Frankie takes The Crown

The VFX behind Netflix’s award-winning historical drama, The Crown

Visual effects supervisor Ben Turner has worked on The Crown since season one, episode one. Four seasons later, he reveals how Frankie helped dramatize the inside story of Buckingham Palace while navigating the challenges of lockdown.

Visual effects for period drama can present a deceptive challenge. Aliens, monsters, and expansive futuristic cityscapes aren’t required, but removing every hint of modern life from a frame, or ensuring a model is entirely historically accurate, are jobs not to be taken lightly.

And when you’re working on a show as prestigious as Netflix’s The Crown that challenge only increases.

Season four occurs during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership and Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer’s courtship—events many remember to this day. (And they’re heavily documented via archival footage if they don’t). Recreating this slice of history meant every pixel had to be perfect, lest the team break immersion in a story the audience knew so well.

VFX Supervisor Ben Turner was responsible for ensuring this accuracy, quality, and clarity across season four’s 960 shots. Below, Ben reveals how the in-house Crown VFX team, alongside Framestore, Untold Studios, and Rumble VFX, delivered each shot while negotiating the challenges of lockdown.

Frankie Takes The Crown: Ben Turner

VFX Supervisor, Ben Turner

A series of firsts

The Crown’s fourth season reintroduced audiences to the exceptional production values and performances they’ve come to expect—along with a few visual effects they haven’t. “We delivered environment work for the palaces, castles, and government buildings associated with the royals, which was all detailed work,” says Ben.

“We had some unique challenges, however, like the fully CG fishing boat explosion for the assassination of Lord Mountbatten.” Ben and his team also produced massive CG crowds for the trooping of the colour parade and the showjumping arena for Princess Anne’s Olympic qualification.

And for the first time in The Crown, Ben’s team created a fully CG creature: a photorealistic stag encountered in the Balmoral moors. These complex shots were a challenge in themselves, but they were made all the more complicated by the rigours of COVID-19.

“We completed almost the entirety of VFX shot production during lockdown,” Ben reveals. “Everyone retreated to their homes up and down the country, and some out of the country. We needed to find a way to keep communicating with all the vendors, as well as the episode directors, producers, and editors.”

Crown sequences by Framestore

Transforming for lockdown

Ben opted for Frankie, which enabled synchronized shot and sequence review via a web browser. “Frankie made it feel like we were in the same room, looking at the same pictures,” he says. “We conducted all of our vendor and director reviews on Frankie. People were spread across the country and occasionally across the world, so being able to easily log into our Frankie session and give feedback was invaluable.”

Frankie’s simplicity was a big driver behind its selection: “Using Frankie in a web browser, without any initiation or downloading anything, proved a real winner for us, especially when thrust unexpectedly into a remote workflow.

“We could just share a link and password with a VFX vendor, director, editor, or producer, and they’d be in and quickly viewing a synced picture; it was phenomenal. Furthermore, hosting all the production material centrally with nothing to download locally was just what we needed when pulling so many different people into review sessions.”

Royal-ready results

Season four’s newly remote VFX workflow was a challenge, but the team ultimately delivered much to make Ben proud. “The royal visit to Australia in episode six featuring Uluru and the Sydney Opera House is excellent. The fantastic team at Framestore led by VFX Supervisor Andrew Scrase completed the work, and they did an amazing job,” he recalls.

“Special praise also goes to the team at Untold Studios led by Jonathan Wood for the incredible work they did on the Mountbatten assassination. The explosion shots were all completed in lockdown, in full CG without much reference material, and I think Untold got the moment’s tone exactly right.

“Another personal favourite is a shot completed by our team at Rumble VFX, taking place on the morning of Charles and Diana’s wedding. The shot featured an aerial plate of the real Buckingham Palace, into which Rumble inserted an impressive CG crowd.”

Rumble VFX’s Crowds for Charles and Diana’s wedding

Frankie played its part in connecting the studios with Ben across all shots. Ben says the platform stood as an integral part of his daily workflow.

“On some days, we held Frankie VFX reviews with three different vendors and separate sessions with directors—we wouldn’t have been able to fit all of that into a day if we’d been travelling around Soho. In some ways, using Frankie meant we could be even more efficient than when we weren’t in lockdown!”