'Battle of the Bulge': Take Two

Christopher Harz explores how Double Edge Digital provided 3D assistance to The Art of War: Battle of the Bulge.

The Battle of the Bulge is told accurately the second time around. With this go-around, viewers get involved and are brought to the ground level for details with individuals in the battle areas. All images © Morning Star Ent.

Depicting a major historical battle is not easy, especially if you are trying to give a feel of both the vast scale involved and the very personal and close up dramas of the individuals involved in the fight. Take a look at old paintings of battles in your local museum there is usually some over-dramatized scene in the foreground, while rows of men and horses thrash around in false perspective in the background, with the net effect resembling a hysterical drunken opera more than anything that is a monument to the soldiers involved. This is regrettable, because such battles often changed the course of history, and an understanding of them can shed major insights into the course of human events.

The Discovery Channel has decided to depict one of the major battles of the 20th century, The Battle of the Bulge, as a one-hour cable show, one of a series of military episodes in The Art of War series produced by Morning Star Ent., with 3D-animated effects by Double Edge Digital, the Glendale studio that had done a bang-up job on the first two shows, Alexander the Great and the Battle of Gaugamela and Waterloo. The Battle of the Bulge started in Belgium on Dec. 16, 1944, and was a last gasp effort of the German army to drive a wedge between American and British forces and seize Antwerp in an attempt to negotiate a favorable end to the war. The battle involved hundreds of thousands of men, and had superstar generals on both sides (Patton and McAuliffe on the American, von Manteuffel and Dietrich on the German).

The 3D-animated scenes were created by Double Edge Digital. A great deal of skillful painting was done for the background, and extensive digital painting was necessary to attach snow, burn marks and other textures to live actors and 3D models.

This battle had a previous depiction, as a high-budget film titled The Battle of the Bulge, released in 1965, and starring Henry Fonda and Robert Ryan. A careful look at that movie will cause any combat movie buff to cringe, not just at the stilted dialogue, but also at the technical inaccuracies. The German Panther and Tiger tanks in the film are in fact American M47 Pattons. There are no unit patches on the shoulders of American soldiers. There are no turrets blowing up, a common occurrence when a tank was hit and shrapnel caused cannon rounds on the inside to cook off. The tanks fire on the move, something not done at a time before tank cannon became gyro-stabilized. And major tank battles supposedly taking place in December lack snow, mostly because they were in fact shot in the sunny climes of Spain. The list goes on and on.

It is therefore all the more remarkable that Battle of the Bulge, with a budget infinitely lower than that of the famous Warner Bros. feature, has gotten all of these details down correctly. The German Panthers and Tigers are very detailed, down to the suspension bounce as they move down the road. Several tanks are hit and explode, in spectacular fashion. There is snow everywhere in fact, there are very complicated sequences where snow is blown off a tank when it is hit, or is thrown up by the tank treads during movement.

The 1965 feature film caused combat movie buffs to cringe at the technical inaccuracies. This television show gets all of the details down correctly, including how German Panthers and Tigers explode when fired upon.

John Follmer, the producer on the series, has worked on more than 40 films, including the civil war epic, Gods and Generals. We decided on a much different approach for this project than we chose for Alexander, he said. Rather than the wide sweeps showing tens of thousands of troops, we get down to the ground level at great detail. We show fewer crowds and more individuals, and involve the viewer, with techniques such as running with the camera next to soldiers in the battle areas. For Battle of the Bulge, Folmer worked closely with Gary Tarpinian, the exec producer of the series at Morningstar Ent., where he is president. Others working on the project included Buddy Gheen, visual effects supervisor, Steve Porter, digital production manager, and Roger Chao, senior modeler. The Battle of the Bulge episode was the first of the three we created where I realized the full promise of what we had originally sought to create with the [Art of War] series the immersive quality of actually being in the middle of a battlefield, while the battle was happening, Follmer noted.

One similarity between all three Art of War episodes is the careful blending of simulated and live elements, with live characters in the foreground, podded or duplicated actors in the middle ground, and numerous computer generated models and highly detailed paintings and photographs in the background. The whole effect synchronizes very precisely, and comes across as remarkably believable, with photorealistic resolution throughout. Many of the scenes were very high-resolution, with dozens of detailed American and German tanks, vehicles and troops moving through forested areas, said Justin Ritter, visual effects producer at Double Edge. We had over 1,800 frames that each took over 40 minutes to render. The high resolution of the models allowed us to get very close to them. For instance, originally we had intended to shoot the German tanks only from a far distance, but they proved so realistic that we allowed them to come right up to the virtual camera. If you look closely, you will actually see the CG tanks reflected in the water puddles on the ground in front of them.

The detailed 3D-animated scenes were generated with Maya (with a few scenes in LightWave), Adobes After Effects and PhotoShop, Apples Shake and Eyeons Digital Fusion. The extensive camera tracking was enabled with Boujou, the toolset from 2d3 in the U.K. Double Edge used its sizeable 54 by 23 greenscreen stage extensively, and shot some forest scenes in the Big Bear area near Los Angeles. A great deal of skillful painting was done for the background, and extensive digital painting was necessary to attach snow, burn marks and other textures to live actors and 3D models.

Because the battle occurs in December, sequences became very complicated when snow is blown off a tank, when it is hit or is thrown up by the tank treads during movement.

The actual battle was a desperate gamble by massive German forces, taking advantage of bad weather to conceal their movements from allied air observation. The plan for a massive armored thrust through the American center was foiled by the brave resistance of outnumbered forces in the town of St. Vith, which controlled a strategic crossroads. Frustrated, the Germans headed south, only to run into the 101st Airborne Division in Bastogne, commanded by Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe. Bastogne also sat on top of a strategic road network, and the Germans surrounded the town and sent an elaborate demand to surrender to the commander of its outnumbered troops. General McAuliffe returned a rely that was famous both for its content and brevity, namely, "To the German Commander: Nuts! (Signed) The American Commander." The delays caused by these two stubbornly heroic groups allowed General Patton to bring up his forces from the South, and when he arrived to relieve Bastogne the battle was essentially over. The Germans retreated, harassed by Allied fighter bombers that suddenly materialized in the skies with the onset of better weather.

The shows accurate depiction does honor to the brave soldiers involved in the battle in a way that the usual over-blown and overly dramatized Hollywood-style productions never could. If only history could have been this interesting and lively in high school!

Christopher Harz is an executive consultant for new media. He has produced videogames 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.