Guy Ritchie’s frenetic “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword,” which flopped at the box office in its opening weekend, might have been too leery of “Game of Thrones” for its own good. It mixes Arthurian mythology with the director’s signature grit and temporal trickery, while throwing in a mashup “Lord of the Rings,” “The Lion King,” and “The Little Mermaid,” among others.
Still, the opening siege of Camelot is a visual feast, boasting impressive VFX from Framestore. It features three giant elephants larger than a football field attacking the royal castle in the English mountains, surrounded by a viaduct and valley, some overheated sorcery, and, of course, the legendary sword, Excalibur.
Everything about the opening thwarts our expectations: Mordred (Rob Knighton), the traitor, appears a generation earlier as a magician (or mage) to overthrow Arthur’s father, King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana). But Pendragon wields Excalibur and beheads Mordred, temporarily saving Camelot until he’s betrayed by his brother Vortigern (Jude Law). This sets up Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) as a combination of Moses and Robin Hood to regain his crown.
Here Comes the Elephants
The opening sequence took 18 months to complete and underwent several iterations. “It was challenging to us because it was changing all the time, but it basically stuck to what we needed to do,” said Christian Kaestner, Framestore’s visual effects supervisor.
Yet Framestore had to redo the opening shot of the herd striking Camelot. Initially, they were heard through the fog and the attack was more gradual. But why hide the elephants? This entailed a more ambitious CG build of characters and environments.
But there’s nothing fantastical about the animation of the beasts (which recall the battle elephants from “The Return of the King”), despite their enormous size (300 feet).
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture
“We inverted an approach that we take when shooting miniatures,” said Kaestner. “We took regular walk cycles, matched them to real elephants, and slowed everything down and refined it from there. That gave us the big scale. It was a good guide for us to animate something in real scale, real world.”
Firing Up the Mage
Another challenge was the mage, who was inside the wooden fortress atop his elephant. To make the fortress visually interesting, they combined burned wood and metal.
The hard part was what happened inside. The sorcerer’s in a trance and has a fire ring around him. “We ended up enhancing the fire in there and we copied that into the eyes because he’s in a trance, the same thing that we did with the elephants,” said Kaestner.
Making Excalibur Less Magical
Framestore also went back and forth with the mighty sword that Pendragon wields. “The sword was part of the evolving look,” Kaestner said. “It was something that was quite magical to begin with, then it became real and less interaction and less effects.
“He walks toward the mage and the fire separates with the sword, and we put a little particle simulation on it to get a heat glaze, and just a little bit of shimmer and glow.”
Again, the sword needed to feel gritty, like the elephants.