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Time Travel: Visual Effects Challenges on ‘The Crown’

The production team faced making a drama series set in the 1950s and '60s using cutting-edge technology that's a million miles from the grainy pictures of the show's time period.

The Crown returned for its second season on Netflix last month, having taken the TV-watching world by storm since its debut in 2016.

One of the biggest challenges for the production team has been making a drama series set in the 1950s and 60s using cutting-edge technology that’s a million miles from the grainy pictures of the show’s time period. Also, how do you recreate iconic locations such as Buckingham Palace without actually filming there?

Soho postproduction house One Of Us worked on season one, completing 428 shots using Maya, Nuke and Photoshop. The team were asked back for season two and were involved right from the start as Ben Turner, visual effects supervisor, explains. “We were involved from very early on, from around the pre-production stage. We were involved in lots of meetings with the guys from the show’s producers Left Bank and subsequently The Crown production team.

“We liaised with them and advised them on how best to achieve the really ambitious stuff that they were aiming for and then we were across all of the shoot, so I attended on set for all of the effects filming and we did the post as well,” continues Turner.

“We did all of the matte paintings, set extensions and all the vfx work barring a few shots that were handled in the online. We looked after all the big set pieces including sequences like the Coronation, all the Buckingham Palace extensions, and various other scenes that couldn’t be achieved in camera.”

Turner says some of the meetings One Of Us had during pre-production were born out of storyboarding. The post house team would be in constant discussion with the show’s production team, tackling some of the biggest sequences from season one as early as possible.

“The Coronation was one of the big things we would talk about early on because that was on the first block of shooting,” he explains. “It was a big challenge as to how we were going to achieve it and what we could shoot at Ely Cathedral and then what we could put in the green screen stage at Pinewood. It was a constant dialogue between us and the directors and the art department about how to achieve each individual aspect of everything.”

Multiple Directors

The Crown was the first TV production One Of Us had been involved with. Of course a fundamental difference on working on a series with multiple episodes means working with different directors and possibly different artistic visions. Was that a problem?

“They did a lot of continuity amongst themselves so everyone knew how the other directors were working,” says Turner. “Some directors were more experienced with effects than others, some were very aware of what we could achieve in their episodes and some needed a bit more guidance and direction as to what could be achieved.

The Crown is very much about the drama and so you don’t really want the audience to be looking at the visual effects, you don’t ever want to notice them and so we were constantly liaising with directors and telling them what we felt comfortable aiming for and what we thought could be achieved.”

Working on a series with 10 one-hour episodes, all produced in 4K, requires a lot of storage. Turner admits the amount of data the vfx team produced was something of a challenge. “The sheer volume of data is something we weren’t used to before because of it being so many episodes and with the schedule being quite compressed.

“We ended up working on multiple episodes at the same time, so we had to keep all of that data live at all times. It just boiled down to getting a larger storage capacity really. It’s all on premises so we expanded the machine room a bit and bought a load more discs. We identified what expansion we felt we needed and we thought we could accommodate it on site.”

Creating Crowds

Among the visual effects sequences created by One Of Us were a number containing large crowd scenes. One Of Us created their own tool in order to complete their work. “Our requirements were that wherever the Queen went there would always be a huge crowd,” continues Turner. “It was usually such a big crowd that they were hemmed in on a pavement or a big block and so we were able to use real elements of extras that we filmed against green screen. That meant we’d immediately got them in the right costume and doing the right action

“Then we just placed them in the composite. We developed a tool where we could place them within a 3D space and it would automatically jumble and randomize them and you could change what they were doing. So you could say ‘in this block of crowd I want 60 per cent of them waving, 10 per cent waiting and not doing much and then five per cent moving’, so we were able to dial all of that in and mix them all into a big crowd within NUKE, within our compositing software.”

Another key part of One Of Us’ work on The Crown was recreating Buckingham Palace. Of course they were never going to be granted access to film there, so how did the team go about recreating one of the world’s most recognizable buildings? “The art department, under the direction of Martin Childs the production designer, built the archway, the Palace’s balcony and the first row of windows as a set on the backlot at Elstree Studios,” explains Turner.

“They also made the gates, the pillars and the bit of pavement, so we could use that to drive our cars through the gates and have lots of people milling around railings and policemen opening the gates and then we could see the car disappear into the archway. Surrounding all of those bits of set we would have our green screens so that we could retain everything in the shot. We would then use the set piece to track our extension onto the existing bit of set. Through the tunnel there was another green screen at the end and we would put the bit where the car ends up driving underneath and people get out and go in to the Palace.

“We recreated the Palace using a combination of things. We went down to the real thing and took lots and lots of reference photos just as if we were tourists,” reveals Turner. “Then we stitched all of those together and combined them into a three dimensional facade which we could then texture with those photographs. We had to do a bit of matte painting work on those because our Palace needed to feel a bit more 1950s and a bit more dirty and grimy than the current Palace is. So we did a lot of paint work on it and got it in such a state that we could then project it onto our 3D model that we made and that way we could afford for the camera to move around a little bit and we could have it look dimensional even though it’s mostly made out of photographs.”

Philip’s World Tour

As The Crown returns, the Suez Crisis is starting to dominate the news. Once again, One Of Us were called into action to help create some of the show’s key sequences. “We were involved in some of that,” explains Turner. “We shot some of the Suez scenes in South Africa so it would be hot and sunny looking and then we added some Egyptian details to some things and extended some streets. There’s also a military element so we did some military vehicles and airplanes. You feel the full force of the British invasion in Port Saeed.”

Another of the key storylines for season two is the strain on Elizabeth and Philip’s marriage. He is finding life as the Queen’s consort increasingly restrictive and so in order to escape Palace life, and intrigue, the Duke heads off on a five-month tour of the Commonwealth on board the royal yacht Britannia.

“When Philip goes off on his tour we created a fully CG Britannia. We went to the real thing and we flew a drone around and were able to get lots and lots of reference photography,” Turner continues. “Then we used that photography to create a fully CG version of Britannia.

“There are a number of scenes as part of Philip’s tour where we see him and the crew on the boat so there were some extensions involved there. We were able to build some sets in South Africa that we then used our computer generated Britannia to extend. That was a big part of the narrative of season two, that the tour gives him the freedom that he feels when he’s away with the Navy. So we were part of trying to give that whole tour that feeling of space and being out at sea.”

In total, One Of Us created 366 shots for season two of The Crown. Molinare also worked on the project, as they did for season one. Turner says the show’s ambition was much bigger for the new series and the schedule much shorter, which led to One Of Us concentrating on what he describes as “the big stuff.”

With all the effects the team created across the two series, is it possible for Turner to pick out his favorite shot? He admits it’s a tough choice. “There are a lot of great moments dotted throughout the series. A lot of our work was quite front-loaded, so we did a lot on the first three episodes. Then it dipped a little bit and comes strong again towards the end.

“I like the stuff that goes by and you would never know it’s computer generated because then we know we’ve done our job. There are some Palace shots that I think ‘I totally buy that’, it just looks totally real. There are some sequences that I know could not have been achieved without visual effects but hopefully the audience wouldn’t necessarily know. There’s a scene in Trafalgar Square where we filled it with people for a ‘Stop the War’ protest––I really love that stuff as well because it feels really big.”

With what’s thought to be a six-season order for Netflix, work on the next 10 episodes is already underway. The SVoD service has already announced Olivia Colman will take over from Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth in the next season. Has One Of Us also started planning for season three?

“I’m about to start on a new project but I know that it’s happening and I’ve had a couple of early emails about it,” says Turner. “I think shooting won’t start until July so prep won’t start until before then. I think I’ve probably got a few months where I can think about something else.

“Season one and two basically ran back to back so I’ve had three weeks holiday in between and then got struck straight in to the next one. It’s been very Crown-heavy for the past couple of years. But totally worth it, I absolutely love it, I’m really proud of everything we’ve done.”

The Crown: The Visual Effects Secrets of Netflix’s Drama