Frantic Films VFX Battles John Woo's 'Red Cliff'

June 14, 2009 1:02 am

Tags: 3D, 3DS Max, Autodesk, Flood, Frantic Films, Fusion, Massive, Maya, Renderosity, Thinking Particles, VFX

Epic Chinese-Language Film Features Massive Naval Battle Sequence Comprising 2,500 Boats Populated with an Army of 70,000

Hollywood, CA (June 11, 2009)-Award-winning VFX studio Frantic Films VFX, a division of Prime Focus Group, has contributed a number of visual effects shots -- including one of the film's key naval battle scenes-for the John Woo-directed epic, "Red Cliff." The most expensive Chinese-language picture ever made, "Red Cliff" is a co-production of China Film Group, South Korea's Showbox Entertainment, Taiwan's CMC Entertainment group and Japan's Avex Entertainment, and hits Asian and European theaters in Jan. 2009.


"Red Cliff" is based on the historic Battle of Red Cliffs and other events during the end of the Han Dynasty and immediately prior to the period of the Three Kingdoms in ancient China. The film stars such Asian heavyweight talents as Tony Leung, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Zhang Fengyi and many others. In Asia, the film premieres in theaters in two parts clocking in at four and a half hours. The first part was released in July 2008 to huge critical acclaim and box office success, while the second half -- on which Frantic Films VFX worked -- releases in Asian theaters in January 2009. In Europe and the US, the two parts of the movie will be condensed into one two and a half hour film. Release date for the US has not yet been set.

The Epic Battle Scene

Frantic was given an important part of one of the main battle sequences of the second film, and was tasked with creating the entire environment surrounding a massively destructive attack waged on an enormous fleet of ships -- all within a very truncated eight-week production schedule.


"With shots that called for a fleet of 2,500 of the same 26-meter boats, giving each of the boats a unique 'hand-crafted' feel was both a creative and technical challenge," explained Jason Crosby, VFX Supervisor, Frantic Films VFX. "We really wanted to avoid the repetitive look that comes from using the same CG model. To do this, we broke the boats down into components that were randomly assembled using a rule-based particle system called Thinking Particles, which also propagated and animated the fleet."

For Frantic, there were a number of advantages to this pipeline. Static components such as crow's nests and masts were modeled and textured with a few variations that the particle system would choose from and then add scale variation in x, y and z during assembly, so no two components were the exact same shape. This gave the artists a lot of variation in each boat while keeping with the general design. This system also allowed for the combining of both animated and static components on each boat and have them react to each other. For example, Thinking Particles would vary the rocking of the boats, which would affect the swaying of the beam and sail while keeping them attached to the mast. Using a particle system made it easy to randomize and control the large number of objects.


In addition, the entire CG sequence of 2,500 boats was populated with soldiers -- roughly 70,000 in all -- who needed to be seen performing on the ship. The scene also featured fire and smoke elements, CG explosions and boat damage from impact.

"The fact that we had eight weeks to do the whole job was quite a challenge," said Crosby. "Furthermore, our scenes consisted of hundreds of millions of polygons of geometry. With so many elements shadowing, reflecting and overlapping each other, it made breaking the renders down into smaller chunks difficult. Using conventional instanced geometry wasn't a good option because we wanted each boat and crew to look somewhat unique. Cebas Final Render allowed us to vary scale, speed, start frames, textures and other things on instanced geometry. Thinking Particles was used to semi-randomly pick from these instances to build each unique boat. This allowed us to render everything except the water in single passes without exceeding the RAM limit, which saved tremendous amount of time and allowed us to assemble and update scenes very quickly."


Massive Pipeline

Frantic also created a Massive pipeline specifically for the film. The artists were able to integrate and utilize the AI-driven crowd simulation software in a unique way that speeded up the production process without sacrificing quality. For the characters, Frantic had about five weeks to set up a Massive pipeline and get the 70,000 soldiers animated over 2,500 boats. To do this, the team used Massive to animate various boat crews. Thinking Particles was then used to modify each crew's animation and then propagate these crews throughout the fleet.


At the heart of this unique methodology was Frantic's approach. Frantic used Massive to generate thousands of frames of the virtual performers doing what it needed them to do, and used Thinking Particles to randomly propagate them onto the boats -- grabbing random frames and positions and so forth. Massive became the engine for animation, while Thinking Particles was the distribution.

Frantic collaborated with The Orphanage in San Francisco, delivering shots for review and approval to Visual Effects Supervisor Craig Hayes. Because both director John Woo and VFX Producer Jack Geist were in China during post-production, Frantic had the additional challenge of managing the 15-hour time difference. Because of this, working directly with the team at the Orphanage when delivering its work for review and approval was extremely beneficial because it allowed the Frantic artists fairly immediate feedback.


"The challenge of creating an entire pipeline for managing the water, fire, smoke, thousands of CG boats and tens of thousands of actors -- not to mention cloth simulations for the flags -- all in a time span measured in days and weeks, was an incredible effort," concluded Chris Bond, Creative Director and President, Frantic Films. "I want to thank the team enormously for all of their work and applaud Jason and Bridgitte for their leadership!"

The Frantic team was led by VFX Producer Bridgitte Krupke and VFX Supervisor Jason Crosby and comprised 15 3D artists and 11 compositors. While most work was handled out of Frantic's LA office, the company's Winnipeg studio was responsible for all the water simulation work.


CG models were imported from Autodesk Maya into Autodesk 3ds Max, in which the bulk of the 3D work was done. Compositing was done with eyeon Fusion. Plug-ins included Cebas Thinking Particles, Final Render and FumeFX. Frantic also used Massive Software and SynthEyes from Andersson Technologies. In addition, Frantic utilized several propriety tools, including Flood: Surf for the fluid surfaces rendered in Final Render, and Flood for the fluid dynamic interaction of wakes and the quintessential shots of performers diving overboard.

About Frantic Films VFX

Located in the three different locations across North America with offices in Winnipeg, Canada, Vancouver, and Los Angeles, Calif., Frantic Films VFX has been operating divisions that provide visual effects for film and television, and VFX software development since 1997. Frantic Films' VFX award-winning visual effects teams have worked on films including Watchmen, Dragonball Evolution, Red Cliff, W., Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D, Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer, Grindhouse, Superman Returns, X-Men 3, Poseidon and many others. The company's software tools were developed to solve complex production challenges on in-house feature effects projects, and are also in use at many leading 3D animation and effects facilities worldwide. In November of 2007 Frantic Films VFX became a division of international post and VFX leader Prime Focus Group. For more information, visit

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