Dwayne Johnson stars as the titular son of Zeus in director Brett Ratner’s take on the mythological tale of Hercules. Distributed by Paramount Pictures and MGM, the film is produced by Beau Flynn, Barry Levine and Brett Ratner, and also stars John Hurt, Ian McShane, Aksel Hennie, Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, Irina Shayk and Rufus Sewell.
Hercules is based on Steve Moore’s Radical Comics graphic novel The Thracian Wars, in which a haunted Hercules leads his loyal companions across Greece, selling his heroic reputation for gold as a mercenary. When an evil warlord threatens to thrust the kingdom of Thrace into bloody civil war, its desperate ruler turns to Hercules to restore the peace.
Prime Focus World was called in to provide 224 VFX shots for the film, working alongside lead visual effects house Double Negative. PFW was tasked with delivering the ‘Bessi’ battle sequence - a complex scene involving heavy CG, crowd work, environment extensions, digi-doubles, animation and some full CG shots with a full environment village, woods and trees. The PFW team was led by VFX Supervisor Alex Pejic.
The amount of reference available for the show was unprecedented. Double Negative took reference images of all the characters, from the principal actors down to the extras, to capture specific textures that the visual effects teams would use when modelling the characters in CG. Actors were photographed in a variety of full battle gear, and several of the actors were captured using geometry caches. The Prime Focus team then used these assets to build digi-doubles, and for the Massive crowd simulations.
“We had access to the most extensive visual and digital references we’ve ever had,” said PFW VFX Supervisor Alex Pejic. “Visual images of the sets and performers, LIDAR scans and cyber scans of the main cast as well. To create the digital agents we used the cyber scans and then re-built them from scratch to make it work with the level of detail required for the scene.”
Additionally, Prime Focus partnered with Double Negative on a motion capture shoots with the actors and stunt artists. The objective was to capture a range of movements including fighting, walking, running, evading, and getting struck by other objects, which would be used to develop crowd simulations of the battle. One of the early challenges was predicting exactly what the team would need later to create the realistic crowds and character doubles.
“The cut was still in production so we didn’t have a locked list of everything the digital characters were going to need to do,” explained Alex Pejic. “We tried to get everything we thought could potentially go into the sequence, but we also ended up having our animation team hand animate or correct some of the actions we didn’t get.”
From the motion capture shoot, the movements were tracked using Motion Builder, for the creation of digital replacements. Crowd simulations were initiated using Massive to get a sense of the overall action, and from this starting point director Brett Ratner and DNeg VFX Supervisor Paul Riddle would identify where they wanted close-ups of unique fighting sequences, which required more control and detail. Those sequences were handled by Prime Focus World’s animation team.
“We’d take a close up shot of a few characters out of the Massive simulation and replace them with an animated version using Maya, giving us more control and allowing us to get detailed shots of characters doing very specific things,” said PFW Animation Supervisor Craig Bardsley.
Transposing the digital agents from the crowd simulation to animation required some fine-tuning.
“Massive has its own skeleton that it uses to rig human characters,” explained PFW CG Supervisor Rob Allman. “We would adjust the characters using our own rigging models and then adjust further using animation. Any custom details, such as specific vignettes we wanted to introduce into the Massive sim, needed to be animated and then transposed as well. Once all the motion by the characters is set, then we would add in the environment.”
Some shots required up to 80 characters, each with its own prop weapons, making it a logistical feat requiring excellent asset management. The Prime Focus pipeline team developed an asset management tool to assist with the high amount of animated rigs required when animating a scene.
“When you have that many rigs in a scene it will slow down the software drastically,” said Craig Bardsley. “The animation manager we developed allowed us to cache some of the rigs while we were working on others, so that it didn’t bring the whole system to a halt. Then we could just switch out which rigs were cached and which ones we were working on.”
In addition to the human characters the team also animated a group of horses. The team developed a few horse cycles — gallop, canter, walk etc — and since these shots were close up, a large amount of detail was required.
Prime Focus World’s Crowd department was also called into action on the Bessi battle sequence.
“When directing crowd battle sequences, they are of a sufficiently large size that hand animation is not efficient - there is too much going on,” explained CG Supervisor Rob Allman. The crowd simulations began with some basic motion capture to create automated simulations called procedurals. Since the armies would be visible close up, doubling one agent over and over would be too obvious.
“We built 10 different basic agents for the armies that are multiplied throughout the crowd using Massive,” said Alex Pejic. “That way when there is a closer shot of the army, the audience will still see a variety of faces, bodies and clothing.”
However, the filmmakers also wanted to direct certain moments within the Massive scene, so that it didn’t just look like a simulation of everyone doing the same thing.
“We developed a system for swapping out a Massive agent with an animated one,” said Rob Allman. “Instead of animating 3,000, if there are only 8 of them doing something particularly unique then you can hand animate those 8 outside of the simulation using Maya. As long as you get the Maya rigged version to match the Massive one, you can swap them out without noticing the difference.”
The team also used ‘rag doll dynamics’ to simulate realistic ways in which the warriors would fall as they were killed. “It allows these digital characters to get killed and fall quite naturally as if they were actually dying in the shot,” said Crowd Supervisor Nile Hylton. “Not only during the battle, but for shots afterwards that show the dead; it needed to look as if the bodies had fallen naturally.”
The trick was merging the dynamics of crowd simulation with the detail of hand animation throughout the scene. “The crowds are shown much closer up than they used to be,” said Alex Pejic. “This means that the level of detail and the quality of the animation must be excellent throughout to make it believable. And that takes a lot more mixing of crowd work and animated digital doubles in order to get specific details, but on a large scale. It is becoming more and more essential in VFX to be able to do both.”
To create the seamless integration between digital doubles and crowds, the Prime Focus pipeline team developed a variety of tools that allowed different software to work together. One of the most critical was allowing Massive to integrate with Maya so that the animation team could take elements from the crowd simulation and animate action sequences close up based on what was going on in the larger picture.
“There are plenty of shots in which the audience is seeing a close up on a digital double, and you really can’t tell the difference. In that respect, the work is a huge success,” said Craig Bardsley. “Everyone on the team sees Hercules as a step up for us in terms of realism.”
In addition to the high level of detail in the CG characters, the team was tasked with recreating shots that had been captured using cranes on the set, to allow aerial views of the battle. The team was required to recreate these shots as full CG sequences, from the environment to the characters to props, dust, fire and smoke.
Once again the team used Massive to generate the crowds of Hercules’ army and the Bessi warriors surrounding them, and created a digital replica of the entire village set. Once the crowds and digital doubles were in place, it was up to 2D Supervisor David Shere and CG Supervisor Rob Allman to place the CG characters within an environment that matched the live action footage, from lighting and background, to effects like dust and smoke.
“Getting any full CG shot to look photo real is a challenge and requires immense attention to detail,” said David Shere. The team matched each shot to mimic the levels of light, haze, smoke and shadows of the live action shots that surrounded them in the scene.
The Prime Focus World VFX team for Hercules was based out of London, with support from the Mumbai facility, which provided the roto animation and tracking necessary to bring the CG to life. Together, the teams succeeded in delivering some of the most seamless visual effects work that Prime Focus has created to date.
“It has been a major achievement for us,” concluded Alex Pejic summed up. “To have this level of complexity and scale of work, and have it evolve so quickly week to week is a challenge; and then to see the result and how amazing everything looks is a great feeling.”
Hercules opens July 25, 2014 in the U.S., India and the U.K., and will be shown in 2D, 3D and IMAX 3D.
RELEASE: July 25, 2014
Director: Brett Ratner
Studios / Distributors: MGM / Paramount Pictures
VFX Supervisor: Alex Pejic
Senior Producer: Mara Bryan
CG Supervisor: Rob Allman
2D Supervisor: David Shere
Crowd Supervisor: Nile Hylton
Animation Supervisor: Craig Bardsley
Head of VFX Production: Matthew Bristowe
VFX Creative Director: Merzin Tavaria
VFX Executive Producer: Stephen Mascarenhas
Head of VFX Production: Shome Dasgupta
VFX Line Producer: Monika Hada
2D Supervisor: Bharat Raj De