Evil snowflakes, evil snowmen… Making the Dr Who Christmas Special
Friday, December 21, 2012
If you are a UK-based reader by now you may well have settled
down with a stomach full of toasted turkey sandwiches, wearing a
slightly crumpled party hat, and enjoyed the the highly-anticipated
Dr Who Christmas special: "The Snowmen".
I caught up with Mill TV's Matthew Mckinney (CG Supervisor) and
Darren Byford (Lead 3D) to gain an exclusive insight into just how
you approach creating an 'evil snowflake' and the challenges of CG
When did you start working on the Doctor Who Christmas
MM: The 3D team started working on it way back in
June. That was when we began designing the Ice Governess and the
evil snowflake. We worked on other episodes as well in between, but
the ball was already rolling.
DB: I started with a few days on-set in August. I
was there to collect the lighting reference that we would later use
to bed the CG into shots. It's quite odd being confronted by a
Christmas tree in summer.
Can you talk me through The Mill TV's role?
MM: Creating the Ice Governess, the Evil Snowmen,
The Evil Snowflake and lots of snow effects and matte
And your specific involvement?
MM: I was supervising the 3D team. Ensuring we
deliver the 3D work on schedule while pushing the quality as much
as possible. I also built, textured and rendered the snowmen and
the spooky iceflakes!
DB: Lookdev and lighting for the Ice Governess.
That's to say I took Jason's 3D model and textures and developed
the model's surface properties; refraction, reflection,
transparency, bumpiness, surface sparkles, things like that. Then I
broke those characteristics into render passes, which are separate
layers that the compositors use to build and balance the CG for
each shot. Once the overall look was approved I could place the Ice
Governess into each shot's 3D environment and light her to match
the film plate using the on-set reference.
How did you approach the project?
MM: We always try to improve the quality of our
work across the board. This includes design, animation, modelling
and look development. We aim to excel in each of these areas so
that our attention to detail shines through in the final
DB: With Matt overseeing the overall visual
quality I focused on planning, testing and prepping every aspect of
the development and lighting pipeline so that when the backplates
arrived we could complete the shots quickly and to a high standard
while avoiding the kind of dramas that can be associated with tight
What were the challenges involved?
MM: Technically the greatest challenge was
creating an ice creature who would look good in a variety of
lighting conditions. We put a lot of attention into making detailed
bubbles, leaves and algae which is quite subtle but gives the
creature a solidity, as the brief was to make her from frozen pond
water. Designing the characters is of course key to their
successful realisation. Luckily we have Grant Bonser - a fantastic
concept artist who came up with the grinning snowman concept and
Jason Brown a great modeller/ texture artist who created the Ice
DB: CG ice! Real-world ice bounces, bends,
blocks, gathers and scatters light in ways that even computers find
difficult to fathom. The original idea was that the appearance of
the Ice Governess would alter as the story progressed, so I created
different ice layers with different properties, from ice cube
clear, through murky pond water to dense, coloured glass. Although
her final appearance is pretty consistent throughout the show all
of those layers were used to build up the complexity and detail of
the final image.
Did you use any new techniques or
MM: We are continuing to use Arnold to render a
lot of our sequences, having used it first on the Dalek Parliament
episode. Darren set up the lighting and rendering pipeline for the
Ice Governess using Arnold. It was our most complex foray into
using Arnold so far, as the creature was reflective and refractive,
with lots of detail. It proved to be successful, handling the
motion blur exceptionally well, without any of the artifacts we had
experienced in the past. We also incorporated cloth simulations
into the pipeline and animated texture maps for the cracking on the
surface of the Ice Governess, all of which added to the complexity
of the task.
DB: This was the first time I'd used the Arnold
renderer on a production. Its ability to render complex scenes of
reflective, refractive objects complete with accurate motion blur
made it the ideal choice. It's still relatively new to the industry
but it's rapidly gaining ground in both television and film. It
allowed us to add additional detail to our work and moved us a step
closer to the visual quality associated with film projects.
What was your favourite moment whilst working on the
MM: For me, seeing the Snowmen develop from a
sketched idea to fully comped, trailer shots, was really exciting.
It is very cool when a few days after a shot leaves your desk, you
find hundreds of pictures of it in Google Images. It's testament to
the popularity of Doctor Who that it generates such a level
interest and that makes it a privilege to be a part of it.
DB: For a couple of days the filming took place
in a large country house on the edge of the Brecon Beacons. While
Matt Smith was waiting between scene set-ups he'd sometimes sneak
off to the music room and play the piano. He's pretty good!
Will you be tuning in to watch it be part of your
MM: I might be tempted to stroll down my street
to see who's tuned in! It's usually in the million at
Christmas.. which is pretty amazing.
DB: Absolutely! I was a fan of the show before I
began working on it and I'm still a fan now. Even if I need to
watch the edit for work reasons I still try to avoid watching the
end of an episode so I can enjoy it when it's aired. On Christmas
day I plan to settle down in front of the TV with a small,
celebratory glass of scotch, on the rocks naturally!