Crafting Legions of Warriors
Though only a fraction of the Terracotta Warriors have been excavated from the depths of Chinese soil, the production was tasked with bringing them all back to life. Digital Domain was responsible for the creation of the vast armies of both the Terracotta Warriors (the Emperor’s men) and the Foundation Army (those killed by the Emperor). They had to render a total of 2,500 Foundation Soldiers and 4,800 Terracotta Warriors.
“The Foundation Army are the good guys,” explains co-VFX supervisor Butler. “These are the workers that have been incarcerated under the Great Wall of China for a couple of thousand years. They come to life as desiccated beings that have a really spooky look. We didn’t just build them as skeletons, but in a multitude of degraded states—from ‘healthy guys’ to complete ‘bone men.’ It was tough, actually, because it was hard to depict a desiccated being as having a good character.”
By examining reference materials from ancient embalming imagery to often-macabre books on anatomy and physiology, the team became quick studies on kinesiology and musculature. “Using the research material,” explains Butler, “we built a set of tools that enabled us to take a body from an undamaged-but-aged form down to muscles, tendons and sinew—in their decayed form—down to bare bones.”
In order to give each character independent movement, Digital Domain used a program called MASSIVE, developed by Stephen Regelous and used for battle scenes for multiple films—including those of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. “Stephen designed and created a tool set that allows you to render thousands of sentient beings, whether they are humans or creatures,” explains Butler. “They all have their own individual decision-making capabilities. He refers to these individual characters as ‘agents.’ Each agent has the capability of making his own decision, based on rule sets designed by the artist. So the artist is literally designing the brain.”
The original Terracotta Warriors provided their own reference, as each of the Xi’an Warriors was crafted with a unique face, hairstyle and body type. After scanning images of them, the team devised cunning ways to swap and exchange body parts, so the audience never sees two of the same soldier as they roar across a battlefield. When a geometric library of warriors were married with an assortment of terracotta textures, lighting, shade and movement helped to render thousands of unique soldiers.
Now, the team just needed to provide motion to the warriors, while they broke apart again and again. Not an easy task, because they had to take inanimate objects and build motion and fighting movements into their repertoire of behaviors. “Before we did anything, we did a Battle Action Reference Shoot,” explains Hynek. “Vic Armstrong, Matt Butler and I started working with different battle actions, then Matt and Vic worked in Montreal to capture what we needed.”
“It was important to Rob that the warriors look real and not just like replicated figures,” explains Armstrong. “They are very grandiose, epic-style battles and, luckily, 21st-century technology is a big help. I worked closely with the VFX guys to plot every shot. I did a lot of motion-capture work with a mixture of live people to represent the two armies—blue suits for the Terracotta Warriors and green suits for the Foundation Army. They are actually fighting, so it looks realistic. The computer took the physical movement of a real person and replaced it with the CG terracotta and skeletal figures. The staging of the fight is also important. It has to have enough humor to release the tension, but, at the same time, it has to look violent and realistic.”