Cinefex Vault #4: Hidalgo

by Joe Fordham

Cinefex Vault - HidalgoSeeing Hidalgo at Walt Disney’s art deco cinema palace, the El Capitan in Hollywood, was fitting. My parents were in town, and I wanted to treat them to an old fashioned night at the movies, so we loaded up on popcorn and we were not disappointed. It was a rousing, romantic adventure about a man and his mustang, cut from the same cloth as director Joe Johnston’s The Rocketeer, albeit with more horseplay and fewer rockets. So I was happy to cover the film, chatting with ILM’s amiable visual effects supervisor Tim Alexander, and I’m happy to resurrect the story here from our online Cinefex Vault.


Horse Sense – article by Joe Fordham

Industrial Light & Magic visual effects supervisor Tim Alexander oversaw the visual effects work on director Joe Johnston's sprawling adventure, Hidalgo. Photo by Sean Casey. Courtesy of ILM.

Industrial Light & Magic visual effects supervisor Tim Alexander oversaw the visual effects work on director Joe Johnston’s sprawling adventure, Hidalgo. Photo by Sean Casey. Courtesy of ILM.

At age 32, Tim Alexander is one of a generation of artists at Industrial Light & Magic whose date of birth approximates the studio’s founding date. A digital compositor since his early twenties, Alexander drew upon that bedrock experience as he assumed the role of visual effects supervisor for director Joe Johnston’s Hidalgo. “I tend to look for a 2D solution before considering 3D,” Alexander observed. “There were quite a few sequences in Hidalgo where we could have gone with either 3D animation or a 2D composite, and we decided to go with 2D.”

The film focuses on Frank Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen), an ex-U.S. Cavalry dispatch rider who accepts the challenge of a wealthy sheik (Omar Sharif) to enter his favorite mustang, Hidalgo, in a 3,000-mile Arabian horse race. Settings spanned from 1890’s American Wild West to the far reaches of the Sahara. The latter was represented by locations in Morocco, where Alexander and his small crew spent six weeks capturing scenic digital stills and advising on technical issues. “It was grueling,” Alexander recalled. “We were working with dust storms and animals – and everybody got sick! One night, I had a temperature of 107 degrees.”

Frank Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen) and his mustang, Hidalgo, pitted against some of the world's foremost thoroughbred horses, outrun a fearsome sandstorm during a 68-day, 3,000-mile endurance race across the Arabian desert.

Frank Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen) and his mustang, Hidalgo, pitted against some of the world’s foremost thoroughbred horses, outrun a fearsome sandstorm during a 68-day, 3,000-mile endurance race across the Arabian desert.

Johnston limited time at the harsh location by using visual effects for a sequence in which Hopkins rescues the sheik’s daughter by vaulting across Moroccan rooftops. “We were supposed to shoot above a mosque,” related Alexander, “but Joe asked us to re-create the environment against bluescreen in LA. Luckily, he had established the scene at ground level so the tops of the buildings weren’t visible and we could take some liberty with architecture. We shot a ton of stills; then, back at ILM, we built a 2½D background, mapping stills onto rough geometry to create multiplane and parallax effects.”

For an establishing shot of Hopkins arriving at the port of Aden, a set representing the front the ship was shot in Los Angeles. The rear of the ship was an ILM digital extension. The camel train and people disembarking were filmed in the desert in Morocco, while the water, small boats and background wall were photographed at a coastal town in Morocco. ILM digital compositor Tory Mercer assembled the shot.

For an establishing shot of Hopkins arriving at the port of Aden, a set representing the front the ship was shot in Los Angeles. The rear of the ship was an ILM digital extension. The camel train and people disembarking were filmed in the desert in Morocco, while the water, small boats and background wall were photographed at a coastal town in Morocco. ILM digital compositor Tory Mercer assembled the shot.

Horse trainer Rex Peterson supplied five mustangs to represent Hidalgo. The only animal animation involved a pair of leopards that menace Hopkins and a companion during the race. The digital work proved necessary when the performances of real leopards – shipped to the location and later split-screened into scenes with horses – were found lacking. “It was very difficult to make the leopards look aggressive,” said Alexander, “because they knew they were going back to their cage to eat at the end of every day. So, for some shots, we chose to re-create the leopards in CG.” The CG leopard was modeled from reference of the leopards on set and from animal motion studies. “Very early on, we did a couple of tests using motion capture data of dogs, which we had used for Hulk. But when we applied that to the leopards, they just looked like dogs, so we abandoned that idea.” ILM revisited the live leopards and shot video of them performing various actions from six different angles. Animation director Sylvia Wong and her team then rotoscoped the video to the CG leopard. “That gave us fluid and organic-looking behavior – but the leopards still didn’t look aggressive enough. So we used that as a starting point and key-framed everything from there.”

A tsunami sandstorm -- created with volumetric particles -- overtakes many of the riders early in the race.

A tsunami sandstorm — created with volumetric particles — overtakes many of the riders early in the race.

Another action sequence featured a sandstorm that chases Hopkins and Hidalgo into an abandoned desert mosque. During principal photography, special effects supervisor Bruno Van Zeebroeck used air mortars to create a blast of sand impacting the desert location. ILM created the wider views in post. “Sandstorms in real life are very amorphous and undefined,” observed Alexander, “but Joe decided it would be more effective to see a wall of sand.” ILM generated the sandstorm in RenderMan, using volumetric particles. “We wanted it to feel like the storm was sucking up the desert like a vacuum cleaner. The front edge pulled debris off the ground, whipped it up the wall, then it slowed near the top, creating a sense of speed and scale.”

A plague of locusts obscures the sun. Over plate photography shot in Morocco at sunrise, ILM created the locust swarm as particles with a locust model attached. Locusts closest to camera were rendered at higher resolution than those in the background, allowing many more particles to be created.

A plague of locusts obscures the sun. Over plate photography shot in Morocco at sunrise, ILM created the locust swarm as particles with a locust model attached. Locusts closest to camera were rendered at higher resolution than those in the background, allowing many more particles to be created.

Digital matte artists enhanced the scope of the production with matte paintings that referenced the work of 19th-century ‘Orientalist’ painter Jean-Léon Gérome – particularly Gérome’s The Call to Prayer – for an urban Moroccan vista. “We embellished the landscape and placed a guy in a big tall tower in the background, exactly as it was in Gérome’s painting,” said Alexander. “For a lower angle, where a steamship was parked at the dock and the camera panned to reveal a camel train, we piecemealed the shot together. Half the boat was practical, shot in Los Angeles, and the back part was CG. The water came from Morocco. The right of frame came from the desert in Morocco, nowhere near the ocean. It was quite a blend.”

Frank Hopkins runs down a sand dune as the swarming locusts overtake him.

Frank Hopkins runs down a sand dune as the swarming locusts overtake him.

The ending of the film, set in the United States, involved a spectacular stampede of mustangs, enhanced with 2D effects. “They had 500 horses out on location in Montana,” said Alexander, “but when they released them into the wide-open spaces, it looked like nothing! We replicated the horses and made 2,500 out of the 500.” Shot from a roving helicopter perspective, the horse release was an unrepeatable event, which tested the skills of ILM matchmove and compositing artists. “We couldn’t shoot multiple takes, and the horses could only run the course once or twice a day; so we ended up using bits of other footage and tracking horses into the earlier environment with dust effects.”

For a sequence in which Hopkins rescues the kidnapped daughter of a powerful sheik, rooftop scenes were shot on a foreground set in front of a bluescreen. Background structures, mountains and sky were photographed as still images and mapped onto a 2½D matte painting to permit perspective shifts on moving camera shots.

For a sequence in which Hopkins rescues the kidnapped daughter of a powerful sheik, rooftop scenes were shot on a foreground set in front of a bluescreen. Background structures, mountains and sky were photographed as still images and mapped onto a 2½D matte painting to permit perspective shifts on moving camera shots.

The lengthy and demanding production resulted in 216 effects shots, yet ultimately proved a painless experience for Alexander and his team due to the involvement of ILM alumnus Joe Johnston. “We spent 118 days on location in Montana, South Dakota, Morocco, the deserts of California, all over,” stated Alexander. “But if ever we couldn’t be there, Joe shot all the elements we needed. He really knew what he was doing, and that definitely helped.”

All other photos copyright © 2004 by Disney Enterprises. Courtesy of ILM.

3 thoughts on “Cinefex Vault #4: Hidalgo

  1. Wonderful article on a favorite film that should have been a greater success. Didn’t know most of this. Thank you.

  2. Thanks, Robert. I know the film had mixed reviews on its theatrical release, but I was quite fond of it, and I know it has attracted a bit off a cult following since its release. There’s an interesting website devoted to the character played by Viggo Mortensen at FrankHopkins.com.

  3. It was a very well MADE film, but the more I thought about the movie after seeing it when it came out, the angrier I got. It was basically a (George Bush) fantasy of the humble but noble American showing those scheming, dishonest, misogynistic Arabs that the American Way is better.

    Again – technically fantastic, but wasted on a story for which I don’t have as much enthusiasm as others, sorry.

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