By Sarah Bell

How did DreamWorks make the hit film War Horse without harming any horses? Computer generated imagery (CGI) was mixed with real footage so that the most dangerous parts of the movie were animated. But according to horse-lover and computer scientist Karl Abson, some of the animation sequences in War Horse are a bit rubbish.

“Animation is very good at skin texture and materials” says Karl, “but when it comes to animal motion, we are still in the dark ages”. Karl and colleagues at the University of Bradford are changing that with their work to improve motion capture of animals for the film industry.

Motion capture works by reflecting infra-red light off reflective dots stuck on a moving object, and recording it in cameras from different angles. If three or more cameras capture light reflected from a particular dot, its location and movement can be recorded in detail. Turning the movement of dots in space to realistic motion requires a good understanding of biomechanics – how skeletons and muscles work together to create movement. The software for humans is pretty good but for animals the technology is lagging behind.

“We are a team of software engineers and animal biomechanics specialists” says Karl. They are improving motion capture software using knowledge of how animals move in the real world. Cinema-goers might be distracted from a film's story by unrealistic animation, and no filmmaker wants that. But really high quality animation takes time and costs film makers a lot of money. Using motion capture in the early stages of animation can be more cost effective and realistic.

As part of his research Karl produced a short motion capture animation of his own horse running. Karl told us “I showed it to an animator and asked him how long it would take him to make. He said it would take him about a month, and he was shocked when I said I did it in a day”. This kind of technology is very attractive to the film industry, in Hollywood and in the UK. More realistic animal animation, produced quickly, and at a lower cost could bring us more blockbusters with heroic animals.

“Horses are fragile creatures” says Karl. They just wouldn’t survive some of the CGI scenes in War Horse, which bothered him as a movie goer. His research is helping to create more realistic roles for his favourite animals, so that we can enjoy all enjoy great story telling on the big screen.

Dr Sarah Bell is a 2015 BSA Media Fellow. Her Fellowship was supported by the Royal Academy of Engineering and she was placed at Sarah is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering, director of the UCL Engineering Exchange.