Testament of Youth

January 2015

Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain’s classic WWI memoir, directed by James Kent and starring Alicia Vikander, Kit Harington and Dominic West, is our next collaboration with Heyday films, following on from another very British affair, Paddington.

The film’s setting meant the majority of the VFX work on the job was subtle. Of the 31 shots we were awarded, much of the focus was on invisibly adjusting shots to fit the period, with a few larger shots that allude to the scale of the war going on elsewhere.

"We worked closely with James, Rob Hardy (DOP) and Jon Henson (Production Designer) before the shoot to advise on shoot methodology which helped get the shots planned appropriately for the VFX work to come later," says VFX Supervisor Anthony Smith. "We completed numerous crowd replication shots throughout the film, including in the canteen at Oxford, at the army cadet school and during the Armistace Day celebrations towards the end."

"It was all about realism and setting a tone that would reflect the time period and the emotions of the film,” adds lead compositor Tom Baskaya. "We spent much of our time on the army camp shot. Around 80% of the tents were added in post, along with elements like rain and mist to create the harsh battlefield environment. We worked on the shot up until the end of the show, but it came out looking great and we’re very proud of it as a team.”

Although this is a film set around the First World War, the battles are never a centrepiece, which allows the emotion of the drama to come to the fore. "Rather than showing the battles themselves, the director wanted to reveal the scale of their effect to Vera and the viewer at the same time," explains Anthony. "To do this he used a long crane shot, which follows her across a courtyard before walking around a hut as the camera passes over it to reveal her stepping into a huge field filled with hundreds of wounded soldiers, many being tended to by nurses."

The field of wounded - heavily extended from what was shot to reflect the number of casualties

"We used reference of a shot from Gone With the Wind in which Scarlett O'Hara walks through a field of wounded from the Battle of Atlanta. On set there was no motion control available and a limited number of wounded soldiers, so we achieved the shot by selecting our preferred take on the day and using the final position of the camera as our point to shoot as many crowd replication plates as possible in the time allowed." 

"The field in the original source footage was much smaller than was required to show the number of wounded James wanted, so in post we extended it out beyond the edge of frame, lengthened the camera move and zoomed out to widen our view, all the while keeping the subtleties of the crane wobble so it was as seamless a transition into our digital camera move as possible. We then filled the area with our wounded soldiers and nurses - many of which were modified and reused to get the quantity needed - as well as props, tents and smoke to make the scene feel as gritty and real as possible. The shot cuts to Vera's reaction, making for a powerful moment in the film."

Charing Cross Station features prominently in the film. "These scenes were shot on location at Keighley Station near Leeds and required a large digital matte painting (DMP) set extension to replace modern sections of the old station with the high walls and roof of Charing Cross," says Anthony. "We also removed nearby hills from many shots looking out of the station to preserve the illusion that the actors are in the flatter landscape of central London."

Keighley Station near Leeds, made to look like wartime Charing Cross

DMPs were also used to extend several battle scenes and the post-war victory celebrations. “With the celebration scene we had to add in 75% of the crowd and create a sense of depth, layers of grade that gradually fall off into matte painting to create a sense of distance,” explains Tom. “Another challenging scene was in Brittain’s college room. We had to create believable light spilling into the room along with all the real life elements seen outside the window, including tree movements and the flying birds.”

"This was a great opportunity to be part of fleshing out a wonderful drama - certainly a rare opportunity in our industry of big blockbuster VFX," concludes Anthony.

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