Following their Emmy nomination for The Crown, VFX Supervisor Ben Turner and VFX Producer Reece Ewing talk to Graham Edwards about creating CG period architecture, underwater bomb blasts, and the series creators’ love affair with vintage transportation
First launched in 2016, the Netflix streaming series The Crown dramatically chronicles the lives of the UK’s Royal Family, beginning with the 1947 marriage of the young Princess Elizabeth (Claire Foy) to Prince Philip (Matt Smith), and her subsequent accession to the throne. Season 4 progresses the timeline through the 1980s, with Olivia Colman taking up the role of the older Queen Elizabeth II and Tobias Menzies playing her husband.
The Crown relies on visual effects not only to conjure iconic Royal locations — such as Buckingham Palace — but also to support the show’s period look and feel. Overall visual effects supervisor Ben Turner began his royal tour at the start of Season 1, advancing from an initial supervisor role at One of Us to take up his production post at the start of Season 3, along with visual effects producer Reece Ewing. Framestore was the primary visual effects vendor for Season 4. Also on the roster were Untold Studios, Rumble VFX, and a small in-house crew of artists.
The team’s labours were recently rewarded by a 2021 Emmy Awards nomination for Outstanding Special Visual Effects in a Single Episode. Joining Turner and Ewing on the nomination roster are Andrew Scrase, Standish Millennas, Oliver Bersey, Jonathan Wood, David Fleet, Joe Cork and Garrett Horn.
The episode under Emmy consideration is Gold Stick, Episode 1 of The Crown Season 4, which begins with the Queen riding out on horseback from Buckingham Palace for the spectacular military ceremony of Trooping the Colour. Palace exteriors were shot at Elstree Studios, on a partial set comprising three large architectural pieces: the front gates and railings, the main entrance arch, and the porte-cochère — an ornate porch at the rear of the inner courtyard.
Following a methodology established in Season 3, Framestore extended the set with a CG palace (in the first two seasons of the show, the visual effects team had relied on digital matte paintings to augment footage shot at Greenwich). Matte paintings remained the technique of choice, however, to create the tree-lined thoroughfare of The Mall beyond the gates. A CG model of the Victoria Memorial, newly crafted in 3D for Season 4, added a final note of splendour.
Counterpointing the palatial grandeur, a soundtrack of militant Irish Republican rhetoric foreshadows a pivotal moment in history when an IRA bomb destroys a fishing boat carrying Lord Mountbatten (Charles Dance), killing him. Principal photography for the chilling sequence took place in Scotland, with Keiss Harbour playing as the Irish coastal village Mullaghmore, where the blast occurred.
When bad weather prohibited shooting at sea, on-board scenes were staged using a boat moored against a greenscreen-covered harbour wall. Untold Studios composited the footage with ocean backgrounds, and created a fully-CG underwater shot of the bomb blast, conceived in post. “Our director Ben Caron came up with the idea of seeing the explosion from below the water surface,” said Ben Turner. “I found that really interesting — it felt more cinematic to me, and more sensitive, to see it from that perspective. The most important thing for that scene was that it felt shocking and violent, without being gratuitous.” Untold Studios crafted an aerial shot of a secondary explosion, and added a smoke plume and floating debris to shots of the aftermath.
Framestore returned for an Episode 1 sequence in which Princess Anne competes at the Badminton Horse Trials, augmenting footage shot at Hickstead showground in Sussex. Artists packed the stands with a cheering crowd made up of greenscreen sprites, and laid out acres of digital refreshment tents to boost the sense of occasion. Meanwhile, Rumble VFX took on the design, CG build and shot production for atmospheric establishing shots of Windsor Castle.
In every season of The Crown, members of the Royal Family are seen traveling the world in various vintage planes, boats and automobiles. Season 4 is no exception. “We usually get at least one new plane to play with every year,” Turner enthused. “That’s one of my favourite bits: the quiet understated love affair The Crown has with period transportation.”
The visual effects team deployed a CG model of the Royal Yacht Britannia — originally built for Season 2 — for scenes in which Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson) meets with the Queen on board the luxury vessel. “For the shoot, we built a section of the side deck and attached a gangplank to it,” Turner explained. “But the Britannia is so enormous that, no matter how big a crane you have on location, you can never get back far enough. We extended the camera move in post so it resolved on a satisfying view of the flag fluttering on the bow of the ship.”
The Aérospatiale/BAC Concorde makes an appearance in Episode 10, when it flies Princess Diana (Emma Corrin) to New York. Production photographed a surviving example of the supersonic aircraft at Brooklands Museum in Surrey. Framestore repainted the plane with the correct period livery, and planted it into a digital John F. Kennedy International Airport environment. Visual effects similarly reskinned a Vickers VC-10 — part of the aircraft collection at Dunsfold Aerodrome — and employed a CG asset to convert the same aircraft into the Royal Australian Air Force Boeing 707 used by Diana and Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor) on their 1983 tour down under.
The foreign destinations themselves benefited from visual effects intervention, as well. Scenes at Australia’s Uluru/Ayer’s Rock were staged at a modest stone outcrop in Spain. “The crucial thing we got at the location was the sense of light and heat,” said Turner. “We replaced the whole landscape looking up the rock face, and treated the shots looking down towards the press as more of a colour correction exercise.”
Manchester, in the north of England, stood in for New York City. “The art department did a brilliant job dressing everything at street level,” commented Turner. “Framestore extended the avenues, doing things like adding the Twin Towers at the end of Henry Street. For areas in the Lower East Side, we just had to add in some fire escapes and you bought it.” With only a handful of shots on the slate, artists relied on texture projections and paintovers applied to a 3D layout, rather than committing to a full CG build.
Most UK locations needed attention from the visual effects department, too. Artists established the look of the 1980s by removing satellite dishes for Episode 5 scenes on a London high-rise housing estate, and replacing modern advertising billboards at various urban locations. “The periodisation work is getting less as we move through time,” said Turner. “In the earlier years, we would be painting out road markings everywhere, and removing things like burglar alarms. You get away with a bit more of that nowadays.” Most of the periodisation work was handled by the in-house team.
Season 4 boasts a first for The Crown — a fully digital creature, brought to life by Framestore. In Episode 2, a stag, shot and wounded on a Scottish country estate, stumbles on to neighbouring land owned by the Crown. The crippled animal reappears at intervals through the episode, until the dramatic moment when Prince Philip puts it out of its misery. “We’re not the sort of show where you might expect to see a CG creature,” Turner remarked. “It was really important that you didn’t question it.”
Collaborating closely with director Paul Whittington and editor Simon Brasse, the visual effects team began by blocking out the stag’s performance with sketchvis animator Ed Roberts. “The sketchvis fed into the edit,” related Turner. “We plotted everything from the stag’s first appearance, to the moments where it’s hobbling around, then its death scene at the end. Framestore’s creature team did a beautiful job of not only making it look totally photoreal, but also really considering the way it moved and interacted with the environment. From my point of view, it was an easy process because they’re such experts at this kind of work.”
Season 4 of The Crown was particularly memorable since, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the entire visual effects team had to adapt to working from home. For Ben Turner, however, there were two things that made Season 4 even more unforgettable. “This season was the first time we’d done a CG creature,” Turner reflected, “so I’ll definitely remember it for the stag. But I can’t forget the Mountbatten explosion. I’ve known that was coming since the first season, because it’s such a big part of our history. I’d always wondered, ‘How will we deal with that topic, once we get there?’”