Spotlight | The Mill’s 3D Lead Dan Warom on the art of creating a believable CG crowd

Thought February 2, 2021

Talk us through the art of creating a believable CG crowd

As always, everything starts with the director’s vision, everything we do is based entirely off the client’s creative.  With most sports projects, we’ll have several core components to reproduce: a stadium, a cg crowd of spectators and sometimes players, teams and officials at field level.  CG Crowds enable an easily accessible sense of scale to any project.  As humans we all know what a crowd looks like and being able to play with these expectations gives our clients the ability to push the boundaries of how a shot can look when you add that scale.

Starting with the stadium, we use LIDAR laser scanning technology to do a full survey of the stadium we’re filming in. This enables our asset teams to build a detailed 3D model of the entire stadium down to 5mm accuracy for our CG crowd to inhabit. We need the models to be this accurate in the event that we have to put CG people into live action seats, they line up correctly to the seating layout and grounds. In the event that we’re creating a custom 3D stadium, we’ll usually scan the set that it’s filmed in so we can use it as reference to build the CG environment around.

Once we have a CG stadium built, we need to fill it.  At The Mill we maintain a huge library of human assets including clothing, props and accessories as well as a diverse human digidouble library of various ethnicities, genders and ages. These assets can then be combined to the specifications of the brief to ensure the CG crowd reflects the creative requirements. Our human assets are built from detailed CG scans of humans which are then modelled to many levels of detail to ensure that the rendering process is as efficient as it can be.  After we assemble our assets we create our agents in the software we plan to simulate our crowd in.  For jobs in Maya we utilise Golaem to simulate our crowds and on jobs utilising Houdini, we can use either Houdini for simulation or render Golaem agents in Houdini.

Finally, when it comes to simulation, we once again refer to The Mill’s long history of crowd work to pull thousands of clips of motion capture from The Mill’s internal library into the crowds AI to create believable performances for our CG characters. This can be as simple as cheering and clapping up to procedural football games where CG players avoid and attack each other based on AI rules that the Crowd TD’s design.  Once the AI rules are created, we can then refer back to the CG stadium we built earlier, place the CG crowd into the stadium and hit ‘Go!’.  What we get back is a complete CG stadium full of CG characters all interacting and behaving based on their individual personalities based on the AI Rules the Crowd TD has created.

Above: Hennessey | Major, PlayStation | Mountain, BWIN | Club Almighty, Sky Sports | Take Your Seat


How do you envisage creative technology coming in to play with the sports advertising industry going forward?

With real-time VFX being such a huge focus for many parts of our industry, I think that we may well start seeing crowds being utilised in many more real-time applications. Sports events have been particularly hard hit by the impact of Covid. With the use of VFX and Creative Technology, games can go ahead with players in a separate location and a digitally reproduced stadium and crowd in order to maintain atmosphere for viewers. This ultimately provides the entertainment viewers want from seeing their favourite team, all while keeping in the context that viewers have come to expect from a game.

Virtual Production will begin to play a much larger role in the future, where we’ll be able to bring talent to a sound stage rather than book out an entire stadium, giving the DP and director much more control over the final frame of the image utilising LED wall technology as well as Virtual Production technology to relocate talent from the filming location to any stadium the project requires.


What’s been your favourite sports project to work on during your time at The Mill so far?

I would say my personal favourite project would have to be Geico’s Longest Goal Celebration Ever (below).  I’m a big fan of soccer and this particular project came at a big milestone for the crowds department. So I look back with fond memories of it not only being hilarious and very well received for the World Cup but also because it was the culmination of hundreds of hours of work by many people. This work helped us push the boundaries of CG crowd realism at The Mill which has formed the foundation of all subsequent projects. In the end, the spot only had 2 shots with around 35 live action actors.  The rest of the stadium and every single shot in the commercial contained CG crowds.

How do you envisage advertising in the sports industry changing after Covid-19?

Obviously one of the biggest advantages with supporting our clients during this time is the ability to create CG crowds that are not affected by Covid-19! As I mentioned before, I think that being able to fully control the environment when working with high profile sport talent will be one of the bigger shifts in sports advertising. Virtual production technologies will give our clients the ability to craft the frames they want in a more controlled environment rather than the random nature of filming outdoors.  Being able to create a CG environment of the stadium you want without being hindered by having to film your talent there will also go a long way to help reduce costs and time.


Can you give us some of your favourite examples of Creative Tech/ CG crowds in the sports advertising industry?

I think that we’ve been fortunate at The Mill to have a long history of sport related spots for many directors so we have a wealth of exciting projects in our archive.


Nike | Awaken The Phantom

London’s superb Houdini-driven spot that utilised all facets of the crowd and stadium design pipeline. They created a fully CG stadium filled with CG crowds, flares and props and then animated the entire structure as the finale. Absolutely crazy!

Nike | The Switch

A great example of LA’s commitment to photoreal stadiums and crowds. In this short film we created Photoreal CG versions of Wembley and Etihad Stadiums for our hero’s to play in. Nothing other than the field and the actors are real in the game scenes.

Bryce Harper VR Experience

I think this is a great example of using VR as a way of giving fans a unique perspective on their favourite game and players.  Being able to immerse yourself in the place of your favourite athletes is a wish of any fan and this project did a fantastic job of achieving that.


Below: Nike | Awaken The Phantom, Nike | The Switch, Bryce Harper VR Experience

You can get in touch with any of our studios about CG Crowds here.