How period films come alive through visual effects

1 May 2017

During a cricket match, analyst and commentator Harsha Bhogle once said “The problem with history is that it repeats itself in textbooks but not in real life”. In an entirely different context movie buffs will most likely disagree because in every film enthusiast’s favorite library, there will at least be one period film! Histories have repeated. On Silver Screen! We have seen our ancient empires, civilizations and communities come alive in the tinsel world. Without the help of visual effects and computer graphics, the depiction of such period films would not have been this riveting.

Directing a film is an arduous task. What if you are the financier of that film too? Wait.. What if you also played the leading role in that film? And what if that Film went on to bag five Academy Awards! This is no fantasy and Mel Gibson achieved this seemingly impossible task with his epic war film ‘Braveheart’ in 1995. Maybe the story behind filming of ‘Braveheart’ itself is a material for another film! The film narrated the story of the first war of Scottish Independence, led by the warrior William Wallace, against King Edward I of England. The effects in the film were supervised by R/Greenberg Associates. Today, it is not a very difficult process to remove telephone wires or modern equipments that comes in landscape but such high-end technology had rarely been used back when Braveheart was being filmed. Besides removing numerous telephone wires and other modern accessories, the team had to digitally erase a boeing 747 that flew through a long dialogue sequence where Mel Gibson pledges his support to unite Scotland! The filming was mostly done in Ireland and the team had to create matte painting or change the lighting to make it look Scottish. The major challenge in every war or battle film is crowd enhancement and more than 25 of 34 effect shots were used for crowd enhancement. In order to make the battle scenes extravagant, group of extras were moved from section to section in a given plate and motion control cameras were used to film them. Then, the individual plates were smoothly combined into one dramatic image.

Ridley Scott, the filmmaker who tasted success with science fiction films such as ‘Alien’ and ‘Blade Runner’ stepped into historical fiction in 2000 with the film ‘Gladiator’ which went on to receive five Academy Awards. The film had ancient Rome as it’s setting and it narrated the story of General Maximus Decimus Meridius, a fictional character portrayed by Russell Crowe. The story is about how Maximus, from slavery rises through the level of gladiator to avenge the murders of his Family and Emperor. The epic story was an epic success too. It is often credited as the film that re ignited the interest in film world to narrate stories around ancient Greek and Roman culture. Famous British Visual Effect Studio, The Mill was responsible for most of the computer generated effects in the film. There were 90 visual effect shots comprising nine minutes of the entire film. For the fight scenes, The Mill made use of 2000 live actors to create 35000 virtual actors. The challenge was that they had to react to the fight and should also look believable. To facilitate this, they shot live actors from different angles giving them various performances and using motion capture tools they were then mapped onto cards. One of the stand out features in Gladiator were the shots that had a flawless combination of Computer Graphics and moving cameras. An incredible example of this combination is the entrance of the Gladiator to the Colosseum for the first time. The shot begins behind the actors running onto the arena and then takes a circle as they gaze up revealing arches, seats and thousands of spectators. The Colosseum set only rose about one feet and the rest of the Colosseum, the roof, people on the roof were all digitally created! Rome wasn’t built in a day. Neither was the Roman Empire in Gladiator!

2004 witnessed an epic adventure war film that had an ensemble cast in the likes of Brad Pitt, Orlando Bloom and Eric Bana. Directed by Wolfgang Petersen, Troy, which collected close to 500 million worldwide temporarily enjoyed the number 60 spot in the biggest hits of all time. The film was loosely based on the poem Iliad by the legendary ancient Greek poet Homer and it narrated the story of decade-long Trojan War. Moving Picture Company, the popular visual effects studio based in London created 425 VFX shots for the film. The team carried out operations such as city recreations, digital environments, weapon replacements and battle and crowd simulations. In Malta, one street in the ancient city was constructed on full scale which MPC used as a guide to carry out set extensions and to recreate Troy on a much larger scale. To give atmosphere to the locations, computer generated buildings and properties were created. The properties included daily objects such as pots, baskets, canopies etc.To film the battle scenes which is at the heart of the movie, plate elements were filmed on location with 200-1000 extras and stunt performers. Further, upto 150000 digital soldiers were added to the shots.

Image courtesy: Moving Picture

In 2006, came an epic fantasy war film, whose opening went on to become the 24th largest in box office history at that time. Directed by Zack Snyder, ‘300’, fictionally retold the Battle of Thermopylae within the Persian Wars. Based on the comic series of the same name, the film was mostly completed using a super imposition chroma key technique, which replicated the imagery of original comic book. In the two months of pre-production the team created hundreds of swords, spears and shields and animatronic horses and wolf. The film was a shot for shot adaptation of the comic book and while filming Snyder used Digital Backlot technique with a blue screen background. It was shot almost entirely inside the Ice Storm Studio in Montreal and only the one scene where horses travel the countryside was shot outdoors. Meteor Studios and Hybrid Technologies of Montreal supervised the visual effects and they filled in the blue screen footage with more than 1500 visual effect shots. The visual effect supervisors called their process “The Crush” which allowed its artists to handle the colors by increasing the contrast of light and dark. To establish different tones, some of the sequences were desaturated and tinted. Lasting a year, the post-production was handled by a total of ten special effect companies.

Gif courtesy: AWN

As technology scales new heights everyday, history will continue to repeat quite extravagantly on Silver Screens. This might seem ironic, but the more we move ahead, the more the chances are to look behind! History is where we come from and it will certainly be our privilege to witness our ancient eras in all its eminence!

Recent Posts

How impossible worlds came alive in movies – The story of Miniatures

1 September 2017

Truth is a highly respected virtue. In fact, one of

Read more...

Digital Domain – The Ascending Tale of VFX

1 August 2017

In the most modern era of globalisation it is not

Read more...