Making Tracks
Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 10 (Oct 2003)

Making Tracks

By Karen Moltenbrey

Even though the setting for the feature film Seabiscuit is the 1930s, the movie's premise is timeless. Based on a novel by Laura Hillenbrand, Seabiscuit is a story about a down-and-out racehorse that transforms itself from an underdog to a champion, and in the process, captures the hearts of the American people during the Great Depression.

Yet, re-creating this past era for the film could not be accomplished using only practical elements. To complement the period costumes and props, the director also used postproduction video edits to set the stage for the film's story line.

The film editors fabricated a number of racing locations featured in Seabiscuit, including the Pimlico track shown in this scene. In reality, the sequence was shot at Keeneland.
Images ©2003 Universal Studios and Dreamworks LLC.

To establish the desired look, Academy Award-nominated film editor William C. Goldenberg worked with digital artists at Sony Pictures Imageworks on the film's 300 visual effects. For the most part, these effects were used to create racetrack modifications and crowd enhancements, all of which were incorporated into the final production with Avid Film Composer XLs.

In addition, Goldenberg (Ali, Pleasantville, The Insider) and each of his two assistants used Film Composer XLs to edit the more than 600,000 feet of film shot for the movie. In particular, Goldenberg meshed together an unusually high number of scenes (450) using a series of narrated black-and-white documentary stills and superimpositions (images placed directly atop one another), which were incorporated into several scenes throughout the film. To facilitate these tasks, the Avid systems were linked together with an Avid Unity MediaNetwork, enabling the editors to simultaneously access and share the film assets without interrupting their work flow.

According to first assistant director Adam Somner, there were three major considerations while scouting for film locations: foremost, the group wanted to use the actual locations from the story line whenever possible; second, it wanted to find venues that hadn't been too modernized; and third, it needed access to the track for long periods during the film shoots. As a result, many of the movie's racetrack scenes were shot at Santa Anita, Saratoga, and Keeneland, with the Saratoga shots substituting for the Tanfaron track scenes, and Keeneland doubling for Pimlico. To make the replacements appear true to the time, the editors digitally modified the modern roofs and awnings of the grandstand buildings and changed the color schemes of the tracks.

The team further altered the racetrack footage by removing other contemporary elements. For instance, the Santa Anita location in California includes a turquoise-colored safety trampoline that runs along the rail of the track; to give it a 1930s look, the editors changed the color to brown. Also, they removed the Jumbotron display, timing sensors, modern speakers, and other present-day equipment. "A big project was modifying the glass-front restaurant at the top of the grandstand," says Goldenberg. "The architect who built director Gary Ross's home—an expert in 1930s architecture—was brought in to offer his opinion as to what the structure would have looked like, and then it was created digitally."

For the scenes shot at Keeneland in Kentucky, the team had to remove or replace objects. For instance, the editing group replaced contemporary buildings with trees and a barn, and blocked modern-looking glass with real actors. Meanwhile, the private boxes at the top of the grandstand were altered with "new skins," or facades, to visually match the period.

In addition to the track alterations, the editing team also was charged with crowd control. When the racetrack sequences were filmed, most of the grandstands were empty. So, the crew shot crowd plates using a small group of extras portraying a range of emotions—happy, quiet, nervous, and so on. "We put people all over the place—in trees, outside the racetrack, in the infield area of the track," Goldenberg says. While the film incorporated some digital crowd-replication techniques, Goldenberg notes that 90 percent of the people were real actors who were composited into the various sequences.

This approach differed dramatically from the initial plan of using 7000 inflatable dolls dressed in period costume. However, because the crowd "feel" was so important to the movie—the people needed to yell, cheer, move—the dolls were not effective. And, because the scenes were shot in the bright daylight, they didn't always look real enough, even from long distances. As a result, the crew had to shoot additional "crowd days," and the postproduction team had to take on the task of sorting through the additional footage to complete the required shots.

Aside from creating the crowds, another challenge was to seamlessly blend many unplanned effects shots into the film. For the racetrack scenes, the teams needed to make 10 head replacements for actor Tobey Maguire, who plays Seabiscuit's determined jockey. Although Maguire spent months learning to ride a horse, Thoroughbred racing is dangerous, and the risk of injury was just too great. Alternatively, Maguire was situated atop a mechanical horse on a bluescreen stage, while the filmmakers simulated the camera move of the original shot containing a stunt double. Then, during the editing process, the group replaced the actor's head, which had been acquired from the bluescreen shoot, and placed it onto the body of the stunt rider.

Having actor Tobey Maguire compete against other jockeys was too dangerous. Instead, the film editors composited a bluescreen shot of the actor's head onto the body of a stunt rider.

According to Goldenberg, the team was able to make the effect work seamlessly—even as it was projected onto a big screen in HD format—thanks to the use of motion blur and the fact that Maguire had worn a helmet and goggles. "It was the most impressive thing we did in terms of the racetrack scenes," he contends.

To augment these edits, a team at Technique employed the same digital intermediary process it had used for digitally color-timing the 1998 feature film Pleasantville, also directed by Ross (see "Color Bind," November 1998, Computer Graphics World).

All told, the editors handled three times more digital effects shots than had been anticipated. For Seabiscuit, this became even more daunting because of the unique creative challenges of filming a horserace. For one thing, Thoroughbreds are high-strung and unpredictable. Yet, they had to run in a choreographed manner around a track as a Hummer vehicle, with a mounted camera, drove alongside them—sometimes only four or five feet from the horses' heads. Furthermore, Thoroughbreds are bred to win races, not place, show, or lose, but the outcome of each event had to coincide with the actual races.

To overcome those issues, a great deal of time was spent casting the horses. Additionally, the professional jockeys used wireless earphones to receive instructions that would help balance the choreography. Despite these steps, "we didn't have a lot of additional footage to work with, but what we had was fantastic," says Goldenberg. "So we had to use that limited footage to make each race feel like a total experience, without missing any part of the action."

Decades ago, Seabiscuit became an American hero, and thanks to the film editors, audiences once again can relive this experience from the past.

Karen Moltenbrey is a senior technical editor at Computer Graphics World.