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War Horse

Framestore helps Steven Spielberg tell the tale of a horse put into service during World War I.

By Christine Bunish

In a shot starring the real horse, Framestore cleaned up the dramatic sky.
In a shot starring the real horse, Framestore cleaned up the dramatic sky.

Based on Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 novel and the very successful play that followed, War Horse tells the story of Joey, a horse born in Devon (Southwestern England) shortly before the outbreak of World War I. The beloved steed of young Albert Narracott, Joey is sold to the British cavalry and shipped to France where he begins an extraordinary odyssey, serving both the British and German armies and finding himself alone in No Man’s Land. Albert, not old enough to enlist in the British Army, embarks on his own perilous mission to find Joey and bring him home.

London-based Framestore, an Academy Award-winning VFX studio, was the film’s sole provider of digital visual effects, delivering more than 200 shots to director Steven Spielberg. The shots ranged from removing anachronisms and extending and augmenting sets to creating several exciting sequences with Joey.

Spielberg decided to create his film after he and Kathleen Kennedy (his longtime producer) saw the enormously successful stage version of the book. Although the play involves the use of extraordinary horse puppets to bring the equine cast to life, Spielberg knew that a cinematic story would need to use a different language. For the big screen, Spielberg decided that only a ‘realistic’ approach would do – one in which as much of the action as possible was captured in camera, as it happened on location.

Framestore extended the line of troops in this location shot and used matte paintings to remove modern-day features from the landscape.
Framestore extended the line of troops in this location shot and used matte paintings to remove modern-day features from the landscape.

He was aiming for a filmic style that might have been used half a century ago, in sympathy with its historical distance, so there is no modern ‘trickiness’ on view. That said, Spielberg knew that the story would require a few feats that would be impossible to capture safely with a live animal, and for which only the very best digital equine doubling would suffice.

Framestore VFX supervisor Ben Morris.
Framestore VFX supervisor Ben Morris.

Enter Framestore. More than half of Framestore’s 200 or so shots involved clean-up or similar work – vapor-trail and telephone wire removal and the like. More elaborate labor and skills were required to remove riders from horses or to augment a huge field of reeds in which British soldiers conceal themselves prior to an attack. Just as challenging was the harrowing sequence toward the end of the film in which Joey, struggling through the trenches, is finally brought down to the ground as he drags a mess of barbed wire and a broken gate behind him: The horse was real, but the wires could not be.

Finally, for just a couple of shots, digital horses were going to be needed – ones good enough to trick the eye of Steven Spielberg. Ben Morris, Framestore’s VFX supervisor on the project, recalls, “Kathleen Kennedy, [and Spielberg’s] production designer, Rick Carter, came to meet us. It went really well, I think, because they quickly recognized that we could deliver everything they needed from the mundane to state-of-the-art CG animation. I should emphasize that the film Steven wanted to make had no place for self-conscious VFX shots – it was to be as real as possible, with any digital elements integrated invisibly in the service of that sensibility.”

LA-based The Third Floor did the previs for the film, working closely and collaboratively with the Framestore team. With Spielberg’s team having minutely prepared the ground, the director arrived in the UK for the 53-day shoot in August 2010 and, Morris recalls, wasted not a second.
“As a VFX person, you often find yourself waiting around on set a certain amount, but Steven and his team were undoubtedly the most professional filmmakers I’ve ever worked with – we sped from one set up to the next with everyone knowing what they were doing and Steven knowing exactly what he wanted from each shot. And he was doing cutting work as he went.”

Framestore artists at work in London.

The genuinely collaborative nature of Spielberg’s work ethic was further demonstrated later on during the shoot when Morris was given the opportunity to shoot a sequence with an additional camera team that involved a real tank, real horse and sometimes the horse trainer. “We went to do a few pick-up shots and showed them, a little sheepishly, to Steven on our iPads. He just said, ‘Great – can you go and shoot the rest of the scene?’ So – with a mixture of trepidation and glee – we did so.”

This was a sequence in which Joey is cornered by a tank and vaults onto and over it to escape. It took a couple of weeks to shoot, and was one of the very few points at which a CG horse would turn out to be necessary.

“When we brought the footage back to [Steven], he suggested we might also provide input by preparing a rough cut of the shots, which we did,” continues Morris. “Christian Kaestner and I also collaborated on creating another shot for Steven, one involving a cavalry brigade – some 300 horses strong – newly arrived in France.”

They shot a series of four, live-action crowd replication plates after they found a suitable location on the Duke of Wellington’s estate in Hampshire. “We used a Canon 5D to shoot test replication passes, which we comped together and presented to Steven. For the final shot, we managed to get a great sunset view of the horses. Throughout, we all felt privileged to be involved and trusted at this level.”

All told, they digitally cloned the 80 horses in each of the four plates to create more than 300 in the final comp. The team separated the horses from each pass and combined them in the original live-action back plate.

The trust that was established continued during the five-month postproduction period, with Spielberg’s on-set ability to make lightning fast decisions a vital element of the process. “When we started delivering shots, we were all a little nervous, I think,” says Morris. “But we soon realized we’d get immediate – and generally positive – feedback from Steven, and we grew in confidence.”

Framestore removed a horse trainer and added soldiers in the background of this shot featuring the real horse.

Framestore CG supervisor Mike Mulholland.
Framestore CG supervisor Mike Mulholland.

Spielberg remained adamantly opposed to the use of digital horses until Joey’s tank-jump sequence. The shot as captured in camera simply wasn’t working, a fact remarked upon a couple of times by Spielberg during reviews of dailies. Drawing on all his supplies of gumption, Morris put his team on it, and shortly after presented Spielberg with a new steed, replacing the real horse with a CG one. Impressed, the director asked where the footage had come from and Morris finally revealed its digital lineage.

With a shot that finally worked, the purist gave way to the pragmatist and Spielberg okayed it, to the team’s relief and pride. A digital horse also was used for a shot in a sequence that follows the tank jump, where Joey runs alongside a trench before attempting to leap over it, dropping short, crashing into the sandbagged side of the trench and collapsing down into it. The leap and crash were impossible to safely stunt with a real horse.
Tank-jump and trench-jump sequences were lead animated by Stuart Ellis and Laurent Benhamo, respectively, working under animation supervisor Kevin Spruce. Both spent much preparation time researching their horses in books, on film and even visiting the astonishing stage version of War Horse.

“Horses are a very pleasurable thing to animate,” says Ellis. “They move beautifully, they always look good. But in cycle animation there’s often a tendency to over-exaggerate the up and down of the character and to not really communicate the weight, they’re just too bouncy. We nailed that, I think, and also what we managed with the head – the pushing forward and out as they gallop – was great.”

“The big challenges were the necessity of absolute reality, and the level of detail that this entailed,” adds Benhamo. “Nostril flare, vein pulse, skin slide – it all had to be spot on. With such a small number of shots to develop, our animation, modeling and rigging departments – working under the film’s overall CG supervisor, Mike Mulholland – were able to work very closely together throughout the project, and I think that shows.”

The animation team used both Autodesk Maya and Side Effects’ Houdini to get their horses up and running. “We built our Joey model from scratch,” says Mullholland. “It’s difficult to scan an animal as they won’t stay still, so we decided to do a photo shoot of the hero horse using multiple synched cameras. By recreating the cameras in CG we were able to look at the horse from multiple angles at the same moment in time. This allowed our lead modeler, Scott Eaton, to create a highly accurate model.

A fully-digital horse was used to jump the trench. Framestore transitioned from a real horse, to a CG horse and back again during this shot.

“Our rigs were created in Maya by our rigging department using a lot of custom tools,” he continues. “Joey was rigged by Mauro Giacomoazzo and Matthieu Goutte. We pushed our skin slide and muscle technology further than previous projects, and we explored new techniques to get the necessary detail and dynamic response.”

The animation team’s work also supported one of the compositing team’s trickier tasks. “Some sequences, with elements such as explosives, legally require mounted horses, so removing the gray-clad riders was one of our jobs,” explains compositing supervisor Chris Zeh. “This obviously entails ‘putting back’ what they block from view, and if the camera angle is frontal this means the moving horses’ hindquarters. Several times we found we could use the walk-cycled CG horses as a 3D patch. In general, the CG shots were so well done that they didn’t represent the biggest compositing challenge.

Framestore art director Kevin Jenkins.

“Beyond superficial cosmetic work, some sequences required a real artistic eye to get them right – the ‘reed sequence’ is one example,” Zeh continues. “The sequence was supposed to show many dozens of British soldiers hiding in this field of reeds, but they had neither sufficient reeds nor soldiers to make it work. [In] nearly 30 shots, we filled the landscape with reeds – not just 2D but 3D – and soldiers. And we helped fill the air with seeds floating from the reeds.” In addition, the number of soldiers seen in certain shots was extended using crowd replication techniques.

One final sequence that couldn’t be shot for real was Joey’s nightmarish final collapse, as he staggers through the trenches accumulating ever more barbed wire and other battlefield flotsam until he falls to the ground. “We shot it all one night, with Finder, the beautifully-trained horse that plays Joey in many shots,” says Morris. “We shot the horse writhing on the ground, with a couple of tethers on him – all closely supervised by his trainer, of course. During this we used a new, in-house-developed, witness camera system that gave us extremely accurate body tracks, which were essential for the detailed CG additions we would make. We were then able to procedurally generate dynamic simulations of curling barbed wire around his body. It looks so convincing we were anticipating a call from the Humane Society.”

A witness camera is a secondary camera that provides an alternative view to that of the ‘master’ film camera. An array of them was used to help align a CG horse model with the real horse as seen in the ‘master’ camera’s view. This marked the first time that Framestore took an array of digital witness cameras, which synched perfectly with the film camera, on set.

Of the many delighted reports to be heard from Framestore team members about working on the project, one more stands out. Says art director Kevin Jenkins, “After the initial meeting with Spielberg’s team, I got in touch with Rick Carter via a mutual acquaintance. After seeing some preliminary concept paintings I’d done for the project, Rick invited me too join his art department for the summer leading up to the shoot, which I delightedly did. Rick initially wanted me to concentrate on material that would help give a flavor of the time. I went for a sort of raw, muted, [20th-century British painter] Paul Nash look to those pieces – pretty grim in essence. But I ended up doing all sorts of work with them.”

Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski had an idea for a shot involving a pair of horses walking in front of flames. “I painted up [this concept], Steven saw it and suddenly it became part of the film, which was very gratifying, though the shot didn’t make the final cut.”

Framestore covered the real horse with digital barbed wire as he struggles to escape.
Framestore covered the real horse with digital barbed wire as he struggles to escape.

Looking back, Jenkins says admiringly, “Rick pushed me to use different media for my work, and showed me new approaches to inspire the looks I was after. The whole three-month process was an invaluable education for me, and it’s no exaggeration to say that it has changed the whole way we think about and present our work here at Framestore.”

Working on the film has left everyone on the team amazed and delighted by Spielberg and his team’s talent, enthusiasm and commitment. It was also an important and successful calling card for Framestore, a success reflected in Ben Morris’ current role, as VFX supervisor on Lincoln, Spielberg’s next project.

November 12, 2012