Netflix’s fantasy epic The Witcher is a visual treat, even when Henry Cavill’s Geralt (and Anya Chalotra’s Yennefer) aren’t on screen. Though it is often compared to Game of Thrones, the Netflix series handles its fantasy elements quite differently: The Witcher does not shy from monsters and magic. In an interview recently released by Animation Magazine, the show’s VFX supervisor Julian Parry describes the long creative journey that brought magic and monsters from the pages of the script to life. We’ve included images and clips from various stages of development to supplement the article, so make sure to check them out.
Be warned, there will be some spoilers for season one below!
“I didn’t want to be contaminated by any outside influence,” Parry told Animation Magazine. “Instead, I decided to stay focused on how Lauren interpreted the books. I drew upon my rich background in dealing with creatures as well as European and Slavic folklore in which The Witcher is set.” Julian and his team were in charge of creating the show’s monsters, barring some early conceptual work produced by the art department. “Sometimes the creature design is all well and good until you want to make it work, let alone fight.”
The show’s most challenging monster yet (from a production standpoint) must be the pilot’s amphibious arachnid, the Kikimore. Cinesite creature designer Mikkel Frandsen recently shared concept work and early models of the kikimore in the video below.
“A lot of our creatures have numerous legs,” Parry told Animation magazine. “In the case of the Kikimora, director Alik Sakharov wanted it to be like a fighting machine. It’s tricky to keep the creature balanced and attacking at the same time. We knew from the script what type of creature it needed to be, did some quick motion studies and shoehorned those all into place to come up with the final animation.”
Though a lot of work was done with computers in post-production, the mentality on set was “if we can really film it, we will”. This point has been reiterated ahead of the show’s release. “Henry is not on a greenscreen stage. So, it’s about making sure that the actor is engaged. On The Witcher, there are a handful of greenscreen shots. The rest of it is in a real set or environment.” Parry also explains that practical effects were not always enough. “Occasionally, we went pure CGI and had a proxy device for the actors.”
“Creatures will be seen in forests or caves or running across the desert,”he notes. “Each creature brings their own set of challenges. We had many Ghouls to deal with. They come from underground, like moles. We had to work out the animation of how the Ghouls were going to appear out of the ground, run around and move. This was in episode eight, we were running out of time so needed to be efficient in the way it was going to be shot and be post produced. We went for a halfway point between motion-capture and prosthetics. The stunt team arranged for small performers to perform the role of the Ghouls to interact with Henry, and then we pulled the production plate apart and applied our Ghoul over the top.”
Of course, not all of The Witcher‘s effect-heavy scenes involved Henry Cavill’s Geralt of Rivia. Anya Chalotra’s Yennefer of Vengerberg is a sorceress with great magical abilities. One set piece where those abilities shined was episode four’s teleportation sequence.
“Any environment that she went into, the portal would affect one of the main elements that was within that place,” Parry explained. When Yennefer opens a portal in the desert, the sand swirls around it. When she opens a portal in a rainy town, the rain does. “When I read that in the script I thought, ‘This could be one of our Achilles’ heels.’ What is a portal? It’s not a fixed thing. Everyone has their own idea. We had a good four months of researching the looks of our various portals. Different characters within the show have their signature portal. We didn’t want to do the water ripple effect or even a ring, which reminded us too much of Stargate.”
The character Mousesack (played by Adam Levy) has his own portal animation, for instance. Other than the portals themselves, the teleportation sequence included a particularly interesting monster: the Roachhound.
“When that came up in the script, I asked, ‘What’s a Roachhound? Are we doing a mangy dog?’ Lauren said, ‘No. We want it to be half cockroach and half dog.’ The company One of Us took on that particular project. That was straightforward because we wanted to have a cockroach move with the nuances of a hound.”
“Lauren has built a clever arc for the magic,” Parry explained. “The power of Yennefer is hinted to in a couple of scenes. It is alluded that she might have the capability to hold energy. She stumbles across her power early on but not in a destructive way. She learns how to portal. The character arc grows stronger as the episodes continue and has a catastrophic end use for that special energy and power that she has.”
Parry refers of course to Yennefer’s unique ability to store elemental power in her body. In episode two, Yennefer and her classmates try to catch lightning in a bottle, but the young sorceress ends up storing the power of that lightning in the palm of her hand, and then firing that lightning at her tutor Tissaia (MyAnna Buring). In the season finale, Yennefer utilizes the same ability to consume the fires that raged on the ruins of Sodden Hill and unleash them back at the Nilfgaardian army.
“Ciri has a similar arc,” Parry continues. “She is not aware of her powers, which are alluded to, and in the end also has a chaotic moment. This is what will ultimately bring Geralt of Rivia, Yennefer and Ciri together. The magic was dealt with in a sophisticated and chic way. Lauren wanted the magic to speak to the drama. For example, Mousesack is not a flash-bang-wallop kind of guy; his magic is grounded in nature.”
One particularly memorable show of VFX was the magical tree which Ciri confronts in Brokilon. “This is one of Ciri’s future visions and was a digital matte painting that was taken on by Platige Image in Poland. It was a production shot plate from the Canary Islands in the sand dunes. The only thing that is CGI is the tree itself.”
Of course, as mentioned earlier, CGI was only used when absolutely necessary. “There weren’t as many set extensions as you might think,” Parry said. “I was a big advocate for building and getting in the real environment as much as possible. But the location work was not easy. We were shooting in Budapest in the middle of winter. It got down to minus twelve degrees or maybe even lower. That was challenging for the crew.”
Concluding his interview with Animation Magazine, Parry gave some final thoughts. “I knew that it was going to be challenging from the onset because the expectation on the page was very evident. Almost every minute of this series is a visual treat and that involves visual effects. I hope that viewers like the creatures and some of the gore is unusual and unique for a TV series. The trebuchet fire is beautiful. I just want people to enjoy The Witcher the way that I’ve enjoyed making the show.”