2012 SPARTACUS War of the Damned

The finale of the Spartacus saga was huge in scope; the ultimate showdown between the armies of Rome and the followers of rebel gladiator. There was only one practical way to deliver tens of thousands of people fighting to the death: Massive – the crowd simulation software developed for Lord of the Rings.

Setting up the Massive pipeline for Spartacus was a big challenge – I’d never seen this many shots of this complexity done at a TV turnaround pace, and the requirements of the script were enormous in both scale and behaviour.

Using Massive’s existing ‘ready-to-run’ agents and with custom agents created by Stephen Regelous, I embarked on a frenzy of simulation, revision, refinment, rendering and repairing. With renderwall processors running at 98 degrees Celsius during Wellington’s hottest summer in 20 years, I delivered shots of 40,000 agents in multiple-layered EXRs at resolutions of up to 8k and durations of up to 1500 frames.

Sheer insanity! The final result was worth the pain – incredible compositing of 3DCGI’s elements by Digipost and Cause+FX enabled Charlie McClellan and Peter Baustaedter to deliver some of the most complex, extensive and simply ‘Massive’ VFX shots ever seen on TV!

2011 SPARTACUS Vengence

For Spartacus Season Three the VFX requirements were a movable feast from 2.5D projected matte painting setups to camera solves and set extensions.

It was also the final call for our well established arena pipeline, and we were able to deliver render layers and crowd elements that looked better than ever before. The arena’s fiery destruction in episode five was a combination of complex rigid body dynamics, cloth simulations and hand animated fixes. Final compositing of all our elements was completed by DigiPost under the beautifully painterly art direction of Peter Baustaedter.

Late in the day, compositor Emrys Plaisted and I were given a major challenge: to replace the left eye of the character Oenomaus when it was cut out in the final episode. Although a physical prosthetic was used, it was decided to substitute a digital version after the shoot had wrapped. Delivering this effect in extreme close up was challenging, time consuming, exacting and ultimately very satisfying.

2010 SPARTACUS Gods of the Arena

Because of star Andy Whitfield’s tragic illness, the second season of Spartacus was a prequel – the arena that formed the centerpiece of the Series One didn’t exist yet!

We were still kept very busy with previs, set extensions and creating an improved version of the hilltop Ludus environment while the politics of Capua’s new arena played out on screen.

The storyline concluded with the Arena’s blood-soaked opening, and we were back in the swing of crowd behaviours and arena render passes, this time with shiny new textures and additional added banners and detailing.


My first TV commercial in 17 years! The ice hallway took a while to get right; whether the shader looks like ice or not is totally dependent on what is in the HDR environment map.

The heat pumps are all imaginary models based on existing rival brands without getting so specific that litigation would occur.

To streamline the effects, I convinced the production to stage the glass doors in the living room location itself. That meant that I only had to add reflections of the ice environment to the glass in order to tie the two shots together. Camera tracking and keying were handled by Emrys Plaisted.

2009 SPARTACUS Blood and Sand

Spartacus series was shot entirely on greenscreen stages with no real-world exteriors. I was charged with delivering the Arena environment. The arena itself was a complex asset with waving cloth and multiple pass renders, but the crowds which filled it were the real challenge.

Groups of 50 actors were shot from 15 camera angles (5 horizontal, 3 vertical) under 3 different lighting directions performing 6 different actions, with position and costume changes between each setup. Takes were selected and 250 frame sections were isolated. Then the task of roto cleanup, keying and plate prep was undertaken for 45,000 frames – a terabyte of footage!

Initially, to even preview a rough setup of a shot took almost a full day, so the first plugin written for 3DCGI’s Virtual Studio software was a crowd tile manager. Using an optimized version of the arena, Virtual Studio populated the seating with the appropriate crowd sequence based on camera angle and light direction, let you choose the behaviour the shot required, and slip the timing of each crowd tile to suit. After tweaking the result in real time, I’d output an HD quicktime for feedback. The time to first version was now less than 10 minutes! Approved layout information was then exported to AfterFx for polish using the 48 bit plates.

This accelerated workflow allowed us to deliver multiple complex HD shot layers to DigiPost for final compositing within a TV turnaround schedule.