“We knew we had an incredibly short post production timeline before shooting began, so we had to meticulously plan how we were going to pull it off,” explains Nicolas-Troyan. “Pixomondo has done some fantastic crowd work before, and based on their reel, we thought they would be well equipped to create the shattering soldiers in the prologue. The work was very tricky, and not only did they do an amazing job, but they were a pleasure to work with as well.”
Pixomondo VFX supervisor Bryan Hirota, along with digital effects supervisor Andrew Roberts, matte painting supervisor Matt Lee and compositing supervisor Randy Brown, oversaw the project for the company. With concept artwork and a rough teaser created by Nicolas-Troyan for guidance, Pixomondo began working on shots in August 2011. In the prologue battle, an army of evil shadow soldiers marches against the valiant king. When the shadow soldiers are struck, they fracture into shards, with additional shatters radiating outward. To achieve the effect, practical soldiers were first shot in the battle sequences for realistic interaction and then replaced with CG versions.
“The CG duplication work done by Pixomondo was so flawless, there were several times when Cedric and I had to reference the original plates to determine which actors were practical and which were CG,” Brennan notes. “Even more impressive, some of these shots are extreme close-ups, leaving little room for error. The shattering soldiers are quite stunning, and I think they will really stick in people’s minds.”
“Getting the right look of the knights was more complicated than just implementing a rigid dynamics simulation,” adds Hirota. “This is probably some of the most technically complex work we have ever done. We developed a new system for true volume shattering that fractured each knight in its entirety. After the initial cut, all the pieces have secondary and tertiary fracturing until the knight has been reduced into a pile of shards. It was a very interesting and stylized way for the director to convey violence without being gory.”
Pixomondo created a procedural system that would accurately break up each knight along the strike points and allow artists to change animation of either the knight or his attacker and then run a new breaking simulation. Simulations are often unpredictable, so the flexibility to adjust shattering parameters or animation on the fly, control the fragmentation timing, and quickly re-simulate the effect were key to achieving the desired results.
“Overall, we created more than 1,500 digital knights in the first battle sequence, and a major challenge was making each knight feel unique, instead of an army of clones,” says Roberts. “To get around this, in addition to diffuse, reflection and normals passes, each character was rendered out with a unique character ID, which we used in comp to vary hue and luminance, giving each knight a distinct look.”
The opening battle sequence also featured a number of wide establishing shots that required terraforming to change a lush forest clearing into a desolate space. Artists digitally scorched the terrain, removed excessive greenery using 2D and paintwork, and added in 3D simulations of fire and smoke for aerial shots. Pixomondo digitally enhanced the shadow army as well, filling out the king’s cavalry to effectively quadruple the size of his forces by expertly placing CG horses amongst the live-action animals.
Additionally, Pixomondo contributed to the final assault on the Queen’s castle toward the end of the film. Sharing work with BlueBolt, who created the castle, Pixomondo enhanced the battle by adding arrows, archers and fireballs. It digitally redressed the beach to make it seem like a wider expanse and supplemented the armies with digital soldiers and horses that amassed on the cliff overlooking the castle. Blending the digital VFX with practical effects, Pixomondo augmented real-life explosions in the sand and fireballs thrown by the trebuchets with CG simulations that matched their practical counterparts, blending in pieces of the practical elements wherever possible.
Though the project was based at Pixomondo’s Los Angeles facility, artists in Toronto, Beijing, Shanghai and Berlin played an important role in the creation of the complex effects.