Channel 4’s series The Undeclared War, is described as a timely and provocative six part cyber thriller. The series is directed and co-written by seven-time BAFTA-winner Peter Kosminsky (Wolf Hall, The Government Inspector). Kosminsky has lined up a stellar cast including Mark Rylance, Simon Pegg and Adrian Lester to bring the story to life.
The story centres around the main character, played by newcomer Hannah Khalique-Brown, as a young coder, Saara. It’s set in a post pandemic 2024, where Saara is doing work experience at GCHQ in the run up to a general election. Kosminsky has been quoted as saying “The series is based deep within the least-known arm of the UK’s intelligence infrastructure, GCHQ. The story we’re now able to tell casts an extraordinary, revelatory light on the hot, undeclared war taking place right now in the world’s newest and most invisible domain of conflict – cyber.”
As we were the sole vendor on the show, NVIZ's Jamie Wood was brought on board early in April 2021 as the project's overall VFX Supervisor. The story is not just a thriller, but also crosses over between the real world and the cyber world, which in the story is known as the Code World.
While doing her work experience, Saara is drawn to a huge mirrored Cube that sits in a gymnasium inside GCHQ. It’s mysterious, impenetrable and seems to cause the physical world around her to behave in ways that appear impossible. While the original brief for this was a simple, huge, reflective cube, it evolved over time to become multi-dimensional with internal animations. “It was a very difficult process to get the look exactly right, because of the reflections we had to rebuild the entire background around the Cube and then reproduce the reflections faithfully.” says Wood. Fortunately Wood was careful to take spheres of every environment and story points had to be carefully considered in advance. In fact, the whole sequence had taken months to prepare for before shooting began.
For instance, lighting between the real world and the code world was different. In one sequence Saara moves from her nighttime desk to the canteen which is now in code world and therefore in daylight. Kosminsky worked with Wood to create the optimum shoot order for sequences like this. First Kosminsky would create his shot list, and then Wood would make sure that all the shots (light for night and then into day) were all scheduled in chronological order. “We had a big board with every storyboard” recalls Wood, “we had to meticulously cross off every piece of action and dialogue to make sure everything was captured.”
Another sequence takes place as a riot breaks out outside GCHQ. The invisible effects that went into creating this seamless scene are not immediately apparent to the viewer. While preparing for the shoot, Wood was given access to the real GCHQ one Sunday to shoot material. They took as much super high res photography of the environment as possible in the time allowed, and spent 8 hours painting out artefacts that were not permitted to be recorded before leaving. This material enabled Wood and his team to reconstruct the environment behind the crowds shot in a different location, adding CG smoke trails and other effects, resulting in picture perfect, invisible VFX.
NVIZ provided more VFX for The Undeclared War, including a “bullet-time” effect in GCHQ canteen which was created with a small circular rig built around Mark Rylance and environment shots in Russia. These Russian environments were created using the University of Cardiff building and background plates which were shot in St. Petersburg, while being supervised remotely from London by NVIZ’s Head of 3D, Richard Clarke.
The Undeclared War was a challenging project that beautifully showcases the wonder of picture perfect, but invisible VFX. The series can be seen on Channel 4.