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MPC Dossier: from keyed crowds to digital mobs

MPC's Adam Davis talks through the development from keyed crowds to digital Artificial Intelligence, with a peek at World War Z and its digital mobs.
Back in the day, people would just used to shoot with as many extras as they could get. The approach after that would then probably have gone into kind of multipass shooting. So, for instance, if you’d have a stadium to fill up, you’d potentially have 200 extras on set. You’d film them through the camera sat in one section. Then you’d move them all over and then film it again. And then you’d move them again and film it and move it again and film it. And then basically, you’d tile together all those plates. So you essentially fill each section of the stadium as you go.
Probably a slightly more advanced approach on that one as time kind of progresses would be to start shooting at your guys against blue screen or just individuals or small groups. It could be then used in 2D compositing. And then basically obviously then that kind of comes up to the next probably the next top level of complexity, which is then actual software-driven full CG crowd characters. So to answer the question, does software-generated crowds allow us to push the boundaries of what people have traditionally be able to do? I think it definitely does. I think it’s very often dependent on how it’s used.
I mean, obviously it allows us to do things that are clearly way too dangerous or too complicated or actually even physically impossible for real actors to do. Having said that, a crowd TV’s favourite scenario is where you have a good number of live action extras and were simply populating behind and trying to replicate and trying to blend in. If you’ve done a really good job, you shouldn’t really notice. Obviously that is, in some shows, totally off the wall and crazy in terms of what we’re doing. And, again, I talk about the stuff on World War Z. That was total fantasy behaviour.
You can’t get real human beings to do that kind of stuff because they’d probably, you’d kill the actors and the stunt guys, which is not particularly popular. Even though we based it off of real performances from real people, this but it’s all shot in very safe, controlled manner. And that show, the whole idea was they wanted to go above and beyond what actual real people can do. So it can definitely be used. I think it’s just a case of picking and choosing where and how and when and how far you want to push it.

Whilst we’re on the subject of software, it’s useful to think how far this changes not only the kinds of films we can make, but also how we think about our stories.

Here’s an extra video from MPC; Adam Davis, Head of Crowds and Motion Capture tells us how and why we’ve moved from making crowds from keyed individuals to the spectacular heights of the digital mobs in films like World War Z (2013).

A look at any multiplex cinema will show you VFX heavy films seem to sell. Do you think too many films are made these days because of the software available? Who is pushing VFX heavy films- is it the software creators, is it the public’s demand for bigger spectacular shots, or is it that film directors are getting more and more ambitious. What do you think?

Next week we’ll look at whether guerrilla filmmakers can get their hands on this software, or how they might create crowds in other ways…stay tuned!

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