How Iorek Byrnison the armored bear was brought to life on His Dark Materials


The most recent episode of His Dark Materials introduced an element everyone has been waiting for: the armored bears. In the world of this show, this proud warrior race lives in the far north. They are fierce fighters who value their homemade armor above all other things. In “Armour,” our hero Lyra Belacqua drafts one of the bears — the surly Iorek Byrnison — into her ranks. Clearly, you want this guy on your side.

Unfortunately, the His Dark Materials team wasn’t able to get an actual bear to play Iorek, unless…no, they didn’t. Instead, visual effects sutdio Framestore — who also worked on the 2007 Golden Compass movie — were brought on to eclipse their original work. “And what’s really interesting about that is certain things we computationally couldn’t do then, we can do now – but obviously it’s harder work,” VFX supervisor Russell Dodgson told Radio Times.

Before Iorek could appear “in the flesh,” the team first did extensive pre-visualization, playing out scripted scenes in a simulated environment on computers before a director got anywhere near a camera.  “That was a combination of Framestore’s bear animation and our [interactive set] environment,” said VFX artist and pre-vis supervisor Dan May. “We blocked out the sequence with Russell and the stunt guys downstairs. They animated the bears to quite a high level in pre-vis, that that pre-vis was then brought to our [digital] set with all its textures.”

"When they shot the sequence, they were able to bring that animation and the virtual camera angles, and see them live on set. They were able to line up a digital bear with a real set. And that is not a first, because they’re doing that sort of thing on Jungle Book and Avatar. But we’re doing it on a more affordable, sustainable way."

The results of all that prep are hard to argue with. Just take a look at the before-and-after for the sequence:

And obviously the special effects artists do a ton of work after the fact to get the bears looking as good as they do. “In our version of Iorek now he has the muscles underneath [his fur] that flex as he moves, and that also drives the fat on him to jiggle as he runs,” Dodgson said. “But then the skin actually slides over the bones and the ribs, which makes the fur that’s attached to the skin slide over that as well. All of that together gives you something that feels really realistic.”

But it’s not all about FXF. There are also seven-10 real-life rigs the team uses to give a sense of the bears on set. “There’s one for smashing into stuntmen, there’s one for representing his face, there’s one where there’s literally a guy with a glove on putting it on his face,” Dodgson said. Sometimes, actor Joe Tandberg — who voices Iorek Byrnison — would stand in for his character, sometimes in a rig where Iorek’s bear head would hang under his own.

Or sometimes a large grey cushion stood in for Iorek; in depends on the scene. “You’re basically in a green room, with a weird grey thing which is supposed to be a bear, and with [Lin-Manuel Miranda] singing? It’s just all very weird,” said Dafne Keen, who plays Lyra.

Puppeteers play a big role, too. The Iorek puppet is operated by two people who combined operate Iorek’s legs and can rear him back. “When the bear attacks – that was much more stuntman, him, us throwing him around on a mat until we worked out something that we liked,” Dodgson said. “We take a very human, organic, what I call a man-tronic approach to things that you might take or do in a technical perspective. When he’s getting dragged around by the bear it is just a guy in a boiler suit and [the victim’s] on a wire, and that’s it.”

“Man-tronic.” I like it.

Finally, there’s the all important bear-riding, which is accomplished with another human-operated rig. “When Lyra’s riding a bear, it’s all operated by a human in a backpack,” Dodgson said. “You know, we don’t bring in rigs and mechanically programme them because it’s quite slow to do, and it means you get less takes at it.” Said puppeteer Brian Fisher:

"To get the specifics, the biomechanics behind how a polar bear’s gait runs, we had to go through and, with the animators, actually break it down into segments, figure out how we can translate that into something that has movement and life but is not purely mechanical."

Behold the result:

“I loved the bear rig,” Keen said. “Though I was too light for it. It was very funny. They made this rig, and they didn’t calculate my weight. So they had to then harness me, because I bounced too much off the bear. So that was really fun. Although I felt kind of bad because I had two human beings bouncing up and down underneath me…”

In any case, the armored bears look great. The His Dark Materials books introduce some pretty wild creatures down the line, but I’ll bet this team is up to it.

Next. Watchmen reunites the Minutemen, possibly satirizes Donald Trump’s father. dark

To stay up to date on everything fantasy, science fiction, and WiC, follow our all-encompassing Facebook page and sign up for our exclusive newsletter.

Watch Game of Thrones for FREE with a no-risk, 7-day free trial of Amazon Channels