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Surreal VFX makes an impact in two very different docs

High-end drama usually commands the biggest budgets for broadcast CG animation and VFX in the UK, and tends to be from a clutch of London-based studios. However, there’s long been a healthy trade in creating CG content for documentaries, where budgets tend to be lower, except on the odd occasion that usually involves dinosaurs. Two recent examples of the genre are particularly eye-catching for very different reasons, but neither of the studios responsible are part of the traditional Soho VFX community.

Bournemouth-based Outpost VFX recently completed 110 VFX shots for My Beautiful Broken Brain. This Netflix documentary follows the story of Lotje Sodderl, who survives a haemorrhagic stroke and finds herself starting again in an alien world, bereft of language and logic.

The film by Sodderland and director Sophie Robinson is executive produced by David Lynch and contains footage captured by Sodderland in the weeks after she woke up from an induced coma. The VFX by Outpost are used to support the representation of Sodderland’s vision of the world.

The project included a lot of footage shot on a handheld iPhone, so the team had some technical challenges with low quality footage when delivering highly creative treatments. However, supervised by Elena Estevez Santos, they were able to embrace such ‘reportage’ footage and construct a stunning range of effects from surreal beauty to dark imaginings.

The team developed two different looks, one for the POV after the stroke, which was colourful, timeless and surreal, and another, nightmarish, ghostly and unsettling, for the POV after the seizure. Both looks were applied across several shots to recreate Sodderland’s sight from her right eye. Every shot was individually crafted to make the most of each scene, with a lot of surreal or fantastic elements on show, such as melting clocks, morphing shadows or drawings that come alive. Sophie Robinson described the visuals as lifting the film to ‘a whole new level’, while Sodderland called the film ‘a sensational visual story’.

Outpost VFX CEO Duncan McWilliam said the work proved that studios don’t have to be in Soho to be a VFX hit. The facility was growing steadily, added McWilliam, recently drawing Geraint Hixson (ex-MPC and Rushes) down to Bournemouth as a new VFX producer.

More nightmarish visions are on offer in National Geographic’s Map Of Hell, with vivid, heavily stylised sequences by Peepshow Collective. Based in London’s Shoreditch, Peepshow is a multidisciplinary studio comprising of artists whose talents include illustration, animation, set design, textiles and art direction. The collective has form in the broadcast world, winning Outstanding Motion Design at the 67th Primetime Emmy awards in 2015 for the documentary series How We Got To Now, co-produced by PBS and Nutopia.

In the 90-minute documentary, actor Danny Trejo takes viewers on a journey into the afterlife to map out where the idea of hell came from. The documentary travels through ‘3,000 years of ideas’, moving from Ancient Greece through the birth of Christianity to medieval Europe and modern America.

Keen to do something completely different to previous TV work when interpreting the ideas, landscapes and denizens of the underworld, the team, with Miles Donovan and Luke Best as art directors, turned to graphic novels, artist Jack Kirby and film poster compositions to create the heavily stylised sequences.

“The main aspect of broadcast documentaries that differs from our other more commercial work is in the ‘read time’ for the sequences you are presenting to the audience,” said Donovan.

“You are not vying for their attention alongside other work,” he explained. “You have an audience who is engaged and prepared to watch and listen. This allows for sequences to evolve more slowly and for the hard work that we put into the sequences to be fully appreciated by the audience.”

“We worked very closely with the writer/director Julian Jones, as with all documentaries the script is a very moveable feast and is constantly in a state of flux,” said Donovan. “Once we had a script that was as close to the final version as possible, we heavily storyboarded the sequence and created an animatic with a temporary voiceover. This animatic was handed over to the editor, Leigh Brzeski, to drop into the cut. He and Julian would do some re-timing if they wanted more or less time on a particular section. We then faithfully shot the animatic and began the long process of styling and compositing the elements together. Obviously there were work in progress and approval stages along the way, but we were pretty much left alone to complete the sequences. Then they were dropped into the edit during the online. Some shots might get cut by Julian and the editor for the sake of screen time, but on the whole, the sequences appear in the show exactly as we planned and made them.”

Peepshow’s list of deliverables included ‘visions of hell’ which illustrated the ideas and development of hell itself, and ‘narratives’ which told the story of the people and the time in which these versions of hell were being conceived.

“We created all the VFX sequences and treatments of archive material, adding atmospherics to make the historical photography and etchings feel part of our world,” Donovan said. “We also supplied a title sequence, caption treatments and map sections which bookend the different chapters of the special.

Everything was supplied as ProRes HD QuickTime movies in 16:9 aspect ratio.

“We use a very simple combination of Photoshop, After Effects and a bit of Cinema 4D when it’s called for,” added Donovan. “We filmed actors and dancers on green screen to be used as part of the collage, which then allowed for more subtle movement from the actors. As we come from a design and illustration background, the compositions are very important.”

Accordingly, almost every shot was styled and art-directed by either Donovan or Luke Best, who were also present when the work was being composited in After Effects.

“Sequences like the apocalypse of Peter − the brief for which was to show fire without light − were great fun because they relied heavily on getting a great performance from the dancers on the shoot,” Donovan said. “That element of chance was very different to more traditional animation, where everything is so heavily planned out.”