In episode 5 of The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, a daring rescue takes place as The Chamberlain has Rian in a Skesis carriage. This contraption is pulled along by rolling Armaligs, which look like giant pill bugs. As it races through the forest, other Gelflings leap on board the carriage to rescue Rian and eventually escape by riding the Armaligs away, causing the main vehicle to crash.
The sequence would be one where puppetry and visual effects combined incredibly closely, all with the goal of preserving the practical puppetry action. This was possible by shooting a static mock-up of the carriage on greenscreen, along with the puppets operated by greenscreened puppeteers. DNEG then combined those elements with forest background plates, CG Armaligs, and a CG carriage where necessary.
Age of Resistance visual effects supervisor Sean Mathiesen breaks down, step-by-step, how it was all done.
Step 1. Shooting the carriage
Sean Mathiesen: The carriage itself, the wagon part that the Skeksis ride in, is a physical prop. It has arms that go out to these walnut shell-like mud guards. Those then have a CG Armalig, which is like a pill bug, which rolls up and acts like the tires, and then that rolls through the forest.
When the Skeksis are inside, we would take the carriage, set it up on a pneumatic stunt rig where it would bounce back and forth to give it a sense of movement and life. We set up lights and a big spinning rig that had rags and pieces of tree spinning around the outside of it, so there’d be a sense of a sun casting shadows as we moved through the forest, and that would give you a sense of the carriage moving forward in space.
It was this really complex process to create a sense of narrative, a throughput from the beginning to the end of that story.
The camera style for the whole series is very fluid, lively and dynamic – often done with a Steadicam. What they would do is run past the carriage, even though the carriage is stationary, and then we reverse matchmoved that to make it feel like the carriage was moving forward and not that the camera was moving past it.
Step 2. Puppeteering
Three puppeteers performed the Gelflings as they’re running all over the outside of this physical prop of a carriage. Any time you see those Gelflings, there’s at least one puppeteer with his hand going up through the center of the puppet, either through the back or through the legs, up into its head, and the puppeteer has to be entirely dressed in green.
Now, of course, when you remove the green, you’re left with a hole and there is nothing filling that hole. And if that person was in front of the carriage, you have a carriage with a person shaped hole in it. At the end of this process, you don’t have the puppeteer there, but you have the perfect silhouette of a puppeteer.
So we would need to shoot clean plates once we’d filmed a shot. But, it was with a Steadicam, and that means there’d never be the exact same camera move. So there was a lot of clean-up work using the clean plate and warping and manipulating to try and make the holes where the puppeteers were fit into the carriage.
Many times what happened was the carriage becomes unusable. What you’re really trying to do is save the puppet. What I was always looking for and concerned about was if a puppeteer in green was to pass their hand over the face of a puppet. Then it becomes a no-good take. Because if they’re green-gloved hand passes over the face, now there’s a black puppeteer silhouette hole that goes over. Even though puppet faces are not as nuanced, say, as human faces, there’s still all of that passion and care that the puppeteers are putting into the puppet. And you just can’t really re-build that in any way.
Step 3. Re-building the carriage
On the other hand, the carriage is an inanimate object and we didn’t have to worry so much about the puppeteers occluding that. What we would end up doing in a lot of the shots is, we would roto out the puppet, say he’s sitting on the top of the carriage. And his puppeteer is pressed up against the side of the carriage and moving him around. We would roto out just the puppet, we would matchmove the carriage to the plate and then re-render out a CG version of the carriage and apply the puppet back on top of that CG carriage. So, now, the CG carriage doesn’t have a puppeteer sized hole in it.
We shot HDRIs and mirror balls for every single scene. It was hard to know out front really whether a shot was going to become a CG shot or was it going to be clean-up, or would we have to find a way of removing the puppeteer that was more complex than just quickly painting out a rod.
So we would render out the carriage, roto off the puppets, put the puppets back on a CG version of the carriage, and then you would now have a puppet without a puppeteer on top of the carriage with the Skeksis puppet inside of it. Again, we would roto him out and put him into the CG carriage and then render out the CG Armaligs. That would give you now a camera rushing past a fully CG carriage with, with real puppets riding around on top of it.
Step 4. The forest environment
Then we had to put the environment that the carriage is now rushing at 30 miles an hour through; the Endless Forest. So we went to Puzzlewood, which is just on the border between England and Wales. It’s this really old mysterious forest. I think it was originally Roman mines and the mines caved in. So it creates these really interesting rock formations – it caved in so long ago and it’s so lush and that part of England that it rains a lot. It’s always wet. That’s created these really gnarly old trees and moss on all the rock walls where the tunnels caved in and everything.
We went up there and filmed all the background plates. Because the paths are not very large, we knew we’d have to play with scale here. Effectively we shrunk down the carriage to 10% of its real world size so that it would fit on a path that a human could walk on (or a human could walk along to operate a Steadicam).
That then gets put in behind the CG carriage that has now the puppeteers painted out and removed, and the roto’d puppets now riding around on it.
So, we knew the height of the carriage was say 10 feet. So, we planned to take it down to 1/10th of that size and you put the camera one foot off of the ground, so you undersling the Steadicam and then run through. We did some previs knowing that the carriage was moving at between 30 and 40 miles an hour. And when you distill all that down, it ends up being about eight feet a second, eight feet to every 24 frames that you had to go, which is just the speed that a Steadicam operator can do at a very fast walk.
There were maybe six different kinds of areas or different environments inside of this Puzzlewood area. It’d be a different cave system or a natural rock structure or a more flat plain where none of the tunnels had caved in and might have some really nice old trees. And we worked out how to shoot at each of these. We did think about using an array of ARRIs or REDs but we couldn’t fit that array anywhere.
So we had to go through and work out what angles we would do. You do straight ahead, then 30 degrees offset to the right, 30 degrees to the left, 45 to 60 degrees, 90 degrees. And then we have to do reverse – still with the camera underslung, but they would run forward, i.e. they film backwards and we do the same points on the compass backwards and recreate the same very fast walks through each of these six environments from 15 to 20 different camera positions running forward.
Then, using a postvis team with the hours and hours of footage, we would have to go through and figure, from a story point of view, where we needed to be across these six environments, and then which particular angle and plate from those things would fit to that particular shot. So out of your 20 angles that you have in the ‘purple’ zone, you have to find one angle that works for that shot and then which take of angle two is the better one or happens to look better down or bit more up.
There was a lot of slipping and sliding of the camera angles of the different environments in compositing with cards to make it work. It was this really complex process to create a sense of narrative, a throughput from the beginning to the end of that story. All of which then gets put in behind the CG carriage that has now the puppeteers which have been painted out and removed, and the roto’d puppets that are now riding around on it to make that sequence work.