick ideas around, swap film references, discusses pieces of the script that weren't yet written, and start doing R&D for the projects we mapped out."
The shoot itself began in mid-October 2013 in the UK, then ramping up quickly as the production moved to Croatia, finishing in Canada in May of 2014. By summer, some of the episodes were starting to be locked.
"Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell" VFX Breakdown by Milk VFX
(RE)INTRODUCING MAGIC TO ENGLAND: THE STATUES OF YORK CATHEDRAL
Having spent three months on the first 60 seconds of the series, it can't have been easy to budget the time and money for the next six hours and 59 minutes of the 7 hours total. Fortunately, the long prep time helped them accommodate it.
One of the first times that we see the return of magic to England is in an early scene in the cathedral at York, where the Learned Society of York Magicians was adamant that magic was nothing more than of scholarly interest, and barely that. Mr Norrell demonstrates otherwise as he animates the statues in the cathedral.
Here's the thing. We've seen animated statues for a very long time, including an especially memorable variation with stained glass in 1985's Young Sherlock Holmes.
What they largely had in common is that the animated figures tend to be a bit rubbery. In some cases VERY rubbery. "It's a great concept," says Will, "that a statue comes to life – but if stone moves, how would it move?" He and his team devoted considerable R&D cycles to this, and came up with something that seems obvious now, but hadn't been done on anything like this scale before: as the statues move, they crack and crumble.
FROM BOOK TO SCREEN: THE SAND HORSES
"We knew that the sand horses were going to be a big deal, and we had a hand in designing them," says Will. "Here's a great example from book to screen. In the book, the sand horses get summoned by Jonathan Strange on the beach, and they run around the beach for quite a few pages. Then they run out to sea, and sailors on the deck of the boat lasso the sand horses to get towed off the spit of land they've gotten stuck on.
"That's not doable on a television budget. It's also not great television drama." As a result, Will and his team began to scale back to something that would be both achievable and watchable."
The new plan was to reduce the sequence down to 18 shots, but even that proved to be beyond the budget. "The design was for an 18-shot sequence, and we just couldn't afford it even though WE'D come up with it!
"Here's where some of the art of economic storytelling comes in. What's the least amount of work you can do, but still make it feel epic? We managed to get it down to 8 shots."
"We still wanted to preserve an epic feel, so we asked for a helicopter to do some dynamic shots as the horses were headed out to sea. We did a second unit shoot on one end of the beach while the main unit was shooting drama further up the beach. We found some rocks out at sea, and were able to get a drone up above them so that we could have some dynamic camera moves of our own to work with, with real rocks, real sand, and the real sea, some of which we replaced for interaction with the sand horses. It gave the whole sequence a sense of scale, so even when you had to cut back to 8 shots, it still feels epic.
"Thirty pages of book, a half hour of movie, horses running around, getting lassoed by sailors now becomes, the horses are summoned out of sand, they'll charge the boat, and the impact of hitting it – which will look nice with the sand breaking up – will knock the boat off the spit and back to sea."
A dramatic savings without sacrificing dramatic impact or the arc of the primary storylines.
REAL ENOUGH BUT NOT QUITE REAL: THE RAIN SHIPS
"It's very rewarding when you're pushing yourself," says Will. "You're a little scared. You're not sure you can deliver what you have in your head.
"The Rain Ships in Episode 2 were very tricky to visualize. It reads really well. Ships that are made out of rain" – he pauses – "appear on the horizon" – another pause – "that fool the French into thinking they're about to be attacked, but there's still something wrong enough about them that the French want to go and investigate.
"So they've kind of got to look real, but not quite" – another pause; by now, I can hear the wheels in Will's head turning as he relives the difficult experience of trying to visualize it for the first time – "and they're made of rain, and when the French go to investigate them, they put their hand through the water and realize that it's a spell that's been cast.
"That was probably the most stylized piece that we did in the whole seven hours."
COLLABORATION AND MAGIC
In telling the tale of specific shots from a specific point perspective, I haven't done justice to how often Will talked about collaboration. Not just the director and producer, but also production designers, matte painters, casting directors, cinematographers, and even the editors who were the ones to find the test-renders for the sand horses that wound up guiding their final creation.
(Before that, says Will, the horses looked somewhat crumbly or sinister. The footage the editors found made the horses look like spectres summoned from the sand.)
"Having brief and secure lines of communication is very, very important," he says. "We didn't have to go through a whole chain of hierarchy. Being able to pick up the phone and quickly get input allows you to work very efficiently. I have to give all credit to Nick Hirschkorn the producer, and Toby Haynes the director, for setting up an infrastructure where everyone COULD collaborate.
The collaboration even extended to the actors, says Will. "Actors NEVER come to our place to see how things are going after the event. Because everyone was so passionate about the source material, and because Nick and Toby created such a cool infrastructure for collaboration, everybody went that extra mile for it."
Actors were among those who actually went the EXTRA extra mile, coming back to check in long after sets had been struck and post had crossed the finish line. "We've NEVER had actors wander back to our suites to see how things are going," he says, "but it was like one big party! We all got together to watch the last episode at a screening room in town and have a drink, and get some closure, because we were all very attached to it."
While acknowledging that Milk has been fortunate to work on some especially engaging projects (Dr. Who is the first one Will mentions), he also acknowledges that it has been by luck as much as design. Some jobs are jobs, and they go well or they don't. "If you're lucky, the NEXT thing is always the best thing you've ever worked on, but," as he reflects on having spent just over two years on it, "I'm really, really proud of this.
"It lives as its own thing. It's as close to the book as it can be while making the story work for a 7-hour format. Hopefully, it's turned a lot of people on to go back to the book if they've enjoyed the series."
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is available on Blu-ray and DVD, streaming services including Amazon, iTunes and Google Play, and many cable and satellite and on-demand services.