Behind the scenes with the on-set stand-ins in ‘His Dark Materials’

Framestore shares the puppetry, stuffies and laser pointer-guided rigs used to help make the show’s creatures.

When Framestore’s Russell Dodgson began working on the BBC/HBO series His Dark Materials, based on the Philip Pullman’s novels, he and the filmmakers needed to determine how the daemon human companions that are part of the fantastical would be brought to life.

“We needed a way of being able to hit these really long scenes that are quite emotive and have the cast have something to play against,” says Dodgson, who is Framestore’s creative director of television and was the series visual effects supervisor on His Dark Materials.

“We knew we weren’t going to use real animals because they couldn’t bring the right sort of qualities performance-wise. And we knew that if we used real animals, plus puppets, plus children, we were going to be in a bit of a nightmare situation.”

The ultimate solution was to implement a series of ‘low-fi’ puppets for the daemons for actor and camera framing reference. The puppets would not end up appearing on screen; all the creatures would be CG (one scene in the film does have a puppet daemon in a wide shot). And there there were also those armoured bears…

Choosing how and where to use puppets

The puppet build effort was headed by master puppeteer and head of creature effects William Todd-Jones, who assembled a team to create sculpts, maquettes and the puppets themselves. The idea was to be fast and nimble with the puppet builds and the on-set puppeteering.

The Pan puppet on set.
Final Framestore shot.

For every set-up there would be a rehearsal stage. On the day of shooting that particular scene, there would be a further run-through with the cast and with the puppet.

“We would begin filming by doing a puppet pass, which was like doing the master wide and working your way in,” outlines Dodgson. “In that master wide you are shooting and taking into account the puppets. We would then start to take the puppets away. The reason for this was we knew we couldn’t afford to have to remove puppeteers and remove puppets from every shot. Only in the instance where a performance really needed that puppet there would we then consider using the puppet in the shot and later cleaning the puppet up.”

Mrs. Coulter (Ruth Wilson) with her monkey, and puppeteer Brian Fisher.
Final shot.

Puppets, of course, were able to be articulated, with the puppeteers giving them a level of performance on the set and helping immerse the actors and filmmakers into the scenes. At times, however, it was considered that the daemons could be visualized with a simpler stuffie or non-articulated puppet.

“For example,” explains Dodgson, “one scene has the deamon of Lyra, Pan, sitting on her shoulder which she hugs. We did that with a regular puppet. We were confident that our puppet was small enough that the mass of Pan would go over the top of it with minimal cleanup in CG. And we knew that if we did it with the puppet and we’d just get the right kind of interaction with the clothing so that we didn’t have to do CG clothing.”

The on-set puppet for the daemon Stelmaria.
CG Stelmaria by Framestore.

Also utilized for Pan shots were gray weighted stuffies slightly smaller than the final animal, with no fur. There were designed so that Lyra actor Dafne Keen could hold and pick them up, and then eventually be covered over by the CG Pan.

Mrs Coulter’s (Ruth Wilson) monkey daemon was largely an articulated puppet, although a few extra practical on-set creations helped with its interaction on set. “At one point Mrs Coulter grabs the back of the monkey’s head,” recounts Dodgson. “For that we had a squidgy foam ball the size of the monkey’s skull on a stick. There was also a weighted full size body of the monkey that Ruth could pick up.”

Bears: more complicated

The armoured bears in His Dark Materials relied on a swathe of on-set stand-in approaches. This started with a simple foam core version of the character Iorek Byrnison that could be wheeled around the set to get a sense of the bear’s proportions. Then there was a minimalistic ‘head on a stick’; a fiberglass sculpt of lorek’s head that was puppeteered by the character’s voice actor, Joe Tandberg. A stripped-down version of the head involved a nose on a wire with two wire eyeballs to act as a representation of lorek’s head.

The foam core version of lorek.

For more interactive scenes, a fiberglass ‘basher bear’ version of lorek was made. This was the head and shoulders, padded out to allow the stand-in to be ‘slammed and rammed’ into stunt people where necessary. A backpack set-up was also assembled to show how lorek or other bears would appear if they reared up on two legs. “We even made giant bear Wellington boots that you could put your feet inside and wear as big shoes so that we could frame up on lorek’s feet for close-ups,” adds Dodgson.

Then there was ‘couch bear’, a large gray buck representation of lorek with fake bear fur that could be laid down for scenes where Lyra is leaning against the character. Says Dodgson: “We just had that laying on the floor and inside of that we had a puppeteer who was doing the breathing action. And then also inside we had the main actor doing the voice.”

lorek on-set stand-in.
Final Framestore bear.

The trademark scenes of Lyra riding lorek made use of purpose-built riding rigs. Dodgson says that production eschewed motion bases and a motion control approach for time and budget reasons. However, to get as accurate level of riding motion as possible, the process did begin with animating a run cycle of a digi-double of Keen on a CG lorek.

“We did the 3D equivalent of putting a laser pointer where the hips of Lyra were on the CG bear and we projected out from there onto a plane the movement of Lyra’s hips,” explains Dodgson. “This meant you could see the X and Y rotation, giving us this ellipsis-like movement.”

The riding rig manipulated by puppeteer Elliot Gibbons.

“We built a physical rig that allowed us to emulate that movement through the movement of a puppeteer. We rehearsed that by literally putting a laser pointer on top of the physical rig and matching the shapes that we had projected in 3D. So we used the CG to create the most basic reference we could of the way that the bear moved that could then be physically matched by an actor, ie. the virtual laser pointer was used to create a pattern that we could match with physical data points on top of the rig.”

The idea here was to replicate the right kind of movement for Lyra atop lorek while providing enough human error to retain an organic quality. “It also meant,” says Dodgson, “when we were filming, we could adapt very quickly. The director might say, can we make him run a little slower, and we could slightly reduce the speed without having to go back and re-program anything or do anything overly technical.”

Another riding rig came in the form of a variation on the backpack rig, essentially a booster seat placed on top of a backpack that a performer would wear and Keen would sit on. “The performer would walk around after practicing the rhythm and movement and stride length of lorek,” details Dodgson. “And then sometimes we would just use Dafne’s face and head and replace her body, and other times when it was accurate enough we would use the entire body and head and track that onto our CG lorek.”

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