Lessons From Three VFX Crowd Sequences In Film

Lessons From Three VFX Crowd Sequences In Film

September 14, 2021
Logan Leavitt

Replicating a mass amount of people in any production is a tough task, and these three films nailed it.

Filmmaking is full of challenges. When you consider the goal of a fabricated reality through your camera lens, you quickly realize how many details go into the everyday world around us (let alone fantastical worlds you may be creating).

One of these biggest challenges is simply the people themselves. There’s seven and a half billion of us, and whether it’s for a massive concert, sports game, or unfortunate clash of armies, we generally like to flock together in large groups.

For decades, filmmakers have taken different approaches to this challenge of scale, from thousands of extras to just real crowds that happen to be captured in the shot. 

VFX changed the game on this in many ways. There are software packages dedicated entirely to this feat alongside many different innovative techniques developed for ease and maximum efficiency. Let’s take a look at some shining examples of crowds in VFX! 

The Battle of Kashyyyk, Star Wars Episode III

If you’re like me, one of the initial sparks of love you received for the world of VFX is through the behind the scenes second DVD that came with movies through the early 2000s.

For Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, this brought an incredible look at the industry-defining creativity of ILM. 

The Battle of Kashyyyk took one of the most simple crowd techniques, duplication and shuffling, and brought it to an incredible amount of detail in order to show us the famed Wookies like we’ve never seen them before. 

The basics are simple: six fully costumed Wookie actors would play through a scene in front of a bluescreen with a motion controlled camera. They would shuffle their position, tweak their performance, and shoot again…. And again… and again! 

The Kashyyyk army is a dual example, as well. Once the team had collected and composited their live action crowd assets, they filled in the gaps and edges with fully CG motion captured Wookies. The result is a seamless force that brings an amazing scale to the scene. 

The Battle of Pelennor Fields, The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King

This article isn’t meant to be about epic battles alone, but it simply can’t be written without what I would consider to be one of the greatest cinematic sequences of the 21st century.

The Battle of Pelennor Fields brings Return of the King’s climax to a scale that had never been seen and has never been topped. The shot was constructed largely with the help of Massive, a piece of software initially developed for The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. 

Though the foundations of this scene are in sprawling CG armies from a bird’s eye view, the real glue and lesson the scene provides is in the power of bringing the audience back to the ground and showing the real faces of our combatants. During Theoden’s speech for example, the emotion and stakes of the moment are set up close as we get a look at the Rohirrim and more specifically the important characters in the mix. 

Cut together, the awe inspiring full battle wides bring us the jaw-drop which leads us into battle. Pelennor Fields is a masterclass on crowds. Bring the audience to the floor, but make sure they grasp the scale, as well. 

Gotham Football Stadium, The Dark Knight Rises

If you know Christopher Nolan, you know he upholds a strong focus on practical effects at the core of even the most reality-bending sequences. (His films have incredibly high VFX shot counts as well, but we won’t go there).

Not all crowds are built for war, and this one in The Dark Knight Rises is around for a good time and concession stand food. One of the amazing things about the crowd for the Gotham Football game is that its base layer is entirely real people. They came for a pyrotechnics show and live set filming though, not a football game. 

As with the other two examples, this effects sequence really relies on a dual approach. It’s often the best route for filmmakers to collect what they can through the lens in reality and fill in the gaps beyond that. One of the tricks of the Gotham Football Stadium that you’ll immediately notice when you watch behind the scenes footage is the angles that were cheated to present a packed stadium. 

While in reality, it’s at barely an eight capacity, the filmmakers behind The Dark Knight Rises brought to the table a complete understanding of their control for the viewer's eye. Only showing what needed to be shown in order to sell the effect. The lesson here is simple: show just enough to sell the viewer and put them in the crowd. 

Thankfully, you don’t have to track down thousands of friends to bring a football stadium or concert hall to life. We’ve released several crowd plates so you can replicate to your heart's content! 

Have you heard of our new ActionVFX Subscription? For as low as $14.99 a month, you can gain direct access to the ActionVFX library (and those crowd elements). This is the best way to use the ActionVFX library in your projects.


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