Freefolk on BAFTA-nominated show, "Emerald City"

Steve Murgatroyd, Head of 2D at Freefolk

To celebrate the inspiring talent in the VFX industry, Autodesk is delighted to present interviews with the nominees of the Special, Visual & Graphic Effects category for the 2018 British Academy Television Craft Awards.

Steve Murgatroyd, Head of 2D at Freefolk, talks us through the challenges he faced working on Emerald City, how he got to where he is in the industry, what inspires him, and gives advice for new artists.

Steve Murgatroyd, Head of 2D at Freefolk

Tell us about yourself? How did you get started in the business? 

I studied Fine Art at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design in Dundee, and made a number of video installations for my degree show. Whilst producing these I was introduced to Quantel Paintbox, which made me very excited about the potential of digital manipulation.

After art school, I moved to London. Post Production felt like a natural progression for the skills I’d picked up and my first job was as a junior compositor at The Mill, and from there I moved to MillFilm.

Tell us about the work you’re nominated for? What are you most proud of? 

The work we were nominated for was on Emerald City: Season 1, and we’re most proud of being tasked with working on over 400 shots across the series. Notably some of the main characters that feature throughout: the Emerald City itself, the Stone Giants (or Eternal Warriors), the tornado, the clockwork monkey drones, to name but a few.

Still from Emerald City Season 1, courtesy of NBC UniversalCourtesy of NBC Universal Emerald City Season 1

Still from Emerald City Season 1, courtesy of NBC UniversalCourtesy of NBC Universal Emerald City Season 1

We also created the environment surrounding the city, castle, sea, harbor, forest, parks, and catacombs (The underground of the witch's castle), outside the castle - with extensive Digital Matte Painting (DMP) and East's witch's castle.

The giant stone guardians were a real feature of the city build and giving them the sense of scale needed (150 meters), whilst making them convincingly move, was a challenge but a real accomplishment.

Freefolk is a relative newcomer to TV Visual Effects (VFX) and to have this level of recognition for the quality of work we produce is unquantifiable.

What tools did you use? 

A mixture of off the shelf Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) tools was used throughout: Maya, primarily used for modeling and character animation; Houdini for water and tornado simulations and the destruction of the Giant and the Witches' Temple and Nuke for compositing.

In-house tools were used too, such as the city layout roofing and facade generator.

Still from Emerald City Season 1, courtesy of NBC UniversalCourtesy of NBC Universal Emerald City Season 1

Still from Emerald City Season 1, courtesy of NBC UniversalCourtesy of NBC Universal Emerald City Season 1

What was your team like who worked on this nominated production with you?

On Emerald City, we had a fantastically dedicated team across the board. From pipeline and production down to the Computer Graphics (CG) artists and the compositors.

With the requirements for the project being so specific, we had to ensure that each individual had exactly the right skill set to compliment and complete the whole, especially with so many shots.

What challenges are you most grateful you overcame? 

The flocking system created for the Flying Monkey drones was technically challenging to master.  The drones were modeled in Maya and the swarm simulation created in Houdini. We had quite a task to orchestrate their flight in a swarming formation that looked both convincing and had a real sense of menace. It took a lot of fine tuning to direct how the drones would interact within the flock and work well with the hand animated heroes.

Given the trial and error nature of the process, we were lucky to have the VFX Supervisor Thomas Horton based in the studio, as this meant we had almost immediate feedback.

Courtesy of NBC Universal Emerald City Season 1

What are you working on now?

We’ve just finished working on The Alienist for Paramount and TNT. It's just about to premiere in the UK on Netflix (19th April) and is a remake of the Caleb Carr novel of the same name: A dark thriller set in late 19th Century New York, when psychiatric and forensic medicine started coming together to profile and hunt a serial killer.

Do you have any tips to share with new artists?

For new artists, the most important tips to impart are to be methodical, keep things simple and to check your work!To those starting out in the industry, the best advice is to be very good at the job you are employed to do (whether as a runner or junior), and to stay open minded and interested in everything else. People who tend to have this behavior in their work always succeed at progressing quickly in their career.

How is the industry evolving/changing?

What’s so great about our industry right now is the advanced abilities of some of the students coming out of college these days. Most of my generation learned on the job and many came into the industry through quite left field courses.Technology has come down in price, so this has enabled the new generation to learn complicated software at college stage and allow some talent to really shine once they get into the workplace, which is really refreshing.One thing that hasn’t changed however is, no matter how much technology progresses, a good artistic eye and creative thinking is still needed to drive and push it forward.

What trends excite you?

As a compositor, the most exciting recent development in VFX for me has been Arnold’s Cryptomattes. They are truly brilliant and give the 2D artist a far greater control over the final composition, without having to harass the CG artists for extra passes.

What do you do in your spare time?

Having studied fine art, I still like to create my own work when I can.I have a studio at the bottom of my garden where I try to hide from the kids and I recently did a short course in etching at the Royal Drawing School, and have been working on a couple of prints.

Thank you to Steve and the entire Freefolk team for sharing your insights. Congratulations on the Special, Visual & Graphic Effects Nomination, British Academy Television Craft Awards 2018!

  • Maya
  • Arnold
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