A while back, while working on The Mummy, I started noticing that the hundreds of CG scarab beetles in one scene were repeating, in mass, the action of the one in close up. They weren’t running around doing their own thing, as it looked at first in the wide shot.That technology flaw has been overcome. Software now enables individual CG characters to appear to be thinking for themselves.Members of a recent panel called Animation Invades Live Action talked about the early experiments working with Massive Software on the first The Lord of the Rings instalment. They noticed in the crowd fight scene that several individuals in the back were “turning chicken” and running away. In reality, the software programs individuals to fight when they meet, but if they don’t encounter anyone, they were programmed to run, and that’s what they did.Developed for that film, Massive Software is one of the leading artificial-intelligence-based 3D animation systems. Massive was founded when Stephen Regelous programmed some software for director Peter Jackson to make possible the creation of complicated visual effects scenes involving hundreds of thousands of digital characters.Now a standalone, commercially available product, Massive is used by leading digital production and effects studios including Weta Digital, The Mill, Animal Logic, Rhythm & Hues and Digital Domain. In 2004, Massive was honored with a Scientific and Engineering Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and with a Technical Innovation Award at the 3D Awards in Copenhagen.Recently in King Kong, also directed by Jackson, Massive’s virtual crowd simulation software was used by Weta Digital on more than 600 visual effects shots. Pivotal shots, such as the fight scenes on Skull Island and the teeming metropolis of New York relied on Massive to generate from 20 to thousands of digital characters, including cars, creatures, trains, birds and insects.Weta’s Massive team was not massive. They only employed from three to five artists, who animated the Massive elements in the 600 shots. Jon Allitt, Massive supervisor, said, “It’s like being an assistant director on set. Whether we needed to create the day-to-day hustle or total pandemonium, it was just a matter of placing a few Massive agents into the scene. This allowed us to keep our man-hours low and turn complex scenes around quickly for hundreds of shots.”Rhythm & Hues also used Massive’s autonomous character 3D animation and digital stunts system on The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, filling the screen with fantastical CG armies. The variety of characters and animals bought to life for that film using Massive was groundbreaking. Also for the first time Massive-generated performances were realistic enough to appear in close proximity to the camera and to the main characters in the scene.Said Dan Smiczek, Massive supervisor, Rhythm & Hues, “Massive is a great tool for bringing characters to life. Narnia required highly detailed characters appearing very close to camera. Our final shots have hero characters, actors filmed with green tights for leg replacements, and Massive agents all together in the same scene, standing right next to each other, and right in front of the camera. We have amazing individual behaviors and nuances coming out in our digital crowd characters due to having used Massive.”Rhythm & Hues used Massive Smart Stunts to give battle fatalities an extra dose of realism. Digital stunts in Massive enabled different animals to die different deaths and were also helpful in various other types of interactions, such as a minotaur’s tail whacking at flies. “We were able to pull it all off with a team of 10 people, only one of which had prior Massive experience,” said Smiczek.When asked what was his most challenging scene, in this or any movie, Smiczek replied, “Pretty much every scene in Narnia was a challenge because of the huge variety of different agents we had interacting with each other. We had birds (gryphons, hawks), quadrupeds (horses, centaurs, cheetahs, leopards), as well as bipeds (fauns, minotaurs, ogres, cyclopses)—and that’s just to name a few! All of these very different characters had to interact with each other on the scale of thousands. It was very typical to have the entire White Witch army charging as well as dealing with birds dropping rocks on them!”Does Smiczek prefer Massive over other crowd simulation software? “Interaction is what sets Massive apart from other crowd simulation tools,” he said. “With Massive you can create incredibly realistic interaction between agents on a very large scale. For example, each agent knows the type of agent he is about to fight. This is very crucial when you have a situation such as a very tall minotaur versus a very short dwarf. The minotaur has to adapt and know that he is fighting an opponent much smaller than himself. And then on top of that they are communicating with each other what fight moves they are doing in order to coordinate a believable fight. And even on top of that they are detecting collision with weapons that affect their internal life meter so they know if it’s time to die yet or not. In a very short amount of time we were able to produce animation for over 455,000 characters in 132 very different shots.”And which is his favorite Massive feature? “The ease of adding extra procedural animation on top of the motion-captured data,” he replied. “For example, you can take one run cycle and quickly augment it… add extra arm rotations, even add head rotations so that the agent looks like he is looking around. It’s all these extra little nuances that you can add that individualize each agent so that it doesn’t look like a bunch of characters running around with one run cycle.”Like those scarab beetles in The Mummy.
Written by Bob Bayless