My Favourite Ridleygrams

Ridley Scott VES AwardI was delighted to read the recent news that Sir Ridley Scott is to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Visual Effects Society in February, in a presentation that the VES says “will honour Scott for his vision and dedication to storytelling that blends iconic visual effects and unforgettable narrative on an epic scale”.

It’s well-deserved. Over the years, Ridley has shown us some really cool stuff. As Mike Chambers, VES Board Chair, says:

“Ridley Scott is a defining voice of the feature, broadcast and commercial forms, and a true master of his craft. His vision and contribution to the art is incomparable and his impact upon the visual effects and technical fields is unparalleled. Ridley’s iconic films have entertained and inspired millions, and his oeuvre of groundbreaking work has been immensely influential.”

Well, he’s certainly influenced me. So much so that I can’t resist recording a few of the influential Ridleygram moments that hit me hard when I first saw them at the cinema, and which have been burned into my brain ever since.

Before I do that, however, let me explain what I mean by “Ridleygram”.

Trained at London’s Royal College of Art, and with a background in advertising, Ridley Scott has a keen visual eye which he’s always expressed by using quickfire sketches to explore shot design. Check out any behind-the-scenes article on one of his films and, sooner or later, you’ll trip over a pile of these trademark “Ridleygrams”.

I don’t know if actual Ridleygrams exist for the shots I’ve picked below – nor am I suggesting the sketches I’ve done to illustrate them are a patch on what Scott may or may not have drawn. But I do know that every one of my selections is informed by the master’s unique eye for composition.

Nostromo Corridor - Alien

Nostromo Corridor – “Alien”

If the 1979 sci-fi/horror classic Alien isn’t on your list of favourite movies, there’s something wrong with you. In a film so densely packed with memorable Ridley compositions, it’s hard to pick just one. So I’m choosing several – namely, all the corridor shots where Scott’s camera prowls restlessly through the empty interior spaces of the commercial towing vessel Nostromo.

These eerie establishing shots perfectly set the tone for the rest of the movie. They also showcase the groundbreaking production design of Michael Seymour, and hyperdetailed art direction of Roger Christian and Les Dilley, which at a stroke defined the “grungy future” aesthetic that changed the look of science fiction films forever.

Spinner Approaches Police HQ - Blade Runner

Spinner Approaches Police HQ – “Blade Runner”

Ridley Scott followed Alien with Blade Runner. A commercial flop on its release, the 1982 film went on to become first a cult favourite, then a bona fide classic. With its rich visuals of a future metropolis, it’s positively brimming with shots that fit my Ridleygram criteria.

The one I’ve picked is the aerial shot looking down on the police precinct tower. The camera swoops in, turning as it approaches, at which point one of the flying cars known as “spinners” spirals down to land on the roof. It’s a breathtaking ballet, made all the more impressive when you realise that Doug Trumbull and David Dryer’s visual effects team had to choreograph all those curving trajectories using only straight pieces of motion control track.

Barbarian Horde - Gladiator

Barbarian Horde – “Gladiator”

Scott abandoned the far future in favour of times past for his Roman-era epic Gladiator. Notable for its use of digital environments at a time when the technology required to create them was still in its infancy, the movie is by turns impassioned and spectacular, with a towering central performance by Russell Crowe as the avenging General Maximus.

You might think my Ridleygram choice here would be the hand-held shot which circles Maximus and his gladiator buddies as they enter the Colosseum. But you’d be wrong. That’s a show-stopping shot, to be sure, but the one that always sends a tingle down my spine comes much earlier in the film.

I’m talking about the big panoramic shot in which all those burning arrows and fireballs fly out across the forest clearing. Underpinned by the thunder of one my favourite Hans Zimmer scores, it’s the moment where Ridley says to us, “Forget everything you thought you knew about the Romans. This is what their war machine looked like at work. Shock and awe, baby. Shock and awe.”

Helicopter Crash - Black Hawk Down

Helicopter Crash – “Black Hawk Down”

In 2001, a year after making Gladiator, Scott dramatised the true story of a disastrous US military action in Somalia. The film’s pivotal helicopter crash was achieved using an extraordinary combination of techniques – a practical shoot of a full-scale chopper slung on cables and thrown around by Neil Corbould’s special effects crew, and a fully CG helicopter that was created by Mill Film, the animation of which used to drive a sixth-scale miniature whose motion-controlled blades kicked up practical dirt that was then comped back into the digital shot.

It’s a fantastic example of the kind of “seamless” visual effects we now take completely for granted. But more than that, it’s another amazing composition, filled with drama and a thousand tiny touches which place you, the viewer, right in the thick of the action.

LV-223 Approach - Prometheus

LV-223 Approach – “Prometheus”

Plot holes aside, Ridley Scott’s 2012 return to the Alien universe – Prometheus – is replete with visual wonders, nowhere more so than in the planetary approach sequence, gorgeously realised by the visual effects team at MPC.

Every shot of the interstellar survey vessel is a beauty, but the one that really shouts “Ridleygram” to me comes early in the sequence. It’s a wide shot where the camera is hanging just above the lightning-filled clouds of LV-223, with the moon’s gigantic parent planet filling two-thirds of the frame behind it. The spaceship is just visible, streaking from left to right as it descends into the atmosphere.

It’s a quick cut, and not nearly as much of a crowd-pleaser as the spectacular shot of the Prometheus actually touching down. But what it does do, in one simple stroke, is say, “Space is big. Humanity is small. Both are beautiful. Be awed.”

Watney in the Landscape - The Martian

Watney in the Landscape – “The Martian”

Only time will tell how high The Martian ends up ranking on viewer’s lists of favourite Ridley Scott films. I can tell you that, even though I’ve only seen it once, it’s already pretty high on mine.

I haven’t had a chance to study this entertaining yarn about a stranded astronaut as much as I have Scott’s other films, so I’m cautious about nominating my favourite moment. However, for the same reason I’ve picked out the LV-223 approach shot from Prometheus, I’m going to settle for now on any one of the many shots showing the film’s resourceful hero, Mark Watney, gazing out across the expansive Martian terrain.

Why those shots? The reason is simple: it’s because the composition is simple. So simple that each shot tells the precisely the story it needs to tell at a single glance. That simplicity is common to all the shots I’ve picked – even that apparently complex one from Blade Runner. A true Ridleygram is a perfect snapshot. It captures a moment, a thought, an idea, an emotion, and paints it on to the screen with minimum fuss and maximum effect.

Those are my favourite Ridleygrams. Which are yours?

Inspiring Animal Logic

What drives people to work in the visual effects industry? The glamour? The technology? All those ravening monsters and exploding spaceships? Or is it just another job? In an ongoing series of articles, we ask a wide range of VFX professionals the simple question: “Who or what inspired you to get into visual effects?”

Here are the responses from the staff at Animal Logic.

Getting Animated About Visual Effects

Visual effects and animation go hand in hand, so it’s not surprising to find animated films ranking high on the Animal Logic inspiration leaderboard.

“It was the animated shorts produced at the National Film Board of Canada that inspired me the most,” asserted head of animation Rob Coleman. “I loved the variety of techniques and artistry: Norman McLaren’s techniques of scratching on black leader and painting directly on to film; Co Hoedeman’s combination of sand animation and stop-motion puppets; Caroline Leaf’s paint-on-glass animation; and the hand-drawn films of Paul Driessen, Zlatko Grgić and Kaj Pindal.”

Watch Co Hoedeman’s 1977 Academy Award-winning animated short The Sand Castle:

The Sand Castle by Co Hoedeman, National Film Board of Canada

Coleman added, “Films which combined live-action and animation – Mary Poppins, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and later, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? – had a huge effect on me, and directly inspired me to be an animator working in visual effects. For me, there is something truly magical about seeing a real person interacting with an animated character.”

For this scene in which Roger Rabbit emerges from the sink of Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins), physical effects supervisor George Gibbs rigged a spout to pop up and spray a stream of water. Richard Williams's animation team worked over photographic prints - one for each frame of film - after which the optical department at ILM added tone and shadow mattes, and composited the multitude of elements.

For this scene in which Roger Rabbit emerges from the sink of Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins), physical effects supervisor George Gibbs rigged a spout to pop up and spray a stream of water. Richard Williams’s animation team worked over photographic prints – one for each frame of film – after which the optical department at ILM added tone and shadow mattes, and composited the multitude of elements.

Khai Tuck Wong, digital artist (lighting), was inspired by a whole bunch of animated shows from screens both big and small:

“I grew up with all the 80s cartoon series. My all-time favourites were ThunderCats, SilverHawks, The Transformers and The Smurfs. Other favourites included the Disney 2D animated classics. Films of Hayao MiyazakiAt university, I was introduced to Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, and was blown away. Every single frame of the movie is a work of art. That led me to Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Castle in the Sky, My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service. They inspired me to major in film and animation.”

To get his creative juices flowing, Steve Agland, lead look development TD (lighting), looks to an oft-overlooked branch of animation. “One of my inspirations has been the (now rarely-seen) animation tradition of taking a great piece of music and animating a story to it,” Agland remarked. “Classic examples are, of course, Disney’s Fantasia, Bozzetto’s Allegro Non Troppo, and the Warner Bros shorts like Rabbit of Seville and What’s Opera, Doc?

Warming to his subject, Agland went on, “These works let the music drive and inspire the story, and like many creative constraints, this always takes the animation in interesting directions. It also adds a new dimension to the music itself, and a new way to enjoy it. I suppose music videos are the main outlet for this sort of work now. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that’s an area still very rich in both artistic and technical creativity.”

Let Me Tell You a Story

Most motion pictures start with a story. So do many of the people who work in visual effects.

“I’ve always been interested in stories,” agreed Ingrid Johnston, head of production at Animal Logic. “Through my studies, I also developed a passion for art – particularly photography and design. Completing a media degree with a focus on emerging technologies, and working on multiple independent theatre productions and shows at the same time, I realised producing was for me. VFX and animation was a natural progression combining all the things I love. Now I get to work with an amazingly talented group of people producing beautiful images and telling great stories. Where else would I want to be?!”

Equally inspired by storytime, Jarrod Anderson, digital artist (animation), recalled some of his earliest childhood memories.

“When I was young, we had a papier mâché dragon that hung from our bedroom ceiling,” Anderson remembered. “At night, our parents would tell us these incredible stories using just the dragon – flying it around the room and telling us about the lands and the people it visited. It all felt so real, and I was just fixated on this one model, this one storytelling tool.”

Draco, Industrial Light & Magic's digital star of "Dragonheart", reacts strongly to the suggestion that dragons are made of papier mâché.

Draco, Industrial Light & Magic’s digital star of “Dragonheart”, reacts strongly to the suggestion that dragons are made of papier mâché.

Anderson identifies a clear connection between those bedtime stories and the work he does today: “Having the tools to bring that sort of imagery and imagination to life is exactly why I dived into VFX. Seeing audiences laugh, cry and cheer for characters and creatures that don’t exist in real life is a fantastic feeling, and I love seeing what can be done with our ‘papier mâché’ today.”

When Art Meets Science

The balance of art and science in visual effects is something we’ve explored on this blog before. Will Reichelt, VFX supervisor, has been aware of the relationship between the two since his earliest years.

“With a scientist for a father and a teacher for a mother, I was soaked in technology, computers, games and graphics from a young age,” Reichelt noted. “When I discovered 3D animation at university, a light bulb went off with the realisation that what excited me most was the intertwining of art and technology.”

Aidan Sarsfield, head of production technology, managed to merge his apparently disparate interests into a single career path.

“Emerging from school with a seemingly unique interest in maths and art, I ended up in the only degree that seemed to fit: industrial design,” Sarsfield commented. “It was here that I discovered the fantastic work of Syd Mead, an industrial designer who had made a move into film with Blade Runner. His groundbreaking and visionary designs not only defined the futuristic worlds presented to us in movie theatres, they came alive unlike anything I’d seen before. I was convinced that film was a place where the imagination could truly be realised. The work of other designers like Ron Cobb and Chris Foss seemed to add weight to this idea.”

The urban environments of sci-fi classic "Blade Runner" were conceived by futurist and industrial designer Syd Mead.

The urban environments of sci-fi classic “Blade Runner” were conceived by futurist and industrial designer Syd Mead.

Byte-Sized Baby Steps

One of the areas where art and science seem naturally to merge is technology. Indeed, many of today’s visual effects professionals gained speed by riding the wave of the digital revolution.

“When I was ten, I watched a TV documentary about how computers were going to affect us in the future,” recalled executive producer Luke Hetherington. “It showed Silicon Graphics computers displaying a 3D wireframe model of a procedurally-generated tree. The camera was tumbling around the tree, and they were describing how they were free to make it into whatever they wanted. It struck a chord with me: the idea of a blank digital canvas where you could make anything you could think up, and it didn’t run out like our pens and pencils always did!”

Many a VFX artist's career was inspired by the venerable Commodore 16 home computer. Photograph by Rept0n1x via Wikimedia Commons.

Inspired by the possibilities, Hetherington got stuck in. “I started learning how to programme animated binary sprites in BASIC on my Commodore 16, and knew that one day I’d get my hands on one of those Silicon Graphics setups. It was ten years before I got on to one and started to make animations and CG shorts. This was in the mid-1990s, so a lot of what was happening was being seen for the first time. Then Toy Story came along, and suddenly the whole world understood what we were all so excited about!”

Aidan Sarsfield also shared some fond memories from the early days of computing: “Luckily for me, computers, CAD and early CGI started to become accessible while I studied, and I jumped at the opportunity to begin digitally modelling and rendering some of my work rather than building it in the workshop. Suddenly I could present convincing, moving images of designs which had no basis in reality … and that’s where the journey began!”

Most enthusiastic of all was Matthew Estela, digital artist (lighting), whose trip down Micro-Memory Lane prompted total recall of a formative – and psychedelic – creative experience.

“I could claim my inspiration was Chuck Jones,” Estela mused. “Or I could claim it was Tron, which also hooked me. But really it was a single paragraph in an Amiga magazine.

“The Amiga was a brilliant home computer from the mid 1980s. One of its tricks was swapping colours rapidly – you could have an image of a rainbow on screen, and red would change to orange, orange to yellow, yellow to green, and so on. Do that at 30 frames per second and you’d get a pulsing, trippy rainbow. Big deal. It also had a great simple paint program – Deluxe Paint – which is still talked about in wistful terms today.

Get nostalgic with this online edition of the September 1991 edition of Amiga Format:

“This article I read had lots of tips and tricks for Deluxe Paint. Most were rubbish, but one caught my eye: make a new painting and set the palette to 32 colours, making 31 of those colours black and one white. Then set up a paintbrush like a roller so that, as you drew, it would lay down 31 black pixels and one white. When you hit “Tab” the colours would cycle, and the white dots scattered around the screen would dance along the lines you’d drawn. I was instantly hooked. The realisation that computers could make moving pictures blew my pre-teen mind. More than that – I myself could make moving pictures. I’d spend hours making pixels wriggle about, cross back over themselves, until the entire screen was filled with writhing, wiggling dots.

“It’s not by accident that one of the first things I learned to do in Houdini, over 25 years later, was make dots follow lines and wriggle about. Thanks Amiga! Thanks Deluxe Paint!”

Watch a video demonstrating the sort of images Matthew Estela used to burn his retinas with:

All in the Chemistry

Before the digital wave broke, filmmakers and photographers lived in a roll-your-sleeves-up world of chemicals and splicing tape. For some of the staff at Animal Logic, the old-school bell still rings loud and true.

“I have loved movies as far back as I can remember,” reflected Rob Coleman. “I vividly recall being very young and watching my dad thread a reel of 16mm film into a home movie projector. I could see the individual frames on the film, and remember the wonder of watching them come to life as they were projected on the screen at 24 frames per second. I wanted to make pictures move.”

Will Reichelt is another sucker for tradition. “When younger, I developed a deep love of traditional photography,” he commented. “Particular heroes were reportage photographers like Tim Hetherington, the incredible portraiture of Annie Liebowitz, and unique talents such as Gregory Crewdson who can tell a complex story with a single image. This art form is still extremely inspiring to me – I’m obsessed with learning more about how I can get better at it and integrate what I’ve learned into my work in visual effects.”

Watch a trailer for Which Way is the Front Line from Here? – Sebastian Junger’s 2013 documentary about the life of photojournalist Tim Hetherington:

Formative Years

For some of the staff at Animal Logic, early-years learning started really early.

“When I was just a wee primary school kid, I made home movies with my brothers,” recalled Matt Roe, digital artist (roto). “They eventually got sick of it, but I didn’t. Then one of my high school teachers gave me a copy of Adobe AfterEffects. After watching lots of behind the scenes segments on DVD, and watching YouTubers like Freddie Wong, Corridor Digital and Rooster Teeth, I thought I’d try turning a hobby into a career.”

As a small child, Dudley Birch, digital artist (matte painting), was a big fan of Disney animated features … but not in the way you might think. “Rather than watching the princesses (yawn) or the princes (goodie-goodies), it was the environments that I enjoyed,” Birch confessed. “Castles, jungles, beautiful skies, echoing chasms … that was all I really noticed. Twenty-five years later, I discovered that all that stuff had a name – matte painting – and that was that. All my interests were rolled into the perfect career. Painting degree specialising in landscape? Check. Love of technology? Check. The wonder of illusions, making a 2D image look real? Check!”

View-Master photograph by ThePassenger via Wikimedia Commons.It was one Disney film in particular that appealed to Kirsty Millar, VFX supervisor, even if she did experience it on one of the smallest screens imaginable. “I think the first thing that sparked something for me was looking at 101 Dalmatians on a View-Master as a child in the 1970s,” Millar remarked.

If only to prove the eclectic way in which a visual effects professional’s mind gathers its inspiration, Millar added, “The opening title sequence from Red Dwarf was another ‘Aha!’ moment for me – something about the way it starts framed close on this guy painting, and then the camera pulls out wide to reveal a massive spaceship.”

From a very young age, Daniel Scott, R&D support engineer, always dreamed of … well, throwing himself off buildings.

“Since I was a kid, I’ve always wanted to work in film, though I didn’t know at first what exactly my role would be,” Scott explained. “I thought being an actor sounded cool, but I never saw myself in front of a camera. When I heard about a breed of people who throw themselves down stairs, set themselves on fire and jump out of buildings, I though, ‘Yeah, stunts are where the real action is!” The danger didn’t put me off, although it did require a physique I later lost as an adult! Then, in the late 1990s, I heard a new phrase being thrown about and thought, ‘What about digi-doubles as a career?’”

A Culture of Creativity

Whatever spark it is that ignites the flame, many of the staff at Animal Logic agree that being surrounded by talented people is what really fans the creative fires.

“I still love that flash of inspiration, and developing the germ of an idea into something somebody else can enjoy,” enthused Matthew Everitt, animation director. “And I get to do it in an amazingly collaborative environment, with a crew of like-minded people, which makes the whole thing so much better.”

Will Reichelt reflected on the importance of teamwork throughout the entire filmmaking process. “I’m fascinated by the alchemy of how all the different parts of a movie – photography, set design, make-up, costuming, music and visual effects – can combine to become a living, breathing story with a mood and atmosphere that goes beyond the original components. It’s the greatest thrill to be able to collaborate with world-class filmmakers and work on a small part of a piece of art that requires so much hard work from all manner of artisans and technicians across so many disciplines.”

Looking back at her early years, Kirsty Millar observed, “As a junior compositor working in London, I was incredibly lucky to be surrounded by talented and inspiring people. John Hollis showed me how he could start with a completely blank canvas and create brilliant visuals. There were also incredible technical breakthroughs in the creative tools available to digital artists around that time – it was amazing to witness the dawn of digital filmmaking.”

Khai Tuck Wong recalled an inspirational tutor: “At the age of thirteen I had a great fine art teacher, Mr Ang, who taught me every Saturday for three years. He was a real personal inspiration and mentor who helped me take my painting to another level.”

For Madeleine Purdy, production assistant, the benefits of collaboration extend across the whole planet. “The internet is my main inspiration,” Purdy commented. “For me, it illustrates the fact that the enormity of the human cultural world depends upon innumerable tiny (and individually inconsequential) human actions, moments and words. Working in visual effects feels like making a million micro-steps every day, until you look back on what those million tiny moments have become. Learning the minutiae of the process of moviemaking is how I plan to understand the unfathomably huge world of stories around me.”

Cows and Naked Politicians

When asked what inspired him to become an animator, Matthew Everitt, animation director, replied: “Cows!”

A little prompting encouraged Everitt to elaborate:

“Actually, it was a cartoon showing four cows in a field, stood upright on their hind legs, hands on hips, like humans. One cow yells, ‘Car!’ upon which the cows all revert to standard quadruped, cow-like behaviour as the car passes. With the car gone, the cows all stand upright on two legs again.

"The Far Side" by Gary Larson“This cartoon, and others from The Far Side by Gary Larson, inspired the teenage me to start drawing my own, single panel cartoons. I bombarded publishers with my jokes and waited … and waited … Eventually a publisher sent back a ‘thank you’ note and actual, proper money! Nearly £100 for a joke that I’d made materialise out of my brain! This was a light-bulb moment for me – it made me realise that my creativity was worthless unless I shared it.

“I carried on drawing cartoons and selling them, then I began making flip-books and little films. I went on to study traditional animation with a marvellous teacher named Peter Parr, and from there I’ve spent the last 20 years animating for computer games, commercials, music videos and movies.”

For Daniel Scott, R&D support engineer, inspiration came not from boisterous bovines, but a naked politician.

“In the late 1990s, our local paper published an article about ‘retouching photos’ – this was before ‘to Photoshop’ had been coined as a verb,” Scott explained. “It showed an image of a local politician at a rally which had been retouched to remove his business suit … leaving him in his birthday suit! The article highlighted the lack of trust in photos given as evidence in a court of law. It inspired me to get into Adobe Photoshop and graphic design, which eventually led me to the VFX industry.”

The Final Word

Everyone has their heroes. Donald Walker, digital artist, has five:

“I was inspired by Walt Disney, Steven Spielberg, Roger Rabbit and Marty McFly. Oh, and Hudson from Aliens.”


Watch Animal Logic’s 1991-2014 showreel:

Established in 1991, Animal Logic has offices in Sydney, Los Angeles and Vancouver, with divisions specialising in VFX, animation and feature film development. Its motion picture work includes visual effects and animation for Babe, The Matrix, 300, Happy Feet and Avengers: Age of Ultron. Following its success with The Lego® Movie, Animal Logic’s animation division is currently in production on Lego Batman and Lego Ninjago. Thanks to all the staff from Animal Logic who contributed to this article.

Special thanks to Mark Millar. Who Framed Roger Rabbit photograph copyright © 1988 by Touchstone Pictures and Amblin Entertainment. Blade Runner photographs copyright © 1982 by The Ladd Company. Commodore 16 photograph by Rept0n1x via Wikimedia Commons. View-Master photograph by ThePassenger via Wikimedia Commons.

Cinefex Goes Bimonthly

Cinefex starts bimonthly publication in 2016

“Please, sir, I want some more.”

Everyone knows those words. They’re spoken by the young hero of the famous Charles Dickens novel, Oliver Twist.

Like most people, you’re probably under the illusion that in the story, little orphan Ollie is asking for more gruel from the workhouse cook. You couldn’t be more wrong. What young Oliver really wants is more in-depth articles from his favourite motion picture visual effects magazine – Cinefex.

Always happy to grant the wish of a hungry fan, we’ve made a monumental decision. We’re going bimonthly!

Yes, you heard me right. After 35 years as a quarterly publication, Cinefex is about to increase its output by a massive 50%, publishing six magazines a year instead of four!

“What’s the catch?” I hear you cry.

The answer’s simple – there isn’t one. Each issue of Cinefex will deliver the same accurate, objective reporting and unmatched photographic support you’ve been relying on since 1980. The size and format of each issue will remain the same. The quality of the print will remain the same. It’s the same Cinefex you know and love, just more of it. No compromise.

Our first bimonthly issue, Cinefex 145, will be out in February 2016. As if that’s not exciting enough, our upcoming December 2015 issue, Cinefex 144, is now available to preorder. In it you’ll find a whole new batch of articles covering In the Heart of the Sea, The Martian, Everest and Crimson Peak.

Confused? Don’t panic. Our lovely online team have prepared a special FAQ page to answer all your questions about the change to bimonthly publication.

Oh, and you’d do well to remember what Oliver Twist said when he heard the news about the new Cinefex bimonthly editions:

“We’re going to need a bigger bookshelf!”

Crowd Pleasers

The distant crowds watching the chariot race in "Ben-Hur" (1959) were part of an atmospheric matte painting created by Matthew Yuricich.

The distant crowds watching the chariot race in “Ben-Hur” (1959) were part of an atmospheric matte painting created by Matthew Yuricich.

Movies are getting bigger. It’s a trend that a lot of people complain about. “Too much spectacle!” they grumble. “Too many battle scenes!” they protest. Once the nay-sayers have started, it probably won’t be long before they trot out that tiresome 21st century pejorative: “Too much CG!”

Well, I’ve got news for you. Hollywood’s obsession with size is nothing new. Ever since the dawn of cinema, filmmakers have been falling over themselves to put as much clutter on the screen as is humanly possible.

When it comes to actual human beings, it turns out that’s quite a lot.

"The Birth of a Nation" poster from the Moore Theatre. Photo and retouching by Joe Mabel. [Public domain, GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia CommonsAs long ago as 1915, publicity teams went into overdrive to promote D.W. Griffith’s epic The Birth of a Nation, proudly boasting that the American Civil War drama featured 18,000 extras and a whopping 3,000 horses. Thus began the crowd scene arms race, as successive productions vied to populate their pictures with ever-increasing volumes of performers.

Just check out these numbers:

  • Metropolis, 1927 – 36,000 extras
  • Ben-Hur, 1959 – 50,000 extras
  • War and Peace, 1966 – 120,000 extras
  • Ghandi, 1982 – 300,000 extras

Phew! Getting crowded round here, isn’t it?

Assembling a crowd is one thing. Choreographing it is quite another. It’s hard to imagine getting a group of 300,000 people just to stand in the right place, let alone direct their movements. Then there’s putting them all in period costume, laying on enough craft service tables to feed them all lunch, and the not inconsiderable task of communicating to them all simultaneously that the cameras have actually started rolling and it would therefore be helpful if everyone could stop picking their noses and face in the right direction.

Luckily, filmmakers desperate for a more manageable crowd have always been able to turn to a more reliable source of obedient extras: visual effects.

In the early days, crowd scenes were commonly expanded using matte paintings. And why not? If you’re paying artists to paint the top half of an enormous set you can’t afford to build, why not get them to paint in all those extras you can’t afford to hire?

Painted crowds work well enough, just as long as the shot is locked off and you don’t mind the fact that everyone appears to have been frozen in the act of playing musical statues. Surprisingly, if the shot is well-composed, the lack of movement is irrelevant – your eye is drawn to the essential action and you don’t even notice that your bustling crowd is failing to, er, bustle.

A little more sophisticated is the technique of hiring a small number of extras and photographing them in different positions over multiple takes. For example, if you want to create a full house in a large theatre, just get a small group of people to sit in one block of seats at a times, then combine each individual piece shot into a composite image.

But what about those really enormous crowds? Is there an alternative to sending out a six-figure casting call?

Of course there is.

For "Gladiator", VFX artists at The Mill populated their digital Colosseum with 33,000 replica Romans, created by projecting video footage of costumed extras on to thousands of virtual "cards" distributed throughout the arena.

For “Gladiator”, VFX artists at The Mill populated their digital Colosseum with 33,000 replica Romans, created by projecting video footage of costumed extras on to thousands of virtual “cards” distributed throughout the arena.

Actually, modern filmmakers have two commonly-used approaches at their disposal. The first is a 2D solution pioneered by The Mill for the crowd scenes in Ridley Scott’s epic Gladiator. To populate the film’s digital replica Colosseum with hordes of bloodthirsty Roman spectators, CG supervisor Laurent Hugueniot developed the idea of projecting video footage of costumed performers on to 33,000 virtual “cards” dotted around the amphitheatre.

Variations on this technique have been used widely ever since, although when the camera needs to get a little closer to the crowd action the 2D elements are sometimes replaced by fleshed-out 3D characters. It’s particularly well-suited to stadium scenes, and frequently appears in films not necessarily known for their visual effects. Remember those wide shots of grandstand crowds in Ron Howard’s Rush, or Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken? Digital doubles all, created by Double Negative and Hybride respectively.

Watch a video by Rodeo FX breaking down the 2D and 3D arena crowd simulation from Now You See Me:

Two-dimensional crowds are one thing. But what if you need to make an army capable of moving across fully three-dimensional terrain? Marshalling those 120,000 extras for the Battle of Borodino sequence in War and Peace was all very well, but let’s not forget the film’s director Sergey Bondarchuk suffered two heart attacks while making the movie. Surely there’s got to be an easier way?

Here’s where the second modern solution to crowd-wrangling comes in – the 3D simulation. This technique was pioneered by Weta Digital’s Steve Regelous in time for Peter Jackson to put 100,000 fully autonomous Middle Earth warriors on screen for the prologue of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.

The widely-used crowd simulation software Massive was first developed at Weta Digital to generate 100,000-strong armies for the prologue of "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring".

The widely-used crowd simulation software Massive was first developed at Weta Digital to generate 100,000-strong armies for the prologue of “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring”.

The piece of software that acts as commander-in-chief of all those barbarian hordes is called Massive (Multiple Agent Simulation System in Virtual Environment), and is now developed and marketed by Massive Software. Since its inception, the market for digital crowds has expanded to the point where competitor products, like Golaem Crowd, have gained sufficient room to flex their virtual muscles.

The really cool thing about this kind of 3D simulation software is that every member of the crowd has its own brain. Responding to virtual sensory input, and communicating constantly with its neighbours, each participant – or “agent”, to use Massive’s terminology – decides where it needs to go and what it should do when it gets there.

In turn, the agent’s behaviour drives its animation. As long as an orc soldier is walking on level ground, it will lope along using a standard repeating walk cycle. If it encounters a slope, its gait will change so that it looks like it’s labouring uphill. If it bumps into one of those pesky elven warriors, it will draw its sword and enter combat mode.

As machine intelligence becomes ever more sophisticated, so the brains of the agents become more complex too. Not that they were dumb to begin with. According to Weta lore, early on in the choreography of Fellowship’s prologue battle, one squad of orcs decided that the elves they’d been called upon to face was more intimidating than they’d bargained for. Instead of engaging the enemy as the animators had planned, they turned tail and ran for the hills.

Only six shots from the podrace sequence from "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace" used digital simulation to create the crowd of 350,000 alien spectators. The rest of the shots were composites of video footage of extras photographed by VFX supervisor John Knoll on a stage at ILM.

Only six ILM shots from the podrace sequence from “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” used digital simulation to create the crowd of 350,000 alien spectators. The rest of the shots were composites of video footage of extras photographed by VFX supervisor John Knoll on a stage at Industrial Light & Magic.

Everyone loves the roar of the crowd. As American baseball icon Ty Cobb once said, “The crowd makes the ballgame.” But can Hollywood crowds really keep growing forever?

How long will it be before we start seeing battles involving not hundreds of thousands of combatants, but hundreds of millions? Would such a crowd scene even make sense to the human eye?

Should filmmakers continue in their historic quest for spectacle, or should they stop, ahem, following the crowd?

Is bigger always better?

“Gladiator” photograph copyright © 2000 by DreamWorks SKG. “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace” photograph copyright © 1999 by Lucasfilm, Ltd. “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” photograph copyright © 2001 by New Line Cinema. “Ben-Hur” image via Matte Shot – a Tribute to Golden Era Special FX.