Tag Archives: Peter Harness

Worlds apart

Science fiction crashes into Edwardian England in The War of the Worlds, a new BBC adaptation of HG Wells’ iconic 1897 novel. Writer Peter Harness, executive producer Damien Timmer and director Craig Viveiros tell DQ how they took this futuristic story back to its period setting.

Screen adaptations often update or revise their source material in some way. Take HG Wells’ 1897 novel The War of the Worlds for example: it’s been brought to the big screen twice, first by director George Pal in 1953 and then by Steven Spielberg in 2005, and both times it was updated with a contemporary setting. The same approach was taken when it was recently remade http://dramaquarterly.com/dangerous-new-world/ for television by Canal+ in France and Fox Networks Group.

So when writer Peter Harness (Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell) and UK producer Mammoth Screen (World on Fire) set about developing a new three-part version of the classic science-fiction tale for the BBC, it seemed like an innovative idea to set the action at the time Wells wrote the now iconic Martian invasion story.

Eleanor Tomlinson (Poldark) and Rafe Spall (The Big Short) lead the cast as Amy and George, who face the escalating terror of an alien invasion and are forced to fight for their lives against an enemy they had never dreamed of. Rupert Graves and Robert Carlyle also star in the drama, which is directed by Craig Viveiros (And Then There Were None).

Eleanor Tomlinson and Rafe Spall lead the cast in the BBC’s The War of the Worlds

Harness began work on the project back in 2015, when Mammoth MD Damien Timmer first asked him about adapting Wells’ novel. A fan of the book – and of Jeff Waynes’ 1970s rock musical version – he was intrigued by the idea of setting it in the time of Wells, mashing up Edwardian England with Martians and death rays.

“It’s quite a brutal book,” he says of the source material. “There’s nothing cosy or Jules Verne about it. It’s very much a description of what it must be like to be attacked and invaded by far superior forces and technology.”

The challenges of creating a television version were clear from the outset, with the story following a nameless narrator who is little more than a witness to events. Harness was, therefore, tasked with creating characters the audience could root for.

Another change he made from the book was to give Amy, who hardly features in the novel, a more prominent role. “It is very much her journey,” Harness says. “She’s a tough and resilient character who really takes the role of the action hero in it. Her husband, George, is slightly more emotional and vulnerable, and I thought it would be interesting to have her as the one who copes and him being badly affected by things.”

Harness says every adaptation can be tricky, and The War of the Worlds was no exception. It wasn’t just the lack of characterisation that he had to overcome in bringing the story to the screen, but also the fact that the show would be telling a story that is now incredibly well known. “It’s more or less the first alien invasion story and I wanted to make it reasonably surprising, to try to get some of that feeling of newness and shock that would have been in the original book for people who hadn’t heard of Martians, alien invasions or spaceships,” he says. “So that’s been quite interesting and fun to do.”

Writer and exec producer Peter Harness on set

Harness sought to create tension by establishing the stakes early on and keeping “the terrible thing” from happening for as long as possible. Then once the invasion begins, he looked for ways to isolate people and put them in seemingly inescapable situations.

Without a big-screen budget, Harness wanted to keep the action on the ground and present the ensuing conflict from the point of view of the characters as they charged around London and Surrey to the south of the capital, with the production actually filmed in and around Liverpool in north-west England. “So you don’t necessarily ever get a big pullback and see the big destruction all around,” he says. “It’s what it must be like on the street running from something, being attacked. I wanted it to feel more like a contemporary horror film mashed up with a traditional period drama, so I concentrated quite a lot on making it unsettling, mysterious and tense. We’ve got some very nice set pieces that go a long way with tension and terror.”

“I hope it’s a scary and emotional ride and one that still has the power to surprise people, even after all this time,” Harness adds. “I hope you get everything out of it that you would get out of a period drama and everything you would get out of a weird, spooky sci-fi horror show.”

Behind the camera, Viveiros was keen to be faithful to the era in which the story is set, though in a way that resonates with contemporary audiences. “Back then, it was all about the fear of mechanical machines,” he notes. “We’re past that now, they’re part of our lives. The fear now is technology you cannot see. We’re trying to make the tripods feel like a living thing with alien technology far more advanced than anything we have.”

Robert Carlyle also appears in the drama

Actors on set were often playing against a green screen or staring into the sky at something that wasn’t there, but Viveiros says Spall and Tomlinson’s “perfect partnership and great chemistry” brings horror and terror to the screen. He also reserves particular praise for Harness’s take on Wells’ story. “To try to find a human story within the book, where we can invest in characters and feel an emotional tug and also be taken on an emotional rollercoaster, Peter has done the job,” says the director, who has seen his own sketches of the Martians realised during post-production.

Exec producer Timmer had waited 25 years to adapt Wells’ novel, and his persistence paid off once the rights recently became available. But he admits the “irresistible” project was a “foolhardy” thing to take on. “A world has been turned upside down by an army with death rays and huge tripods, and the thing they are trying to conquer is Edwardian England – that’s all quite expensive,” he explains. “Alien invasions are also two-a-penny now, so I thought it was really interesting to go back to the original genre-defining story. HG Wells creates a compelling and ground-breaking story, and it’s conceptually so rich and written with such panache. But what he is not trying to do is emotionally engage the reader with the characters. What Peter has done really cleverly is tell a story about a group of characters that is hopefully very moving and very complex emotionally.”

ITV Studios Global Entertainment is handling international distribution of the series, which Timmer describes as “madly overambitious.” But despite the challenges he has faced, by the time the series airs, hopefully Timmer will think it has been a war worth fighting.


Campbell’s out-of-this-world design
With credits to her name including BBC2’s award-winning Wolf Hall, production designer Pat Campbell is well versed in the art of period drama. Henry VIII never had to face off with Martians, though.

The series was filmed around Liverpool, England

At the outset, The War of the Worlds is the most typical of costume series, setting the scene in Edwardian England and introducing the characters viewers will root for once the invasion begins. “What we tried to do was make the Edwardian world as real as possible so you absolutely believe you are in that time and place – and then suddenly everything changes and you have these hideous monsters from outer space,” Campbell explains.

The production demanded three worlds be created: before, during and after the invasion. “That was one of the challenges because we saw so many places prior to destruction, during destruction and after destruction, so we had to decide which way we worked. Would you start with it destroyed and work backwards, or start good and work your way through the stages of destruction? We did a bit of both.”

The series was filmed around Liverpool, including London exteriors, with the village of Great Budworth doubling for more rural Surrey. Location reconnaissance began in October 2017, before prep started in January last year. Once production was underway, Campbell and her team would work around the camera units, setting things up for them to come in and shoot and then cleaning up once they’d finished.

The War of the Worlds premieres on BBC1 this Sunday

With sets built 12 feet tall, there was a wide mixture of in-camera effects and VFX, which notably created the Martians themselves, save for a leg or two. But the biggest design challenge was arguably creating the red weed, the creeping Martian plant that begins to spread across the Earth. After a lot of trial and error, the design team carved a landscape out of polystyrene, clad it in silicon gel and then attached enormous crystal spikes to create the red weed effect, with stringy roots falling down.

Summing up working on The War of the Worlds and its mash-up of genres and settings as “just a really interesting experience,” Campbell says: “Doing a period drama is lovely but this was a period drama that really stretched you. What we all found challenging in the art department was the amount of problem-solving we had to do to create the red weed, to create the Martians’ capsule and the different worlds. They were massive problems that had to be solved in a way that would be good visually but also had to meet our budget. That was really interesting because it wasn’t just putting in lots of lovely period props. There were challenges with many different elements.”

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Seeing is believing

As visual effects become a more prominent – and expensive – part of television, DQ hears about how writers and producers are aiming to meet cinematic standards in high-end dramas and how VFX can enhance storytelling.

Until recently, visual effects (VFX) in television series were a luxury rather than the norm. But the advent of epic shows such as HBO’s dragons- and magic-infused fantasy Game of Thrones has changed the paradigm in terms of what programmes can offer and, perhaps more importantly, what audiences now want from their high-end dramas.

Game of Thrones (pictured above), which came to an end this week, has employed numerous high-profile VFX firms over the years, including Primetime Creative Arts Emmy-winning teams at German firms Pixomondo and Mackevision. With this stamp of quality comes an obligation for VFX outfits to continuously improve the quality of their work. “It doesn’t matter if they’re playing Call of Duty, in the cinema or watching Netflix on their phone, audiences expect it to be of the highest quality,” says Richard Scott, CEO and co-founder of UK-based Axis Studios.

It’s a point picked up by Louise Hussey, executive producer at the UK arm of Lucasfilm-owned VFX outfit Industrial Light & Magic, who says VFX, a “longstanding part of film,” are fast becoming integral to TV. Hussey joined the company in 2018 to set up ILM TV, the company’s new London-headquartered television branch, having previously done the same for fellow VFX firm Double Negative (DNEG).

“We still don’t have the budgets that feature films have, but the fact we can harness a lot of the technology and development that’s been going on within film and bring that to bear in TV VFX is really key. That’s why we’re driving forward on all of those fronts, with creative and tech at the minute,” she says.

The War of the Worlds’ big effects sequences were figured out early on in development

While conceding that the US is more advanced than the UK in this space, Hussey believes the shift from cinema to TV – in terms of both consumer habits and the migration of talent – is being felt domestically and globally. While projects she had been looking at during her tenure at DNEG had been “very much constrained by the budgets that were available,” the upswing in the popularity of series, fuelled by premium drama on streamers like Netflix and traditional broadcasters like the BBC, has helped open the coffers for VFX. And off-screen talent has benefited as much as viewers.

“What’s incredible is the ambition of the storytellers and the ability writers now have to put things down on paper – that actually there is a chance [their ideas] can happen. Instead of writing themselves into a budgetary corner, they’re able to have a vision,” Hussey continues.

The forthcoming BBC adaptation of HG Wells’ classic sci-fi novel The War of the Worlds is a case in point. The miniseries, coproduced by ITV Studios-owned Mammoth Screen and Creasun Media in association with Red Square, uses VFX to complement the drama. Peter Harness, who penned the adaptation, says that although writers are “hard-wired into [thinking about] what things cost,” and therefore manage expectations on the page, he still prepares a first draft unfettered by budgetary constraints because it galvanises VFX teams to consider his vision from the outset.

“You are making a statement about the scale you are aiming for, even if you can’t afford all of it,” he says. “It’s quite helpful for people to get that and be a bit terrified by it and start thinking about how these things can be achieved.”

Harness reveals he already had an image of The War of the Worlds’ “iconic” Martians in mind, adding that conversations with director Craig Viveiros, designers and effects producers early in the process helped achieve the spectacle he was going for, removing the threat of eating into the budget with false starts.

Netflix and the BBC’s recently reimagined Watership Down was made by 42

“One of the biggest wastes of money is not having enough time or doing things on the fly. With The War of the Worlds, the one thing that didn’t change from script to script was the big effects sequences,” he explains. “We said, ‘We’re locking these so people can start building effects, storyboarding, looking at locations.’”

However, Harness admits the production did end up having to go without one effects sequence it had storyboarded, meaning he had to think up a scene with “the same impact for no money at all.” It became two people walking down a smoky road and hearing a baby crying in an abandoned house.

“I actually think it’s the most horrifying sequence in the [drama], and we basically got it for the cost of a smoke machine and a sound effect,” he says. “Budget constraints force you to be more creative.”

Rory Aitken, co-founder of management and production company 42, which is behind the recent BBC/Netflix animated adaptation of Richard Adams’ seminal novel Watership Down, says there was a “huge focus on getting the script right,” and notes the tensions between TV drama and captivating visuals. Given the steep costs of producing animation, Aitken says the whole process of making the series was turned on its head.

“You realise, when you’re shooting live action, what you get for free with a camera and actors is huge. You get the sun for free, you get houses for free if you’re filming on the street; someone’s figured out the drainage, someone’s figured out the actor’s haircut,” he says.

“With animation, you edit first and shoot later because it’s so expensive. Any second of animation you have on the cutting room floor is just a massive waste of money. We’ve delivered a four-part, 50-minute show and there’s not one second on the cutting room floor. The actual animation is the very last bit. You’re kind of flying blind up to that point.”

Kiss Me First combines live action with CGI sequences set in a virtual world

Dan May, co-founder of UK design studio Painting Practice alongside Joel Collins, says art departments and VFX teams often enhance a series that is renowned for its writing. Painting Practice was the driving force behind the look and effects of the first 13 episodes of Charlie Brooker’s sci-fi anthology drama Black Mirror, on which May served as VFX art designer. The series had initially apportioned very little for visuals but as its popularity grew and it became a Netflix show with higher budgets, VFX progressed as a key part of its fabric and USP.

“Often, Joel and I will work from the very beginning to get the visuals to go with the writing and the script, to get the project greenlit,” May says. “Then we’ll do a lot of concept art to get people excited. We’ll feed those concepts to the writers, and some of that will go into the scripts, some of it won’t. Then you go into production but you’ve got a lot of that pre-planning done.”

UK pubcaster Channel 4’s recent cyber-thriller Kiss Me First required constant interaction between VFX teams and producers from the start. The series, produced by UK prodcos Balloon Entertainment and Kindle Entertainment, tells the story of a 17-year-old girl who is addicted to a fictional online gaming site, and combines live action with computer-generated sequences set in a virtual world. Axis Studios was brought on board at pilot script stage because of its previous work with the gaming industry.

“We essentially fed our animation process into the writing process; the scripts were being developed at the same time we were boring out sequences,” Scott says. “Some of the sequences were established as being animation, and we could start working on those while the rest of the script was evolving.

“We were working on the animated sequences, designing the world, the costumes, and they hadn’t shot a single frame of live action. We did motion capture with all the actors and it was the first time they’d ever acted together. It was an upside-down production from that perspective.”

Clearly, VFX has transitioned from its perennial associations with fantasy and the big screen and is now being implemented as a tool in numerous premium dramas. As budgets continue to fuel its uptake in television, the migration of audiences from the cinema to the living room is likely to speed up.

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