Interview: Murdoch Mysteries channels Indiana Jones

William Murdoch, swashbuckling treasure hunter? Well, not exactly, but Toronto’s most successful detective did find himself in several tight spots during Monday’s newest episode while he hunted for the elusive Holy Grail. Paul Aitken’s script certainly tore a page from the Indiana Jones trilogy, right down to mysterious iconography, secret passages and deadly traps.

“Temple of Death” was also the latest instalment to employ the skills of Robert Crowther and his team over at Rocket Science Visual Effects, who have been working on Murdoch Mysteries for years. Some of the scenes Rocket Science has done for Murdoch include the outside of the temple in Monday’s storyline and the expansive Toronto waterfront from this season’s debut. We spoke to Crowther about the work he’s done on Murdoch Mysteries.

You’ve worked on several different projects over the years. Hannibal, Murdoch, The Listener, Todd & the Book of Pure Evil. It must be fun to jump back and forth among different genres.
Robert Crowther: It’s definitely interesting. Every day is a new problem to solve, really. Any dramatic project comes down to the same thing: how do we tell the story? And in visual effects there is a lot of problem solving. Something has been written and the first thing that runs through my mind is, “How the hell are we going to do this?” [Laughs.] So you have to go through a process of problem solving, really, to determine the best way to show it. And in all cases, even on a larger project, cost is always a factor.

How did you get into the visual effects game in the first place?
I kind of fell into it. I had an opportunity out of York University to do a summer internship at a visual effects company and it wasn’t really even something I was looking into at that time. Once I had some exposure to it I realized that it really fit the kind of talents and interests that I had. I had more than a better than average technical ability but also an interest in storytelling and picture. I thought I was going to be a director, but the reality of the world hits you and at that time there were definitely more opportunities in the visual effects industry. It’s something I found my way into at that time.

I really wanted to be in films and even back then I realized that being a member of a filmmaking team you are very, very involved in the way the story is told. Often, you can have your own level of influence. So though I never did become a director, I do find visual effects to be a very satisfying creative outlet.

What falls under your responsibilities at Murdoch Mysteries?
What’s evolved over the last few years is that rather than be involved in every episode there are a few episodes throughout the season that need a little more assistance from our side than the others. I’ll focus a little more on a certain number of episodes. In Season 8 there were probably four episodes that needed a little additional guidance. It starts with the script and I break down what I see to be an opportunity to use a visual effect or it’s not possible to get the shot through practical means. We’ll start with a read-through and then a meeting and discussion about the different options or approaches we can take to a problem. There is also a budget process as well, determining what the show can afford. Then we plan scene by scene what we’re going to do.

I go on the tech surveys as well in preproduction and I’ll go out to the locations and figure out what we’re going to shoot. I’ll consult on how a visual effect should be executed within the location or the set we’re in. I’ll go there on the shoot day as well to work with the director and director of photography to put the camera in the right place to get the footage we need. There are often camera details we need to get our hands on.


In Monday’s episode, there is that shot of the temple that Murdoch and Crabtree enter. How much of that had to be worked on by your team? What did you add that wasn’t there?
Most of the frame was modified by us. We had a real location for it. There is a beautiful cemetery mausoleum—The Thomas Foster Memorial in Uxbridge, Ont.—where we shot both interior and exterior. The exterior we shot as-is and we had the art department dress some vines and things on the building—it doesn’t have those now and it’s kind of in an open field—but we had to make it look like it was surrounded by 30 years of tree growth. So we had the actors do their dialogue do their lines with the set dressing around them and then we extended all of that. We added vines that go all the way up to the top, we didn’t replace the roof per se, we just integrated it better and replaced the sky. All the foliage around it is added by us as well.

Your team recreated the wonderful Toronto lakeshore for the season premiere. Can you talk about how you came to create that for the show?
That episode started with the script and Peter Mitchell had already mapped out what happened at the docks and wanted to create this sketchy part of Toronto. Most of the time Toronto plays as Toronto the Good. He needed this other place and had already set it up in the previous season. That was the central challenge at the beginning of Season 8, to make a new part of Toronto for the mystery to play out. I don’t even know where the initial thought to not shoot at dockside came from. It might have been Armando Sgrignuoli or Stephen Montgomery who sort of said to us, “Can you make this look like the waterfront of Toronto?”

After scratching our heads for awhile, we worked with some existing location photographs. We had some great footage from Season 7 where we had done the Keewatin crossing Lake Ontario. We had a lot of footage of Lake Ontario and we knew that any view from the Toronto harbourfront would look out on the islands. We took a lot of pictures and once we looked at them we realized we could create the harbour of the time. The other part of it, of course, is that today you have the island ferries and a few sailboats in the harbour. But in that time you had lake freighters coming in both directions and pleasure craft and the ferries, so we started working on CG vessels to populate the harbour and make it look busy.

What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
I think it’s got to be having a final product that you can be proud of. In any creative process there is quite a lot of doubt and quite often we’re doing things we haven’t done before. If you’re not doubting what you’re doing, you’re probably doing something that’s too easy. I like to think that we challenge each other every time and the payoff is seeing that put to picture with all the sound added and telling a great story.

Murdoch Mysteries airs Mondays at 8 p.m. on CBC.