Jun 202015

war_horse_banner_tnour digital horse in action

I recently kicked off a series of pastblast posts digging up old but interesting projects that I didn’t have time to write about when they were happening. One of the most interesting and enjoyable visual effects projects that I have worked on is Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation of War Horse.

The story follows Joey, a farm horse in rural England, onto the battlefields of World War I. Being a war story, you can imagine there are a few upsets along the way, and Joey inevitably finds himself in very dangerous circumstances – circumstances too dangerous in fact for real ‘horse actors’. Cue our digital Joey.


Our digital horse stretching his legs

Over the course of six months, myself and a small team of visual effects artists at Framestore created the digital stand-in for Joey, the horse’s fearless and impervious stunt double. I was responsible for sculpting the horses and supervising the anatomical aspects of rigging and deformation, including sculpting pose corrections for all the motions of the digital horse. The other talented artists contributed texturing, grooming, rigging, dynamics, lighting, animation and rendering. A huge team effort!

Somewhat confoundingly, during the production, ten or so different horses were used to play Joey, including the superstar thoroughbred horse actor who played Seabiscuit. Seabiscuit is apparently the Brad Pitt of horses, and was brought in to handle the serious scenes. The trouble was that he was a completely different breed to Joey, a thoroughbred instead of a warmblood farm horse. So we had to make two versions of our digital horse, one to pickup from the ‘normal’ horses and one to work in the “Seabiscuit shots”.

There is a ton of craft that goes into creating a digital character, and our benchmark was seamless equine realism. You can look through a few of the clips below and judge for yourself if we hit our goal. I will mention this though – at one point in post-production we slyly replaced an awkward clip of the life-action horse with a rendered animation of our digital horse, and passed it on to an unknowing Steven Spielberg. He, thinking it was just a new clip of the real horse, approved the scene saying it was excellent! If Steven Spielberg couldn’t tell the difference between a real horse and our CG horse, that is good enough for me.

digital horses all around

the movie magic revealed

All in all, this was the best project I have worked on in visual effects. We had a great team, enough time, enough budget, and the visual effects work supported the story, rather than being the story, as is often the case with Hollywood creature and character projects. I still haven’t seen the film, so I can’t vouch for the quality of that part, but we did our best on the horses!

you guessed it – 100% digital horse