Crowd Pleasers

by Graham Edwards

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.

6 thoughts on “Crowd Pleasers

  1. Great article, didn’t Star Wars also use painted Cotten buds/q tips for distance crowds? I seem to remember they had some string running underneath the buds that created some movement, I love the low tech approaches!

  2. Actually the challenge is not getting more and more people but getting crowds closer and closer to the camera, until they are just next to the hero character as they do at Pixar or Dreamworks.

    Disclaimer: I work for Golaem

  3. no it depends on the film your doing. Now you know all that crowd sims will have to be changed but as long as you trick the eyes and brain then I dont see the problem. For crowds it depends on the film. I hate fakery if its done well you guys and gals have done your job.

  4. I also think its good to push the visual effects so that its more entertaining to the audience. Bigger is sometimes good sometimes bad smaller is sometimes good and bad too

  5. I believe the 1925 Ben-Hur used a stadium miniature with foosball-like figures that could be moved with a crank to introduce motion. It worked pretty well too.

  6. Found a video on YouTube called “Ben-Hur (1925) Chariot race: How it was filmed”, which explains the hanging miniature about a third in. Basically an in-camera set extension with “moving” crowds, pretty awesome.

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