'Doctor Who' Christmas Special Wraps Debut Year for VFX House Milk

CEO Will Cohen and his team of VFX pros also handled the 50th anniversary special.
"Dr. Who"

When Will Cohen and a team of London-based VFX pros decided to open a business earlier this year -- in the middle of "VFX armageddon" and the bankruptcy auction for Rhythm & Hues -- you might have wondering why.

But so far, the gutsy move has paid off. Among its latest projects is the BBC's Doctor Who Christmas episode, which airs next week.

The first project from Milk Visual Effects was the bulk of BBC's recent Doctor Who 50th anniversary episode, "The Day of the Doctor," which broke records on Nov. 23 when it drew an average audience of 10.2 million in the U.K. and was simulcast in 94 countries and in more than 1500 cinemas across the world. Milk produced 129 3D VFX shots including CG environments, CG spacecrafts, and the sequences featuring the Gallifreyan city of Arcadia, with a budget of roughly £500,000 ($819,000).

It's quite an achievement, particularly when one considers that just days before the 50th anniversary episode was scheduled to begin production, Milk didn't exist and the partners were part of Mill TV, the TV VFX division of London-headquartered The Mill. It was late March when The Mill -- whose larger business also includes commercial VFX and post -- announced its plans to exit the TV VFX business. This announcement also came as the industry awaited the results of Rhythm & Hues' bankruptcy auction.

EARLIER: The Mill Plans to Close Its TV VFX Department 

But Milk CEO Cohen said the team at Mill TV wasn't ready to go their separate ways and decided to try to relaunch as a smaller business, which is run by six directors/owners including Cohen and also had some private investors. "We run the company as leanly as we can and keep an eye on overhead. 2013 will continue to be a competitive and challenging time for VFX," he told The Hollywood Reporter.

Mill TV had been scheduled to work on the Doctor Who anniversary special, which was slated to start production in early April. After discussions, it was decided that Mill TV would continue to handle on set VFX supervision in its final weeks. Then the new company, Milk, which opened in June, would create the bulk of the effects.

"They were very patient," Cohen said of the BCC. "I hadn't had a lot of sleep. … They had to put the project up for procurement. So we had to pitch as a potential new company -- this was four days before shooting began."

"It was a stressful few weeks -- closing a division of a large company and starting something at the same time. We were here at least 20 hours a day, seven days in a row," Cohen elaborated. 

As it turned out, Milk was able to rent the former Mill TV office, where they now operate with roughly 60 artists and have the capacity to house 100 -- which they might soon need.

Milk will be handling the visual effects on the next season of Doctor Who, which begins filming in January. Current and recent work also includes series three of SherlockBlack Sails for Starz; Sky's New Year's Day TV special, David Attenborough's Natural History Museum Alive; a seven-part miniseries, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell; and work on Paramount and MGM's Hercules and Universal's 47 Ronin.

E-mail: Carolyn.Giardina@THR.com
Twitter: @CGinLA