Here have been many retellings and interpretations of the Arthurian legends, particularly those involving Excalibur. And with the magic, drama, romance, mythic battles, epic quests, and more, it's easy to see why the subject is so spellbinding. And indeed, the latest version of this medieval myth, Netflix's Cursed, follows that tradition, although it places a unique spin on the tale with familiar characters in very different roles, all supported by a wide range of stunning visual effects.
Based on the illustrated novel by Tom Wheeler and Frank Miller of the same name, Cursed re-imagines the story from the perspective of Nimue, a young woman with a mysterious gift who is destined to become the powerful (and tragic) Lady of the Lake. After her mother's death, she finds an unexpected partner in Arthur, a humble mercenary, in a quest to find Merlin and deliver an ancient sword. Over the course of her journey, Nimue will become a symbol of courage and rebellion against the terrifying Red Paladins - Christian Crusaders whose goal is to rid the land of druids and all mystical/magical beings - and their complicit King Uther.
Nimue draws strength from the magical sword she possesses, imbuing her with amazing fighting skills. Everyone, however, wants to possess this weapon, known as the "Sword of the First Kings," as it is said that whoever wields this Sword of Power shall be the one true king. King Uther Pendragon wants it, as do the Paladins. Cumber the Ice King covets the sword, as does the ruby-eyed shadow lord King Rugen, the Leper King. At one point Merlin possessed it, or more accurately, it possessed him, turning the magician into a primal, vengeful being. Nimue's mother relieved him of the sword to save his life, but he lost his magical powers as a result. Now, believing the sword is cursed, Merlin intends to melt it using remnants of the long-ago Fey forge fires from which it was crafted - fires kept in a treasure room at Rugen's lair.
The weapon, it seems, is the ultimate double-edged sword for Nimue, as well. It enables her to protect the mystical Fey beings against the murderous Paladins, but it also begins to nurture a darker side - just as Merlin had warned.
Season 1 of Cursed, which comprises 10 one-hour episodes, dropped July 17. Wheeler and Miller are co-creators/executive producers, while Silenn Thomas serves as co-executive producer, and Alex Boden, a producer. David Houghton is overall visual effects supervisor.
Cursed is set in a mythical medieval version of England, although filming occurred at Langley Film Studios, outside of London, with a good deal of location shooting near Surrey and in North Wales, around an area called Betws-y-Coed. VFX were used to transform the soundstage and modern locations.
All told, the series contains 2,051 VFX shots: Episode 1 (390 shots) and Episode 10 (360 shots) contain the highest number, followed by Episode 4 (282 shots), Episode 2 (261 shots), and Episode 7 (229 shots), with the remaining dispersed among the other episodes. The work was shared mainly across five vendors: DNeg, Milk VFX, Mr. X, Goodbye Kansas, and Freefolk.
"We did just about everything," says Houghton. "I'm not sure what we didn't do; we didn't do spaceships." There is quite a bit of blood from battles, massacres, and brutality, as well as magical effects, all-CG environments and digital extensions, computer-generated creatures and animals, and fire/ash/embers/smoke/water. Most of the Fey, however, use prosthetics.
"One of the decisions we made early on in conversations with Frank and Tom was that the magic was going to be visualized through elemental forces rather than more traditional wand/firework-type effects," says Houghton, "more embedded in elemental forces." This can be seen in many scenes, such as when Nimue summons the Hidden with animated vines representing the mystical, natural forces that give the young woman some of her powers; or when she manipulates smoke, flames, and ash to her advantage. Lightning also becomes a natural force that is manipulated by magical characters in the show.
DNeg: Hawksbridge, Gramaire,
Village Massacre, Vines, Bear
DNeg's work across its 822 shots in Cursed spanned the series' 10 episodes and ran the gamut, incorporating just about every type of work, from environments, to creatures and digi-doubles, to fire and blood, and far more. This includes building some of the more extensive environments, such as the town and port of Hawksbridge, where Nimue tries to catch a boat while fleeing from her village, but meets Arthur instead.
DNeg built a large set extension for Hawksbridge port, including the sea.
Nimue and Pym approach the CG-augmented town of Hawksbridge.
"It involved a lot more work than what you see," says Houghton, describing the environmental extension for Hawksbridge as quite an undertaking.
As Houghton explains, first, the locale was surrounded by trees that all had to be removed in comp, with DNeg building out the town and port from the existing set. Using art department drawings and period reference, the studio added CG churches, houses, huts, a bridge, and a plethora of objects, such as carts and wagons, barrels, fish netting, and so forth. As the village set was built nowhere near water, DNeg further crafted moving boats and dynamic sails, as well as a jetty at the port, and even added the sea itself. Everything within the surrounding harbor wall was a practical set with a large 40-foot-high bluescreen where the sea was to be. DNeg added the town beyond the wall, enhanced the set, extended the jetty by 90 feet into the sea, and added the water and majority of the ships and boats.
"The most difficult aspect was getting the layout right for all of the various angles, because we started off with the widest angle of Nimue and [her friend] Pym approaching Hawksbridge on horseback, which shows the spread of the town. But then there are other scenes that feature that same environment and were filmed from several different angles," says Sulé Bryan, DNeg VFX supervisor on the series along with David Sewell. "We had to make sure we had the correct layout to keep all those individual shots composed correctly so we didn't have to tweak each one individually."
"On one side we had to replace fields of trees with the city beyond the set wall, and on the other side, the sea port side, we replaced a huge bluescreen with an ocean, boats and ships, and so on," he adds.
For the construction, the artists used Autodesk's Maya for modeling, Adobe's Substance Painter and Pixologic's ZBrush for texturing, Isotropix's Clarisse for rendering, SideFX's Houdini for effects and simulations, and Foundry's Nuke for compositing.
Nimue entangles a Paladin in practical vines interwoven with CG versions.
DNeg also built the large set extension for the village of Gramaire, the seat of power for Arthur's uncle, Sir Ector - a site that appears in several sequences throughout the series. According to Bryan, this environment extension was more straightforward but still required a high level of detail. As was the case with Hawksbridge, Gramaire required the artists to remove many trees from the set, but not all of them - "these trees really became an issue," he adds. Similarly, the artists built an environment extension beyond the limits of the physical set, which included churches, towers, rooftops, and so forth.
The sets for Gramaire and Hawksbridge consisted of the large town squares, a number of side streets, city gates, and the port area of Hawksbridge. DNeg extended the towns above the nearest rooftops; they also created a vista of the entirety of Hawksbridge as seen when Nimue and Pym first approach and for the distant Gramaire as Arthur rides towards the town. "Like Hawksbridge, [Gramaire] is a location that is used several times across the series, and had to remain consistent while being used again and again," Bryan notes.
This build included construction of Ector's castle by DNeg, as well - an all-CG set seen in both the background and in close-up. Achieving the right scale for the castle was difficult because it was always visible in shots, which at times required some slight cheats.
An especially complex environment build was required for Nimue's village, which is sacked by the Red Paladins, who slay or burn the Fey inhabitants, along with the village itself. "Our brief was to convey an engulfing sense of death and destruction," says Bryan. To this end, DNeg had to greatly enhance the amount of flames as only minimal SFX flames where allowed at the location, and added other effects such as ash and smoke throughout the sequence, where the shots ranged from wide to close-up. The artists also added 2D crowd elements shot against bluescreen to increase the number of Paladins and villagers seen in some shots.
In a 70-second Steadicam shot, we see Nimue running through the village during the chaos, trying to reach a young Fey boy. "There's nowhere to hide with a shot like this. Usually when you have this sort of shot, you can get away with certain things in between the cuts. But when the shot is over a minute long from start to finish, everything has to work perfectly," explains Bryan. "It's probably the equivalent of about 15 visual effects shots all in one. There are multiple huts on fire, the added effects of ash and embers, and additional people."
The artists also added a huge 180-degree mountain range across from the lake that edges the village, which is visible in this sequence as well as earlier ones. "Not only did we have to create this large mountain range, but we also had to get it into the right angle for all the sequences, especially the long shot, where the camera is constantly panning backward and forward," explains Bryan.
Of course, there is a great deal of blood in this scene and others. "We never got to the point where [the client] said, 'There's too much blood.' We really had to up the violence ante," Bryan notes.
Following the massacre at the village, Nimue finds her mother, the high priestess Lenore, gravely injured inside a cave. She instructs Nimue to take a sword to Merlin. Thus begins Nimue's true journey.
Since she was young, Nimue has had the ability to call on the Hidden. In the series, she uses this ability to entangle enemies in thick vines, roots, and branches, some of which are practical and interwoven with CG versions animated by DNeg. In one particular sequence, a Paladin is encased by creeping vines. He is cut down by his brethren and taken to an abbey to be cared for, where vines are seen moving in and out, and under, his skin.
In the scene, the vines pulled from the Paladin's mouth were practical elements shot separately and combined with the live-action, and the vines that writhe on the Paladin's chest were animated entirely in FX with a procedural noise texture, whereas most of the other [vine] animation in the series was done in Maya, says Houghton.
DNeg built and animated a demon bear that attacks the young Nimue.
All her life, Nimue has been taunted for the strength of her magical powers and considered an outcast by her peers and the elders, stemming from a demon-bear attack when she was a child. She is saved by the Hidden, but not before she is "marked" by the bear across her back, leading the villagers to believe she is cursed by dark spirits. DNeg artists crafted the CG bear based on reference from Houghton and Miller, and choreographed the attack. As reference, the artists examined footage of large brown bears, studying their gait, stance, and the way they shift their weight.
But this is no ordinary bear. "Frank wanted a specific style for this creature, so we had to obtain the right balance between a demonic bear and a real-world bear, which ended up being a 20/80 split [respectively]," says Bryan. Moreover, the animal was 4 feet taller than a typical bear, at about 12 feet high. "It had to tower over her and overextend his jaw, enough to eat her head and torso in one."
Freefolk: Nimue's Facial Vines,
Creatures, Fey Camp
While DNeg created the creeping vines in the forests, Freefolk generated the so-called Fingers of Airimid, a design from leaves and thorns that appears on the skin of Nimue and the Fey elders when they are empowered with magic or are angry and in danger, respectively. "Part of the challenge is the way the effect comes on through the skin, almost like a blush," says Meg Guidon, executive producer at Freefolk. "This is important because it is an emotional response in the Fey characters, betraying their special powers. It is magic but has to look organic."
According to Harin HIrani, Freefolk head of CG, the group explored multiple avenues, including an effects approach using Houdini, to create a textural pattern that grew over a 3D model of Nimue the studio had made. Once they had settled on an effect they liked, they streamlined the process in order to deliver the effect across many shots and to easily alter the timing. In the end, they ported the texture growth pattern into Nuke, where they could control the growth and timing on a per-shot basis, and then generate maps that could be applied in the studio's 3D software to render displaced geometry lit for the scene. These CG elements were then integrated into the live-action plates using Nuke.
"The biggest challenge with the facial vines was the tracking process. We used different techniques on a per-shot basis depending on Nimue's actions. Sometimes we could purely use vector tracking inside Nuke, other times we needed a geometry track in [The Pixel Farm's] PFTrack, and other times a combination of both," says Hirani.
Freefolk crafted the leafy design that appears on Nimue’s face when she is empowered by magic.
Freefolk, tasked with 200 shots, also designed and built the convent where the dying root-wrapped Paladin was taken, compositing the building to sit seamlessly into the wide establishing shot, which was filmed on location.
In addition, the team created set extensions for the Fey refugee cave, where the magical folk hid from the pursuing Paladins. The artists at Freefolk designed, modeled, lit, and textured the upper levels and wider set extension, which provide scale to the live-action set at ground level. "Having created the upper stories of the camp, we then populated the rock faces of the camp with crowds and added animated CG Moon Wings flying in the air above the camp," says Hirani.
Freefolk extended the cave setting for the Fey refugee camp.
Milk built the subterranean environments of the Leper King and his treasures.
In an early scene after the druid village attack, the studio built an all-CG wall of flames and forest through which strides the feared Weeping Monk, who is hunting the magical beings for the Paladins. Meanwhile, Moon Wings fall from the trees and burn around him. This was a 40-second continuous take of the monk walking to the camera, shot against greenscreen, with extensive effects elements simulated in Houdini.
"We needed to build an entire burning forest around him, and populate the treetops with CG Moon Wing creatures that were falling to the ground engulfed in flames," says Guidon. "This included animating one Moon Wing being executed by the Weeping Monk; all the pleading and dying actions had to be retrofit to the timing of the existing greenscreen performance of a sword slash by the monk."
Freefolk also created the menacing black spider creature that enchants Morgana as she retrieves the sword, which Nimue has tossed into a vast chasm out of frustration. Furthermore, the team created a realistic fawn, shown in close-up. Because the team was unsure how much movement would be required, they proceeded to build a muscle system for the animal in Houdini should it be needed.
Rounding out the studio's work were atmospherics, including a magical storm summoned by Merlin, a scene requiring a CG set extension of Pendragon Castle to add the clifftop location and a wild, crashing sea at its base.
Goodbye Kansas: Castles
One of the more visually stunning all-CG environments was that of Pendragon Castle, handled by the team at Goodbye Kansas under the supervision of Ditch Doy. This included exterior shots of the castle perched on a ledge and the vista surrounding it, as well as lavishly dressed interior set extensions. As the series is based on the classic Arthurian legend, albeit from a new angle, the artists at Goodbye Kansas made a lot of nods to the medieval era as well as to the classic story of Arthur in the castle's design. As such, most of the work was based on art developed in-house with Raf Morant, head of art department, in conjunction with the showrunners and Houghton.
Goodbye Kansas built Sir Ector’s sprawling castle.
The studio also built Uther Pendragon’s stylized castle.
"Pinning down the look of Pendragon Castle was probably our biggest challenge," says Doy. "As the seat of Uther's power in the show, it had to evoke his character." Initially, the design was based on traditional medieval castles in Wales, but as the concept evolved, it moved more into the realm of fantasy as the artists worked with Miller, who contributed a graphic, stylized aesthetic and influences from German Expressionism. Ultimately, the architecture returned to a more reality-based look, yet still maintained a lot of Miller's vision.
Goodbye Kansas approached the build in a modular fashion, constructing a medieval kit of parts that could be modified and re-purposed. This enabled the crew to match the designs while also dressing the castle as the story required it. For modeling and animation, they used Maya, as well as Houdini for simulations and Chaos Group's V-Ray for rendering. Compositing was done in Nuke.
While Pendragon was the studio's main asset for the series, the team also created the interior throne rooms for both Sir Ector's and Uther's castles, and extensions to the exterior of the executioner's courtyard. "As we had created a lot of parts in the medieval style for our Pendragon build, additional top-ups such as those were quick to incorporate, and added some additional grandeur to the scenes," says Doy.
Collectively, the studio handled 126 VFX shots.
Mr. X: Windmill Siege,
Battle at the Beach, the Widow
When it came to Cursed's big battle scenes, Mr. X was in the thick of it. This included the windmill siege when the Paladins trap Arthur, Gawain the Green Knight, and the Fey inside a windmill and attempt to burn them out. Among Mr. X's collective 326 VFX shots were those pertaining to the large-scale battle on the beach between the Fey and tusked people, against the Paladins and armies of Uther and the Viking Ice King. In addition to these two main set pieces, the studio crafted a number of shots scattered throughout the last six episodes, including the all-CG character the Widow.
Arthur and the Green Knight escape the CG flames as Paladins burn the windmill, destroyed by Mr. X.
The lower half of the windmill was practical, while Mr. X digitally extended it, adding an extra set of vanes that were later destroyed by CG fire, crafted in Houdini. "It had to be a seamless match," says Tim Stevenson, VFX supervisor at Mr. X, of the digital build. "There were a lot of drone shots, moving shots, handheld shots, and they all had to be tracked to where there was no distinction between the top and bottom portions of the windmill."
Moreover, the CG fire was also mixed with practical effects and had to seamlessly blend. As the structure burns in the sequence, more and more of the fire becomes CG until the roof collapses, at which point the fire is all-digital, as is the windmill itself. "Before we destroyed it, we had to build a full-digital version of the practical windmill - from the cloth textures to the wood texture, it had to be a one-to-one match," says Stevenson.
Eventually, the heroes and Fey file out of the inferno, while Nimue, who is outside, manipulates the flames and turns them into a giant CG vortex that rises and blows back on the Paladins, burning them and creating cover for the Fey group. The vortex had to be believable yet still have a magical component.
"Fire is always difficult; there are scalability issues and dynamic issues, especially when you are combining digital fire with live-action fire; there's a believability factor that has to be addressed," says Stevenson. "We had some practical fire in the shots that we could match, but there was very little in terms of the forgiving nature to that sequence because it was filmed in broad daylight, one of the more difficult scenarios for doing believable fire."
For the epic battle on the beach in the last episode, Mr. X used Massive crowd simulation to turn 100 extras into 500 - Vikings, Fey, Tusks, royal soldiers - according to Houghton. The sequence had a number of high-angle shots looking down onto the beach that were enhanced with digi-double crowd sims generated in Massive. When on the same level as the action, Mr. X used elements of Fey and Vikings fighting, shot against bluescreen, to increase the numbers in the battle sequence. "The choreography was the hardest part because you are dealing with so many shots of people in close combat and wide-angle shots, so planning became crucial," adds Stevenson.
Aside from the battles, Mr. X also created the all-CG Widow, a reaper-looking character that Mr. X helped design and build. Initially, she was to be an actor with prosthetic make-up, but she wasn't scary enough for Wheeler and Miller, so the artists crafted a computer-generated skull-like face that is less rigid and expressive.
Milk VFX: Wolves, Culzean
Castle, Caves, Waterfall
Milk handled a variety of work on Cursed, crafting 390 shots encompassing a pack of CG wolves developed from concept through to animation, as well as a forest environment in which Nimue fights with them; and a dramatic waterfall environment where a combat sequence takes place at the climax of the final episode. Milk's brief also included a number of environments: the CG Culzean Castle and subterranean world environments for the Leper Kingdom; the underground chasm at Cailleach; digi-doubles of heroine Nimue and the Paladins for the waterfall sequence; the green Fey forge fire; and the glow and effects on the sword. The studio also created additional environments and effects, including chopping off the hands of the character Bors.
Nimue battles five CG wolves in a CG environment, crafted by Milk.
In one revealing scene, the sorceress Yeva casts an incantation that enables Nimue and Merlin to virtually meet for the first time, at Culzean Castle. Here, Nimue is given a look at the past and at Merlin's connection to the sword, leaving her unsure whether to follow her mother's dying instructions.
The sequence was filmed among the ruins of Waverley Abbey in Surrey, which Milk developed into a larger, grander build of a castle city ruins. "There was only a little bit of wall standing [on-location]. Most of the castle was a CG set extension," says Houghton. Therefore, the look and textures of the digital castle needed to match the unusual texture of the existing monastery ruins that appear in the plates.
The challenge was building an environment that could sit in many different shots and angles without Milk having to make bespoke separate builds, according to Ciaran Crowley, VFX supervisor at Milk.
Culzean Castle’s CG set extension.
Milk additionally built the subterranean environment for the Cailleach, an evil-filled underground chasm where Morgana encounters the Freefolk-made spider while retrieving the sword for Nimue. Milk further built the subterranean environments of the Leper King, which was mostly filmed on a small set and then digitally extended. "These were quite challenging to build, as we had to integrate some floating set walls within the design of the environment," says Crowley of the Leper King caves. "The throne room was imagined as a vast cathedral with a touch of backlighting - with a direct reference to Frank Miller's comic-art style."
Meanwhile, the artists filled the treasure room with gold coins and treasure spilling out all over the chamber, along with coffins and copious riches. They also crafted the green Fey fire, which Merlin steals.
According to Crowley, the most challenging aspect of the overall job was the wolf scene, wherein the Paladins dispatch five (CG) wolves to hunt down Nimue as she is carrying the wrapped sword to Merlin. The beasts trap her, and during the fight, she climbs atop a rock and uses the sword to dispatch the beasts one by one, beheading three - one in spectacular Frank Miller style. Like the wolves, the environment in the scene is all-CG, with the exception of the actress and rock, which were filmed on greenscreen.
"The wolf sequence was very tough. It was shot in the studio, and just prior to the scene, Nimue is running through an actual forest and comes into a clearing, which was essentially a greenscreen studio space with just the rock in the middle," says Houghton. "Milk had to then add the whole of the forest environment around it."
The Milk team designed the look of the wolves from scratch, while the lighting style and atmosphere they incorporated into those concepts (which included backlit lighting, driven from Miller's signature comic style) was subsequently used as lighting reference by the DP and director on the shoot. The team referenced Frank Miller's wolf from his comic "300" and created concept designs for several types of wolf, in both naturalistic and fantasy styles, with the final creatures having a more realistic look but are larger than a typical wolf to make them more menacing.
The artists began crafting the beasts by first researching wolf fur textures, coloring, and behavior. Sam Lucas, head of modeling, built the wolf models in Maya, then used ZBrush for the finer details around the paws, face, and mouth, as well as for the muscle definition. The group used Peregrine Labs' Yeti for the groom, giving the artists flexibility to play with the look and feel of the fur, and Ziva's rigging and animation software for the muscle systems.
"The alpha wolf needed to be white; the second in command, black; and the other three variations were selected from real-life wolves by the client - these were gray and two variations of brown," explains Crowley. "Since wolves' fur color is typically made up of multiple shades, we incorporated three color maps to drive the initial variations for one wolf's fur, using root, mid, and tip color maps that would stipulate how a single hair strand would be shaded. We also added randomized mutant hairs and melanin in the shader to push the individual looks. From there, we also had to make two grooms for each wolf: a dry groom and a wet groom."
As Crowley points out, it was imperative that the fur looked and flowed naturally with the dynamics. Likewise, it was important that the bulk and mass of these huge beasts were properly portrayed in the renders with the multiple lighting setups.
Artists at Milk crafted this extensive environment, including the CG waterfall.
Milk's culminating sequence in Cursed has Nimue, Merlin, and Morgana trying to escape the Paladins. As they are crossing a narrow footbridge above a huge waterfall, Nimue is shot with an arrow, then another, eventually tumbling from the bridge into a pool of water far below. Not only did Milk create the waterfall and the environment around it, but also the digital takeovers required in the scene.
"It is a big drama scene in a tiny space, which made it more challenging - with most of it completed and delivered in lockdown," says Crowley.
The sequence was shot outside on a backlot against bluescreen. The set build consisted of the bridge, with everything else created digitally, including the waterfall, digi-doubles of Nimue and the Paladins, the rain, and Merlin's magical lightning bolts from the storm he whips up as he slowly regains his power.
The artists developed the 3D asset of the environment, while the FX team created the water simulations and the waterfall (in just seven weeks during lockdown), as the latter was broken up into several layers of simulation, including water surface, foam, spray, and mist.
For the digi-doubles, scans of the actors playing Nimue and the Paladins in the scene were provided by production and rigged and groomed with cloth sims applied to the clothing. These were used in wide shots and for takeovers when the characters fall into the water.
"We wanted to cover all bases in terms of character detail, and what helped us massively was having a full-3D scan of Nimue for our assets team to begin modeling her digi-double. All of the base mesh was done in Maya, then we moved to ZBrush to get all the extra detail in the skin and clothes. The textures were made in Mari and were either hand painted or derived from on-set element reference, with look-dev done in Maya using [Autodesk's] Arnold," Crowley explains. "We then passed the character on to our creature FX team, which handled all types of character deformation, such as cloth and hair simulations; the groom for Nimue was achieved using Yeti."
In terms of Nimue's fall, actress Katherine Langford was shot against bluescreen on the backlot on a harness with crash mats; Milk removed the rigs and added the CG waterfall and the CG set extension at the bottom of the waterfall. In addition, the studio did some digi-double takeovers for the dramatic point when Nimue loses her grip on Merlin's hand and plunges down into the mist. The artists also made digi-doubles for the Paladins who are killed and fall from the bridge during the fight, allowing CG takeovers in several of the shots with added blood splatters in the vein of Frank Miller's comic art.
Season 1 ends with the waterfall sequence, but is it the end of the series? Many questions were answered and issues resolved, but others remain. Reviews have been positive, leaving the door open to a Season 2 if Netflix chooses to open it.
"The way Frank and Tom told this story is very interesting. Initially, the characters feel unfamiliar to us in terms of the Arthurian legend, but gradually the pieces come together as you start to realize who the characters are within the existing mythology, and that's very intriguing and exciting, and opens the door for a much bigger story to be told," says Houghton.
As for the magic, that was contributed by the visual effects artists, modern-day "magic folk."
Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor of CGW.