Inside '10,000 BC'

A documentary about mammoth hunters was the inspiration for Roland Emmerich's "10,000 BC." See more images from movies.
Photo courtesy Warner Bros.

After staging an alien invasion in "Independence Day," freezing New York with a modern ice age in "The Day After Tomorrow" and terrorizing it in "Godzilla," director Roland Emmerich has turned his attention to the prehistoric past for his latest cinematic spectacle -- and it was truly a mammoth undertaking. "10,000 BC" brings extinct saber-tooth tigers, woolly mammoths and ferocious "terror birds" to life with cutting-edge computer graphics. Creating these creatures posed significant challenges for the filmmakers, who also contended with fickle weather conditions on location in Africa and New Zealand.

The film, co-written by Emmerich and Harald Kloser, tells the story of D'Leh (Steven Strait), a young mammoth hunter who leads a small army in pursuit of the slave raiders who have kidnapped members of his tribe -- including the woman he loves, Evolet (Camilla Belle). The quest leads him into battle with a powerful, technically advanced civilization.


Emmerich based this fictional culture on the ancient Egyptians -- who don't appear in actual history until about seven centuries later. The idea came from a theory that the Egyptian pyramids were actually built by a much earlier lost civilization. "That gave us the possibility to encompass many thousands of years of human civilization, from hunter-gatherers to the first pyramid builders," Emmerich says.

T­­he initial inspiration for the film was a documentary on mammoth hunters -- but Emmerich, daunted by the prospect of creating herds of longhaired pachyderms, tabled the idea. But in 2001, the shaggy creature Sulley in "Monsters Inc." convinced him that computer software had improved enough for "10,000 BC" to start taking shape. But it was a long road to make it a reality -- and creating mammoths was no simple task, as we'll find out.


Mammoth Proportions

Two years of research and planning went into the creation of the mammoths and other ancient beasts in "10,000 BC."
Photo courtesy Warner Bros.

More than two years of planning, design, testing and rendering went into the creation of the mammoths and the other CG animals in "10,000 BC," which contains nearly 700 digital effects shots. And this was before the animators really began work. Real mammoths could grow to 18 feet tall, and each animated beast was covered in "billions of hairs," says Emmerich. "They had to react to each other in a fashion that is very, very complicated."

In April 2005, visual effects supervisor Karen Goulekas -- who had worked with Emmerich on "Godzilla" and "The Day After Tomorrow" -- came aboard. Her first order of business, a year before filming commenced, was to figure out what the animals would look like.


All the artists had to work with were illustrations of the ancient creatures, so Goulekas -- and the effects houses she hired, including MPC and Double Negative in London -- zeroed in on the closest living equivalents. The crew set out on observational expeditions, taking photos and video footage of elephants, ostriches and big cats. Some visited the London Zoo, and Goulekas went to the Tala Game Reserve in Durban, South Africa, to gather images and footage.

"I went there with two HD cameras, one to shoot the side view and one to shoot the front view as the animal moved," she says. "You sync the two together and you can do rotomation and key frame over the images of the actual animal. It's like a poor man's motion capture."

Next, creature designer Patrick Tatopoulos' team built maquettes (3-D models) based on the concept art, and the proportions and shapes of the creatures continued to evolve over more than a year and a half. "As you're animating you realize you need longer legs, or whatever," Goulekas says. "Then you do animation tests for four to six months and you learn what the problems are."

The mammoth design resembles an elephant, of course, in terms of features and skin texture. The mammoths didn't pose a problem in terms of facial movements (aside from eye blinks, ear flicks and open mouths) -- but there are many mammoths in the movie, all covered in long, individual hairs. In one scene they had to interact with a net made of mammoth fur. Initial renderings on the mammoths took more than 16 hours, and the fur eventually had to be toned down. "They started to look too puffy," Goulekas says. "Thinning out the fur helped our rendering time [and] made them look fiercer."



Human-CG Interaction

Is the actor in this scene real or computer-generated?
Photo courtesy Warner Bros.

Besides the creature work by MPC and Double Negative, there was additional CG for crowds, backgrounds, flying arrows, sky shots and a Nile River sequence. They also created a digital lead actor. "MPC did some really believable Steven Straits, where he's running among the mammoths," Karen Goulekas says. "He [takes up] more than a third of the screen and he looks totally photo-real."

Otherwise, it was a case of actual humans interacting with CG creatures, which posed a different sort of challenge for the actors and filmmakers. "As the director, you're sometimes the only one that knows what you're shooting -- not even the cameraman knows," Emmerich says. "You're always saying, 'Trust me.'"


Acting opposite things that aren't there requires a certain amount of imagination. But it's technical information -- like spatial references and eye lines -- that makes it convincing, and provisions were made for that on location. The actors watched "previsualization" footage of the creatures in the scene, and they used an 18-foot stick to imagine the proportions of a mammoth.

For a scene that involved a saber-tooth tiger trapped in a pit, Goulekas had special effects supervisor Dom Tuohy build a blue-foam facsimile and place it under branches and logs. For a terror birds sequence, "We had guys in blue suits with sticks and real-size terror bird heads on them that the actors could smash with their spears as they were fighting," she says. "Of course, later it was all [digitally] painted out."

Another sequence depicting four mammoths dragging giant blocks up a ramp sparked a different creative solution. "We had to make sure that the extras didn't walk through this probably 20-foot-wide area where the mammoths would be, so we stretched out blue netting material in the shape of a mammoth and put it on a circular base," Goulekas says. "There were crazy props all over the place."

Goulekas had a team of "data wranglers" on set during production. They kept busy getting camera angles, lens measurements and markers for the effects shots. "It's not like in the studio, where you put your marks up on the blue screen and you're done," she says. "We were constantly putting up and taking down markers. We'd put people's boyfriends and girlfriends to work when they visited the set."

Throughout production, the wranglers continuously gathered data, "photographing costumes, actors in costume, the environment, the sets, you name it," she says.

Changing weather conditions also came into play. "There were a lot of shots where we had to add or remove snow to match other shots," Goulekas says. "And you always [have to] change skies -- that's a given when you shoot outdoors."

But not every problem could be fixed digitally. Only 5 percent of "10,000 BC" was shot indoors, so the production often battled Mother Nature -- and lost.


Weather -- or Not

An Egyptian city in the middle of the Namibian desert
Photo courtesy Warner Bros.

Roland Emmerich originally planned to shoot the movie almost entirely in Africa but ran into some red tape there. On a scouting trip to New Zealand, however, he discovered the perfect location and decided to shoot more of the film there. But it wasn't exactly easy. "The mountains of New Zealand are much colder, and we had not planned costumes for that," he says. "We had our people running around half-naked. They were freezing."

He should have had a clue about what was to come when he chose a New Zealand spot called Snow Farm. "They said 'Snow in May doesn't stay,' but it did," Emmerich says. "I had to rewrite the script." And the weather issues didn't stop there -- rain delays were the culprit in Capetown, South Africa, and fog screwed up operations in Namibia.


While he won't get specific, Emmerich admits to going slightly over time and budget, which somewhat irks the usually punctual director. But it didn't get him into trouble with Warner Bros. "They were amazed that we didn't go over more," he says. "They were glad I found creative solutions."

One of his ingenious ideas involved the proto-Egyptian city that the crew erected in the Namibian desert, along with a 16-foot-high model replica the size of a soccer field. Helicopter shots of the city were replicated on the model with a Spydercam (a remote-control camera), and CG people and mammoths were added later. "You usually don't want to have models outside because all kinds of things can happen … but it worked out fine," Emmerich says.

Emmerich relished these and all the challenges of making "10,000 BC," believing that big, complicated blockbusters are what he was meant to do. "Little movies -- so many people can do that. It's not a challenge for me," he says. "I like to dream of big things. And they get bigger because I get better at it."

To learn more about "10,000 BC" and movie special effects, take a look at the links on the next page.


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  • Roland Emmerich interviewed Feb. 13, 2008
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