‘His Dark Materials’: inside James McAvoy’s ‘lost’ season two episode

Bafta-winning VFX supervisor Russell Dodgson explains why the series is shorter than planned

Though most of us have spent lockdown demolishing box sets on the sofa, the amount of telly to consume has never dwindled. Behind the scenes, however, the industry has been in chaos. Productions shut down across the world, release dates pushed back and some shows like GLOW, The Society and I Am Not Okay With This got cancelled altogether. For the ones that did survive, social-distancing requirements have made life on-set difficult – and restricted what it’s possible to film.

His Dark Materials, which returned to screens last weekend, was shooting its final episode of season two when coronavirus hit in March. Russell Dodgson, visual effects supervisor on the big-budget fantasy series, remembers what happened next. “It was quite clear about three days into filming that it wasn’t going to go further,” he said. “Those three days were after a weekend when things really started to ramp up. We all came in on the Monday and thought, ‘Yeah, this is probably going to be an early finish’. We ended up pulling the plug because we wanted to be safe and protect everyone’s welfare.” As a result, the new season is slightly shorter than the last.

His Dark Materials season 2
Dafne Keen returns as Lyra in ‘His Dark Materials’ season two. Credit: BBC

What happened in the ‘lost’ episode?

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Season two of His Dark Materials is adapted from Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife – the second book in his acclaimed trilogy. By pure coincidence, the ‘lost’ episode was not based on Pullman’s writing. Instead, it was intended to bring fans up to date with James McAvoy’s character, Lord Asriel, who played a big part in the first book, Northern Lights, but does not appear again until the third and final part of the story, The Amber Spyglass.

“This episode was a way of delving into a backstory which told you what Lord Asriel has been doing and also the history of Cittàgazze, this otherworldly town [main protagonist] Lyra enters,” reveals Dodgson. “There was a time when the episode was going to be more woven into the main narrative, I think. It ended up making more sense on its own, so it’s good luck we ended up having this very singular item that, if it didn’t play out, it was just a shame, not a tragedy.”

In the book, Cittàgazze is a deserted seaside town beset by invisible “spectres” who eat grown-ups. As a result, its eerie streets are run by roving gangs of children. What energised Dodgson and his team about the flashback episode was the chance to present another side to the place. “We were all very excited about being able to not only show the town dead, empty, and deserted, but to also show it living and thriving. That’s really the disappointment, not being able to show the light and shade.”

The episode was supposed to run mid-way through the season but, Dodgson confirms, will never see the light of day: “It would have helped us introduce certain things in a slightly different way. [Instead], we finished it properly, on canon.”

His Dark Materials season 2
Lyra and Will chase through the streets of Cittàgazze. Credit: BBC

How did lockdown change the rest of the season?

While there was one less episode to deal with, lockdown meant Dodgson’s team was forced to work remotely on complicated VFX processes. “You’ve got 1500 shots being worked on by hundreds of people, all in different stages, being pushed through various departments,” he says. “Every one of them needs reviewing, so you have to have daily viewings. But how do you get all those people in one daily session? There’s no system which can connect 30 artists who can all view the footage at high quality.”

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Luckily, Dodgson and his crew learned a lot on His Dark Materials season one – and he recognises how fortunate they were not to have to start from scratch. “We had it in our muscle memory – what we were doing, what the characters were like, and we already had the assets for a lot of the characters. We were in a rhythm,” he says. “A show like this is a marathon not a sprint, although it’s quite a tight schedule, so it’s like a marathon and a bit of a sprint.”

Apart from an increased workload, collaborating virtually threw up some strange situations for Dodgson and his colleagues. “I never thought I’d have David Suchet on a Zoom call in my bedroom to discuss how he can work through the character of Kaisa the bird,” he laughs. “Cristela Alonzo, who voices Hester, was in her flat in New York inside her cupboard, where she had clothes [hanging] up.” These interim performances allowed the team to keep the animation schedule of the show’s daemons (the animal manifestation of a human’s soul) on track. Later, when it was safe, the actors re-recorded their vocals in a more professional studio environment. It’s just one of many ways in which the film and TV industry has adapted during coronavirus. So when you’re sat there in your pants, eyes locked to the telly, spare a thought for Dodgson and his gang of VFX pros. They’re probably hard at work on your next binge-watch.

‘His Dark Materials’ airs on Foxtel

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