The production covers the queen as a 25-year-old newlywed in 1947, as she is faced with a declining empire during an unstable political time, and follows her to the present day. The Crown is expected to span 60 episodes over six seasons. Season 1, which has garnered a great deal of attention (recently receiving a Golden Globe for Best TV Drama Series), depicts events through 1955. Claire Foy, who plays the role of the queen in Season 1, also received a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a TV Drama.
Indeed, the series is a realistic glimpse into this royal’s life, yet visual effects were required nonetheless. This duty was completed by One of Us, which was the sole VFX provider, covering all 428 effects shots over the first series. The facility is also handling the work on the second series.
The VFX are primarily focused on creating a believable world to support the narrative. It was exclusively invisible, photoreal work, including digital set extensions, environments, crowd replication, CG aircraft, and a re-creation of Buckingham Palace.
Among the range of environments One of Us created was one required for the coronation sequence in Episode 5. Shot on a greenscreen stage at Pinewood, it needed to look like the famed Westminster Abbey. It was not possible to film or take photos inside the sacred locale, even for reference, making it even more challenging to replicate the grandiose scale of the abbey. Alternatively, the artists had to use online and archival information for reference during the reconstruct.
Next, they used Ely Cathedral as a base on which to build the abbey for the scenes, following filming at the cathedral for the royal wedding in Episode 1. “So for the coronation, we ended up with an amalgamation between the two architecturally,” says Ben Turner, VFX supervisor at One of Us.
Other main environments included the Downing Street rooftops in Episode 4 and the Buckingham Palace courtyard, which appears throughout the series. For the work, the artists used Autodesk’s Maya and Banzai Pipeline’s Enwaii for the photogrammetry. Compositing was done with The Foundry’s Nuke.
The 3D crown jewel for the series was in fact Buckingham Palace, a 3D model comprising 202,333 polygons. “We had many scenes across the series of people driving in and out of Buckingham Palace, and it’s not possible to get access to film at the actual location,” Turner explains.
Thus, an archway set piece was built on the backlot of Elstree Studios for cars to drive through, and the artists added the rest. “The first series only covers a short period of time across the ’40s and ’50s, so the model was a much dirtier version of the palace than the one we know now, as the palace was very dark with dirt back then,” says Turner.
Nevertheless, the artists had to make the palace as photoreal as possible, taking their own photos and using Enwaii to build the model. They then re-projected the photos onto the model and added 1950s post-war dirt and grime. Still, covering the building in dirt without it getting lost in the grime was hardly easy, and it needed to be realistic to the period while still being recognizable as Buckingham Palace.
There were also many digital set extensions, such as Downing Street. One of the more difficult extensions was for a BOAC DC-4 plane, which had to feel three-dimensional. “We saw it from many angles, and at times we got very close to it, so the level of detail needed to be very high. Also, shiny silver aircraft needs to reflect the light believably,” Turner adds.
The DC-4 was used in multiple scenes across the series. The team took a good deal of detailed photo reference of a real DC-4 in South Africa and used that to build a 3D model using Maya and Enwaii. They then re-projected those photos back onto the model as textures, and added additional detail on a per-shot basis using digital matte painting done in Adobe’s Photoshop. Furthermore, the model was rigged so that it could take off and land, which it did in a handful of shots.
Crowds are ever present in the series. One of Us did not use digital doubles for this work, but instead used digital crowd replications. The group devised an in-house 2.5D tool in Nuke that was a card generator, giving the artists a choice of crowd elements and letting them determine the costume, angle, resolution, and actions.
While the overall effects were not difficult, what made them complicated was the scale of the work. There were four different directors across 10 episodes, and the shooting schedule and post schedule overlapped significantly. This meant the artists often were pulled in two directions at the same time.
“The number of shots and the huge amount of data became a challenge when juggling multiple episodes at once,” says Turner.
It’s not every day that a studio gets such a royal assignment. As a matter of fact, One Of Us typically works on films, and although this was an episodic production, they approached it as a feature film. So, the expectations for high-quality work were exactly what the group is used to, and the crew was able to transfer its film experience directly to the project. And the result? Award-winning.