BlueBolt assembles The Last Kingdom armies with Golaem

Michael Ercolano, 3D Generalist at BlueBolt comes back to BlueBolt's work on The Last Kingdom, the historical TV Show based on Bernard Cornwell’s novels The Saxon Stories. BlueBolt has been working on The Last Kingdom since 2015 and the scale and realism of the crowds had increased every season, until the latest feature special "Seven Kings Must Die". 

Can you present yourself and the studio?
My name is Michael Ercolano and I’m a 3D Generalist at BlueBolt.
BlueBolt is an independent VFX studio based in London founded in 2009 working on high end TV and feature film and capable of delivering a wide range of VFX. One area BlueBolt specialises in is CG environments and crowd simulation.

How long have you been working on the The Last Kingdom?
I joined BlueBolt in March 2021 and immediately started working on it. I had the pleasure of working on all of season 5 and the feature special “Seven Kings Must Die”, led by our VFX Supervisor Richard Frazer and 3D Supervisor James Aston.

What was the size of your team and how long have you worked on this project?
From a 3D standpoint we were roughly a team of seven people working on The Last Kingdom with an animator joining us sometimes to help us out cleaning up motion capture.
We worked on season five full time for about 7-8 months finishing all shots by the end of 2021. Seven Kings Must Die immediately entered pre-production after that, meaning that we only took a small break before starting working on the feature film and worked on it up until the end of October 2022.

Is there a difference between working on the TLK TV Shows or on the movie? 
There really has not been much difference, in fact we were able to repurpose most of our assets and tools we developed working on the previous seasons and use them on the movie. The amount of shots we delivered and assets we had to build for the movie wasn’t much different from season 5 so our workflow and pipeline did not change.

Can you describe how many shots you did and which kind of shots?
BlueBolt has been the sole vendor for all The Last Kingdom seasons and the movie, delivering a total of roughly 3570 VFX shots, which I would say is a pretty impressive number.
Personally I’m not sure how many shots I worked on, probably around 50 shots or more and they have mostly been Golaem crowd shots.

How many characters are there in the shot? How close are they from the camera?
We had to recreate battles with many armies so most of our shots had several hundred characters marching, fighting and pushing each other around but we also created some shots where we added just a few characters next to real actors.
Season 5 was a big jump in asset quality so we could place characters just a few metres from camera and they were able to hold up really well.
In some cases our CG characters extensions ended up completely replacing real extras because they performed better with their shield and sword.

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Did you have to replace or match real extras with Golaem characters?
All of the characters we created had to match real extras. All of the armies in The Last Kingdom have characteristics and features we had to identify and recreate in our CG doubles.
Some had capes, others fur, some had helmets, others mohawks. The challenge was to recreate many soldiers that felt part of the same army but at the same time they all had to look different. We ended up building several variations of apparel, weapons and groom for each character for Golaem to pick from and on top of that every character had five different body types ranging from slim build to large build. To make this process as streamlined as possible, we created some python tools that eased the generation and rigging of the different body types. We also created a custom Golaem Character Creator that would help us generate a Golaem character, with all of its variations and rendering types, in one single click.

Could you give a bit of details about the challenges or features used in the shots?
In episode 10 of the season finale and in the movie, two main battles took place in which armies had to push each other around to use terrain features as weapons or advantage points for the battle. It was a really important element from a storytelling standpoint so we had to make sure we got it right.
This proved to be a real challenge and the most difficult series of shots I worked on The Last Kingdom since we needed to get several armies formed by hundreds of characters moving together as a single organic mass, with parts of the armies flowing in different directions.
Animations played a key role in this, we used our in house motion capture suit to capture some bespoke animations that had some specific speeds and beats in footsteps and a range of weapon activity to be used based on the distance from the frontline combat.
I had the chance to wear the mocap suit and beat our VFX Supervisor with a bat while he pushed me around with a cushion.
These animations were then used in our simulations to get the desired flow in the battle grounds.

How did the Layout tool help you make the shots faster?
The Layout tool is definitely a powerful tool when used with caution. All of our shots relied heavily on it to achieve our final results.
It was really tempting to use the layout tool from the start to fix simulation issues but due to the amount of iteration most shots went through it was wiser to perfect the simulation to get as close as possible to the final result and then use the Layout tool to fix all the small issues in the simulation when the overall look of the simulation was approved and we were close to finalising the shot. Our VFX Supervisor quickly became used to the sentence “that is something we will fix in the Layout pass”.
Overall though, the layout tool has mostly been used for retiming or fixing intersections and other simulation issues that would have been impossible or really time consuming to fix at simulation stage.
The best thing is that it gives the ability to deal with minor feedback from the supervisors or client without having to re-simulate your crowd.

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Is there a part of the project you are most proud of?
Here at BlueBolt we are all generalists so we are able to take on any stage of the 3D production, from modelling to delivering of lighting renders, which, in my opinion, is something really satisfying in itself.
I also wrote all the python tools we used for which I feel particularly proud of. Overall I developed several tools and workflows to help with the creation of Goalem characters, I built a motion library and publishing tools to allow non technical artists and animators to contribute to our Golaem motion library without needing to learn new tools.
Knowing that this has helped other artists focus more on the artistic side, speeding up their work and overall improving the quality of the work we deliver, brings extra satisfaction.

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