Fullscreen finds the crowd simulation Grail with Golaem

Philippe Fournier, Fullscreen’s CEO, and Jean Burtschell, Crowd Artist take us behind the curtains of the war machines and armies attacking King Arthur’s castle in Kaamelott - Premier Volet.

In France, nearly everyone knows the Kaamelott TV Show universe and jokes. It ran for 4 years on French TV as daily 5 min vignettes from 2005 to 2009. Of course it borrows a lot from the original Kaamelott story including King Arthur, Guenievre, and other knights, locations and legends, but along many seasons and episodes, it led viewers in its own interpretation of the legend. It is maybe as famous as Star Wars, except that it is not known for its spectacular visual effects to be seen in theaters, but for its actors' play as well as fabulous dialogs and gimmicks. So what does it have to do with Golaem you would ask?

More than ten years after the end of the TV show, Alexandre Astier, the father of the Kaamelott TV Show, continues the story on big screens with a full 2 hours story: Kaamelott - Premier volet. Visual ambitions are higher, and this time we can finally see the armies which were only suggested in the TV Show. 

The movie had big ambitions but a limited budget for VFX, and that’s where Fullscreen entered, delivering a huge amount of quality shots which really support the movie and its story.

Can you present yourself and the studio?

Philippe Fournier: I started my career as a vfx artist in 1997 and founded Fullscreen in 2007. We work on visual effects for various formats: commercials, corporate movies, rides movies, motion design and  feature films. When working in vfx you have to constantly stay updated and adapt yourself. The size of our studio allows us to be flexible and very creative. Kaamelott is our first big VFX production.

Jean Burtschell: I am 27 years old and I have been working in Paris on feature films and commercials for 5 years. I have always wanted to work on visual effects for cinema, so right after finishing high school I went to ArtFx, a well known vfx school in the south of France.
I discovered and started learning Golaem when working on my graduation movie. Since then, I have been mostly working on crowds with Golaem, but I also worked on FX with Houdini.

What was the size of your team and how long have you worked on this project?

Philippe: At first, we were supposed to work on the project for over one year. But because of the covid crisis, the release was delayed and the schedule was extended over 1.5 years, but not full time.
In total, we had 14 artists working on the movie for Fullscreen. Many were big fans of the universe, their motivation was crucial along the production, and we worked in a very good atmosphere.

Jean: I worked on Kaamelott for exactly 1001h spread over 1 year. I handled all crowds but also many FX as there was a lot of work with the castle destruction and the glowing sword of King Arthur: Excalibur. 
The first months I was working with an animator who was rigging our characters and creating some custom animations when needed. Then I completed our animation stock with the Golaem Character Pack and free animations from Mixamo.

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Can you describe how many shots you did and which kind of shots?

Philippe: We worked on around 400 shots. We had invisible effects like cables to remove, set extensions, dark flames on the sword, the full 3D castle and its destruction, transition effects, and mainly the army scenes.

On set, we had only a few war machines, built by Set Decorator, Denis Seignan’s team. Our role was to multiply soldiers and war machines.
Our team created war machines and 3d soldiers. Thanks to Golaem tools we could add variety to the soldiers crowd (clothes, textures, faces, and all accessories: hats, weapons, shields…).
For the castle attack shots, we had 4 steps: approach, entanglement, disentanglement, attack. We prepared animations in Maya for each step and assembled everything thanks to Golaem.

The 3d soldiers were supposed to be far from the camera to complete close shots or to populate wide shots. At most, we had 400 soldiers and around 60 war machines.
But in the end, on some close shots we had to put soldiers in the foreground. We were not sure to have the needed level of details in our assets, but in the end, the texture diversity and the amount of soldiers helped ! Maybe our assets were not as light as we thought!

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Could you give a bit of details about the challenges or features used in the shots?

Philippe: The most challenging point of the project was to choreograph the war machines moved by the soldiers, handled by Patrice Vila for the characters rigging and Jean for crowds.
The disentanglement of the war machines was choreographed by Bianca Li and modeled by Pierre Magnol. We had to reproduce this ballet with a wide variety of motions for the war machines: swivelling from left to right, moving forward or backward, passing of the mantlets, and wide rotations.

Jean will give you some details about all he had to handle: ground contacts for the war machines, wheel motions, flags, soldiers hands contacts, etc

Another very important step, sometimes underestimated, the compositing team had to rotoscope all soldiers and war machines to be able to put digidoubles in the background. At the beginning, we were supposed to integrate soldiers in camera plates, but while editing, the director felt that he needed more freedom in the camera moves. We then had to recreate a 3d hill identical to the one on set, with different wild plants that we made with Maya Mash. Fortunately, we had a few shots made with a drone to help us match the topography and vegetation. 

In the end, we made 100 shots including crowds, among them 17 full 3d shots in 4K.

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Jean: My biggest challenge was to find how to synchronize up to 9 soldiers with the war machine they were pushing. We had to pay attention that they were keeping in touch with the machine while its orientation was changing because of bumps on the ground.

As Philippe said, we had different war machines: siege towers, trebuchets and mangonels. They had to perform various specific animations for the choreography, on top of keeping their positions while stopped or moving. During the choreography, the machines are rotating which is making things even more complicated because for example, soldiers from the left must walk faster than the ones at the right hand side, etc.

For example, for a turning trebuchet turning with 7 soldiers around. With a classic setup, we would have to set up a war machine entity, plus one for each soldier, then load each animation and declare all of them as a group so that Golaem knows they must play the animation and move together.
Then we would have to handle the ground adaptation, Golaem has many options for that, but I also needed the soldier’s hands to stay in touch with the machine. I could have done this with an IK behavior, but it was even more set up and given the number of different machines and situations we had, I thought that the scene would become increasingly complex.

So I came up with this idea of treating the machine and its soldier as a whole, as a single entity. The machine and its 7 soldiers were linked to one joint and declared as a single character in Golaem. I could store all animations in a single file, hence making scene setup easier, and it also facilitated the ground adaptation/animation synchronization. It seemed to simplify everything.

However, there were so many joints in a single character that it was actually breaking an implicit limit in the Golaem software. So I contacted Golaem support, and they reworked their code in order to remove this limit and make this solution possible!

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How did the Layout help you make the shots faster?

Philippe: I will let Jean answer as he is the expert, even if I also tried Golaem too in order to adjust the positioning of the soldiers in some shots. I realized that creating a crowd requires a good analysis of the characters placement in the shots so that everything looks realistic!

Jean: The Golaem Layout tool has been a huge help for this project. Thanks to the Layout tool, most of the shots could be done very quickly without even having to set up or simulate soldiers' behavior. At the beginning of the project I created a bank of simulation which I then layouted in my shots. For example, I had a simulation with all my war machines going straight in front of them. On most of my shots, armies were just moving forward, so all I had to do was to load my simulation cache, and re-place them in the right location. Golaem was anyway re-adapting them to the ground.

The Layout Tool enabled us to set up our shots very fast, but also to be able to handle retakes in a snap. It saved us a lot of time!

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Is there a part of the project you are most proud of or which prevented you from sleeping?

Jean: Of course it is the choreography scenes, they were the most complex, but also the ones I am most proud of. It did not prevent me from sleeping, but I surely thought about how I was going to tackle them just before sleeping!

Philippe: It was an incredible project, first because of the hype of Kaamelott, but also because all artists dream about creating castles, armies and magic effects with CG! I am very proud of the Fullscreen team and the fact that we delivered so many shots despite the covid lockdown.
We did not suffer from any sleep deprivation, but we started technical tests as early as possible to anticipate what we will need, and we understood quickly that Golaem would be the right tool to succeed.
Anything else you would like to add?
Philippe: I would like to thank the whole Golaem team for their support all along the project and since the very beginning. Indeed, they were waiting for the movie, and they helped me meet Jean. Without him we could not have delivered all these quality crowds.

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