Bigger than Ben Hur

Technicolor’s VFX studio Mr.X worked on over 500 shots for Ben-Hur, primarily on the signature chariot race. As the project changed during edit this translated into about 250 shots in the film. At one time the chariot race was almost twice as long as it appears in the final edit.


The team won the work by doing a horse test. Not known for their equine work, MGM was so impressed with the test, they sent a team over to check Mr X actually did the test in-house and to discuss signing them up for the remake of the classic 1959 film directed by William Wyler and starring Charlton Heston. “They had never seen work like this from us before so they actually sent people to vet us and make sure we could do the work – which was fun and flattering to be honest”, commented Visual Effects supervisor Aaron Weintraub.

There is a reason for the saying, something is “bigger than Ben Hur“. In 1959 the film defined ‘epic spectacle’ in an era of religious ‘sand and sandal’ films such as the Ten Commandments.  One of the most celebrated Technicolor films of the last century Ben-Hur, would go on to win  11 Academy Awards – including Best Picture.   The film’s most memorable moment, a heart-pounding chariot race that left viewers clinging to their seats, set the standard for action sequences in filmmaking for decades to come.

That same classic chariot sequence also set a challenging benchmark for director Timur Bekmambetov’s creative team in their 2016 re-telling of Ben-Hur.

Here is the test that won Mr X the challenging work a year before principle photography:

The test shows not only a turntable, but the rigging, structure and the then finally the team used a clip from a previous project and added a matching horse into the shot. Interestingly the quarter horse featured in this test stands several hands higher than the horses that were used in the film, so this horse was not used in production, but aspects such as the controllable skin elasticity added to the realism of the final work.

Undaunted by the technical and artistic complexity of the chariot race sequence, the Mr. X team created visual effects that blended seamlessly with the aggressive principal photography. The main unit shot a lot of footage of real horses but with only the lower section of the Circus Tiberius set. This included creating and animating 32 horses, eight chariots, and eight charioteers, a process taking over 18 months to complete. Each animated horse was simulated in terms of muscles, skin, and hair to a high level of detail.

The CG Supervisor at Mr X, Chris MacLean, explains that “we started with an anatomical model of the horse, we then built muscles and a fascia. Our R&D led us to an approach that used Maya and Ncloth for almost all the muscle, fascia and skin simulation, kind of building off the great work Andy van Straten had come up with at Weta” he explains. “Once we did a test of that we were pretty excited at the level of results we were able to get”. The team animated the horses with “a nice IK (inverse kinematics) rig, and any of the animation we baked out to an FK (forward kinematics) set of joints, which we then imported into the dynamic simulation rig with FBX and we allowed the Nucleus solver to take care of the fascia and muscles which we simulated together.. and then we exported the fascia and went into the skin simulation for the fine wrinkles”. For the hero shots the team would then feed into the ncloth sims for the tack and the hair simulation for the mane and tail. Finally, all of these additional simulations plus the main body of the horse were handed over to their lighting pipeline for Houdini and then rendered in Mantra. “It was the first decision to render everything in Mantra, we wanted everything in one renderer and there was not one shot rendered anywhere else” explained MacLean.

In addition to the horses, and stunt double digital replacements on the principle actors, the main unit shot the Circus with a wet down to avoid dust. The vast amounts of dust and sand kicked up in the final shots were tracked in and added by Mr X using Houdini. The team looked at a deep pipeline but decided against it. In an effort to provide a very brittle and sharp short shutter look the editorial team added to the low motion blur effects that Mr X did by skip framing the kicked up dirt in the close up shots. While the main volume of dust remains on screen the editors cut frames out of the close up dust and debris so it popped more. Given there is so little temporal cohesion on such matter close to camera it is impossible to notice the skip frame approach but the net effect enhances the short shutter look when the camera is down in the action, “and makes the action seem faster” explained Weintraub.

Some of the principle photography was shot with Go-Pro cameras, and even more was rendered CGI made to look as if it had also been shot with a Go-Pro as the director wanted to enhance the sense that the entire race was covered “as best they could” on set. This meant replicating the lensing and artifacts of the Go-Pro which has a rolling shutter.

The director Timur Bekmambetov decided to shoot the chariot race in Italy at the famous Cinecittà Studios, Cinecittà in Rome. While stunt riders were used for the secondary racers, for the two principal cast they had blind drivers, so an additional chariot driver was hidden in the chariot. This meant for any wider shots where you see the heroes below the waist Mr X would often have to paint out the blind driver, and an extra tack and reins, or replace the chariot itself with a new digital chariot.

For the film’s Circus Tiberius set, Mr. X digitally up-scaled a physically-constructed 675 ft-long chariot racing stadium by adding some 60,000 spectators with motion-captured performances and attire representative of the various diverse Mediterranean cultures of the time. While the set extension is a major undertaking, the other, perhaps unexpected, side effect of not having a real stadium was the lack of shadows that it would cast. Thus Mr X not only had to deal with the days of principle photography being shot in a variety of cloud covers and times of day – but parts of the race track had to artificially be placed in shadow for both CG sequences and live action.

For the crowds, the team used Massive, based on a huge Mo-Cap session the team did. “We would, per shot, also add these nice vignettes of live action into the crowd to just break up the Massive agents and make sure the crowd did not look repeated” says Weintraub. The team had three dedicated machines running the whole post process just working on the crowds, and refining the look. This was in part due to the Massive cloth sim over the crowd sim, which was a first for Mr X.


The Ben-Hur  360° Video Experience

The Mr X team also leveraged some of the film’s CG elements, to create a 360° video sequence that puts the viewer in Ben Hur’s chariot.   The idea for the 360 came late in production and Mr X were keen to explore this new avenue and produce the entire CG sequence. All the assets used in the 360 are the same models from the main film with simplified rendering and less detail on things such as the horse hairs for example. “The only difference is we used the fascia simulation and not the skin simulation after all there were 3000 frames to simulate!” explains MacLean.  The horse’s hair is still simulated as a full Nucleus sim but the team did some tricks for the hair collisions in Houdini to avoid tack and body collisions and then rendered it with slightly less hair. To experience the charioteer’s first-person point of view, one can view the race at the Circus Tiberius in 360. Click here for the 360° chariot race.

The Original 1959 fish lap counter.

BTW: If you look carefully the iconic ‘water fish’ that demonstrate the laps completed – that were featured in the original 1959 Ben Hur – are in the new film and in the 360 CGI version! A nod to the original epic some 57 years ago.