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by Dan Koeppel
Popular Science – November 27, 2002
IN DECEMBER VAST HORDES OF EAGER FILMGOERS will mob cineplexes across the land and witness, at the climax of The Two Towers, one of the most anticipated scenes in recent movie history: the great Battle of Helm’s Deep. The Two Towers is the second film in Peter Jackson’s audacious and, so far, triumphant Lord of the Rings trilogy. In this installment, the action takes a darker turn: Humanity and its ragtag allies engage the monstrous forces that would dominate Middle Earth. Humans, hobbits, wizards, dwarves and elves are called to arms against Orcs, Ringwraiths and their awful legion of followers?something like 50,000 fighters on the ground, all but the relatively small number of main characters computer-generated. The battle ebbs and flows across the foot of a great mountain range. Lightning flashes and rain pounds the nighttime spectacle. Fighters skirmish up and down the long ladders that line fortress walls.
Helm’s Deep will be attacked by Hundreds of Digital OrcsThe battle represents a milestone in computer-generated filmmaking. Combat scenes are one of the big challenges of the digital arts, so complicated is the mix of chaos and purposeful action that plays out when soldiers clash in large numbers. Swell the number to thousands and make each fighter appear autonomous onscreen: That was the gauntlet Jackson threw down to his programmers, and if they have pulled it off this will be the most spectacular CG scene ever. Needless to say, new technology was required.
“Our perception of characters is very sharp, which makes it all the more difficult to get the subtle details of artificial life forms believable,” says Karl Sims, a former MIT researcher whose 1994 paper, “Evolving Virtual Creatures,” outlined the key challenge that digital animators grapple with. Human (and humanoid) forms represent the highest order of CG simulation because audiences are trained since birth to track human movement in all its complexity. So far, Sims says, filmmakers have done better with smaller creatures: “Even swarms of insects are easier to simulate than humans.”
Until recently, relatively simple simulations of physical interactions have driven digital crowd sequences. Using basic rules governing attraction and repulsion, designers aimed single points called particles at each other. Each particle represents a different individual, and when a satisfactory mix is achieved to portray the movements of a group or crowd, animation is added: The particle is rendered as a digital human or creature. The result is cost-effective but not always natural-looking; particle trajectories emulate pool-table-level physics across a two-dimensional space. The movement of real people, especially in battle over rough terrain, is a hugely more complex challenge for the programmer…
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