How the BBC brought the daemons in His Dark Materials to life
How do you give a talking CGI animal a soul? That was the challenge facing the visual team behind His Dark Materials, the upcoming BBC and HBO television adaptation of Philip Pullman’s series of fantasy novels.
In the books, every character has a "daemon", a sentient creature who represents their conscience and inner voice. The forms taken by these animals reflect the personality of their human partners – servants are more likely to have dogs as daemons, sailors are often paired with seabirds. Children’s daemons constantly shift and change.
The concept was first brought to life through CGI in the ill-received 2007 movie The Golden Compass, where the actors were tasked with pretending that various inanimate objects were walking talking animals. For the TV show, the visual team approached the creatures from a different angle – aiding the actors by using elaborate puppetry techniques to bring the daemons alive on set, and then using that puppetry as a basis for the CGI animation in post-production.
Before the show started, we talked to members of the production team about the complicated process of bringing daemons from page to screen.
The earliest conversations about the daemons centred on their basic nature. “What are they?” asks Russell Dodgson, creative director of VFX studio Framestore. “Do they eat? Do they sleep? Where do they sit on the spectrum between animal and human?”
That last question was a big one. “You can make it a bit more human or fantastical – bigger eyes, extended ears, a more unusual tail,” says production designer Joel Collins, co-founder of design studio Painting Practice.
But from the start both Dodgson and Collins were certain that the daemons were going to be photoreal – deciding against that fantastical approach. “We quickly worked out that it would be distracting because it just looks unreal,” explains Collins. “I learned this as a designer on Black Mirror – just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should.”
The next step was for Dodgson to read through screenwriter Jack Thorne’s scripts and to work out the practicalities of daemon-centric scenes. “You get early scripts and it says ‘The Golden Monkey is sitting on Mrs Coulter’s shoulder’,” he says, “and then you realise the Golden Monkey weighs 12 kilos and is massive so you can't do that.”
For scenes where actors had to hold their daemon, Framestore decided to use "bucks" – grey bean bags of appropriate weight, size and fur that actors could stroke, to be painted out later. For others, however, they turned to dynamic reference puppetry: a relatively new technique designed to be an upgrade on the tennis ball on a stick that is usually used as a reference point for CGI. “We needed to give our actors something to converse and emote with,” says Dodgson. “But we also wanted to use them to work out where the daemons were in our scenes.”
Each daemon puppet was designed with a simple and elegant “slinky body” that could be operated by a single puppeteer. The aim, says puppetry artist Brian Fisher, was to not only to give the actors something evocative to bond with, but to allow them to “talk to their daemon … to allow them to bounce ideas off the puppeteer.”
On set, this collaboration happened mostly during the "puppet pass" – takes that are meant to be rehearsals for subsequent takes without the puppets. But during filming, the directors realised that the presence of the puppet made a real difference to the actors’ performances. “The interactions between the characters and the daemons on screen are so much more tangible when the puppet is in,” says Fisher. “So they actually had to spend a lot of time painting out the puppets and puppeteers.”
With filming done, Dodgson and his team entered the post-vis stage, where they first crudely sketched out how the daemons would look on screen, before beginning the time-consuming process of grooming digital fur and simulating skin sliding over fat and muscle.
Some creatures presented even bigger challenges. “Birds are a nightmare,” says Dodgson. “A bird has this incredible ability for two layers of feathers to co-exist almost exactly in the same space because they want to wrap into each other. So when you see a bird and it folds its wings the feathers disappear into each other and become this really beautiful smooth surface. Try and tell a computer to mathematically have two things exist in the same space. It's not easy.”
To make sure the animals spoke convincingly, Dodgson and his team spent a lot of time using facial rig software to experiment with the daemons’ jaws and facial expressions.
“We cast the animals carefully to make sure we had creatures that looked nice talking,” he says. “So for example Pan [the daemon of main character Lyra] switches between an ermine, a pine marten and an Arctic fox, which were all animals we could get a natural performance out of. But sometimes, with certain creatures, you have to ‘break their jaw’ to fake that it’s talking.”
But the real test was silence. “You should be able to turn the sound off, watch a shot of a CGI creature, and see the thought process in its expression,” says Dodgson.
Once the daemons were fully polished and animated, the 2,000 finished shots were delivered for the producers’ approval. Twelve years ago, digital animals like these were only possible through film, not television. What’s changed?
“Fundamentally technology for both TV and film has changed the same,” says Dodgson. “We use the same systems, the same tools, the same artists. The difference is TV now has more money, and the appetite for bigger worlds on TV has increased. You've hit that point where if people see great effects in a film, they're not going to put up with bad effects in a TV show. They're different formats, they're not different images.”