Wolf Hall - How LipSync Post rebuilt Tudor London

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Last Updated: June 15, 2015 1:12 am GMT
(June 15, 2015) Based on the Hilary Mantel novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, the six-part BBC miniseries Wolf Hall transports viewers to a meticulously recreated vision of 16th-century London. Here, the implacable Thomas Cromwell must seek a way to annul the 20-year marriage between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, despite heavy opposition from The Pope and the entire continent of Europe.

An intensely personal, claustrophobic affair, Wolf Hall treats its 1520s setting with reverence, paying the utmost respect to even the smallest of historical detail – from the embroidery on Cromwell’s tunic to the panoramic landscapes of Tudor London.

This is where contemporary London’s LipSync Post comes in. Offering the complete post-production package, LipSync’s past work spans a variety of projects and genres, including Batman Begins, Total Recall and 28 Weeks Later. On Wolf Hall, however, a dedication to period realism was the order of the day.

Key sequences realised by the LipSync VFX team included the 16th-century London setting around Cromwell’s home, Austin Friars; the Thames and areas around London Bridge; the Tower of London as seen from inside Traitor’s Gate; and the surrounding environments at the coronation of Anne Boleyn. This was in addition to the show’s title sequence, audio work and grading.

A vision of the past

“We were looking at London 500+ years ago and what it would have looked like back then from a historically accurate sense,” remembers Paul Driver, producer at LipSync Post. “You’re always going to have a whole bunch of historians on your back trying to point out every little feature, saying that it’s not part of that period, so there’s a lot of pressure on the studio there to get everything looking just right. You have to really have a solid idea of what the buildings looked like back in Tudor London – mistakes will be noticed!”

LipSync was recreating London as it was in the process of being built up, expanding outwards from the Thames as the area grew ever more prosperous. “We had to remove a lot of modernity that features in those areas, and keep it all within the period,” says Driver. “There was a lot of research done into what needed to be removed from the Thames.”

Using tools such as Autodesk’s Maya and The Foundry’s MARI and NUKE, the LipSync visual effects team created 2.5D matte paintings using asset models of the various Tudor buildings, then laying out the textures and lighting them in the scene environment. The 2.5D matte paintings and 3D pipeline in NUKE meant that the cameras were able to move within the scene, adding to the already immersive 16th-century atmosphere.

Staying on top

The large amount of assets, as well as a team of 10 artists, meant that careful and considered organisation was a necessity across the project.

“10 years ago, working on a project like this would mean a huge paper trail – we’d try to manage schedules in Excel, which would then all be broadcast in an email,” remembers Driver. “Thankfully, that’s not the case now. As soon as we got ftrack at LipSync, and could put out new schedules live to the artists, or pick out their workload automatically, that just changed the way we did everything. There’s just less running around, less typing of emails – it’s a huge timesaver.”

LipSync adopted ftrack in May 2014 and has used it on almost project since. For Driver, the functionality surrounding scheduling, project hierarchy and version management came in incredibly useful, particularly so for a project with the levels of complexity as found in Wolf Hall.

“At LipSync, both myself and the show coordinator use ftrack for checking when a new shot has come forwards for review, and giving the artists an overview of the schedule – the supervisors can tap into it if they need to and make sure everyone is working on the right tasks at the right time,” says Driver.

Wolf Hall is a really big show – there are a lot of moving parts across each of the different art departments – and from a scheduling point of view ftrack just streamlines everything and makes it really simple,” continues Driver. “I like the way that if you make a change it goes live to the artist straight away, cutting out the need for time-consuming emails. Artists can then just pick up their schedule, and – because we have the option of customising their overview – read it in the way that makes most sense to them.”

This customisable aspect is key to the success of ftrack on Wolf Hall. Driver finds that the LipSync artists generally have some difficulty in getting truly stuck into production related tools, as they’re usually also busy learning the intricacies of software like NUKE. “Sometimes it can take a bit of a nudge to get the artists to get really stuck into the deeper functionality of ftrack,” he says.

“However, we have an in-house support guy who’s pretty savvy with ftrack. He’s able to redesign things like the overviews page, which breaks the shot schedule down nicely and makes it easy to pick up. The team have been using that redesigned page on Wolf Hall, especially with things like seeing the statuses of different parts of the project and seeing their end dates. So there’s a lot of flexibility in the way artists can approach the software.”

Working as one

Working on such large and detail-intensive environments meant careful monitoring of shot progress across individual artists was key on Wolf Hall. “Having the shots schedule was incredibly useful – for instance, being able to add notes specifically about how different departments were supplying what the compositing artists would need eventually was a huge help, as it keeps everyone up-to-date and working off of the same information,” says Driver. “You’re working more as a fully functioning team, rather than different departments all updating at different times.”

In his role as producer, Driver also found ftrack’s reviews functionality extremely helpful, enabling LipSync to get one step ahead of itself across the production. “Coordinating reviews was just so much simpler using ftrack,” he tells us. “Things like using Quicktime videos when an artist has produced a comp are really useful features. You can see ahead of time if there are any problems or if you want to change anything before it goes to review – you can just type the notes in there. I think that’s really helpful, as it means we can get ahead of ourselves before we do dailies sessions.”

This kind of preparation is key when working on an episodic production such as Wolf Hall, where quick turnarounds and strict deadlines tend to be the norm: “With TV productions you’re often going right up to the wire, and you have a shorter turnaround for getting the VFX done, so quick-and-easy import work with ftrack makes things a lot easier for sure,” says Driver. “You definitely get many hours saved just in terms of broadcast and schedules. In the past I was having re-email every time there was the slightest change, as opposed to just sliding bars and hitting save to adjust the artist’s workload. Overcoming that with ftrack means there are countless production hours worth of savings.”

Delving deeper

Wolf Hall was a big challenge for LipSync, but with ftrack in its software arsenal the project sped along smoothly – and that was without Driver and his team even exploring the deeper functionality enabled by the likes of Actions.

But LipSync doesn’t intend to stop using ftrack any time soon and has plans to delve deeper with the software: “We’re going to go a bit more into ftrack as time goes on – we’re looking to expand on the kind of shows and the volume of short work that we have on, and we’ll definitely want to use ftrack for that,” says Driver. “I have a large-scale production coming up, and by that point I’ll be more savvy with the tools and I’ll know what I want out of it. That’s when things like Actions and Photoshop integration will really start coming to the fore, and we can open up even more of the ftrack functionality.”

Even now, having ftrack as part of the LipSync pipeline has helped streamline production in a big way. “Once you’ve got to grips with it, ftrack is definitely something that should be explored,” concludes Driver. “It’s definitely worth implementing.”

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