Horses in Film: Equine Mechanics — The Digital Horse

by SIAN LAWSON | ARCHIVE DOCUMENT | FEB 2005

In the last two years 38 films have required cuts to remove “instances of real animal cruelty” in order to make them legal for release in the UK. These include horses made to fall using techniques likely to result in serious injury as in House of Flying Daggers, and horses ridden off cliffs and illegal falls in The Trail Beyond or Paradise Canyon, horses being goaded to leaping around and falling by the manipulation of wires attached to their heads in Janbaaz and cruel treatment of a horse in Never Say Never Again.

In many cases the American versions were released uncut. Even in the UK where the scenes are acknowledged as cruel and removed, this is not seen as a grievous enough crime to ban the film. Do we really still need to be this barbaric?

I am currently developing a new tool which will allow the realistic simulation of horse motion and could remove the need for live horses on film sets altogether, making this sort of film cruelty a thing of the past.

Many films and computer games today feature scenes using horses, some of them in complicated stunts and some just standing around, adding the right atmosphere. Horror stories are told the world over of how horses have suffered and even died for our art in the past.

Recently many institutions including the American Humane Association, legally responsible for animal use in American films, have been making great progress in improving standards. Specially trained stunt horses are increasingly used for scenes which contain bucking, rearing or falling, and digital animals are beginning to cut down on the use of live ones, but there is still such a long way to go.

The use of digital horses is a valuable means of reducing the need for horses on set and in particular horses in dangerous or cruel situations. Battles scenes can have as many horses as you wish, behaving however you want, and no horse need be at risk, frightened, overworked, tripped, hurt or even bored. It is only limited by the animators’ ability to produce realistic horses. In the film industry I produce a lot of work with motion capture – the technique used to create Gollum in Lord of the Rings.

This uses specially designed cameras to record the real motion that can be used by animators to produce digital horses with the level of realism required by today’s audiences. In the last year I have provided the horse movement for such films as King Arthur (2004), Alexander (2004) and Kingdom of Heaven (2005, Ridley Scott).

Motion capture allows movements to be filmed in controlled safe environments and to be linked together creating a realistic sequence that the horse did not actually perform. However it is not possible to provide the movement for sequences such as a horse falling or rearing unless the equine actor actually performs this.

To solve this dilemma I have begun to create a very complicated bio-mechanical tool called the Digital Equine. This will allow horses and their movements to be completely computer simulated, replacing the role of horse motion capture in the film industry and even removing the need for real horses altogether.

Why do I think I should be able to do this? I am a bio-mechanics expert with a PhD from the University of Oxford, a First Class Degree in Equine Science, currently based at a prominent equine biomechanics research group. However I am also an ex-professional horse rider, licensed to supervise, train and exhibit performing animals and so I have not just an academic knowledge of horse anatomy, bio-mechanics and locomotion but also a practical knowledge of horses and their behaviour. I work with my Husband, a physicist and animator, and together we head Equine Mechanics (www.equinemechanics.com).*

To enable the highest quality of motion to be simulated Equine Mechanics’ Digital Equine model of the horse is painstakingly bio-mechanically correct including bone shapes, joints, tendons, muscles, ligaments, mass and inertial properties. It provides real motion as it effectively uses a virtual horse musculo-skeletal system. It can then be adjusted for breed and type and riders can then be added or not at the animators whim. The only thing it does not include is the component of behaviour. This has the advantage of allowing the director to choose the horse’s response but as with all film-making techniques does require a certain amount of behavioural knowledge by the operator. Would the horse have been scared? How would it have reacted?

There is a simulation product on the market at the moment. There are no horse specialists however a company has tried to produce some equine simulation tools. Sadly their horses do not move convincingly, are not anatomically correct and do not behave in a realistic manner and so have never really been applied in the animation market. So far these simulations have only been designed to replace dramatic death scenes and not general horse usage and so have not been well received by directors. What is needed is a simulation tool where the horses do not just move right they also stand right, even fidgeting and twitching realistically. This is what I hope to provide.

The software would only simulate the horse movement and, as with motion capture, animators will then need to be used to create the final look, lighting, shading and compositing. Filming with live horses is actually a very expensive technique, mostly in terms of crew time, and this pipeline should be a competitive alternative even once the cost of animation is included. Motion capture is currently the most appropriate and humane method to capture large scenes or difficult animal stunts, but whereas motion capture is prohibitively expensive, and therefore underused, I expect this technology to be much cheaper. Of course, it also has the advantage that, unlike real horses, it can be made to do whatever you want it to do!

The intention is to release the technology to the movie industry in two stages: Firstly the offer of a ‘simulation’ service, to include an optional animation service, and secondly the release of the software as a product once it is seen to be developed enough that anyone would be able to use it and still get good results.

It has been suggested that the American Humane Association increase its number of inspectors, or ban animals on set altogether, however this is neither likely nor practical. And even the American Humane Association cannot stop cruelty in films like the House of Flying Daggers which was filmed in Asia.

As we enter the age of high-technology films I hope that this sort of progress in computer graphics can mean that soon all films can carry the “No Animals Were Harmed. . .” ending credit disclaimer without so much as an inspector on set.

Many people have stepped forward to call for an improvement in the horse’s lot. This time we are going further: We are offering an alternative.

* Link no longer active.
________________________

Written by SIAN LAWSON, February 15, 2005.

1 Animal killing producers of House of Flying Daggers: Bill Kong and Zhang Yimou
2 The Trail Beyond: Horses driven off cliffs; Director Robert Bradbury; Producer Paul Malvern
3 Carl Pierson directed the horse torture in Paradise Canyon
4 Janbazz Producer: Gajendra Singh
5 Irvin Kershner, Director, Never Say Never Again 

From the Int’l Fund for Horses (fund4horses.org website) archives.


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