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'Alexander' Conquers the Discovery Channel

Christopher Harz looks at how the Discovery series Battleground: The Art of War used 3D effects to recreate Alexander the Greats Battle at Gaugamela. Includes QuickTime clips!

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Gods-eye view of the battlefield in Alexander the Great and the Battle at Gaugamela 331 B.C. All images © 2004 Discovery.

If you have the QuickTime plug-in, you can view two clips from Alexander the Great and the Battle at Gaugamela 331B.C. by simply clicking the image.

Do you remember a nightmare called high school history class, with endless recitations of unpronounceable names and dates recited with mind-numbing repetition, in a manner reminiscent of Mr. Hand, Spicolis nemesis in Fast Times at Ridgemont High? Fast forward to today, when world history can actually be fun, and when historic characters can become highly memorable and animated, in productions such as Alexander the Great and the Battle at Gaugamela 331 B.C. This is the first in a series of 3D-animated historical recreations in MorningStar Ent.s Battleground: The Art of War series that was created by Double Edge Digital, the new sister studio of E=mc2 Digital, in their Glendale facility for the Discovery Channel.

This first episode in the series covers a historic battle in which Alexander of Macedonia met up with Darius, king of Persia, and ate his lunch, thereby changing history for centuries. Darius had conquered almost everything in sight, from Egypt to India, and was looking hungrily at his Greek and European neighbors; the bash at Gaugamela decided who was going to rule the neighborhood. Besides being a clash of cultures, the battle was also a clash of technologies: the Persians had chariots with long wicked scythes attached to the wheel hubs (which could cut through opposing infantry like a hot knife through butter), whereas the Greeks had come up with 18-foot spears used in a tight formation called the phalanx. Which technique would win? The TV production is a mix of live action and 3D computer graphics, and has the look and feel of a highly detailed 3D game (the resolution is high definition TV), with a narrator explaining events to us as we sojourn around the battle area, located in Northern Iraq.

Alexander was one of the first major commanders to use carefully planned tactics, which was a good thing, because he was usually wildly outnumbered (in this battle, he had 45,000 troops, whereas the Persians had more than five times that many). Numbers like that dont mean much until you go from a Gods-eye view above the battlefield down to the personal viewpoint of a Macedonian looking out at the Persian horde suddenly you start feeling very lonely. The story starts like a regular TV show, shot live so you can get the feel of the characters and empathize with them. It is when you get to the battle scenes that you see the CG animation at work, for hundreds of thousands of characters, each with appropriate movements, shadows and dust trails. The point of view of the camera continuously switches around the area, very much like you might do in a videogame with fly-throughs, to give you perspectives both from overhead (good for understanding whats going on, overlooking a cast of hundreds of thousands) as well as on the ground (good for getting an emotional immersion into what it felt like to be there, mano-a-mano, from both sides).

The production was led by David Kuklish, the vfx supervisor, and Neil Atkins, the CG supervisor. The challenge of the production lay in creating realistic and detailed CG elements and mixing them with the live shots. Double Edge Digital used its 54 x 23 greenscreen stage with motion control extensively, and shot actual locations in the desert outside of Los Angeles. In a typical shot in the show there are a few live actors and horses in the front shot in a practical (real) setting, a dozen or so real actors behind them that were shot on greenscreen and composited into the scene and thousands of CG actors and horses in the background. To get the lighting to match, the shadows of the live actors were often removed and shadows appropriate to the time of day were inserted later. The mountains in the background are matte paintings based on photos that were stitched into panoramas.

Previsualization with animatics was necessary to block out the crowd shots; after rough blocks representing groups of soldiers had been moved around the terrain to determine movement, the individual models were then created in the appropriate groups. Large groups of soldiers and horses moving kick up a lot of dust part of the famous fog of war and extensive particles work had to be done for dust. A dust emitter was attached to each character, as a reference point to kick up the appropriate dust particles. Detailed particles work was also necessary for clouds and smoke. The Greek forces would generate smoke to hide their movements, Atkins noted. Alexander had to come up with creative tactics, because he was so outnumbered.

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Previsualization with animatics was necessary to block out the crowd shots.

Amazingly, the animation production for this program was created by about a dozen people in six weeks. That semi-miraculous achievement was made possible by a very tightly knit group working long hours. The close collaboration and enthusiasm is what made it all possible, said Kuklish. Creating the show included a lot of research into Greek and Persian history, down to what the soldiers were wearing, what weapons they used, what the horses looked like, and of course an accurate reproduction of the terrain and the precise tactics used. Some of the historical records dont agree with each other, added Atkins, so we had to go through a lot of books and reports to form an accurate picture of what happened.

All movements of animated models were keyframed; no motion capture was used. Team members found that martial arts training gave them valuable insight into precisely how humans move while in combat. Animator David Lam, a kung fu master, choreographed many of the fight scenes. Creating realistic horses was also an extra challenge animator Tal Peleg became a real specialist in this, and assured detailed, consistent equine movement.

Under time pressure, every shot had to be carefully planned out beforehand, and lots of improvisations had to be devised on the spot. One shot involves a soldier throwing a spear into the camera. In order to avoid having to replace lots of camera operators, the shot was done by shooting into a set of mirrors; the actual spear is replaced with a CG spear at the end of the scene.

Maya was used exclusively for character animation, crowd management and rendering of CG scenes. Because rendering 250,000 3D characters for each frame would have required a huge render farm and thousands of hours of processing, almost all of the massed characters were created as sprites (2D representations) to save render time. Multiple camera passes were necessary to get each character to be captured facing in the right direction and displaying proper detail and texture (the texture maps were animated in order to accomplish this). The trick for this production was getting realistic content and visual effects for cable TV financial budgets and production time schedules. To see the final result, check your local television guides for broadcast times (the first broadcast is on the Discovery Channel on Nov. 21 and 22).

Adults will surely enjoy this animated moment of history it comes to life in a way that no book could ever hope to achieve. It is also to be hoped that copies of this series of productions will eventually find their way into K-12 and university classrooms, or be assigned as homework. The net result would be students that would talk excitedly about the historical events, and discuss the details like they discuss videogames (Yeah, and Alexander used this hammer and anvil approach, plowed right into the middle of Dariuss line, and then.) instead of the present-day monotonous drone of, All right, class, who met up in 331 B.C. to decide the fate of the Western World... it was Alexander and who else Darius and where were they?

Christopher Harz is an executive consultant for new media. He has produced video games for films such as Spawn, The Fifth Element, Titanic and Lost in Space. As Perceptronics svp of program development, Harz helped build the first massively multiplayer online game worlds, including the $240 million 3-D SIMNET. He worked on C3I, combat robots and war gaming at the RAND Corp., the military think tank.

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