Creating large gatherings in a post-lockdown world

Using an example of a funeral scene from ‘The Crown’, Union VFX outlines how it can be done.

Right now it seems that organizing a large gathering to film crowd scenes is a thing of the past. So, if your story needs a large crowd, what can you do? Some well-established visual effects solutions certainly already exist.

Simon Hughes, creative director at Union VFX in London, which has worked on a number of projects where crowds were required, says “it’s possible to create a believable fully CG crowd using an established pipeline. This can be augmented by utilizing existing plates from different types of projects to accommodate theatres, concerts etc.”

However, notes Hughes, it is likely that productions will still want flexibility to create their own bespoke crowds, something he adds is still definitely an option. “We can safely film new crowd elements by shooting individual participants or socially distanced slightly larger groups in costume against greenscreen to create something more bespoke. The same individual or small group can be captured numerous times in different clothing to provide variety.

“Motion capture can also be used to capture appropriate crowd reactions that will add to the final outcome,” adds Hughes. “This would enable us to use real people safely to populate large scenes for a great result.”

The approach in practice

An example of where Union VFX used this approach is a wide shot of Churchill’s Whitehall funeral that the studio created for The Crown in the opening episode of Season 3.

Union began the process by taking live action plates of Whitehall that were filmed at the same angle as the original archive footage of the funeral procession. The crowd VFX was necessary because of the unprecedented turnout; over 300,000 mourners who lined the streets of London.

You can see Union’s breakdown of this shot in the video, above. Meanwhile, here’s a step-by-step of the process that the studio notes would operate within COVID-19 safe shooting practices. Union’s DFX supervisor Dillan Nicholls explains the technique, noting the tweaks that would meet COVID-19 safe shooting practices.

1. Union VFX generated the crowd using individual ‘sprites’ shot from from multiple angles—the individuals making up these sprites were filmed spread out across large greenscreens between one and two metres apart—which were distributed using a particle system in Nuke.

The resulting individual crowd elements.

2. The sprites were grouped by angle, assigned as particles in areas, then randomized and positioned on the pavements to create the form of the crowd. Individuals and military figures were then positioned along the front.

Crowd placement begins.

3. Union VFX also added people inside the buildings watching through the windows, smoke, additional crowd elements, and carried out some sky replacement work to add a more texture to the iconic national event.

Final shot.

Check out Union VFX’s website for other examples of their approach to crowds, such as in Yesterday and The Two Popes. Certainly new ways of filming and achieving story-points is going to mark future production and visual effects for the coming months.

One Reply to “Creating large gatherings in a post-lockdown world”

  1. This ‘crowd’ breakdown is fantastic. Gives me inspiration for when I eventually create my own movie one day in the future.

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