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Massive Attack

January 26, 2003 at 3:21 pm by Arathorn  - 

From last weekend’s Sunday Times Culture supplement, here’s yet another article all about MASSIVE – the artificial intelligent crowd scene generation software used by Weta Digital on the films. Whilst most of it’s regurgitation of the excellent video documentaries on the Official Site, there are a few new snippets to be garnered.

Massive Attack

A computer with a mind of its own made the awe-inspiring battle scenes in The Two Towers, reports Courtney Macavinta

In a sparse, sunlit loft, the programmer Stephen Regelous quietly works alone every day to the hum of his laptop. But what he is really doing is leading the masses. Regelous created Massive, the special-effects program behind the colossal battles in the Lord of the Rings film trilogy. Using Massive, the Oscar-winning Weta Digital team pulled off hugely anticipated scenes for The Two Towers – such as the battle at Helm’s Deep – by digitally generating smart crowds to supplement the live action.
The computer generated characters, called agents, have minds of their own. “Every agent has its own choices and a complete brain,” Regelous says. “The most important thing about making realistic crowds is making realistic individuals.”
To bring JRR Tolkien’s books to life, Gathering 70,0000 or so tall, broad-shouldered extras, dressing them in elaborate armour and choreographing them slaughtering each other was out of the question. And that was just one scene from the prologue to The Fellowship Of The Ring. So in 1996, Peter Jackson asked Regelous, who had worked on the director’s film The Frighteners, to come up with a program that could handle the task. In Massive, agents’ brains – which look like intricate flow charts – define how they see and hear, how fast they run and how slowly they die. For the films, stunt actors’ movements were recorded in the studio to enable the agents to wield weapons realistically, duck to avoid a sword, charge an enemy and fall off tower walls, flailing.
Like real people, agents’ body types, clothing and the weather influence their capabilities. Agents aren’t robots, though. Each makes subtle responses to its surroundings with fuzzy logic rather than yes-no, on-off decisions. And every agent has thousands of brain nodes, such as their combat setting, which has rules for their level of aggression. When an animator places agents into a simulation, they are released to do what they will. It’s not crowd control, but anarchy. Each agent makes decisions from its point of view. Still, when properly set up, the right character will always win the fight.
“It’s possible to rig fights, but it hasn’t been done,” Regelous says. “In the first test fight we had 1,000 silver guys and 1,000 golden guys. We set off the simulation, and in the distance you could see several guys running for the hills.” For inspiration, Regelous didn’t watch war movies as you might expect. Instead he experimented with artificial intelligence by growing digital plants, and studied how people avoided each other on crowded streets.
Massive is not just for making war. It was also used to generate doubles of the film’s stars and to create flocks of birds. “I wanted to take the processes of nature and apply them to generate computer imagery,” Regelous said. As a result, when the dark wizard Saruman sends his Uruk-hai warriors to Helm’s Deep to crush the human alliance in The Two Towers, the army isn’t made up of the same character copied and pasted 50,000 times, marching around like a chain of paper dolls.
“Every soldier is drawing from their own repertoire of military moves and determining how they will fight the fight,” explains Richard Taylor, director of Weta Workshop, on New Line Cinema’s site. “Some of the scenes in Helm’s Deep defy belief.”
Regelous plans to sell Massive for £25,000 per single floating licence. Even if he doesn’t win over the market, some say he’s made great advances. Seth Lippman, a technical director for the first two Rings films, said Massive surpasses techniques used for other Oscar-winning films he has worked on.
“In What Dreams May Come, the crowd characters were like 2-D billboards in space – filler. They couldn’t become main parts of the action,” Lippman said. “The illusion created by using the 2-D billboards would be exposed when employing the radical 3-D moves Peter Jackson is famous for. With the Massive approach, he could fly cameras right through the middle of the battle.”
For his part, Regelous is satisfied that Massive’s agents are covert enough to win over fans of the trilogy. “I can’t tell what’s Massive and what’s not any more.”

Originally reprinted by the Sunday Times Culture from Lycos News. Copyright © 2002 Lycos Inc. All rights reserved.

Posted in Old Special Reports on January 26, 2003 by

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