By Jean Balchin 24/05/2017

“A last alliance of Men and Elves marched against the armies of Mordor. On the slopes of Mount Doom they fought for the freedom of Middle- Earth.”

Galadriel’s thrilling, ethereal voice floated over the chaos and bloodshed of the battlefield. A wearied, battle-fatigued Elrond lead rank after rank of elf archers, and the seething mass of orcs retreated before the army of the last alliance, shrieking with anger and desperation. I sat there, mouth agape and eyes goggling as the deep echoes of the drums announced Sauron’s arrival. A shiver ran up my spine, and my flesh prickled as the Dark Lord laid waste. The armies recoiled, and a wave of fear rippled through the thousands gathered. Death was nigh.

The Lord of the Rings film series is considered to be one of the biggest and most ambitious film projects ever undertaken. As well as delighting countless fans the world over, rejuvenating the New Zealand tourism industry and sparking interest in medievalism, the LOTR trilogy pioneered brilliant virtual production and groundbreaking performance-driven digital characters. The numerous revolutionary practical and digital visual effects incorporated in the LOTR trilogy were produced by Weta Digital in Wellington, New Zealand. The Fellowship of the Ring had around 540 effects shots, The Two Towers 799, and The Return of the King 1488 (2730 in total). The crew of visual effects artists was led by Jim Rygiel and Randy Antil, and they all worked inordinately hard to produce the amazing special effects that lived up to Jackson’s active imagination.  

So what exactly is MASSIVE?

Massive (Multiple Agent Simulation System in Virtual Environment) is a highly complex computer animation and artificial intelligence software package designed for the creation of crowd-related visual effects in film and television. The genius of Massive lies in its ability to swiftly manufacture thousands of individualised agents, saving the exertion required to individually program each agent’s different attacks, defences and movements.

The reactions of agents can even stimulate emotive qualities such as exhaustion, fearlessness or joy. These reactions influence the agent’s behaviour, dictating how they act by controlling pre-recorded animation clips. Blending between such clips creates agents that move, act and react realistically. These pre-recorded animation clips can come from motion-capture sessions, wherein the actions of human actors are recorded and the information used to animate digital character models in 3D computer animation.

Moreover, Massive allows each agent to respond individually to its surroundings — as well as other agents. Without this pioneering software, the majestic, staggering battle scenes of Helm’s Deep and the destruction of Isengard would have been impossible to create. Massive also enables the development of cloth simulation, rigid body dynamics and graphics processing unit (GPU) based hardware rendering. Pre-built agents may be inserted into the action, already designed to perform certain tasks such as starting a riot or leading the crowd. An urban legend claims that the artificial intelligence of Massive was so salient that when confronted with the army of bellowing orcs, the armies of Middle Earth unsurprisingly turned tail and skeddadled. Unfortunately, this cowardly practice actually resulted from a bug in Massive, but it’s an excellent anecdote regardless.


A wooden artist’s model; almost an allegory for an ‘agent’ in animation.


Massive was developed by kiwi entrepreneur Stephen Regelous in good old Wellywood. Sir Peter Jackson wanted software that enabled armies of thousands of humans and orcs to fight realistically, without the need to animate each character individually. Massive enabled Weta Digital to generate thousands of award-winning visual effects, particularly evident in the battle sequences for the LOTR trilogy. After animating particularly gnarly orcs and cowardly elves, Massive swiftly developed into an industry leader in autonomous agent driven animation. It was adopted by Pixar, Sony Pictures Imageworks, ImageMovers Digital, Rhythm & Hues, Digital Domain and other studios to create the death-defying stunts and breathtaking scenes of chaos and destruction depicted in their blockbuster movies.


What might Massive be used for in the future?

Massive has also been projected into unexpected areas, such as architecture, engineering and even robotics. It has been employed in the design of multi-floor buildings, in order to ascertain the movements of people trying to exit the building in an emergency. With Massive’s technology, one can predict a range of realistic responses and behaviours that can reveal architectural problems hitherto unpredicted. The geniuses behind Massive have also incorporated a memory element to its software meaning that a scenario can develop for an extended period of time without the agents ‘forgetting’ what has happened and what they intend to do.

Finally, Massive is revolutionising the field of robotics, as clearly exemplified by the Zeno robot. Zeno is a17-inch tall, 4.5 pound humanoid robot boy that can recognise individuals and speaks eloquently. I have to admit that the more realistic robots become with their humanoid reactions, the more potentially frightening they are. Yet as someone who is a massive fan of futuristic shows like Westworld and Humans, I can’t help but be excited by the potential for these robots. Bring on this brave new world.