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MillTv goes for Gold with BBC’s First Olympians

MillTv recently completed the effects work on the BBC drama-documentary, THE FIRST OLYMPIANS, which looks at the equipment of early athletes and looks at the recently found remains of an early Olympic participant. MillTv was brought on board to digitally re-build the ancient site of Olympia, complete with games and crowds. The site, encompassing a few Greek buildings, a temple, an alter, a running track and a chariot hippodrome, was built using matte paintings (textures were referenced by photographing elements from both the shoot location and the British Museum) applied to 3D geometry representing each different site. MillTv artist, Barney Curnow, managed to generate 19 digital matte paintings in less than six weeks.

Matte paintings were also used to provide atmospheric exteriors. Many were composited using greenscreen. However, some shots were so vast in scale that greenscreen was not a viable option, hence these shots were rotoscoped by hand. Many of these sequences contain up to 12 different layers, combining birds, smoke, trees, people and sun glints.

MillTv had to create throngs of up 40,000 spectators from live-action shots that used only 40 extras. This was achieved mainly through generating thousands of simple 3D model people stretching deep into the backgrounds of live-action plates. A few crowds, especially in the foreground, were extended in 2D using multiple plates.

The program also includes a recreation of a chariot race. Two chariots were shot on location, but in order to accurately convey the races intensity, MillTvs Adrian Wyer generated a further six horse-driven chariots. Footage from the shoot showed how the horses were going crazy, stampeding and attacking each other, says Wyer. It was hard to mimic that out-of-control action in 3D. But Wyer achieved it by replicating run-cycles whilst ensuring separate controls for each horses head. By compositing four different plates in Flame, MillTv quadrupled the number of filmed chariots and horses as they breakaway from the starting line.

All footage was shot on location in Morocco on HD and then posted at PAL resolution. Shooting HD gave us flexibility, said Houghton. We were able to zoom into the footage without any degradation in quality. This meant we could minimise the scale of certain shots in order to maintain production efficiency when creating digital backgrounds, whether they be crowd replication or matte painting. It also gave us more detail and grading latitude.

The program was produced for BBC Science by Cameron Balbarnie.

The Mill is one of the U.K.'s leading visual effects houses. For more information, visit

MillTv's team included: Vfx supervisor: Dave HoughtonVfx producer: Will Cohen3D: Adrian Wyer, Andres EguirenMatte painter: Barney CurnowFlame: Dave Houghton

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