Poldark VFX: How Lexhag created the climatic shipwreck in 3ds Max and Blackmagic Fusion

Expert use of VFX on a TV budget brings Winston Graham’s world to life in the hit BBC drama.

Lexhag was able to help the BBC bring the world of Poldark to life with an array of VFX production, including lavish set extensions and 3D matte painting, including Sunday night's dramatic shipwreck finale.

The BBC television drama is an eight-part series based on Winston Graham’s first two Poldark novels.

Recreating an 18th century mining world involved combining VFX with location-shot footage in and around the remaining mines standing today in Cornwall. VFX for the entire series were supervised by Lexhag director Alexis Haggar.

“All of the major set extensions were started with a LiDAR scan,” explained Alexis. “For Wheal Leisure - Ross Poldark’s mine - the art department built the lower areas around an existing mine on the Cornish coast and we took over for the higher elements, such as the roof structure and windows. Grambler, the large mine set into the hillside, was a combination of digital matte painting and 3D elements, all composited in Blackmagic Fusion.”

Ken Turner, CG Supervisor for Lexhag on Poldark, explained that all the 3D elements were rendered as .exr files and brought into Fusion to relight and grade.

“The Exr files handle multiple light passes, and masks for all of the separate elements, which gives you a lot of control for interactive adjustments in Fusion,” he added. “Once the still frame was close to the finished article, I then took it into Photoshop for a final paint, breaking up the clean CG edges with grime and rock before taking it back into Fusion where I added people, smoke, grain, lens aberrations and lots of little tweaks to make the still matte painting come to life.”

Ken, an award-winning VFX supervisor and animation director, was also able to go more in depth for Digital Arts on how Lexhag created the climactic shipwreck in the Poldark season finale.

The scene we discussed with Ken centres on a character who has a premonition of doom and goes out onto the cliffs, where he witnesses a ship crash into the rocks.

"We did the pre-viz with proxy objects in Fusion," Ken explained. "We started off with photographs, two pictures of a ship in a stormy sea."

"The ship is created using very basic materials and bits of mesh which I imported from 3ds Max into Fusion. They were combined in a transform node, which merges all the different elements together."

Ken then added another transform mode to apply a very simple animation, but one that would be able to portray to the client the linear motion of the ship heading through waves.

"The client had a background plate which they had shot on location in Cornwall," he explained. "We composited it together for the previz, which we showed to the directors in London. The good thing about doing it like this is that they could see the mood of the sequence."

"Initially they envisioned it to be more violent, but when they saw everything moving in context with the speed of the waves, they realised that it would destroy the weight of the ship if everything moved really quickly."

According to Ken, the main development of the scene began with a lot of mood boards.

"I have folders and folder of ship images," said Ken "I went through and found some beautifully detailed images by hobbyist ship modellers."

"The ship is a project in 3ds Max which I created in about a week," he continued. "I spent a while thinking about how to simulate everything, but in the end I just simulated the sails and hand-animated everything else. It was the right direction to take from an art direction point of view."

"There is more detail in the model than you can see, but again we were keeping things simple. We're not doing a feature film, we're doing telly, so to some extent its about maintaining the illusion for four seconds and hiding everything else."

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To create procedural materials for the ship, Ken used Allegorithmic Substance Designer, which can be integrated within 3ds Max.

“I made a nodal generation graph for all the wood textures so that I could edit it very quickly for the decking and other materials,” he explained. "I then rendered the model in V-Ray."

"I use V-Ray RT for look development. Once I establish that it's nearly all there, I go over to V-Ray Advanced for all the renderering optimisation."

"V-Ray has got really good render element passes," Ken added. " So I can extract a separate pass of the sails for example." 

Working in Fusion for the main compositing process, Ken first tracked and stabilised the footage back plate shot on location.

"There were some rolling shutter and camera shake effects," he explained. "I also added a bit of paint to fix the silhouette, so that it didn't wobble.”

“I then colour-corrected it in Fusion to be closer to the final look we wanted for the shot," Ken added. "Normally we try to preserve the colour space of the footage. But in this particular case the original plate was so far from the look we were tying to establish that it was hard for me to judge what it was going to look like.”

Ken then started the initial 3D rendering placement, using the V-Ray render passes.

The ship was brought into Fusion, and the crew were added as cards to the comp. These were extras shot against greenscreen on location.

Ken then added lighting to the ship model in Fusion to 'lift' the sails and started bringing in multiple pieces of footage of waves and spray to build up sea in the comp.

"Rather than going for simulation, we had decided we would use footage of real waves as much as possible and composite everything together," he explained. "The directors sent a guy out with a Red camera to capture as much footage of the sea as he could."

The main bow wave for the wake of the ship was created completely in Fusion. Ken created a texture from footage he had shot of water in a local weir.

"I added this to some rough primitives created in 3ds max and applied a displacement to give it some depth," he explained. "I then added more displacements on top of this to create the look of the bow wave.”

“It took a lot of experimentation to get right. The trick is to displace it twice to get that more interesting structure.”

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The final stages involved outputting a colour corrected H.264 Quicktime movie from Fusion, for the directors to approve the scene.

“All the plates were then delivered in the original camera 10-bit log space,” added Ken. “They were then sent up to the grading suite for finishing.”