Behind the green screens of Red Cliff

Behind The Scenes on Red Cliff

Frantic Films uses Thinking Particles and Massive Software to create a titanic sea battle for John Woo’s historical epic

Red Cliff, a film by John Woo, with vfx by Frantic Films

The ships in the titanic Battle of Red Cliffs in Red Cliff were created and animated using a rule-based particle system called Thinking Particles, a plug-in for 3ds Max from Cebas. For Frantic Films, there were a number of advantages to this pipeline. Static components such as crow’s nests and masts were modelled and textured with a few variations that the particle system would choose from with scale variation added 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 randomise and control the large number of objects.

“The fact that we had eight weeks to do the whole job was quite a challenge,” said Jason Crosby, VFX Supervisor, Frantic Films VFX. “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.”


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. As well as Thinking Particles, plug-ins used included Cebas Final Render and FumeFX, while SynthEyes from Andersson Technologies was used for the camera tracking process. 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 shots of performers diving overboard.

“Cebas Final Render allowed us to vary scale, speed, start frames, textures and other things on instanced geometry,” explained Crosby. “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.”

 Green Screen capture for VFX by Frantic Films

Frantic also used Massive Software, the AI-driven crowd simulation software, creating a Massive pipeline specifically for the film to get the 70,000 soldiers animated over 2,500 boats. The artists were able to integrate and utilise this in a unique way that sped up the production process without sacrificing quality. Over five weeks, the team used the Massive pipeline to animate various boat crews, generating thousands of frames of the virtual performers. Thinking Particles was then used to modify each crew’s animation, grabbing random frames and positions and then randomly propagating these crews throughout the fleet. So while Massive became the engine for animation, Thinking Particles was the distribution.

Read the full story of the production in the Inspiration section

Frantic Films
The Orphanage
3ds Max
Thinking Particles
Final Render

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