Television VFX: Delivering the fantastic to the small screen [The Graphic Masters Series]

14 March 2016

Case Study

We speak to independent boutique studio Milk about an astonishing first year and its work on the BBC hit show Doctor Who.

Television VFX: Delivering the fantastic to the small screen [The Graphic Masters Series] (Desktop)

Few, if any, visual effects studios have hit the ground running like Milk. The studio already has several Hollywood blockbusters under its belt (Hercules, 47 Ronin), credits on some of the UK’s best-loved shows (Doctor Who and Sherlock), plus acclaim for its contribution to Fox TV’s 24: Live Another Day.

But then Milk is no Johnny-come-lately to the post-production game. In fact its six founding members are fully paid-up veterans of the Soho effects scene, having previously all worked together at The Mill. When, after 20 years in the business, the CG industry mainstay decided to withdraw from film and television work, division MD Will Cohen and his colleagues opted to stick together, move on and start again. “It was a sad time to be a part of closure of Mill TV, but it also presented a big opportunity for us to bring a new company into the world in spite of the fact that it’s a very difficult time for this industry,” says Cohen, now CEO at Milk.

As to why Milk is succeeding where The Mill couldn’t, Cohen says that the fact the latter is a private equity venture makes the two quite distinct. “When you’re the owner of a small-to-medium size business, you have a very different raison d’être. We’re able to play the long game, and don’t have to try to grow exponentially in hard times. Don’t get me wrong though, The Mill is a very lean, well-run company, and we had a brilliant time working there. In a way I think they’re quite happy that we’re carrying on the business.”

Victorian London

Milk’s work on Doctor Who includes scene-setting matte paintings such as this aerial view of Victorian London

Milk launched amidst much industry fanfare about improved tax breaks for film, TV and effects work, but while Cohen says those changes were part of their original business plan, he admits it’s had less impact than expected. “It has led to an enormous amount of shooting in this country, but made less difference for VFX work. We’ve been privileged to work on 24: Live Another Day, the first show to take advantage of the new tax breaks, but in the main it’s something that’s only just beginning to filter through.”

“Large-scale TV shows aren’t the norm in the UK, but we’d like to see more of that work coming in. This is one of the few places in the world with such a strong talent pool” Will Cohen – Milk

Preparing for high-res

One consequence of getting off to a flying start was the need to quickly build the studio’s infrastructure. Head of systems Dave Goodbourn says Milk had just three months to put a working system together. “We knew one of our first jobs was going to be stereoscopic and at 4K resolution,” he recalls. “We figured if it could handle that then we’d be okay.”

He explains how the opportunity to build a new facility from scratch was a particularly luxurious one. “We didn’t have to build upon any legacy systems,” says Goodbourn. “That’s not an opportunity you get very often.” Presented with a blank canvas, Milk worked with Escape Technology to design and build an efficient, hopefully future-proof pipeline.

On the software side, the key tools are Maya, Mari, Mudbox, Arnold for rendering, Nuke for compositing, and then Cinema 4D for occasional tasks. Goodbourn says “The lighting and rendering team found that Arnold immediately enabled them to get incredibly fast, good-quality results, and the scale of scenes you can render is amazing,” he says. “We’ve been able to put 20,000 Daleks into a shot, with no duplication in compositing.”

On the hardware side, Goodbourn says that choosing HP Z workstations for artists was a no-brainer. “There simply isn’t another workstation of choice, for a whole multitude of reasons. For one thing the chassis is virtually indestructible – you could throw one at a colleague and it would still work! – and they’re just incredibly well designed. There’s plenty of room to upgrade things like RAM and no annoying loose wiring.”

The other vital component on the artist side is NVIDIA’s graphics technology, with every workstation kitted out with Quadro GPUs. “We’ve spent the last few months working with them to test the latest boards, and they’ve been really supportive and helpful,” says Goodbourn. We’re looking at other things NVIDIA’s technology is making possible, such as the use of virtual workstations and remote desktops. That’s something I can definitely see us using.”

Who's back

Milk is best known for its association with Doctor Who. While luck was on the team’s side in terms of timing – with The Mill shutting down its movie and TV division just two weeks before the 50th anniversary episode The Day of the Doctor was due to begin shooting – Will Cohen points out that there was no guarantee the BBC would give the job to this familiar and safe pair of hands. “The BBC is very careful about due diligence,” he explains. “If you’re going to spend public money they want to be sure you’ll do the right thing.”

Despite having worked on previous episodes of Who, Cohen says The Day of the Doctor presented an enormous challenge. “To get the pitch for Day of The Doctor, then another for the Christmas special, and then again for series eight ... it’s not something we take for granted. If you’re in the VFX business then this is exactly kind of show you join for in the first place.”

Nonetheless, Cohen admits that during post-production the team do tend to forget just how commercially successful (and subject to close scrutiny) the show actually is. “You don’t really consider Doctor Who’s global reach, with 77 million people watching it.”

While season eight opener Deep Breath was shot in January 2014, delivered end of June and broadcast in August, the lead times on subsequent episodes have gotten shorter and shorter. “By the time three episodes have been shown on TV, we still have three more to complete,” says Cohen. “Thankfully our pipeline is well-oiled now, and we’re used to getting complex work through quite quickly.” Deep Breath proved especially challenging, not least due to an extended running time of 76 minutes and the small matter of 117 VFX shots. “New season episodes are always tricky, but with a new Doctor [Peter Capaldi] there’s also the challenge to capture and win over the audiences so the pressure really doubles,” says Cohen.

Doctor Who is a show where the level of ambition always exceeds the available budget, says Cohen. “And it’s not like other shows where you have one established set. The TARDIS is the only constant, with the rest constantly built and then torn back down again. We build stuff, blow it up, and then start again for the next episode.”

Still of Half-Face Man

One of Dr Who’s most chilling adversaries, the BAFTA award-winning Half-Face Man was created by Milk

“The BBC really wanted to push the boundaries of what was possible with [Doctor] Who, and to do it in stereo for a cinema broadcast. The pressure was huge” Will Cohen - Milk

Looking to the future

Cohen reflects on Milk VFX’s position in the industry and longer-term aims: “When we set up the company the aim was always to be very manageable and controllable, and to foster the sense of being part of team. There are some very large companies out there, and the industry does need them, but we want Milk to be more boutique, more personable.”

“We like to be able to work collaboratively with people on great projects, so wouldn’t want to be in a position where we needed to hoover up everything going,” he stresses. “Ultimately nobody creates visual effects just to make money. You also do it because you love it. It’s still early days for us, so right now we want to focus on establishing ourselves, to keep going and to create great work.”

Read more in the Graphic Master Series.