How did the BBC’s His Dark Materials bring the daemons to life?

The cast and crew of the fantasy drama reveal how they pulled off the biggest challenge in adapting Philip Pullman’s trilogy

His Dark Materials

When adapting Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, one of the biggest roadblocks was always going to be what to do with the dæmons.

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External animal “souls” who talk to and accompany every citizen of the parallel world Pullman created in 1995’s Northern Lights, the dæmons are a central part of the story, a non-negotiable part of any adaptation, but also a complete nightmare to make a reality.

“Every new dæmon character is a butt-ton of cash,” executive producer Jane Tranter admits to RadioTimes.com.

“But I think it’s a very happy union of being governed by spend, and having to make the most of the dæmons we’ve got. I’d rather have quality than quantity of dæmon form.”

In the book and the series, it’s lead character Lyra’s (Dafne Keen) dæmon Pantalaimon (aka Pan) who takes centre stage, accompanying Lyra on her adventures and regularly shapeshifting between forms (as all children’s dæmons can before they “settle” as one animal at puberty), though the dæmons of Ruth Wilson’s Mrs Coulter, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Lee Scoresby and James McAvoy’s Lord Asriel also play key roles in the story.

So how did they all come to life in the new BBC drama? Well, it’s a long story…


Beginnings

The Golden Monkey and Pan (BBC)
The Golden Monkey and Pan (BBC)

Early stages of planning the dæmons fell to the visual effects department, with the team first looking to “cast” specific photographs of animals that would “play” the dæmons in the series.

“We’d say like ‘That’s the perfect Pan as a Pine Marten’,” VFX supervisor Russell Dodgson tells us. “And then we build our cast of characters.

“We always tried to pick animals that we also think are going to be kind of emblematic of emotion – so for Pan, when he’s an ermine we picked the softest, cutest one, the one that’s like Lyra’s comfort or fallback dæmon.”

After “casting” the animals, the VFX team then performed animation tests where they made sure the animals worked as animals – “like a dog sniffing around for food or something,” Wilson says.

“And the idea being that we shouldn’t be able to tell the difference between that and a real animal.”

But of course, dæmons aren’t really animals – they’re human souls in animal form – so after they were assured that they looked right, the VFX team had to strip all those animal instincts as well.

“So you take away sniffing for food or whatever, and then you re-put in a human-type focus,” Dodgson explained.

“And then you know that if that’s not working it’s not because you got the animal wrong, it’s because you’ve got to slightly tweak the performance. So we have a process to get through it.”

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Such was their commitment to verisimilitude, the VFX team even tried to match every dæmon appearance to the opposite gender of their human – which is usually how dæmons present – with one exception.

“We actually got all of our daemons’ gender correct in terms of their groom and stuff, with one exception, which is the golden monkey, where we kind of hybridised it a little bit, for a number of reasons,” Dodgson said.

“Partially… male genitalia issues. That’s true. Not going to lie! And also Mrs Coulter’s a bit of an exception as a character, so we did that.”


Creating the puppets

Ruth Wilson with puppeteer Brian Fisher (BBC)
Ruth Wilson with puppeteer Brian Fisher (BBC)

After the dæmons’ forms had been finalised in theory, the next challenge was how to represent them on set – and after some consideration, it was decided that dedicated puppeteers would bring them to life, allowing for a closer connection between actor and dæmon and giving more guidance on set for how the scene was progressing.

“Reference puppetry is generally and has for a long time been a ball on a stick and that’s all you get, which can work really well,” lead puppeteer Brian Fisher says.

“You do get an eyeline, something you can reference. But because you have these creatures that are an actual extension of a person’s soul, a ball on a stick is never going to cut it. With puppets, the actors can form a relationship and have a reference and give a natural response.”

To achieve this effect, Fisher’s team created a variety of puppets for different purposes, from grey cylindrical cushions for actors to hold, and basic heads on sticks for eyelines, to more fully-realised puppets for more in-depth acting scenes.

“This is a simple sculpted face, with a simple body and you’re able to put your own feelings onto it,” Fisher said while demonstrating the puppet for Sophonax, the cat dæmon of James Cosmo’s character Farder Coram.

“It’s a simple form [of puppetry] but it means that it allows your brain to put your emotions into it. If you have something that’s too detailed or animatronic it can force you into a box about how you feel about it.”

The small grey cushions, meanwhile, allowed actors to hold the dæmons with convincing weight and texture, without looking like they were handling a purely digital creature.

“The example that happens time and time again in film and television is, somebody’s handed an empty coffee cup, they just kind of slosh it around, go to drink it and it just feels all wrong,” Fisher says.

“It’s the same thing with CGI where you want to create some feeling of weight, size and substance that an actor can hold onto. So we’ll give them something like this, which is a grey representation of an animal body which has this slight squish to it, and it’s getting folds in the fabric so you can see where they might animate folds in the skin, or where the fur might be coming around the fingers.”

And for some actors, there were more puppets to get their heads around than others.

“Ruth, and James and Lin and everyone gets one puppet – but I get like 50,” Dafne Keen, who plays Lyra in the series, tells RadioTimes.com. “Because mine shapeshifts. So I’m always looking at the different puppets, and they’re so amazing.

“Even though they’re not going to be on camera, they still make them look completely lifelike and amazing. And also it really helps you because you actually have the character right there.”

And when the puppets (which have multiple versions used in the finished series) were completed, it was time to get them on set…


Filming

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To hear the His Dark Materials cast talk, having lightly characterised puppets play the dæmons was apparently a godsend, making it far easier to act opposite when compared to traditional CGI references.

“I mean I’d worked at Sesame Street before, and that was excellent training for this, because when you’re on Sesame Street you’re never looking at the performers. You’re talking to Elmo! You’re talking to Oscar!” Lin-Manuel Miranda, who plays Lee Scoresby in the series, tells RadioTimes.com.

“There’s a world in which they didn’t hire puppeteers at all, and you’re acting with a tennis ball on the end of a stick, and you’ve just gotta do all the work.”

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“I’d never done any CGI before to be honest, and I was a bit concerned about having to work with a tennis ball,” agrees Ruth Wilson, who plays Mrs Coulter.

“But the puppets meant that we can really relate to them. I can have a chat with Brian [Fisher] about what the psychology is of the scene between Mrs Coulter and Monkey, and then we can create a dynamic. It suddenly gives so many more layers to that relationship. And it helps all the guys doing special effects to work out how these animals are performing.”

The decision was made early in the filming process to have multiple “passes” at filming each scene, some shooting with the puppeteers and their dæmons present, others completely “clean” with the actors just told where to react, leading to an especially busy on-set atmosphere.

“We had basically two teams going at the same time,” Wilson tells us. “We have the special effects puppet team working, and you’ve got the main team filming in conjunction with them, and it’s sort of double the workload for each scene.

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Ruth Wilson’s Mrs Coulter with her monkey dæmon (BBC)

“So the camera crew have to make sure they get enough images of the space where those dæmons might be, at play. So that’s what really helps to have the puppeteers, because they can kind of act it out, and you can see how much space they’re going to take up, and what the scene might look like. It gives the camera crew a real opportunity to understand, and the director to know what he’s got to get.”

But the puppets were more useful than just as a planning guide, with some of the series’ directors (who include Tom Hooper, Otto Bathurst and Jamie Childs) opting to discard the “clean” shots in favour of those with the puppets in them, as the takes had delivered more compelling performances.

“They thought we would do a puppet pass, where we can really talk about what’s going on with the dæmons, and then we can go onto clean passes so all of those have no puppets in them, they have nothing to represent, everyone just knows where their eyelines are and then you add the visual effects,” Fisher says.

“But what’s actually happened is that they’ve taken a lot of the shots that have the puppets in. They’ve actually spent a lot more money using shots that have puppets in and trying to cleverly cut us out, or edit us out, or literally hand-paint frame by frame, us out of those shots, which is a big risk but it’s just because those performances are more detailed and more excited. They’re more visceral.”

Ariyon Bakare in His Dark Materials (BBC)
Ariyon Bakare in His Dark Materials (BBC)

Overall, then, the puppets were a crucial part of every character’s dæmon, with one exception – the snake dæmon of Ariyon Bakare’s Lord Boreal, which was actually played by a real snake, at least during most of the shooting, before being replaced with CGI in post-production.

“That was quite interesting on my first few days of filming!” Bakare laughs when speaking to RadioTimes.com on set. “I had a real snake most of the time, and then started to use puppets later on.

“This girl came on set, and I’m not a fan of snakes, and they said to me ‘you’ve got a snake.’ I go ‘oh, there’s going to be a little puppet’ – and they went ‘here you are,’ and there’s a real snake!

“Continuity-wise, it was a nightmare. Because one minute it’d be here, and then, you can’t control where the snake’s going to go. It always goes for the warmest spot.

“There was one moment where we had a scene in the car, and this snake went everywhere. Everywhere. To the point that I thought we’d lost it behind the chairs. Imagine, like, we’ll be in the scene now, and it’d be all over you, and the actress I was working with was terrified of snakes. Terrified. Absolutely terrified.”

Happily, Boreal’s on-screen dæmon was rather better behaved, thanks to the VFX team – and in the months leading up to the series’ release, it was up to them to bring the dæmons to life again.


Post-production

Clarke Peters as The Master with his dæmon in His Dark Materials (BBC)
Clarke Peters as The Master with his dæmon in His Dark Materials (BBC)

“The show has got zero real animals onscreen and everything is hand-animated, through and through,” VFX supervisor Dodgson tells us, which presented the team with a huge amount of work when they first started putting together the onscreen dæmons during series one filming in 2018.

“It can definitely be done better now than it could 10 years ago [in the Golden Compass movie]. Technology has improved – but it hasn’t improved at the rate people expect it to be better.

“Really, all of this, the entire visual effects industry is based off a group of really, really incredible artists who do things in spite of the abilities of computers, rather than because of them. They’re always bending what the technology can do to try and get a result that we want.”

While the groundwork they’d laid before the series was even filmed had helped prepare them for the laborious process of digitally painting out puppeteers and puppets, and adding in the dæmons, there were still plenty of wrinkles, with one style of dæmon proving particularly hard to bring to life.

“To be really specific, in the case of making birds, birds are a real pain,” Dodgson says, admitting that characters like The Master’s dæmon (pictured) proved a challenge.

“Because when their wings come together their feathers touch, but they also exist on the same plane because the feathers interlink. And if you try and tell a computer, which is binary, zero or one, that something exists in the same place, you have a real problem.

“So we have to kind of find ways around those solutions, which are always artist-driven.”

One part of the job at least made things a bit easier – the VFX team were largely based on the same site as the cast and crew at Bad Wolf studios during shooting, which meant Dodgson could work closely with the production team throughout the development process.

“Often, probably with special effects you have to work with what’s on the screen afterwards,” actor Ruth Wilson says. “But Brian and I went and sat with Russell, who’s doing all the special effects. We sat with him for a few hours, and went through every scene that we’d shot last season, and told him what our ideas were psychologically. For the animals, and creatures.

“So that he knew when he’s designing Monkey, what’s going on psychologically for that creature, and of that dæmon at the time.”


Final changes

Pan in His Dark Materials (BBC)
Pan in His Dark Materials (BBC)

But that wasn’t the end of the process. While screenwriter Jack Thorne and exec Jane Tranter initially planned to adapt Pullman’s depiction of dæmons in the book fairly directly, after shooting a few episodes it became clear that what worked on the page didn’t necessarily work on screen.

“Literally I just sat with my head in my hands in the edit,” Tranter says. “As wonderful as CGI is, when you have got these amazing actors and you cut away to a dæmon kind of like one moving over to the other to show that it’s warming to it, the scene would just drop like a stone. And you’d go like ‘what are we doing?’”

As time went on appearances by the dæmons were slightly cut down compared to the book, with all the big character moments remaining but the sheer level of distracting background animals stripped back to the bare essentials.

“I mean literally, when we had rehearsals we had flying dæmons in and out… the dæmons were crawling over everything, every character’s dæmon was marked. It was so noisy, we could hardly get onto the set for them,” Tranter recalled.

Another cut from the book was just how often Lyra’s dæmon Pan would change form, with his regular shapeshifting necessarily curtailed to a few different animals.

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“If you go across the three novels, which we did, and you pull out every form that Pan takes, there are many different forms, but there are only a few that Pan takes on regularly across the three books,” Tranter said.

“And then there’s some where Pan is just that for descriptive effect. And we thought we might do a bit of that, but actually when it comes to it, when you’re really looking at it it just looks stupid. It doesn’t look very grounded to have a key character just confusingly change appearance all the time.

“You need to be really, really careful with it to allow Pan to become a character. And actually there is a cost implication as well.”

In the finished series Pan does still change, and so do other children’s dæmons, and it’s a key part of the story – but he definitely changes less often than he does in the books, often sticking to his “default” white ermine form or a Pine Marten.

“An ermine is very expressive, and can do a lot, and sort of disappear and all of that,” Tranter says. “But the Pine marten gets brought out for special occasions.

“If Pan becomes a Pine Marten, you know that something’s happening.”


The finished article

James McAvoy as Lord Asriel with his dæmon Stelmaria (BBC)
James McAvoy as Lord Asriel with his dæmon Stelmaria (BBC)

Onscreen, the appearance of the dæmons and their interaction with the actors is fairly flawless, with complex scenes (including dæmon-on-dæmon fight scenes in later episodes) rendered convincingly and few jarring moments of extra animals crawling around the shot.

And when the series actually lands on TV, the cast and creatives will (hopefully) let out a sigh of relief, having more or less nailed the biggest challenge in adapting Pullman’s fantasy trilogy.

“Stelmaria’s not just a piece of CGI,” actor James McAvoy tells RadioTimes.com of his own character’s snow leopard dæmon.

“Stelmaria is part of Lord Asriel’s character. They are one and the same. If Stel isn’t well-performed, then Lord Asriel isn’t well-performed, you know?”

“They’re so fundamental to the essence of the show,” agrees Wilson.

“And you can’t short-change it. You have to really dig into their psychology as much as every other human character.”

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His Dark Materials airs on Sunday nights on BBC1 at 8pm