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And cut! Brave Lord of the Rings warriors running away in their thousands

You think only screenwriters know how to write good stories? Fiddlesticks! This article is about curiosities, funny anecdotes and all sorts of wacky things in cinema and filmmaking. My first example: «The Lord of the Rings» CGI warriors on strike.

Rohan’s entire army – they’re called «Rohirrim», People of the Horse-lords – gathers on the Pelennor Fields. A 6,000-strong cavalry army, led by the proud King Théoden, is facing almost certain death. Their odds of victory are slim. Gondor, one of the last free cities of the people of Middle-earth, is besieged by no fewer than 200,000 Orcs.

«Arise, arise, Riders of Théodens,» the king calls out one last time to his army, «Ride! Ride for ruin – and the world’s ending. Death!»

The proud warriors echo this call, encouraged by their king, but well aware that this will be their end.

«Death! «Death! «Death!»

The sound of a horn is heard and the army moves forward. Slowly at first, like a mighty machinery that hasn't been used for too long. And then the six thousand horses pick up speed. This will be the last act of the riders of Rohan...

...but one hell of an act.

Hundreds of thousands of soldiers and evil creatures storming towards and waging war against each other? This was unimaginable fifteen years ago, when «The Lord of the Rings» was released. Or at least an eye opener, to say it with Samwise Gamgee‘s words. So it’s unsurprising that not everything went according to plan right from the start, when the mighty armies were created.

Nevertheless, the anecdote involving terrorised CGI soldiers fleeing the battlefield unintentionally and apparently full of horror is curious.

Massive: The ground-breaking computer software

The armies were created on the computer by the New Zealand visual effects company Weta Digital. Makes sense – coordinating a huge cavalry army and an enormous number of grunting orcs must be a logistical nightmare. And a dangerous one, too. But there was no software in those days that could create such computer effects in a realistic way. There was pioneering work to be done. The outcome? The software «Massive».

New Line Cinema

Massive is based on a simple concept: Computer-animated 3D models, so-called agents, are given a common goal and – at the same time – decide independently how this goal is achieved. This might sound a bit like artificial intelligence, but it's not.

The system operates with stimuli and subsequent reactions. If a certain stimulus occurs, the agent is offered a range of reaction options, from which it selects one. Let's take a look at an example: If an attack occurs, the reaction is «dodge». Every possible reaction has a certain probability. In the case of an attack, the defence strategy is more likely to be «dodge» than «run in circles and do somersaults» because the former makes more sense and therefore has a higher priority.

If more than 200,000 agents enter a battle, a less probable behaviour may occur in isolated cases, provided that this behaviour is programmed as a possible reaction. Thus, an army of Massive agents never behaves exactly the same – but the overall behaviour is still logical.

CGI soldiers trying to get away

In theory, the agents should know what to do now. They really should. Let’s get the battle started then. At least that's what the team of programmers, lead by Stephen Regelous thought when they ran their first tests. In a «Lord of the Rings» making-of, Regelous explains:

«We started off by battling 1,000 silver soldiers against 1,000 gold soldiers. So we launched the simulation and were excited to see what was going to happen. That's when something unexpected occurred: A group of several hundred soldiers tried to run for the hills in the distance.»

Testing Massive

What on earth? Fear, panic, or possibly even desertion?

At first, the developers weren't quite sure what had gone wrong. Did they really develop agents that were so clever they realised joining the fight would be sheer madness? As if they were thinking: «F**k this sh*t, I’m out.»

«Would have made for a great story, but no,» Regelous states in the making-of, «the little bastards [that's what he calls the agents] follow pre-programmed reactions. Self-preservation isn't one of them.»

So why did they try to flee the scene?

It took quite a few more tests for the developers to find the answer to this question. The origin of the problem was in the two following instructions programmed into the agents:

  1. search for more space if you're in a crowd
  2. run until you find an enemy to fight with

So: Two huge armies of agents storm towards each other until they meet the enemy. That’s when the space gets limited. Some agents look around for a less crowded place and – sure enough – find exactly this in the opposite direction. So they run in that direction and, as they don't meet any enemy, never stop. Another instruction also favoured this desertion of the army:

  1. If in doubt, follow your friends

That’s what made them look as if they were thinking «Right, if he's legging it, so am I.»

What next? The problem was solved by adjusting the priority of instructions. As easy as that. Now you know the story of how fearless «Lord of the Rings» warriors seemed to be absolutely terrorised and tried to escape the battle – although they actually did nothing else other than follow orders.

Know of any absurd stories or funny anecdotes from cinema or filmmaking? Write a comment or send me an e-mail. I might tell your story in the next episode of my «And cut!» series.

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Luca Fontana, Zurich

  • Editor
I'm an outdoorsy guy and enjoy sports that push me to the limit – now that’s what I call comfort zone! But I'm also about curling up in an armchair with books about ugly intrigue and sinister kingkillers. Being an avid cinema-goer, I’ve been known to rave about film scores for hours on end. I’ve always wanted to say: «I am Groot.»


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User Anonymous

Ich persönlich fand die CGI Massenschlachten in der Hobbitreihe ziemlich... sagen wir mal mühsam. Es wirkt einfach nicht echt. Erinnert einen an die Agent Smith Szene in Matrix, vielleicht könnte man dazu ja mal eine schöne Anekdote schreiben :-)

User Luca Fontana

Gell! Ironischerweise sind sowohl «The Hobbit» als auch «The Matrix Reloaded» Fortsetzungen/Prequels von Filmen, die einst für bahnbrechende Computereffekte gestanden haben. Man sollte doch meinen, dass CGI eine halbe Ewigkeit später so viel besser sein sollte – und nicht schlechter?

Hm. Das inspiriert mich tatsächlich. Warum scheinen Computereffekte immer schlechter zu werden? Beziehungsweise... warum wirkt der 1993er-T-Rex in «Jurassic Park» so echt und in den 25 Jahre später erschienenen «Jurassic World»-Filmen so computeranimiert?

Ich mache mich an die Arbeit :)

User MakeAppsNotWar

Das hat mehrere Gründe. CGI wirde besser. Massiv besser. 'Wieso seh ich denn nur schlechtes CGI?' Denk mal drüber nach... Weil gutes CGI unsichtbar ist. Kaum eine Stadt im Film ist noch real, bei Hollywoods sind selbst die meisten Autos gefaked.
Auffsllen tut immer nur das schlevhte CGI.

User Anonymous

Das erklärt noch nicht, warum Produktionsfirmen, die gutes CGI einsetzen konnten auf einmal auch schlechtes CGI verwenden. Budget Cuts, Wechsel des CGI-Studios?

User luro1net

Also ich bin überhaupt kein experte in dem Gebiet CGI aber ich weiss das bei den alten Jurassic Park Filmen noch oft echte Roboter-Dinosaurier-Modele für die Filme benutzt wurden und bei den neuen ist praktisch alles CGI

User CranewoodStudios

Die Qualität von CGI ist direkt abhängig von Zeit/Geld. Man braucht viel Vorlaufzeit, bis man das CGI rendern kann und das Rendern selbst kann nochmals so viel Zeit in Anspruch nehmen. Man kann das Rendern beschleunigen, in dem man mehr Rechen-power kauft, aber die benötigt dann entsprechend mehr Budget.
In einem idealen Szenario, weiss man zuvor wie viel Budget man hat, damit kann man dann das CGI erstellen und es dann auch Rendern. Nur meist läuft es nicht so ideal. So gibt es vielleicht eine späte Drehbuchänderung oder dem Regisseur oder DP gefällt etwas nicht, was dann nochmals überarbeitet werden muss. Nun hat man schon mehr Zeit für das erstellen benötigt, welche dann beim Rendern fehlen wird. Und wenn man dann nicht mehr Budget bekommt, dann muss man die Qualität runterschrauben, damit man mit dem Rendern noch fristgerecht fertig wird.

Das eine Produktionsfirma nicht mehr die gleiche Qualität liefert, kann neben Zeit/Budget auch damit zusammen hängen, dass nicht mehr die gleichen Mitarbeiter dort arbeiten. So gibt es Artists, welche Beispielsweise nur für den Rauch bei Explosionen zuständig sind. Wenn der Artist dann die Produktionsfirma verlässt nimmt er ein Grossteil seines Wissens mit. Wenn die Firma dann keinen gleichwertigen Ersatz findet, sehen die Explosionen plötzlich nicht mehr gleich gut aus, obwohl es immer noch die gleiche Produktionsfirma ist.

User Praind

Guter Beitrag!
Sehr spannend und mal etwas Anderes! :)

User DSola

Nice article. And if you interested how the huge cities are made in Hollywood (Like Blade Runner 2049 and its futuristic future LA city or even Zootopia city) check City Engine. The best part is our Zurich born software ! Just several hundred meters from Digitec ...

User kevinpushp

Warum die Dinos im ersten Teil von Jurassic Park so viel echter aussehen ist sehr einfach erklärt. Zum einen wurde CGI sehr sparsam eingesetzt. Nicht einmal 15 Minuten sind es im gesamten Film und die meisten Szenen wurden mit "Puppen" kombiniert.
Dann gibt es noch den Effekt des "Uncanny Valley". Z.B. die Akzeptanz von mit CGI dargestellten Menschen (wie in Matrix) nimmt ab einem bestimmten Punkt stark ab und steigt erst ab einem sehr viel höheren Grad an Realismus wieder an.
Diesen Grad zu erreichen ist mit sehr viel Geld und Zeit verbunden.