'Doctor Who': The Making of the "Half-Face" Villain (Exclusive)

The VFX had to be spot on because "some things you can get away with on TV but will be noticeable on cinema"

In Peter Capaldi's Aug. 23 debut as Doctor Who, the Doctor meets Half-Face Man — the principal villain in the episode — requiring London-based visual effects house Milk to replace one side of actor Peter Ferdinando's head in 87 digital shots.

The mysterious villain wears a hat covering part of his face, half of which is a hollow cage that contains mechanical parts. This was a challenge for the VFX team, and the stakes were high, as the hotly anticipated 80-minute premiere episode of the new season was simulcast and screened in cinemas around the world. "An opening episode of Doctor Who always brings with it added pressure, and this also had the added weight of cinema," said Milk CEO and co-founder Will Cohen.

For reference, the Milk team looked at other instances where VFX were used for partial face replacements, such as the character Two-Face from The Dark Knight. The Doctor Who episode had to be completed on a much shorter TV schedule and lower budget yet the episode would also be shown in the cinema. "The tracking had to be spot on. Some things you can get away with on TV but will be noticeable on cinema," said VFX supervisor Murray Barber.

The Half-Face Man had a face that was nearly half CG, which, of course, had to give a performance that mirrored the live-action portion of Ferdinando.

For the live-action shoot, the actor wore prosthetic makeup with a cage that was black, to be filled in with CG. His head had tracking markers. "The prosthetic makeup helped us with tracking information, and for some wide shots we could get away without doing the CG," Barber said.

Milk also took a 360-degree photo scan of Ferdinando's head and created a 3D model. This helped the tracking team to lock-in reference points to his natural head shape.

In addition, a full-scale physical model was built for use on set both for a small number of shots and as lighting reference.

The CG hollow cage-like structure contains visible internal workings of his head that resemble the mechanics of a clock, with moving cogs, pistons and rotating mechanical parts. The VFX team also had to line up the CG eye with the actor's natural eyeline and movement.

To light the CG face so that it fit believably into the shots, they photo-scanned the environments he appeared in.

Besides the CG face, Milk designed and created the T. rex in the opening sequence of the episode as well as the Victorian London cityscape, which included CG builds of the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben and St. Paul's, along with wide fly-over views of the Thames.

Since launching in 2013, Milk has won a British Academy Television Craft Award for its work on the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special. It's currently in production on the new 12-episode season of Doctor Who and the new TV drama Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, a seven-part miniseries due to be broadcast on BBC One in the U.K. in 2015. On the feature film side, Milk is working on Universal's upcoming Dracula Untold and Scott Free's Get Santa and recently completed work on Alex Garland's Ex-Machina, which is set for release in 2015.

Email: Carolyn.Giardina@THR.com
Twitter: @CGinLA