How axisVFX employ matchmoving to award winning effect

The “Boneless” from the Doctor Who episode Flatline

In 2013, when the award-winning axis animation studio teamed up with key VFX industry veterans Howard Jones, Grant Hewlett and Richard Scott, axisVFX was born. Since its birth, the visual effects studio has gone on to produce outstanding visual effects and CG for the small and big screen, including Doctor Who, Shaun the Sheep Movie, Red Dwarf XI, Our Girl, and many more.

Howard Jones
Grant Hewlett

Howard Jones and Grant Hewlett are axisVFX’s 2D and 3D visual effects supervisors. We spoke with Howard, who tells us how important the use of advanced matchmoving software has been for himself, Grant and the rest of the axisVFX team since the very start of the company.

Howard gives us insight into axisVFX’s catalogue of high-end work and tells us how matchmoving technology has helped the studio to produce incredible visual effects from project to project.

Out of this World Tracking

For the hugely popular Doctor Who TV series, matchmoving software played a vital role in axisVFX’s visual effects pipeline and for the the show’s VFX supervisor, Grant Hewlett. The studio were tasked with creating a brand new alien race called the “Boneless” in series 8’s “Flatline”, as well as the villainous cyborg, King Hydroflax in Doctor Who’s 2015 Christmas special, “Husbands of River Song”.

The Christmas special in particular, offered axisVFX one of their biggest challenges to date. Howard explains, “this was a fast turn around project and needed a decent 3D tracker in the pipeline.”

Using geometry tracking — the process by which a geometric model of the object being tracked is used instead of tracking points — axisVFX could transform actor Greg Davies into the cyborg, King Hydroflax. Howard explains, “we had a scene where Greg Davies, who plays a robot with a human head, takes his head off and places it on the table.”

Tracking Greg Davies’ head with a geometric model in PFTrack

Adopting photogrammetry techniques, axisVFX were able to create an accurate 3D model of Greg Davies’ head. “Then using object tracking,” Howard says, “we created a 3D scene that allowed us to then animate the robot’s arm onto his head as it is taken off.”

Using this method, axisVFX were able to accommodate to the quick turnaround of the Doctor Who Christmas special, and deliver the show’s futuristic vision on time.

Since the success of using geometry tracking for Doctor Who, axisVFX have incorporated the technique into many more of their projects. They gave us an exclusive insight into one of their top-secret productions, for which geometry tracking was used to replace fur on the main animal characters.

Like many VFX supervisors, Howard knows all too well that hair and fur are notoriously complex to create in visual effects, often requiring laborious attention to CG to generate the desired results, which can be a time-consuming and expensive process. But by tracking with rough geometry of the animal in question, the time in creating the fur was dramatically reduced, and therefore brought the project within budget.

Howard explains, “once we had a good solve… we could then take this into compositing. Projecting onto the geometry through the solved camera, we were able to UV unwrap the areas of concern, apply any final 2D stabilisation, then clone over the surrounding fur, giving us the right lighting and hair type, all at the same time.”

“This saved us creating CG hair for matted, wet and dry looks,” Howard adds, “and brought the sequences within the project’s budget.”

Versatile Tools Aid an Action Packed Mission

Another of the studio’s high profile projects was BBC drama, Our Girl. The show, full of action-packed visuals, follows an army medic on a humanitarian aid mission in Kenya. The task offered a different challenge for VFX supervisor Grant and the axisVFX team, one where a flexible and versatile matchmoving toolset was crucial.

“In Our Girl there is a daring rescue sequence where the heroine is winched to safety by a helicopter,” states Howard, for which, axisVFX provided CG helicopters for the wide angle shots and in place of a static platform.

For this scene, axisVFX needed to track both the movement of the camera with a static platform (as it would have been filmed), and also reverse the track so they had a static camera and moving platform. By doing so, Howard explains, “the moving helicopter reacted more realistically to the lighting setup.” As a result, axisVFX were able to deliver a lifelike helicopter, ready for Our Girl’s action-packed mission.

Shooting the helicopter rescue scene in “Our Girl”

Always Keeping on Track

Matchmoving software that is both flexible and reliable is essential for VFX companies to get the job done on time, inside budget and with incredible results. From the very start of the company, advanced matchmoving application PFTrack, has played an integral role in axisVFX’s visual effects pipeline.

Howard affirms. “With PFTrack’s range of tools including planar constraints, survey data, object tracking we are able to achieve good, reliable solves that just work.”

AxisVFX prove, no matter what project a VFX studio is tasked with, using reliable and flexible matchmoving technology like PFTrack can help studio’s deliver a wide spectrum of visual effects with results of the highest quality.

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