Special Effects: The Truth About the Amazing Opening Shot of War Horse’s Cavalry Charge

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Could you hear me cheer earlier this week when the British BAFTA film award nominees were announced?

Some critical people who made me love War Horse were at the top of the list for individual awards: Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, production designers Rick Carter and Lee Sandales and the special visual effects crew of Ben Morris and Neil Corbould were nominated–along with the sound crew and composer John Williams, who wrote the score.

There’s one special scene that they had to build.

You won’t believe which scene!

We hear so much about Spielberg’s comments that the Devon landscape served as a character in the film, but so did the artificial landscape created by Carter and Sandales for the war scenes. There was no natural No Man’s Land for a location–they had to build it.

And there’s one special scene that they also had to build. You won’t believe which scene! When I read the article in The Telegraph, I was stunned. How could anyone create this much magic from an emtry field?

War Horse News gold logo (small)From an interview with actor Tom Hiddleston (Captain Nicholls): “The battle was shot at Stratfield Saye House in north Hampshire, the estate of the Duke of Wellington. ‘It was one of the most amazing days of my life,’ Hiddleston recalls. ‘One hundred and 20 horses waiting in line in a phalanx of military formation, and everything about the context was real except for the bullets.’

But The Telegraph’s Sally Williams corrected Hiddleston and, insodoing, spilled the beans. Or the wheat. Or whatever that waving field of grain would have yielded in harvest. Sally tells us:

“This isn’t strictly true, as in order to create the desired effect of men and horses streaming like ghosts from a field of reeds, plants were imported from another part of the country. ‘There was a marsh in the south of London still in bloom,’ Rick Carter, the production designer, has said. ‘We went there and paid a farmer to cut his whole field down, then we put the reeds in styrofoam’.”

But it didn’t stop there–there were rows like narrow paths through the reeds for the horses to follow.

How many horses were really in the grainfield scene? Here's the British cavalry charging through the open toward the German camp. (DreamWorks photo)

Then the task was passed to the geniuses at digital film effects consulting company Framestore, who literally multiplied the number of horses and riders following those paths. In a Below The Line interview with Framestore’s compositing supervisor Chris Zeh, the digital animator said,

“The sequence was supposed to show many dozens of British soldiers hiding in this field of reeds, but they had neither sufficient reeds nor soldiers to make it work. Over nearly 30 shots we filled the landscape with reeds – not just 2D but 3D – and soldiers. And we helped fill the air with seeds floating from the reeds.”

The more I learn about War Horse, the more amazed I am. And the more I want to see it all over again (again).

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Be brave! Entrench yourself in WAR HORSE NEWS on the web: 1) Bookmark WarHorseBlog.com; 2) Grab the RSS feed; 3) Follow @WarHorseNews on Twitter; 4) “Like” the War Horse News page on Facebook; 5) Circle War Horse News on Google +. Leave your questions and comments here on the blog and we’ll try to help you! WAR HORSE NEWS is written for moviegoers, horse lovers and history buffs by horse-specialist journalist Fran Jurga and hosted by Equisearch.com.

We’re Behind You, Major Stewart: “Keep Calm and Be Brave” T-shirts

Major Stewart (played by Sherlock Holmes actor Benedict Cumberlatch) would approve! This is a t-shirt sold on etsy.com and is a mixed metaphor of "Keep calm and carry on"(a British homefront slogan from World War II) and Major Stewart's advice to his cavalry troop as they launched the famous cavalry charge in the War Horse film. It's actually not half-bad advice...

“Be Brave, Fear God and Honor the King”: Spielberg’s Cavalry Charge Focuses on the Horses, Not the Carnage

It begins with a directive to be brave, to fear God, and to honor the King:

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It continues with a rustle of tall grain, and a surging forward of a hundred horses as one:

And it ends with…well, let’s just say this is just the beginning of the war for Joey.

It’s one of several war scenes from Steven Spielberg’s film War Horse that you’ll probably remember forever: the cavalry charge. Both the training for and the execution of it in the film fail to explain much about the actual precise military tactic known as a “cavalry charge”.

But what the scene lacks in explanation, it more than makes up for in excitement and fantastic horses-at-a-gallop photography.

cavalry charge museum exhibit design

A cavalry charge is the centerpiece of the National Army Museum's fantastic "War Horse: Fact or Fiction" exhibit in London. (Image: dexigner.com)

If you saw Spielberg’s film Saving Private Ryan, you may be dreading the way that he will portray the slaughter of horses and men in this scene. But this is not Saving Private Ryan. This is a different Spielberg, a different film, a different story.

A recruiting poster for the US Cavalry promised a friendship.

“I did not want to show, in the cavalry charge [depicted in the film's second act], this slaughter of all that cavalry,” Spielberg said in his livestreamed online interview before the film’s premiere. “It gave me a chance to show what was likely the last cavalry charge, because of the advance of technology. This story allowed me to be a bit more mythological, to be able to show cavalry charging and then in the next cut show a riderless horse jumping over machine guns.”

Be sure to go see War Horse at a theater with as wide a screen as possible. While the action may focus on what Joey is doing in the foreground, it seems like every square foot of the big screen has details to absorb, action going on, horses doing something, people doing something for or with horses: It’s a tapestry, and no scene is more elegantly woven–or more unforgettable–than the British cavalry charge.

The film-making style that Hollywood has embraced for the past 25 years has been all about the tight close-up. Don’t except to count Tom Hiddleston’s eyelashes, or to see the clinches in Joey’s hooves. Spielberg stands back–way back–and his camera captured this film in the extravaganza wide-screen style of John Ford’s westerns, of Ben-Hur, of Gone with the Wind and more recently, of Out of Africa.

When the horses gallop forward as one, you feel the theater shake. You’re there. Hang on tight. Grab some mane. Just don’t spill the popcorn.

Be brave, moviegoers!

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Be brave! Entrench yourself in War Horse News on the web: 1) Bookmark WarHorseBlog.com; 2) Grab the RSS feed; 3) Follow @WarHorseNews on Twitter; 4) “Like” the War Horse News page on Facebook; 5) Circle War Horse News on Google +. Leave your questions and comments here on the blog and we’ll try to help you!