Here's a filthy treat if The Snowman is just a little too soppy for you. Raymond Briggs's digustingly good children's book Fungus the Bogeyman is coming to TV.
The tale is a classic: a slimy monster deep underground called Fungus whose job it is to make things go bump in the night for us humans. It's a real stinker – and that's a compliment.
But beneath the slime and the smell of Sky 1's three-part series is state of the art technology thanks to The Imaginarium Studios, the animation and motion capture company set up by Star Wars and Lord of the Rings actor Andy Serkis.
Motion capture is typically reserved for only the biggest blockbusters – think Gollum scampering around or primates running riot in Planet of the Apes. Using technology like this on TV has never been done before.
So how did they do it?
How to build a Bogey
“It took a heck of a long time to go from the original story of the book to filming,” recalls Tony Orsten, CEO of The Imaginarium Studios and
“We had to write a script, think about what we wanted to do and how we would do it,” he says. While motion capture is becoming a go-to technique for blockbuster movies and video games, trying to 'downsize' the technology for a TV budget was a new challenge. Serkis skipping around a fully rigged set Gollum-style was definitely not an option.
Neither was filming the whole thing in Imaginarium's purpose-built motion capture studio, like they did for Coldplay's recent music video for example. The series had to mix real actors and locations with CG animation.
The Imaginarium had to come up with something different – and it would take a while. "The shoot was only around ten weeks in actual filming time, and the post-production was a bit longer than normal," says Orsten. "But the preparation time to even get it to that point was nearly two years."
Updating Raymond Briggs
The first step was to take the characters in Briggs's illustration and turn them into computer generated models. That job was given to Double Negative TV, a visual effects company who partnered with Sky and Imaginarium on Fungus The Bogeyman.
“Everyone has the Raymond Briggs book on their desk, everyone refers to them throughout the process,” visual effects producer Louise Hussey says. “How do we make women Bogeys look sympathetic and not too gruesome? We’ve had a whole world of conversations about what it’s like to be a Bogey!”
The purpose of the early sketches wasn't to mess with Briggs's creation. They were about exploring how a static illustration might change if you started moving it about. "Fungus has a very big triangular head, little eyes, and we had to maintain the integrity of that, because that’s Fungus. If you do anything else then it starts to stray into Shrek territory," Hussey says.
Using these sketches, the VFX team could create digital models of each Bogey character: “It’s very much as if you’ve made a puppet head out of rubber, except it’s all happening within the computer.”
From sketch pad to screen
While the animators were coming up with the 'look' of Fungus, the producers were planning how to film these creatures in real life.
"Everything’s real except for the heads, and that’s very unusual for TV. I don’t think anyone’s done like it before," says Orsten.
Actors wore cumbersome Bogey-sized body suits, but instead of heads the filmmakers used head pieces with a series of sensors on top (see above).
"The head rigs perform a really valuable task, because they act like digital glue," Hussey explains. "All of the little dots and lights and crosses, as they’re moving around the screen all that information goes to tracking software, which can tell where each spot is at any point in time.
"When we then add our digital heads after filming, they "stick", because we know exactly where they need to move based on the tracking information we have. That means you don’t have heads floating around randomly: they’re glued on to the bodies."
Actors perform on set in body suits, wearing a head piece with sensors that are picked up by specially adapted cameras.
When filming is finished, the animators use the information from the sensors to 'map' the animated heads on to the live action.
Once this is done, the animators can start to add detail, lighting and emotion onto the 'green path' – the basic outline of the Bogey head. A face for Fungus
There'd be no point hiring an actors like Timothy Spall and Joanna Scanlan to play the Bogey family if you weren't going to use their performances. As well as their voices, the animators also wanted to bring the actors' facial expressions into the final cut.
All the actors were filmed while they were recording their characters' voices, so that when the animators were working they could refer back to every facial tic.
“In the details for example on Fungus, we included versions of Timothy Spall’s teeth," says Hussey. "We told Tim, 'One of the things that’s quite strong about you is your teeth!' He laughed, and we said we really wanted to give our Fungus model his teeth. 'Brilliant! he said.'
"Equally with Joanna [Scanlan], she has these beautiful eyes and freckles, and we’ve matched as much as we can the look of her into her Bogey form."
Spot the resemblance?
The finishing touches
The series might have taken almost three years to make, but come December the producers were still working to have it finished.
Sky 1's commissioning editor Cameron Roach was waiting. "Double Negative have been working every hour God’s given them to get it finished. Even a few weeks ago it was not ready," he says.
But he was willing to be patient: "We’ve had a longstanding ambition to work with The Imaginarium, because what they do is phenomenal; I love the idea that we’re bring that cutting edge technology that people are used to seeing on film to television."
"Some of the greatest feature films that you have seen in the CG world have been delivered the morning of the premiere," Orsten adds. "Living in the digital world, you can make things much closer to the deadline, which is good – sort of!"
We're guaranteed the three-part series will be ready to go come 27th December – and one important viewer has already given it his seal of approval.
"We’ve got acknowledgment from Raymond Briggs that he loved it, which was a huge relief," Orsten says.
Now it comes down to finding out whether it was worth all the trouble. But perhaps the secret to its success lies in hiding how much work has gone into it?
"We’re so sure that using actors to tell stories is the right thing to do, and providing animation and fantastic CG on top," says Orsten. "Where people don’t necessarily see it as part of a ‘special effects’ world. God forbid. These are real stories told in a real way."
In other words, if you can forget you're watching computer generated characters and just breathe in the Bogey stink, the it's a job well done.
Fungus The Bogeyman airs Sunday 27th December at 6pm on Sky 1