Regelous created Massive, the special-effects program behind the colossal battles in The Lord of the Rings film trilogy. Using Massive, the Oscar-winning Weta Digital team pulled off anticipated scenes for the latest installment, The Two Towers -- such as the battle at Helm's Deep -- by digitally generating smart crowds to supplement the live action.
The computer-generated characters, called agents, have minds of their own.
"Every agent has its own choices and a complete brain," Regelous said. "The most important thing about making realistic crowds is making realistic individuals."
To bring J.R.R. Tolkien's books to life, gathering 70,000 or so tall, broad-shouldered extras, dressing them in elaborate armor and choreographing them slaughtering each other was out of the question. And that was just one scene from the prologue to The Fellowship of the Ring.
So in 1996, director Peter Jackson asked Regelous, who had worked on Jackson's film The Frighteners, to come up with a program that could handle the task.
In Massive, agents' brains -- which look like intricate flow charts -- define how they see and hear, how fast they run and how slowly they die. For the films, stunt actors' movements were recorded in the studio to enable the agents to wield weapons realistically, duck to avoid a sword, charge an enemy and fall off tower walls flailing.
Like real people, agents' body types, clothing and the weather influence their capabilities. Agents aren't robots, though. Each makes subtle responses to its surroundings with fuzzy logic rather than yes-no, on-off decisions. And every agent has thousands of brain nodes, such as their combat node, which has rules for their level of aggression.
When an animator places agents into a simulation, they're released to do what they will. It's not crowd control but anarchy. That's because each agent makes decisions from its point of view. Still, when properly genetically engineered, the right character will always win the fight.
"It's possible to rig fights, but it hasn't been done," Regelous said. "In the first test fight we had 1,000 silver guys and 1,000 golden guys. We set off the simulation, and in the distance you could see several guys running for the hills."
The visuals here could have given an impression of the enormous weights and tensions involved, but instead the scene seems more like a bloodless storyboard of the idea. In other CGI scenes, Spidey swoops from great heights to street level and soars back up among the skyscrapers again with such dizzying speed that it seems less like a stunt than like a fast-forward version of a stunt.
In the first movie I thought Spider-Man seemed to move with all the realism of a character in a cartoon. This time, as he swings from one skyscraper to another, he has more weight and dimension, and Raimi is able to seamlessly match the CGI and the human actors.
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