Milk's Will Cohen on making Doctor Who scary again

Milk VFX's executive producer and CEO talks about sci-fi TV and his forthcoming talk at HP ZED London.

Milk created the visual effects for the global simulcast and cinema release of 'Deep Breath', Peter Capaldi's debut in Doctor Who

This content has been brought to you in association with HP ZED, a 'pop up shop' for creatives in London's Soho from Monday 29 September to Friday 10 October 2014. Register for ZED today and don't miss Will Cohen's talk on How to start a VFX studio

At just over one year old, London's biggest new VFX studio has already established a reputation for quality work on films like Hercules and Snow White and the Huntsmen, and TV shows ranging from Merlin to Skins.

But it's Doctor Who with which it's most intimately related (the company was formed largely by ex-employees of The Mill who'd worked on the sci-fi series).

And so all eyes have been on Milk VFX as the new series unfolds with a new lead actor (Peter Capaldi) and a darker feel, with added 'hide behind the sofa' scariness. The horror was brought to the fore from the very first episode (which was screened simultaneously in cinemas and on TV) in the form of the 'Half Face Man' (shown below).

To create the "Half-Face Man", Milk replaced one entire side of the actor Peter Ferdinando's head in 87 of the 117 digital shots

"I'm very proud of the Half Face Man, I really like it," smiles Milk's CEO and executive producer Will Cohen. "It was a difficult thing to do for television, especially when you know it's going on the cinema. We knew we had to track it 100 per cent accurately and there was a lot of collaboration in the design."

How they made it

Milk created the CG hollow cage-like structure which makes up the missing half of the sinister villain's head, as well as the visible internal workings which resemble the mechanics of a clock, with moving cogs, pistons and rotating mechanical parts.

For reference, they looked at other examples of partial face replacements, such as the character Two-Face from The Dark Knight. For the live-action shoot, actor Peter Ferdinando wore prosthetic makeup with a black cage with tracking markers, which was later filled in with CG.

Both physical and CG versions of the mechanical half-head were made

To create the graphics, Milk took a 360-degree photo scan of Ferdinando's head to lock-in reference points to his natural head shape. A full-scale physical model was also built for use on set both for a small number of shots and as lighting reference.

It's a stunning effect – although with time being short, a little compromise was involved, Cohen admits. "We decided to raise the slip on his cheek," he reveals, "because the jawbone went down really far when the actor spoke, and you'd have had to have muscles and all sorts going on for it to work. There wasn't time to go that far with it."

But that's just the nature of working on a fast-moving TV show, he says, and he's nonetheless happy with the final result. "Raising the jawline a bit doesn't spoil the finished effect of making something that's really powerful, chilling and effective," he says. "I'm really proud of it; I think it's a really satisfying visual effect that looks really good."

New shows

Yet while Doctor Who gets the headlines, Cohen's keen to point out the wide range of other shows Milk has been working on, from Primeval to Sherlock to 24: Live Another Day, the latest series of Jack Bauer adventures, this time set in London.

Milk worked with Fox as the lead VFX studio on TV action-thriller "24: Live Another Day" – to create a mix of CG and effects work for the heart-stopping series

And the one he's most excited about is forthcoming BBC series Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell, a weird mix of magical fantasy and alternative history adapted from Susanna Clarke's best-selling novel of the same name.

"It's got some really difficult stuff in it," he says. "It's a period drama over seven hours, with lots of magic and effects in it, and it's a dark, adult story. It feels like we've been working on it for years, and we're just beginning to deliver the first couple of hours of it now. I'm watching dailies and I'm getting blown away every time I see stuff. It's the most exciting television I've watched in a very long time."

Milk's Oscar-nominated work on Snow White and the Huntsman (Universal Studios)

The new show is doubtless something that will get a mention in Cohen's forthcoming talk at HP ZED, a two-week series of free sessions for CG artists coming to London's Soho from September 29th.

HP ZED talk

Entitled "How to start a VFX studio", this exclusive event on October 8th promises to offer fascinating glimpse into one of the industry's big success stories.

"I plan on sharing some stories about what it was like setting the company up, how we went about doing it, how lucky we were, how fragile a situation it was and what kind of mental zone we had to occupy to pull it off," Cohen explains.

Milk created a series of effects, creatures, weapons and environments for Hercules from Brett Ratner/MGM/Paramount, working for Double Negative

"It's quite a dramatic story, and it's not without humour when you look back on it. It's a stupid business in many respects: massive outlay of capital expenditure on hardware, on software; your location is still I think geographically important. So really you need all the stars to come into alignment. I want to share how we started, and how we succeeded."

We can't wait, and we'd urge you to get along to the talk if you can. Register for your free ticket here – but hurry: seating is strictly limited.

Register for this great talk today!

This content has been brought to you in association with HP ZED, a 'pop up shop' for creatives in London's Soho from 29 September – 10 October 2014.

With talks, tutorials and creativity sessions brought to you by top experts from leading studios like Framestore, Double Negative and MPC, as well as HP, Intel and Nvidia, it's going to be a must-attend event for anyone working in motion graphics, animation or 3D. Find out more here!

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