Once upon a time, not so long ago, only big-budget movies could afford photorealistic computer-generated imagery (CGI), and even then only for selected scenes. Then again, musicians used to record things called "albums" in music studios that were so expensive they were rented by the hour.
Today, we have desktop machines that outperform the supercomputers of the Terminator 2 era. So just as your Mac laptop can replace an entire music studio, computers can render entire cities—such as Elizabethan London—that used to be shot on location. Meanwhile, one indie filmmaker has figured out how to do high-end CGI on a tight budget, by crowdsourcing some of the production.
Anonymous, which was scheduled to premiere on both sides of the Atlantic on 28 October, is a historical thriller set in the court of Queen Elizabeth I. A nobleman poet and playwright airs the court's dirty laundry via popular dramas like Hamlet and Macbeth, which are represented as coming from the pen of actor Will Shakespeare.
Director Roland Emmerich, a veteran of such special-effects blockbusters as The Day After Tomorrow, The Patriot, and Independence Day, spared no effort in making Anonymous, and although it features Vanessa Redgrave and Rhys Ifans, an unbilled star of the movie is the CGI. One stunning scene starts with a view of the whole city and then pans down to a massive crowd scene at the Globe Theatre. Although onscreen for just 12 seconds, the CGI involved thousands of individual layers.
"There's an enormous amount of detail, and the detail is what makes that shot," says one of Anonymous's visual effects supervisors, Volker Engel. In it, the Globe Theatre audience is shown rowing small boats up the Thames, each with up to eight fully CGI-animated people. Little whitecaps appear on the tips of oars as they stroke through the water.
"Each one of those ships," Engel says, "though they're fairly small in-frame, has cloth animation, which means the sails are slightly billowing in the wind and the ropes are slightly moving." Flocks of birds come in different directions, thousands of chimneys belch smoke throughout the city, and yards are filled with pigs, chickens, and horses—"they're very tiny," Engel says, "but if they weren't there it would look very empty."
The buildings themselves were individually created by a 29-person visual effects team from a library of over 40 000 still photos that fellow visual effects supervisor Marc Weigert took of Tudor structures throughout England. The 2000 "people" in the shot are individual avatars animated by the same artificial-intelligence crowd-simulating software that Weta Digital used for the Lord of the Rings films' vast battle scenes. Giving the avatars Elizabethan-era wardrobes involved additional cloth simulations to show a dress or a doublet wrinkling and stretching with every motion.
Weigert and Engel would not disclose Anonymous's budget. However, Terrence Masson—of Northeastern University, in Boston, and author of the industry textbook CG101: A Computer Graphics Industry Reference—said as a rule a shot like the Globe sequence eats up hundreds of thousands of dollars. "There's nothing breakthrough in these shots," he says. "But they're done so well. It's all about the spectacle. Nobody does it better than Roland [Emmerich]."
At the other end of the financial scale, Finnish indie director Timo Vuorensola is now wrapping production on Iron Sky, a satirical sci-fi thriller that imagines a team of German Nazis blasting off to the dark side of the moon at the end of World War II. In the ensuing decades the Nazis build a battle fleet on their remote lunar base; in 2018, they return to Earth with a vengeance.
In one sequence, four space zeppelins disgorge 1000 invading German "Valkyrie" fighters in low-Earth orbit. Visual effects supervisor Samuli Torssonen portioned out a US $1 million CGI budget across 500 shots by first digitally designing the zeppelin and Valkyrie prototypes. Stunning sequences can be made, he says, from many copies of these two carefully detailed CGI elements (which took three months each to create), a matte-painted Earth, and some good animation software. Torssonen outsourced other parts of the job, such as designing the ships of the 10 terrestrial nations defending the planet, to Iron Sky's global fan base, including its 68 000 Facebook friends.
"You get 90 percent of the way there in 10 percent of the time," says Northeastern's Masson. "In Hollywood, it's all about that last 10 percent....You're zooming into each pixel on a giant plasma screen. That's what costs the big bucks."
About the Author
Mark Anderson is a contributing editor to IEEE Spectrum. This is the second (and, we promise, the last) time this year he’s written about Shakespeare.