Union VFX - The Crown S3

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Union Provide Royal Sendoff for Churchill in The Crown

Season three of Netflix’s multi-award winning The Crown debuts a new cast of Olivia Colman as Elizabeth II and Helena Bonham Carter as Princes Margaret to cover the time period between 1964 and 1977, beginning with Harold Wilson's election as prime minister and ending with the Silver Jubilee.

Union’s work on the season spanned multiple episodes and focussed primarily on creating period environments as well as recreating the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill - the season opens with a visit from the Queen to his bedside in his last days.

This was Union’s biggest sequence and involved a lot of research to insure an accurate recreation of the state funeral. 

We had plates of London today that we returned to 1965 using digital matte paintings to remove modem buildings, vehicles, cranes and scaffolding around the famous Big Ben.  

We conducted lots of research into the period and funeral itself in order to turn back the clock on the skyline and central London locations as accurately as possible. Being located in London allowed us to take additional photography ourselves from a hotel rooftop as well as ground level using the same lens to help us. 

On top of creating the period environments, the funeral itself required the expansion of the formal parade as well as lining the streets of central London with mourners.  

For the military procession, we had a lot of sprites shot from different angles against bluescreen which we keyed and positioned in 3D space to extend the soldier formation and timed the soldier’s salute to coincide with the coffin passing. The buildings in the shot required modern day clean up, augmentation and extension to match the period and provide scale. 

The wide funeral shot was technically challenging with not much movement, so had to stand up to a lot of potential scrutiny.  Thankfully the state funeral was well documented in photographs and film footage, which provided great reference to marry our work to.  

We started with plates of Whitehall today filmed at the same angle as the original archive footage of the procession.  The turnout was unprecedented with over 300,000 mourners lining the streets of London to pay their respects - many camping out overnight to insure their spot.

Returning the location to 1965 required a lot of modern day clean up as well as the adding of period detail such as road texture, signage and street furniture using DMP techniques.  Big Ben was under scaffolding when we filmed, so needed to be rebuilt and replaced. We also added the flags marking the state event from elements.

The huge crowd was created using individual sprites shot from multiple angles which we distributed using a particle system in Nuke.  We grouped the sprites by angle, assigned them as particles in areas then randomised and positioned them on the pavements to create the form of the crowd.  We then positioned individuals and military figures along the front. 

We also added people inside the buildings watching through the windows, smoke, additional crowd elements and a subtle sky replacement to add a bit more texture to this iconic national event.

Union also contributed to the cold war spy sequence that cross-cuts with Churchill's funeral.  The CIA in Washington were approached by a former Russian agent who has identified a mole in the heart of the british government.  Liverpool locations were turned into Washington for the establishing shots by adding the city’s iconic buildings and street furniture using digital matte painting techniques.  Period crowd, vehicles and flags were also added from shot elements and some CG to blend the fore and midgrounds seamlessly.  Lots of care was taken to get the perspective right, match the foregrounds, backgrounds and lighting to provide a natural feel to the shots.

Subsequently the CIA informant, Michael Straight, is flown to England and handed over to MI5 at a small military airfield. After extensive research and concept development, Union removed modern elements from the airfield location and created a period British military air base environment complete with DMP control tower and CG planes. The foreground vehicles and characters were retained from the plate along with some of the runway, blending with the CG environment to create an atmospheric and historically accurate scene.

Relations with the USA feature prominently in this season and we follow Princess Margaret  and Lord Snowdon as they visit friends and embark on a book tour.  Their trip is interrupted by a request to visit Washington to win over President Lyndon B. Johnson in the hope of securing his support in a financial bail out.

The President sends a plane to pick up the couple from Arizona where they have been staying with friends.

We see the plane land, the couple arrive in convoy, board and take off from this airfield. 

The shots featuring the Princess were filmed at an airfield just outside of London which the team at Union transformed into an Arizona military air base.

Their arrival at the airfield in Arizona was filmed on a runway, which was much wider than a regular road.  The dramatic, rocky Arizona environment was added along with road markings and signage as well as keeping the lens flare from the plate.

Creating the air base itself was a big task for the environments team who rebuilt everything except the foreground landscape.  They were able to use the basic structure of the existing hangers as a foundation onto which they used digital matte paintings to give a fitting period military look.  The background was replaced with a mountain range from the Union library and CG aeroplanes were added into the background as well as the air traffic tower, complete with CG air traffic controller.  Every care was taken to work with the depth and perspective and the original sky was kept to light the foreground. The inevitable British ‘wetness’ also needed to be removed to sell the shot.

The takeoff and landing were filmed for real with the environments replaced by the team.  Where possible the team kept the closer to camera brush and grass along the side of the runway as it looks very typical of Arizona and it would have been hard to recreate the parallax with the camera move.  The distant mountains were added using the same imagery as the ground shots.

Another key event covered in this series is the terrible coal tip disaster at Aberfan in 1966.

After mounting pressure, the Queen flies to Aberfan to show her support for the victims and on her journey home takes in the Welsh valleys out of her window.  The team struggled to find period aerial reference of the area to recreate this, but found an aerial shoot of Thailand which worked well as a base landscape that could then be shaped to create the mountains with DMP used to build the slag heaps and provide the industrial feeling of the valleys.  Movement was added using layers of cloud in the foreground as well as reflections on the plane windows.

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