When King Alexander III of Scotland died suddenly in the year 1286, King Edward I of England made a bid to seize the country for himself. During the bitter years of conflict that followed, Scottish freedom fighters rose up as heroes in a fight for independence, including William Wallace, portrayed by Mel Gibson in the 1995 film Braveheart.
In the feature-length Netflix drama Outlaw King, director David Mackenzie picks up the story with Robert the Bruce (Chris Pine), a claimant to the Scottish throne who led his forces to victory against the much larger English army at the Battle of Loudoun Hill in 1307. Under the direction of production visual effects supervisor Alex Bicknell, Method Studios delivered over 500 shots for Outlaw King amounting to roughly one hour of screen time, augmenting photography captured on location in Scotland and ramping up the action for the film’s battle scenes.
During the climactic Battle of Loudoun Hill, Bruce and his 600 soldiers use local knowledge to outwit a 5,000-strong English army. Method Studios augmented crowds of around 300 extras and 40 horses, and enhanced castle locations with historically correct architecture, weapons and props.
“This sequence was quite unusual for visual effects,” said Method Studios visual effects supervisor Dan Bethell. “Typically it’s more of a linear process, but here the sequence had about 150 shots that were all in play at the same time. We’d work on a large bulk of shots simultaneously, and with each story tweak we’d have to implement that across all the relevant shots. It was fun and collaborative, but definitely a different way of working. Our talented department leads were fabulous at keeping everything moving at a high level of quality and technical precision so that David and editor Jake Roberts could make the most informed decisions.”
To swell the ranks of both the Scottish and English armies, Method Studios populated the battlefield with various classes of CG soldier including archers, swordsmen and cavalry. Digital horses boasted muscle simulations, sliding skin, and authentic tack. Research ensured that clothing and armor was period-accurate, and that every faction was flying the correct flag. If plate photography contained historically inappropriate trees, artists mercilessly uprooted them.
Method Studios also augmented the film’s opening shot, an unbroken eight-minute take captured by director of photography Barry Ackroyd, during which King Edward’s forces attack Stirling Castle. Extending the English encampment, artists added crowds of soldiers and the gigantic Warwolf trebuchet used by the invaders to pulverize the fortress, which Method Studios constructed in digital form and then promptly demolished.
“David and Alex had a great understanding of how visual effects could enhance the historical accuracy,” said Bethell. “This helped create the believability for certain sequences when we couldn’t physically capture everything as it was in the 1300s. With so much captured on location as opposed to bluescreen, our tracking and roto departments really had their work cut out, and they did a phenomenal job giving us a foundation for the rest of the effects work.”
Outlaw King is now streaming worldwide on Netflix.