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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