Netflix’s epic period drama Outlaw King tells the true story of the 14th century Scottish icon Robert the Bruce (Chris Pine), who leads Scotland in a David vs. Goliath battle for independence against the much larger and better-equipped English army.
Director David Mackenzie shot on location in Scotland, with the aim of making every aspect of the film as historically accurate as possible. Mackenzie and production VFX Supervisor Alex Bicknell entrusted Method Studios to achieve the desired authenticity through invisible yet complex visual effects.
Bicknell tapped Method, led by VFX Supervisor Dan Bethell, after previously working with Bethell’s team on VFX Oscar-nominated Mad Max: Fury Road
. During production, Bethell joined Bicknell and Mackenzie on set in Scotland to collaborate on complex sequences including the climactic Battle of Loudoun Hill. They also worked with the production art department to leverage their vast historical research, and captured extensive reference photography from each location. Method’s team of 180 artists then spent nine months applying digital artistry to the captured footage, augmenting and extending castle locations and environments, enhancing crowds, and creating CG horses, fire and gore – all while ensuring historical accuracy in materials, agricultural elements, weaponry, and more.
During the final climactic sequence, the Battle of Loudoun Hill, the Scottish army of about 600 soldiers uses their knowledge of the local countryside to cunningly defeat the invading English army of 5,000 soldiers on horseback. On set, about 300 extras and 40 horses were filmed practically, then Method artists added the requisite numbers digitally. In addition to the formidable task of crowd enhancement, both human and equine, Bethell worked closely with the production team while Mackenzie and editor Jake Roberts nailed down the story beats of the battle.
“This sequence was quite unusual for VFX – typically it’s more of a linear process, but here the sequence had about 150 shots that were all in play at the same time and it was very dynamic as we worked out the story,” explained Bethell. “We’d work on a large bulk of shots simultaneously and with each story tweak we’d have to implement that across all the relevant shots. It was fun and collaborative but definitely a different way of working than a more traditional VFX show. Our talented department leads were fabulous at keeping everything moving at a high level of quality and technical precision so that David and Jake could make the most informed decisions.”
For the complex crowd work required in the Battle of Loudoun Hill sequence, Method artists built digital soldiers for both the Scottish and English armies, with full armor and capabilities including archers firing arrows, close-up combat with swords, and cavalry. Method’s art department and production design team conducted in-depth research to ensure that all materials for clothing and armor, flags for clans and nobility, materials and layout for castles, and environmental elements were historically accurate. Artists even removed tree and plant species that weren’t introduced to Scotland until years later, and any expansions to castle locations that were not period authentic.
For the horses, artists began with a strong foundation from Method’s Emmy-winning cavalry and combat VFX work on the “Battle of the Bastards” episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones
. Tailoring their approach for this project, artists visited a local stable and referenced Bethell’s extensive on-set photography to build the complex CG creatures with fully rigged musculature, sliding skin, and equipped with authentic tack and saddles.
In addition to the climactic battle, another notable sequence is the feature’s opening shot, a continuous eight-minute take by cinematographer Barry Ackroyd. Method artists augmented the shot to add crowds of English troops and extend their encampment, build the enormous “War Wolf” trebuchet fired by King Edward, and replace most of the environment including the iconic Stirling Castle, which is destroyed and set ablaze.
“David and Alex had a great understanding of how visual effects could enhance the historical accuracy and help create the believability for certain sequences when we couldn’t physically capture everything as it was in the 1300s,” said Bethell. “With so much captured on location as opposed to blue screen, our tracking and roto departments really had their work cut out for them and they did a phenomenal job giving us a foundation for the rest of the effects work.”
Outlaw King is directed by David Mackenzie and stars Chris Pine, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and Florence Pugh. It is now streaming worldwide on Netflix.