Production for HBO's His Dark Materials made seamless with custom app built on Claris Platform.

Adapting a popular fantasy trilogy for TV is tough, but add armor-wearing bears, a sinister plot, witches, talking spirit animals, and a runaway girl, and things get a bit more complicated.

The HBO miniseries His Dark Materials relies heavily on stunning visual effects (VFX) for storytelling. To produce any special effects-heavy show, VFX teams typically slog through tens of thousands of iterations of intense creative work in a dynamic production environment. 

Michael Tuohy, VFX coordinator for His Dark Materials, assists a team of 12 to manage the visual effects workflow from start to finish. 

During his career, Michael has tried it all, from tracking scenes manually to using industry software like ftrack and Shotgun. “Depending on your setup, if you’re using one of the major tracking software and you want to make a change to the system, it can be expensive and take ages,” he said. 

He knew there had to be a better way.

Three years ago, in search of a powerful but flexible tool, Michael found the Claris Platform.

“I was never a developer, but as a project manager I started playing around with it,” he said. “I just started building up and up, and now I have my own out-of-the-box solution. It’s pretty robust.”

He estimates his custom apps save hundreds of production hours and tens of thousands of dollars for every season of a new show. 

Building a digital shot wall

Many production teams use a manual process to track work in progress. The system, called a shot wall, is comprised of hundreds of business card-sized images taped to a wall. A team member updates the wall with scenes that need work, that need to be omitted, and that are complete. 

The benefit of a physical shot wall is its visual nature, notes Michael. It also serves the important psychological function of keeping teams motivated across weeks or months of creatively taxing work. The problem? It's costly, hard to revise, and difficult to share remotely.

To retain the benefits of the physical shot wall but make it more affordable, easy to share, and easy to edit, Michael created a digital shot wall app. 

Two 42” TV screens mounted side by side now reveal an entire episode. This “virtual production wall” displays an adjustable grid of hundreds of shots. Each shot is marked with its status, identification number, and linked to a desktop production app. Any time a shot is updated in the app, the change is instantly reflected on the digital shot wall. Producers can use the app to view the latest version of a shot and affiliated notes, and generate custom reports. When a shot is finalized, the app automatically adds a “Final” stamp to the image on display.

His Dark Materials called for more than 2,000 shots across dozens of scenes to incorporate effects like magic dust, zeppelins, combat scenes involving humans accompanied by monkeys, bunnies, and birds, and more. Each shot went through numerous iterations before it was approved, and each iteration had multiple notes from the director, producer, and production teams. 

"The shot wall app saved a whole person's worth of work on maintaining it, and can be used again and again for each subsequent season with zero additional cost."

Michael Tuohy

When he encountered development challenges, his first stop was the developer forum at the Claris Community. There, he found quick answers to his questions from more than 50,000 active users, and even discovered scripts he could copy and paste into his app to create new capabilities in seconds.

Today, the VFX production app can archive unused scenes, generate updated reports with fresh notes and versions within minutes, and be modified to include new fields at a moment’s notice.

“The main advantage of having FileMaker knowledge is the flexibility you bring to a producer,” he said. “Production requirements vary from show to show, so you have to be able to think on your feet and adapt quickly.”

Thinking forward, Michael envisions a touch-screen capability for his digital shot wall that would allow users to touch an image on the TV screen, see full details, and play the scene in an in-app player.

An app of all trades

In the meantime, his app doesn't just cut the labor of managing the shot wall, it aligns the team to deliver better, faster decisions.

Every user receives automatic production updates when they log in. At a glance, users can see statistical readouts of how complete each episode is, as well as cost breakdowns. During the actual shoot, it also provides information about where and when the shoot is happening. The updates allow the team to prepare for the next batch of work.

The app also contains a VFX bidding script breakdown tool. Producers can import an episode’s script, then the app exports the script’s individual lines to an Excel spreadsheet. The script breakdown function is used by VFX producers who place cost estimates against lines containing potential VFX work and are used to manage bids and overall production budget.

“In this industry, the work of copying and pasting every line of a script into an Excel spreadsheet is usually done manually,” said Michael. “On a good day, if you do it really quick, it would take about four hours, but on a bad day with distractions it could also be a day’s work.”

Those hours add up quickly when you consider that a typical TV show season has at least eight scripts. Production teams can expect to receive script updates every three to four days — each with their own new pricing requirements.

“Now, the work takes two minutes,” he said with a smile.

The script breakdown tool also captures scene details from updated scripts and shares them with another app used by the data wrangling teams who work on set. The wrangling teams are responsible for capturing details such as camera height, camera distance, interior or exterior shoot, day or night shoot, and lighting.

“The app allows them to select an episode and scene, then access the latest scene details,” said Michael. “This saves time in replicating shots with continuity, and they can be confident their information is current.”

Thanks to Michael’s apps, production’s workflow pipeline is connected enough that when something changes, information is shared immediately to teams who need it with minimum disruption.

Learning Claris FileMaker allowed him to solve for VFX project management, saving hundreds of hours. Then he saw opportunities for automation everywhere — from team updates to script breakdown — each success giving him more confidence to tackle the next problem. The automation journey is one without limits, and he intends to continue it and share with others.

“I’m teaching my assistant coordinator how to use Claris FileMaker,” he said. “I told him, ‘If you want to go out on your own and be a freelancer, and you know this tool, you’re sorted.”

Want to know how you can get started? Visit Claris’ free Custom App Academy to learn how to build your first app.