The VFX Behind A Darker Shade of Magic

Leon Films on the studio’s adaptation of the popular ‘Shades of Magic’ book series.
By Michael Maher

Leon Film’s “A Darker Shade of Magic” is an enchanting fan film-like trailer based on V.E. Schwab’s best-selling fantasy series “Shades of Magic.” The passion project tells the story of a one-eyed thief named Lila who meets Kell, a young magician capable of traveling between parallel Londons.

The UK-based studio used many different Red Giant tools for the trailer, which was not made in connection with a film about the book that is currently in the works. Instead, they created their own homage, featuring the same diverse communities that inhabit the books.

In addition to a cast and crew that includes people of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community, the trailer stars actor, online creator and influencer Kelsey Ellison as Delilah “Lila” Bard who has a glass eye in real life, as well.

We sat down with Ellison and Leon Films’ Petros Ioannou, producer and director of photography, to talk about their magical fantasy trailer, which has been viewed more than 1.4 million times on Instagram.

What inspired you to make this ambitious trailer?

Ellison: My audience recommended the books originally. A lot of people kept saying I reminded them of the character, Delilah Bard because I have a glass eye and so does Delilah. I ignored them for a while, but then I read “Shades of Magic” and realized how awesome the character, and the series, are.

I found out that the first book was going to be adapted into a film by Sony and because I’m an actor, I wondered how I could get an audition for the role of Delilah. I really wanted a chance to audition, but I decided to just make some Tik Toks as Lila and hoped they’d go viral. My partner, Rain, and Petros said we should do something bigger. And that’s how this whole project came to be.

Tell us about the locations you chose and the scope of the VFX.

Ellison: We spent about a week location scouting because the novel includes different variations of London. We did a lot of research using historical websites, and we also looked at different places in London. It was after the first lockdown because of COVID, so the streets were still pretty empty. Normally, we would not have had access to some of those locations, and I don’t think we would ever be able to do that again.

Ioannou: We were also fortunate to be able to use KitBash3D for some of the CG landscapes in 3D. Then, we would go into After Effects to use a lot of Red Giant products for color grading, adding lens flares, particles, and sky replacements. Those tools gave it all a bit more depth.

One big advantage to being the DP and a producer is knowing exactly which shots are going where. That’s why it was fairly easy for me to know when a shot was going to require visual effects and when we could rely on the dreaded ‘fix it in post’ to do some heavy lifting.

It can be really difficult and time consuming to composite 3D, CG environments and give them that cinematic wow factor. Supercomp made it easy to blend multiple passes and layers together, make sure the depth of the cities felt feel and see that all of the VFX worked with each other rather than feeling disconnected.

How did you decide on the final look and color?

Ioannou: That’s a really interesting question because we discussed that a lot initially. The book gives some description of what the cities look like, and it’s pretty easy to guess what Grey London looks like because that’s our London.

For Red London, we decided to try a color palette with some reds and golds to make things look more magical. White London is described as being drained of light, so we wanted a black-and-white tone that felt gritty. Very desaturated greens and blues made it feel cold, like it needed to.

We played with Red Giant Looks a lot while working on the VFX and a lot came from that. Looks has some great things that allow you to diffuse glows, play with premade stuff and just tweak that grimy look to how you want it for the shot. The gritty film emulation in it helped create the lo-fi feeling of white London that we wanted.

We used Magic Bullet’s Colorista to manipulate the colors the way we wanted and make sure the color grading process ran smoothly. Colorista also helped us process the flat images we shot with a Sony a7S III into something that popped.

What about the magical effects?

Ellison: The look of the magic is based around the elements of fire, water, earth and air. The one effect that took us a while to figure out was the way the characters travel through walls. The spells are cast with blood magic, but blood doesn’t look good on screen, so we ended up with a mix between a ripple and a melt into the wall.

Ioannou: What went through my mind was to create a Stargate effect, where it almost looks like they are passing through water. Victoria Schwab, who wrote the books, said that “Avatar: The Last Airbender” was an inspiration for the magic style. Being a huge fan of that TV show, myself, also helped inspire the looks of the effects.

I think the tool we used most was Red Giant’s Chromatic Displacement. We used it with a shockwave as the map to distort and chromatically warp the world, giving a subtle glow to the portals. And it was great for everything from water ripples to the scene where Kell’s fireball is blocked.

What kind of reaction have you gotten so far?

Ellison: We released it on YouTube first. It was really fun to see people reacting to the fact that disabled actors were cast in disabled roles. Then, we uploaded it to Instagram, and that’s where it really started rolling, getting over a million views. We had an amazing group of fans supporting and sharing it, making it go viral.

Ioannou: The positive reception online has been wonderful and I really hope that it gets the message out there to cast disabled actors in disabled roles, like Lila Bard. I would like to see more people in marginalized communities feel like they have a voice in people like Kelsey.

Michael Maher is a filmmaker and writer in Dallas, Texas.