Your browser is out-of-date!

Update your browser to view this website correctly. Update my browser now


A race against time

The team at VFX studio Lux Aeterna was behind the visuals on the glossy BBC Studios documentary series Ancient Powers. The battle was telling a 5,000 year-long story of the greatest civilisations in just seven months, reports Robert Shepherd

If delving into the battles and histories of ancient civilisations intrigues you but time is a constraint, Ancient Powers emerges as a top recommendation. The six-part history series was born from a partnership between BBC Studios and Chinese online entertainment platform Bilibili.

Interlacing narratives of commerce, conflict, and resilience spanning from early civilisations to the decline of the Western Roman Empire, the series presents ancient history as an epic contest of strategy and chance. Adopting a Top Trumps-style structure, each episode directly contrasts the approaches of these civilisations to fundamental challenges, unveiling the societal, technological, and physical battles they faced in their quest for supremacy and endurance. And of course, domination.

Boasting awe-inspiring documentary visuals, Ancient Powers brings this vibrant past to life and masterfully paints an expansive tapestry of the world’s most remarkable ancient cultures over a staggering 5,000-year timeline. VFX studio Lux Aeterna was charged with bringing the visuals to life. 

“We were involved from the very beginning and joined the script meetings. It was here that we collaboratively decided that GFX needed to play a significant role in the visual narrative. In having pre-shoot script meetings, we were able to talk through and develop ideas for the shooting stage of production,” says compositing director and co-founder Steve Burrell.

“This was definitely the best point in the process, as it massively influenced the final look of the series – even down to the camera movements, everything was driven by the graphics. Approximately 65 per cent of the runtime featured graphical elements, including full CGI. We worked predominantly in Maya and Nuke. The production was largely driven by graphic elements, as well as motion captured CGI and therefore cameras and hardware played a minimal role.”

The icon created to represent China

The series is targeted at a younger demographic, so the primary objective of the project was to cultivate a highly stylised, almost gamified visual aesthetic, according to Burrell. “To accomplish this, we needed to devise a method for clearly indicating the various locations within the show. Thus, we introduced prominent visual landmarks or staging posts, each adorned with a unique icon representing different powers, and we applied distinct colour palettes to each of them. Our graphics were meticulously crafted to convey a sense of depth, while simultaneously striving to authentically recreate the historical settings, complete with a lived-in ambiance. We meticulously employed lighting techniques that faithfully reflected the only available light sources of that era. This endeavour was unlike any other, as it involved a vast quantity of variable graphics without relying on on-screen text for support.”

However, being involved at the start didn’t mean the studio was time-rich. Paradoxically, the millennia of history had to be visualised in less than a year.

“The biggest challenge we faced was the short production timeline,” explains Emma Kolasinksa, executive producer at Lux Aeterna. “We had just seven months to deliver, with all six episodes due within the same month. Scheduling, budgeting and communication were key here. During the busiest periods, we had a team of 18 working on the production. Strong collaboration and communication with the BBC Studios team was pivotal. Thanks to the support and open minds of the production team, Amanda Lyon (executive producer), Simon Winchcombe (series producer), plus directors Ian Hunt and Ross Kirby, we were able to communicate efficiently and share our expertise openly. Without this smooth and consistent communication with both parties, we would never have been able to deliver the show on time or budget.” 

Timmy Willmott, CG supervisor at Lux Aeterna adds that the biggest challenge, 3D-wise, was rendering so many shots, including the giant maps, which were about 800 frames per shot. “We had a highly skilled team and James Venn, one of our lead artists, performed outstanding optimisations on the more challenging scenes,” he says. “His expertise brought them to a manageable state and greatly contributed to keeping the project on track. Consequently, this has been one of the most seamless projects I’ve had the privilege of working on.” 

Willmott is particularly fond of the motion capture ‘ghost armour’ shots, especially when the team put a light inside the helmets. “It was a solution to not having the time or budget for character builds. It just looked cool and I was grateful the client went with it,” he adds. 

This artistic feat transports viewers across millennia, unveiling the paradox of recreating the timeless with the urgency of the present.

Ancient Powers is available now on Bilibili and will be distributed in Spain via DTS Distribuidora de Television Digital, with distribution to be confirmed soon for Germany and further globally.