For Heaven’s sake
As fantasy series Good Omens returns for a second season, VFX supervisor Matias Derkacz breaks down effects studio Milk’s work on the drama, which is based on the novel by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett.
With an Oscar, an Emmy and several Baftas to its name, visual effects studio Milk has become known for its work in FX, creatures and environments across cinema and television.
The company’s recent credits include Citadel, Three Pines, Suspicion and Intergalactic. But it is Good Omens, the fantasy series based on the novel by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, that VFX supervisor Matias Derkacz singles out as something a bit different from the small-screen projects on which the company usually works, thanks to the sheer scale and variety of work the show requires.
“It’s really fun and it’s really diverse,” Derkacz tells DQ ahead of the launch of season two on Prime Video this Friday. “It’s not the kind of typical TV work where you create an asset [a single effect or visualisation] and repeat it over eight episodes. In Good Omens, we had some assets we used for a couple of shots, and there were certain assets that were only briefly seen. That’s what it makes really exciting from the artist’s point of view, because you get to build so many diverse, cool things in the show, and so it’s great. It’s always great to work on Good Omens. It’s really good fun.
“We do creatures, we’re doing set extensions, we’re doing simulations. We do pretty much the whole spectrum [of VFX]. Good Omens has grown a lot from the first season to this one in terms of shot count and the type of work we’ve been doing. Good Omens S1 wasn’t easy, either – angels, demons, explosion… We had pretty much everything, and Good Omens S2 has been a pretty good one too.”
Led by showrunning duo Gaiman and director Douglas Mackinnon, the show stands as an example of how VFX has become integral to television production, with a layer of complexity normally reserved for blockbuster cinema releases. But having worked on season one, there were fewer surprises in store for the VFX team when it came to start work on the second run, as they were already aware of the large number of assets that would need to be created and the short turnaround time demanded by a television schedule.
“We were always driven by the storytelling, the vision of Douglas and Neil, so we knew there always needed to be tight communications with them, making sure we always listen and move in the right direction,” Derkacz says. “Always trying to have a close relationship with them really helped to move the show forwards. Good Omens S1 was like that, and this was the same. We knew it would be a bit of the same with a bit more complexity.”
Unlike on season one, however, Milk wasn’t the only effects outfit working on season two, which meant Derkacz and his team could train their focus on the creatures and the more complex simulations required by the story, which continues to follow the friendship between Aziraphale (Michael Sheen), a fussy angel and rare-book dealer, and fast-living demon Crowley (David Tennant).
Having been on Earth since The Beginning, and with the Apocalypse thwarted in season one, the duo are back living among mortals in London’s Soho until the archangel Gabriel (Jon Hamm) turns up at Aziraphale’s bookshop with no memory of who he is or how he got there.
While Crowley is leery as to why the archangel has come to the bookshop, Aziraphale is keen to solve the mystery behind Gabriel’s condition. However, hiding the archangel from both Heaven and Hell quickly disrupts their lives in unforeseen ways.
Doon Mackichan and Gloria Obianyo also reprise their roles from season one as archangels Michael and Uriel respectively, while returning as different characters are Miranda Richardson as demon Shax, Maggie Service as Maggie and Nina Sosanya as Nina. New cast members include Liz Carr as angel Saraqael, Quelin Sepulveda as angel Muriel and Shelley Conn as Beelzebub.
When work began on season two, the Milk team read the scripts and were involved in scene breakdowns. “It was great to be part of the creative process from the very beginning,” Derkacz notes. “It’s really rewarding. There were conversations about what needed to be done and we were involved in the early stages of the creative conversations before shooting. We were then on set for the opening sequence, so that was also really important for us to understand how things were shot.”
Fellow VFX supervisor Jean-Claude Deguara acted as the link between the creative team and the VFX unit, as discussions zeroed in on how an asset such as a creature might be used and where in a shot it might appear. “If they’re in the back, it could be something more simple. But if something’s key for the storytelling, if this creature is a gecko, for example, what kind of gecko is it? So it’s lots of research, drawing some pictures and finding the colours we want,” Derkacz explains.
“There are all these conversations at really early stages. Sometimes you start building and modelling the asset early and then show the client how the asset looks and the amount of detail you’re bringing. That then goes through different stages with notes and then gets approval. When the asset is ready, it needs to be animated into the shot, with lighting and composition. And that’s when you deliver the final product.”
When it comes to having a CG character interact with a human actor, preparation on set is key. A stand-in usually takes part in rehearsals so the real cast and the director can arrange the scene as they would like it, while the focus puller can find out where everyone will be positioned. But the stand-in may not be present when the scene is recorded to save having to paint them out in post-production.
“We try to do as much practical stuff as possible and then make it in concert with visual effects,” says Derkacz, who admits “it’s really hard” to trick the eye and make VFX look realistic.
“Visual effects in general is really complex,” he continues. “There are so many reasons why it doesn’t look so good sometimes. It’s just the nature of the work. Maybe it’s a creative decision, maybe they wanted to go with a type of style and it didn’t settle well with people. But if you want to do hyper-realistic assets, it goes all the way down to the really small details on the asset.”
On Good Omens, visual effects animators sculpted reptile scales, produced muscle simulations and skin simulations to make sure every CG character looked as real as possible.
“It’s about the tiny details that most people don’t see,” Derkacz adds. “When you have everything you want, it just looks more real. It just looks like it’s there. But even in Good Omens, it’s not always about being real because it’s a bit more of a comedy. So sometimes you can be more flexible and creative. That’s why we were working closely with Douglas and Neil to be able to hit what is expected because maybe from our perspective, we might do hyper realistic creatures and they’re like ‘No, it needs to be this way.’”
Milk’s work on season one involved creating angels’ wings, as well as raising a demon from the ground. A bigger budget for season two points to more elaborate and complex VFX work to come, but as Derkacz points out, in this portion of the industry, time is often more precious than money.
“Sometimes someone will say, ‘We have this money, can you do it in a week?’ No, it doesn’t matter [how much money you have], it won’t happen. Sometimes it requires a certain amount of time and that’s really important,” he says.
One way to save time in the future could be the increased use of artificial intelligence (AI) to help illustrate early-stage design work or as a launchpad for creative inspiration. AI wasn’t used on Good Omens, but “it’s already making an impact and it will be more pronounced in the next five years,” Derkacz says.
“It will definitely be part of VFX. It’s already changing filmmaking and the more technology evolves, as it becomes more easily available and cheaper, we’re going to start seeing more virtual production happening on everyday films and TV. It will become more common. It’s still quite early stages so I would not say its production ready and but it’s quite exciting to see how things are moving forward and how that could definitely become a tool in the future.”
Derkacz sums up the VFX work on Good Omens S2, which is produced by Amazon Studios, BBC Studios Productions, The Blank Corporation and Narrativia, as “monumental.” He adds: “It was great working with Neil, Jean-Claude and Douglas. The whole process from beginning to end was really enjoyable and the work the team has done is incredible. There was so much work involved for just a couple of shots in some cases. It’s really great.”