Of all the elements that make up the very, very excellent His Dark Materials, the shit-scary daemons have been the most widely discussed. The external animal-like manifestations of a person’s soul are integral to the epic fantasy trilogy, so it was vital that the TV adaptation did them justice.
To find out how they went about it, NME sat down with Framestore VFX supervisor Russell Dodgson and puppet captain Brian Fisher to find out how they were brought to life through a combination of CGI and puppetry.
What were the first steps you took with the daemon designs?
Russell: “When you do talking creatures, you have to make a decision about how much you’re going to anthropomorphise. We decided that our take was going to be naturalistic. The fundamental thing about the daemons, however, is that they’re not animals – they’re animals with a human consciousness, so you have to remove things that make them animalistic, like sniffing around for food.”
How did Framestore’s initial designs help you to build the puppets?
Brian: “I talked with Russell about how big they are, their weight, and if they look more nasty than a normal animal would. We also had animal expert Lawrence Whittaker, and he would look for biomechanical versions to see how animals move so we could build that into the puppets. We’d constantly test new ideas and sometimes we would think it’d be the final form, or bring something on set and find it has limitations. You’d go back and redesign it, build it, and perform it to see if you get a different response.”
Why was it challenging to film with the puppets and then animate them?
Brian: “We wanted to have each puppet operated by one person. That means everyone on set can get to know one puppeteer and build a working relationship, especially the cast.”
Russell: “First we filmed with the puppets and then took them away. The actors, with muscle memory, mime the actions they’ve done with the puppets in the next shot. We’d take those scenes away and completely rebuild them with computer-generated creatures. But then you get it into the edit, move it around, and the emotion of the scene changes. You move the position of the daemons around to suit the emotion, so you have to be adaptable.”
Did you incorporate actors’ mannerisms into their daemons?
Russell: “There were some things we were very specific about. With Hester, she blinks quite a lot. If you look at Lin-Manuel Miranda’s performance as Lee Scoresby, he blinks a fair bit so we thought ‘Ok, we can use that’ to connect them. With Lyra, Dafne Keen is a bundle of energy so you can have loads of fun with Pan. You can move him around and build that energy up. With Ruth, it was a case of taking her performance and be slightly off with the golden monkey.”
Why did you decide against adding each daemon into every scene?
Russell: “We went into this with arguably the best budget a TV show has ever had for this type of work, but it’s still not enough to give daemons to every character. Philip Pullman gets quite frustrated about how fixated people are with daemons. He’s written on Twitter that you don’t need to see them if they’re not part of the story – they’re there when you need to see them. There are scenes where I would have loved to have put Pan in but, every time you would have seen him, it’s costing money.”
Watch all of ‘His Dark Materials’ on BBC iPlayer now