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Massey vets make their mark on Hollywood

Massey University vets have been putting their equine knowledge to a novel use – consulting with Weta Digital for their work on a Hollywood blockbuster film.

The Wellington-based visual effects company was looking to upgrade its computer-generated models of horses, and asked staff at the Institute of Veterinary, Animal and Biomedical Sciences to help.

The results can be seen in the film Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which opened in New Zealand recently.

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Dr Deb Prattley was part of the team that worked with Weta. She says the institute’s equine treadmill was used to collect motion capture images that the company could then use to build its computer-generated horses. “They had several cameras in the room, including overhead, and filmed the horse at different gaits so they could use that information to create computer-generated models of horses doing different things.

“They also spoke at length with our anatomists because they really wanted to make sure the shapes of the horses were right and that they moved properly,” she says. “They needed to make sure the joints articulated in the correct directions by the correct amounts and the muscles appeared with the right shapes in the right places, as the horse moved. They had previously built models by looking at the horses from the outside, but we were able to give them an understanding of the structure – so the models are built from the inside out.”

Even the expressions on the faces of the horses – their hair and the way their nostrils looked – were covered. “They paid attention to the most minute details to make sure they had things right.”

The Weta Digital team also worked with the institute’s imaging department to get x-rays and CT scans to get a deeper understanding of how horses move.

Using computer-generated animals meant the on-screen action could be captured without concerns about animal welfare, something that needed to be carefully protected before the technology was available, Dr Prattley says. Upon completion of the project, Weta Digital shared with Massey the models they had built.

Weta Digital visual effects supervisor Martin Hill says the work done with Massey added greatly to the realism. “For example, looking at the carpus (knee) and the way it articulates. Rather than being a single pivot, which we assumed before, their knees bend at two pivot points, one of which always flexes twice as much as the other one until it gets to a very extreme amount of flex. These are the things that are fantastic to know. The nuances when you apply them to our digital model suddenly give an extra level of reality.”

The Massey staff involved in the project included Dr Cameron Knight, Dr Angela Hartman, Dr Chris Rogers, Dr Deb Prattley, Marty Johnson, Nicki Moffat, Allan Nutman and Professor Hugh Blair.

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