Steven Spielberg decided to create his film after he and 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, 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. Enter Framestore.
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 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 (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.”
Morris continues: “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 US-based company, did the previz 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,” says Morris. “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 (the film’s equine hero) 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. Continues Morris, “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. 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 comp’d 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 – yes, that works; no, I don’t want to do that – 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. Drawing on all his supplies of gumption, Morris put his team on it, and shortly after presented Spielberg with a new steed. 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 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 lead-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 astonishing stage version.
“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.”
Adds Benhamo, “The big challenges were the necessity of absolute reality, and the level of detail that this entailed. 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.
Another point at which the animation team’s work proved useful was in supporting one of the compositing team’s trickier tasks. Explains Chris Zeh, compositing supervisor, “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, notes Zeh. 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,” Zeh says. “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 de facto 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. Says Morris: “We shot it all one night, with Finder (the beautifully trained horse that plays Joey in many shots). We shot the horse writhing on the ground, with a couple of tethers on him (all closely supervised by his trainer, of course), 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.”
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 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.”
According to Jenkins, Janusz (Kamiński, War Horse’s cinematographer) 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,” he says. 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 the company, a success reflected in Ben Morris’s current role, as VFX supervisor on Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s next project.