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Virtually Recreating Elizabethan London for 'Anonymous'

Uncharted gets into new VFX territory with Roland Emmerich's provocative Shakespeare authorship drama.

Peasants storm London Bridge in Anonymous. All images courtesy of Uncharted Territory.

Roland Emmerich (2012) has definitely switched modes with Anonymous, going for a cross between Amadeus and Shakespeare in Love in speculating that the Bard's works were secretly penned by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans).

One of the first prestigious movies to be shot digitally with the new Alexa at the Studio Babelsberg in Potsdam-Babelsberg, Germany, the VFX challenge of Anonymous was to virtually recreate Elizabethan London. This task fell to Uncharted Territory, headed by Volker Engel and Marc Weigert, who also served as exec producers in a more creative capacity.

Thus, relying on historical maps and advisers, they built the entire city of London in the computer, relying on accurate maps prior to the Great Fire of 1666. They constructed tens of thousands of buildings (which were very crooked by design) in a system they created called OGEL (LEGO spelled backwards). There were three types: half-timbered, stone and mansions along with one-offs such as The Tower of London and the Globe Theatre. They made basic variations (one floor, two floors with different roof types) and LEGO'd them together.

"We went several times to England to shoot buildings for textures and photogrammetry that were left over from the 16th century," Weigert suggests. "We basically went everywhere from the Scottish border in Wales all the way down to the south and found every little village that we could use for assets to build the city."

OGEL software created the 17th century buildings.

The OGEL software was customized in-house primarily because of the nature of the crooked design, which was also part of its charm. They worked regularly in 3ds Max with both hand and automated work. They wanted to adhere to the map and accurately depict what London supposedly looked like.

"We had more than 300 shots and a second unit team that shot a few back plates in England, but only a few of those were used," adds Weigert."It was all shot in Germany, using both interior and exterior greenscreens. We had entire sequences of 50 to 60 shots where it was just the actors walking or riding in front of greenscreens on stage, and we would build the entire environment for it, which was also accurate. When we were looking at old British films, even up to a few years ago, they were always shot on the same locations with the permission of the Heritage Trust. We didn't want to do that. We wanted to use visual effects to create history as it was, so we built the White Hall Palace, for instance, which was Queen Elizabeth's home. It doesn't exist anymore and is in a totally different place and looks totally different. But we built it accurate to old paintings."

Ironically, the original White Hall was more of a red brick palace. "The interesting thing about the old one was that it had actually been built over a long period of time, and they kept adding to it, so there are at least two or three different styles on the outside," adds Engel.

While we've certainly been inside the Globe many times in movies, what's new in Anonymous are the wide panoramas of London across the Thames. "We had several sweeping helicopter or 'balloon' shots that show sweeping vistas," Weigert continues. " There was a lot of detail in these vistas, not only thousands of people arriving at the Globe, but also row boats, ships on the Thames that have sail animation blowing in the wind, cats on roofs, birds and chickens and cows in the street, even laundry blowing in the wind."

Before.

After.

This required a lot of R&D for new projection mapping techniques and moving the assets around in the compositing realm, allowing for quicker turnaround.

"When you do something in 3D, you can never see it in real time," Weigert suggests. "You have to wait for the picture to render, then you have to wait for all the frames to render to then put it into comp and then to see the results. So we tried to move away from that and do as much as we could with projection techniques in Fusion, which was the software of choice for this project. And we together worked with eyeon to develop new tools, one of which was full 3D water as a compositing package inside Fusion, so we had almost real time feedback on our water of the River Thames; we did 3D backgrounds with projected images must faster. For instance, we'd only render a still frame in the 3D package and then re-projected that in Fusion. And we'd use that and add camera moves.

"We wanted those shots to look as real and as immersive as possible. Roland likes to create these shots to put things in perspective and guide you and give you a sense of scale."

Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and editor of VFXWorld. He has a new blog, Immersed in Movies (www.billdesowitz.com), and is currently writing a book about the evolution of James Bond from Connery to Craig, scheduled for publication next year, which is the 50th anniversary of the franchise.

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