Special effects of Heaven Sent


The challenges presented by 2015's Heaven Sent show how the teams at BBC Wales, Milk VFX and Millennium FX work together on an episode of Doctor Who.

[Published in Doctor Who Magazine Special Edition #43 - Special Effects (Panini UK Ltd, pp. 90-93. Posted here by kind permission of DWM editor Tom Spilsbury.]

Samantha Price remembers how she first heard about Heaven Sent. “The script team at Cardiff said, 'Oh, there's an episode coming up with just the Doctor, all in one location – it'll be effects-light.'” Sam, who was post-production supervisor on Doctor Who in 2014 and 2015, wasn't fooled. “Of course, it was never going to be as simple as that!”

Heaven Sent was a particularly demanding episode to make, despite the best efforts of the production team to get ahead even before Steven Moffat had finished his script. “We were sent the first 30 or so pages,” says Sam. “That was really useful because it had the castle, the teleport chamber, the bedroom and the monitors on the wall, and we start to see the creature that's chasing the Doctor. So even though you haven't got the full thing, you've a lot to be getting on with.”

What did she think when she first read it? “It's always exciting to read a new script. You want to know what's going to happen and where it's going to take you. That one's very dark and harrowing.” Does a story like that get in your head as you're working on it? “Oh yes. But then you have to go back and figure out how you'll make it. I'll do a pass looking just for the effects required, so I'm ready to speak to the different effects teams. We also look after copyright and clearances, so I do a pass for that. If there's a speaking monster, we're probably looking at getting in a voice-over artist. So it's looking for anything that will affect post-production and trying to be on top of it.”

The first 30 pages of the script were also sent to Kate Walshe, SFX producer at Millennium FX, the company that has provided prosthetic and creature effects for Doctor Who for more than ten years.

“My reaction to that partial script was incredibly positive,” says Kate. “It was just such an interesting episode. And it's got the creature – 'the Veil' it was called in the script – which we knew would be down to us. The tricky thing was that we had no idea how the story would play out. Would the Veil turn out to be the Doctor or Clara, or something from the Doctor's past? We didn't want to design something that was really bizarre if it was going to pull off its mask on page 70 and turn out to be the Master.”

Even so, what Kate had of the script established the feel of the episode – and the creature her team would build. “I had lots of conversations with Rachel Talalay, the director, where we talked about creepy, stalking characters. We talked about the film It Follows, which had just come out at the time, and Pulse – a Japanese horror from 2001. That was the steer: something unsettling and a bit other-worldly in a bad way. At that point, I don't think Rachel knew, either, where the character was going.

“We also had Steven [Moffat] talking about mourning statues with draping veils,” says Kate. “From that we talked to Rachel about changing the Veil's proportions so it wouldn't look quite human. When we got the rest of the script and knew it wouldn't turn out to be anyone else under there, we could get on and design it.”

To create the design, Kate and the team at Millennium discussed things in film and TV that had previously scared them. “The one really specific reference that we kept going back to was the Ringwraiths in Ralph Bakshi's animated version of The Lord of the Rings [from 1978]. They're just super creepy, so our concept artist Chris Goodman partially used them as reference.”

Chris Goodman's design for the Veil
“Our idea originally was that the arms could suck in and out depending on whether the Veil was near the Doctor to grab him. For the most part, we wanted the arms not to be seen at all. But when we built it and had it in the workshop, there was something so creepy about just having this one leading hand sticking out.”

Once the design had been agreed, “I think we built it in 11 days,” she continues. “That's probably the craziest turnaround we've ever had for something this scale, something that had to do so much in the episode and be so present throughout. Normally these things take weeks. But once we had the design we built it round the performer, Jami Reid-Quarrel – who was also Colony Sarff [in The Magician's Apprentice and The Witch's Familiar]. He's a really nice guy. Effectively the costume is a giant puppet, so his shoulders and head are connected to the shoulders and head of the creature, which stand a good three feet on top of him. It's slaved to his movement, designed so that as he bent and lurched forward – 'lurch' is in the script – the thing would give a more exaggerated movement. There's something weird about it.”

Louise Hastings, Will Cohen
and Salvador Zalvidea
at Milk VFX

Heaven Sent was one of the hardest scripts we've done,” says Louise Hastings, visual effects producer at Milk VFX. “It was so high concept. Everyone read it in a different way. We sat down with Rachel Talalay and Brian Minchin [executive producer] and said, 'So it's like this...' Then they'd say, 'No, actually it's like this...' There was lots of scribbling on bits of paper to draw out what we were all discussing.”

What made it so difficult? “It was really hard to understand from the printed page,” says Will Cohen, Milk's CEO and executive producer. “It's one of the most dense scripts we've ever had in Doctor Who. After four meetings, we were still finding things out about it – how it all connected up and exactly what we had to show to make it work. There wasn't anywhere to hide for Peter Capaldi and the director. It's an epic story, even though it's a one-hander, because of what's going on, what's happened to him. I was really aware that the visuals would make this – or really hurt it.”

“We'd been told about the rotating castle before we saw scripts,” says Salvador Zalvidea, visual effects supervisor at Milk. “So we started the design of that – but a 'rotating castle' can be many different things. Which floors rotate, or is it every single floor? Is it like a bicycle wheel or just the centre that rotates? We used previs [previsualisation: a quick and basic animation] to try getting the concept locked as quickly as we could.”

“But it's not all digital,” says Will. “We had to incorporate what they'd done with the live recording – working out how to use the texture of the location, Caerphilly Castle, in the design. But the biggest thing is the geography – what's happening where in this complex story. Where is the Doctor in this scene? How far is it from the next scene? How does it all knit together?”

“Another sequence was the fall,” adds Salvador. In the story, the Doctor leaps out of a castle window and plunges down into the sea – but as he falls we cut repeatedly to scenes of him inside the TARDIS. “When we cut back to the falling, we needed to feel it was constant, that the descent hadn't been interrupted or moved backwards. We previs'd that as well.”

Heaven Sent was episode 11 out of 12. “We were at the end of the series,” says Louise. “And it was quite close to transmission, so there wasn't much time. Though there were only 40 shots to do – episode 1, The Magician's Apprentice, had more than a hundred – they were all complicated.”

Salvador agrees. “We were mixing tasks in each shot. So there'd be a mix of DMP – that's digital matte painting, which today is more and more three-dimensional, fully textured models – and then FX simulation for the water and fog...”

“And the dust,” says Will.

“And then there's compositing,” Salvador continues. “That's mixing up the different elements into a believable whole. You get a sky from DMP, a rendered 3D castle, then Peter Capaldi on green screen and wires you need to take out. You put it together, add lens flares, the lighting directions and camera shake. That's the last stage before delivery.”

“Whether it's a feature film or TV show,” says Will, “compositors are the people who suffer most because the 3D is never done on time. You can only guess how big your model's going to be, how long it's going to take to render and how many changes will need to be made. So they're the ones whose time is squeezed and who have to stay through the night.”

“If we have a small amount of time, we get more artists in to get through the work,” says Louise. “We had 34 artists in total on this one – almost as many artists as we did shots. It just comes down to putting in the hours.”

Milk and Millennium dovetailed on a striking part of the story: a seabed littered with skulls – each one from a dead Doctor.

“We'd taken Peter Capaldi's life cast earlier in the series, for when the Doctor makes a fake ghost of himself [in Under the Lake and Before the Flood],” says Kate at Millennium. “We cast a version of that out of modelling clay and then carved back to reveal what might be his skull. Obviously there's a lot of guesswork in that but the proportions would be correct. In fact, the comment back from Rachel and Pete Bennett [the episode's producer] was that it might look too much like Peter Capaldi and give the ending away. So we adjusted it. I'd love to know what Peter thought of 'his' skull!”

“We made hard versions that could be held on set,” Kate continues. “And hollow versions that would bob to the surface of water – they were completely sealed but with chambers of air inside. We made loads of them. There are probably tons down in a warehouse in Cardiff somewhere. Kevin Campion sculpted the first one but a few people moulded it. Then there was another person casting them from that mould. And then there was a team painting them because there were so many. It was five or six people just on the skulls, of about 16 working on the episode as whole.”

Millennium only needed to scan one skull in order to easily replicate it as many times as required – but the team still faced challenges. “We needed a wide shot telling us the Doctor is deep in that water,” says Salvador. “Then he has to realise there's a seabed of skulls there. So how do you do a shot that is wide enough to show the Doctor deep in the sea but that also shows his reaction, and also lets you see the skulls close enough to understand what they are? We went through a number of iterations to make that work – and all in one shot. It's very creative, finding a way through together.”

“It was a massive undertaking,” admits Sam of Heaven Sent. “It was complex. It was a longer episode than the usual 45 minutes – it had another ten minutes on top. And it was reliant on the CG effects, so anything we could do to take some of the burden off Milk helped. BBC Graphics animated flies that our VFX editor, Dan Rawlings, could add round the Veil. We even recorded dead flies as an element and added those in. Our online editor, Will Osman, has a lot of experience and he'll do certain temporary effects himself.”

“It's a dark place to take the series,” she concludes. “Someone trapped for that period of time and replaying their lives. But when you're sitting in the edit, replaying events quicker and quicker before the Doctor gets through the diamond wall at the end – just seeing the complexity of everything that went into putting that together, that's what gets in your head. So many people – there were 17 in my team, let alone everyone else – making it work so Steven's idea really hits you. That's amazing.”

In December 2015, director Rachel Talalay gave an hour-long interview to the Radio Free Skaro podcast, and revealed her own input into the effects on Heaven Sent.

“I was just frustrated [about] this dissolving hand,” she told Warren Freyburg. “I knew that Steven [Moffat] wanted it. The effects guys showed me some stuff. They put acid on a kind of Styrofoam thing and it looked – I just hated the way it looked. I said, 'Well what about a bath bomb?' And then they like all laughed at me. I said, 'No, really!' So I go and buy this kids' bath bomb kit and I said 'Yeah, my kids, they make them, this is how you do it.'”

You can see the demo Rachel made for the effects team at tinyurl.com/j6czy3z, and hear the full inteview with her at tinyurl.com/jexe5fa