This interview was originally published in the issue 03 : 2020 of Digital Production.
I assume we all have seen and enjoyed “The Witcher” on Netflix – and most of us have seen the cinematics for the games, and a few have even played them. Reason enough to pull it all together and talk to the guys who made the cinematics and quite a few shots for the show: Platige Image.
We talked to Visual Effects Supervisor Mateusz Tokarz (whose credits include projects like “Safe Inside”, – “Lilyhammer” and “The Giant Mechanical Man”), compositor and Art Director Rafal Sadowy, whose recent projects were for example “Wonder Woman”, “Another Day of Life” and “Antichrist” (still a favourite of the editorial team), and VFX Producer Krzysztof Krok, who worked on “Lilyhamer” as well.
DP: The obvious first question: Did you get to play “The Witcher” as official prep for doing the VFX on the show?
Mateusz Tokarz: Lauren Schmidt Hissrich, the showrunner, stated clearly from the very first day that our world is going to be based on books and stories, not video games.
DP: Since you did the cinematic for “Witcher 2”, was it fun to get back into that world?
Mateusz Tokarz: It’s great to be part of both. Game cinematics (there was more than one!) for “The Witcher” games were ground-breaking and after all those years still look great. They also started a new era in the history of Platige Image – the era of game cinematics, which became an important branch of the company. Now we’re part of the biggest Netflix show of the year, showing that we are reliable partners for film and TV as well. “The Witcher 2” game was a long time ago, but for people who worked on any of these cinematics, it was definitely fun to get back to this world.
Rafal Sadowy: For me, it has come full circle, because many years ago, I was involved in one of “The Witcher” cinematics – it was my first great opportunity to work with Tomek Baginski – their director at that time. It was great to come back to this subject and look at it from a different perspective.
DP: How many shots did Platige work on? And what was the briefing for those?
Mateusz Tokarz: It was around 150 shots. We cooperated closely with Julian Parry, the overall VFX supervisor. Our journey started at the end of last year (2018). We were helping production with some RnD before the shoot. Then we were one of five studios working on VFX for the first season. We were mostly responsible for magic effects – portals, spells, signs – but also environments and a lot of other various types of work. Our main purpose was to create effects that are subtle and elegant. We’ve spent a lot of time researching practical physical phenomena to be able to create something interesting and unique. In this case it wasn’t easy – there are not many real-life examples for magic.
DP: How many people did you gather in your team to make the shots?
Krzysztof Krok: The team was quite big – approximately 130 people involved in total, but the core team was around 30.
Mateusz Tokarz: We had a lot of hardcore Sapkowski fans in the studio who wanted to contribute in some way, just to be part of this saga – we were super excited about this project, but it was very intense, and this gave us extra power.
DP: What was your personal favourite shot to work on?
Krzysztof Krok: One of them was Yennefer’s and Istredd’s portal created in Aretuza (2nd episode). It was one of the first magic effects that we started developing, very early in the production. It evolved and needed some adjustments when we got the raw footage from the set. We understood then how flexible the VFX setups have to be to make quick adjustments as well as our thinking on how magic has to be.
Mateusz Tokarz: My favourite sequence is one with the Shan Keyan Tree in the enchanted forest. We had to show it in shots during the day and in Ciri’s vision as well. It has very vibrant color correction in the trailers and fans loved it. On the other hand, in some shots from this sequence we replaced around 75 % of the image with CG renders and it was demanding to match the very stylised lenses that were used there.
There’s also a funny story about the making of this episode, which came with one of the first crucial deadlines we had to meet. On the day before, we were working long hours and agreed we’d come in earlier the next morning since it was the deadline day. I came a bit late and realized that Rafi, our Art Director, hadn’t come at all.
Chris texted him and after a couple of minutes we learned Rafi wouldn’t come as he was hospitalized. I just didn’t register it, this couldn’t be true, so I said: “Alright, call me when he comes,” and got to work. After 15-20 minutes I asked again what’s going on, and Chris showed me Rafi’s photo in a hospital bed. He had broken his arm riding an electric scooter.
It was one of these moments when you’re doing crazy overtime, but you’re so pumped up that it’s hard to believe that something may go wrong. Fortunately, these sequences look fabulous and maybe because of that I really like them.
We’ve also taken care of many shots in the final battle. The entire crew did a wonderful job on set and thanks to that it was a pleasure to contribute and make it even cooler.
Rafal Sadowy: All shots that include different kinds of magic are my favourites. Mainly because they were the most challenging and the most interesting to figure out. For example, for the portals, it was mixing different physical phenomena together – liquid surfaces and spiral clouds often seen in satellite imagery.
DP: Can you walk us through the creation of the portals?
Mateusz Tokarz: We were developing them before the shooting started. Our goal was to create something subtle and unique. There were tons of static concepts that we did before we started FX tests in Houdini. In terms of shape, our inspiration was galaxies and nebulas. In terms of appearance, physical effects that involve light aberrations and dispersions.
DP: Can you walk us through your pipeline for the show?
Mateusz Tokarz: We’re using pretty much everything that is industry standard these days. Our main 3D software are Maya and Houdini. Substance Painter for texturing. Nuke for compositing. PFTrack for camera matchmove. Everything is connected with the use of our in-house pipeline that we’ve developed over the years.
DP: Any particular new tools you used?
Mateusz Tokarz: We’ve created a few smart tools to automate turnovers and deliveries. That helped us to keep everything in order during peaks of work.
DP: With you being known for your work on cinematics and a few films and shows under your belt, what are the different forms of approach you have adopted, and which parts were easily transferable?
Mateusz Tokarz: The difference between feature films, cinematics, commercials and TV shows is the speed of work and the frequency of client’s feedback. TV shows are definitely the most intense – there’s almost instant client feedback and many levels of approvals.
Krzysztof Krok: The main difference is that you are one of the vendors. Part of something bigger and greater. You have to keep the pace. You have to adapt and at the end of the day understand there are many more teams involved. Your regularity helps everyone around and a daily routine is highly desirable.
DP: With you, Framestore, and Cinesite sharing the VFX-load, how did you choose who did which shot and how was your teamwork for that?
Mateusz Tokarz: Everything was managed by the Netflix post-production team. There were a few shared shots between us and other studios. In most cases, both studios were working simultaneously, but always one was chosen as the finishing studio and responsible for delivering complete shots. When the other studio’s part was finished, they would send their final comp render and then we would apply our effects on top of this. For a few shots we exchanged FX setups, DMPs and Nuke scripts.
DP: Some effects had quite a bit of practical FX involved: Did that make it easier for you? (At least some things were shown online.)
Mateusz Tokarz: It’s always easier to enhance something rather than create from scratch. I’m a huge fan of good balance between practical effects and CG involved in one shot. These types of shots always look very good.
Rafal Sadowy: The post-production process always becomes smoother when we use practical elements on the set. Even if we are replacing them completely with CG elements in the end, they are the best reference to integrate CG with live action plates.
DP: If you had to start that season all over again, what would you do differently?
Mateusz Tokarz: We had to learn during the work what Julian’s, Lauren’s and the producer’s expectations are. I think that it’s not about doing things differently.
Rafal Sadowy: Not riding electric scooters! 😉