Framestore recently served as the visual effects for Stephen Spielberg’s War Horse, delivering just over 200 shots for the movie. War Horse tells the story of Joey, a horse born in Devon shortly before the start of the First World War. Belonging to – and beloved by – a young man, Albert Narracott, Joey is sold to the cavalry and shipped to France at the outbreak of war. Joey serves in the British and German armies, which takes him on an extraordinary odyssey, serving on both sides before finding himself alone in No Man’s Land. But Albert has not been able to forget Joey and, still not old enough to enlist in the British Army, he has embarked on his own dangerous mission to find the horse and bring him home to Devon.
Spielberg decided to create his film after he and co-producer Kathleen Kennedy had seen the enormously successful stage version of the book. But, where the theatrical telling 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. He was aiming for a style such that the film might have been made half a century ago, in sympathy with its historical distance. He 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.
More than half of Framestore’s 200 or so shots involved clean-up or similar work – vapor trail removal, telephone wire removal and the like. More elaborate labor and skills were required to remove riders from horses or augment a huge field of reeds in which British soldiers conceal themselves prior to an attack. Just as challenging was the harrowing sequence towards 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.
Ben Morris, Framestore’s VFX supervisor on the project, recalls, “Kathleen Kennedy (Spielberg’s long-time producer) and his 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.”
The Third Floor, a U.S. based company, did the pre-viz for the film, working closely with the Framestore team. With Spielberg’s team having minutely prepared the ground, the director arrived in the U.K. for the 53 day shoot in August 2010 and, as Morris recalled, didn’t waste 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.”
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. “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 which culminates in his vaulting 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 him, he suggested we might also provide input by preparing a rough cut of the shots, which we did,” Morris explained. “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. We found a suitable location on the Duke of Wellington’s estate in Hampshire, and 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.”
The trust continued during the five-month postproduction period, with Spielberg’s on-set ability to make lightning fast decisions – also 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.” Spielberg remained adamantly opposed to the use of digital horses until the aforementioned tank-jump sequence. The shot as captured in camera simply wasn’t working, a fact remarked on a couple of times by Spielberg during reviews.
Morris put his team on it, and soon presented Spielberg with a new CG steed. Impressed, the director asked where the footage had come from and Morris finally revealed its digital lineage. With a shot that finally worked, Spielberg okayed it.
A digital horse was also 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 and 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 animated by Stuart Ellis and Laurent Benhamo respectively, working under animation supervisor Kevin Spruce, and both spent much preparation time researching their horses in books, on film and even with a visit to the stage version.
“Horses are a very pleasurable thing to animate,” said 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,” said 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 Maya and Houdini to get their horses up and running.
Another point at which the animation team’s work proved useful was in supporting one of the compositing team’s trickier tasks. Compositing supervisor Chris Zeh explained, “Some sequences, with elements such as explosives, legally require mounted horses, so removing the grey-clad riders was one of our jobs. 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. Beyond superficial cosmetic work, some sequences required a real artistic eye to get them right – the ‘reed sequence’ is one example. 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. Over 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.”
One final sequence that couldn’t be shot for real was that of 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 trained horse that plays Joey in many shots),” said Morris. “We shot the horse writhing on the ground, with a couple of tethers on him (all closely supervised by his trainer), and 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.”
“After the initial meeting with Spielberg’s team, I got in touch with Rick Carter via a mutual acquaintance,” said art director Kevin Jenkins. “After seeing some preliminary 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, Paul Nash sort of look to those pieces, pretty grim in essence. But I ended up doing all sorts of work with them. (Cinematographer) Janusz Kamiński had an idea for a shot involving a pair of horses walking in front of flames. I painted this up, Steven saw it and suddenly it became part of the film, which was very gratifying, though the shot didn’t make the final cut.
“Rick pushed me to use different media for my work, and showed me new approaches to inspire the looks I was after,” Jenkins added. “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.”
War Horse opened on Christmas Day. Based on Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 novel, the film stars Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, Peter Mullan and David Thewlis. The screenplay is by Richard Curtis and Lee Hall, based on both the novel and Nick Stafford’s stage version. The cinematography is by Janusz Kamiński, and the film was produced by Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy.