Passchendaele 1917 A digital recreation of the ruined landscape of the Ypres Salient.

From initial research to finished video, a brief look at the making of a digital diorama, "Journey to Passchendaele."
The Ypres Salient of 1917, at the time of the Third Ypres Offensive, better known as the Battle of Passchendaele, was documented by Australia's official World War One photographers, including Frank Hurley. Their extraordinary photographs provided an evocative resource for crafting the look and themes of the finished diorama.

Chateau Wood, by Frank Hurley, 29 October 1917. (AWME01220)

From the narration, performed by Richard Roxburgh:

"By the second half of 1917, the fields and woodlands of Belgium had steadily transformed under incessant artillery fire, into a mire of churned earth, debris and splintered, broken trees."
"Heavy rain fell across the Ypres Salient during many of the battles of Third Ypres, regularly transforming a landscape never far above the water table, into a sea of mud, upon which soldiers of the Allied armies struggled against their German counterparts."
Attempting to capture the detail of the wrecked landscape as well as something of soldiers' experiences as they journeyed toward the front lines, the camera's path in the diorama moves through four distinct areas of the overall scene:
The four themes that the camera moves through in its journey: Troops moving up the line; the morass created from massive artillery destruction and heavy rainfall; the work of engineers and pathfinders; the efforts of stretcher bearers.
1: T R O O P S
"Leaving the solid surfaces of roadways, soldiers would wend their way forward along tracks made from duckboards, careful not to slip off into the quagmire on either side."

Soldiers 'came up the cab rank' from their billets behind the front lines, first by road and then pathways through the wrecked landscape. During the Battles of Third Ypres, the logistics of warfare were particularly evident. The effort of delivering thousands of troops to front lines, creating and maintaining pathways were massive undertakings, with engineers laying countless duckboards along routes deemed 'safe enough'.

The Mark IV tank seen here was a newly deployed technology on the Western Front. It quickly became evident that they only proved useful in dry conditions and many became bogged down in their attempts to advance.

Mark IV bogged down outside St. Julien, Belgium, 1917.
Early development of the landscape in Cinema 4D.
Stand in models used to block out the composition and balance of the ecosystem. Starting with wending duck boards and the single file procession of soldiers moving up the line, to the waterlogged morass of low-lying land; to pathfinders and engineers repairing the way, and stretcher bearers returning from the front.

Early creation of animatics is essential for key areas of production. For example, it assists art direction, editorial and sound design in terms of matching and evoking what's seen and heard. Especially on a small production, it's also incredibly useful for the CG artists to lock down what the camera sees, so that the environment can be designed and 'dressed' to suit. Issues of parallax, consistency of detail, the disguising of tiling and textural repetitions can all be managed early, once an animatic begins to resemble the intended finished output.

Captain Goldrick in a letter to his father:
An overland track, keeping away from the roads and ordinary routes up to the line, had been prepared by the Engineers, and along this track in the darkness, in the rain, silently and in single file we slowly moved up, now through what was once wood, now across a swollen stream, always over a world of shell holes, always to the accompaniment of screaming projectiles, flashing guns and the rumble of transport on the roads. Occasionally a shell would take its toll – chance shots are no less deadly than direct ones – and now and then a cry, a sob, a dark still form on the wayside, told of the work of an insidious bullet from a machine gun perhaps 2000 yards away.

Excerpt from a letter from Captain Robert Austin Goldrick, 36th Australian Infantry Battalion, to his father, 24th October 1917.

'The dark still form on the wayside'

This photograph was a particular inspiration as it viscerally depicts the desolation of the environment, and the blended, splintered nature of the destruction. Forms of machinery and the bodies of dead horses and men were camouflaged into this devastated landscape. Photo by Frank Hurley (AWM E04599).

2: R A I N F A L L
"Understandably, in these desperate conditions, soldiers were constantly unnerved by what they saw around them, making feelings of loneliness and despair difficult to counter."
Matching storyboard compositions to finished framing.
"Blended into the roiled landscape, the violence of war was regularly found in the ‘dark, still form on the wayside’.
Thousands of soldiers and horses were lost to the deep, sucking mud, and remain buried there to this day."

As you can imagine, the Ypres Salient was not a particularly coulourful or vibrant landscape. More artillery fell in the area than any other in the history of WW1, and the ground was a morass of churned earth and debris as well as oil and destroyed materiel. The colour-scape and grade of the finished video emphasises this, with a literal darkness to the ground and a stillness in the water, reflecting the contrasting brightness of an overcast late afternoon. The blue-black darkness of the landscape also allows the drab hues of browns, grays and tans of the soldiers to read against the backdrop. The damp sheen on the duckboards allows the eye to easily read the pathway through the similarly coloured surrounds.

Initial blocking of the Rainfall sequence.
3: D U C K B O A R D S
"Ahead of the battles themselves, teams of engineers were tasked with creating paths to the front, and regularly needed to find clever ways to ensure these survived in the muddy, water-logged expanses of land."
A Sea of Mud
“The first factor, and the one which dominated the whole subsequent course of events, was the fact that considerable rain began to set in on October 6th. The ground was in a deplorable condition by the night of October 8th… The weather grew steadily worse on October 10th and 11th. There was no flying and no photographing, no definite information of the German re-dispositions, no effective bombardment, no opportunity of replenishing our ammunition dumps and the whole of the country from Zonnebeke forward... was literally a sea of mud, in most places waist deep.”

General Monash reflecting on the First Battle of Passchendaele.

The work of engineers was vital to the Allied war effort in the Ypres Salient, where weather played such a demonstrative role. The Battle of Passchendaele is infamous for being undertaken in some of the most dreadful conditions of war on the Western Front. In this most challenging environment, Engineers were charged with maintaining paths through fields and lakes of sucking mud and churned earth, across open expanses which could be easily targeted by enemy soldiers.

"As the weather worsened and the Allied advance closed on Passchendaele, the quagmire became overwhelming. Front lines disappeared and the typical formations of conventional warfare dissolved, like the water-logged landscape upon which they fought."
Distribution and actions of stretch bearers.
Bird's eye view of the engineers repairing the pathway.
4: S T R E T C H E R B E A R E R S
"Within this morass, stretcher-bearers demonstrated a quite different type of courage to the infantrymen they aided. Their slow and repeated forays into no man’s land and back down the line to relay points and aid stations, was extremely strenuous work."
"They had to resist instinctive responses of fight or flight, instead conditioning themselves to the perils of slow, methodical endurance surrounded by extreme danger, and compounded by the sucking mud."
Real-world references emphasise the layout of stand-ins for character modeling brief.
Brodie helmet.
Leather jerkin.
Gas mask bag.

Careful studies of equipment, fabric and texture and the effect the environment had upon these, created a well-blended continuity with the detailed landscape in the finished frames. This also allowed the camera to get close up to models. Textures for the character models were mastered at 4K, however 2K versions were used in the render, as seen here.

Uniform studies, Western Front.
Australian variations, Western Front.
Early soldier development.
Bed roll.
Lewis ammo pouch.
Sketch for 2D post effects, in this case smoke columns off in the distance.
"As they struggled back with the wounded, and in the process were themselves killed, their plight reflected a different view to that of the generals who described the ‘great successes’ of battles."

Diorama created using Cinema 4D with posed characters imported from Maya. Other software in the workflow included Substance Designer, Marmoset, Quixel Megascans.

Rendered using Google Zync.

Compositing and visual editing in After Effects, including Magic Bullet Looks and Trapcode Particular.

This draft video shows the environment of the diorama captured in 360° and presented as a spherical projection.

Binaural soundscape edited and designed in Pro Tools.

Writer, art director, compositor - Sam Doust
Environment artist - Reuben Hill
Character artists - Dean Finnigan, Levi Rice, Stephen Macris
Sound designer - Andrew Stevenson, We Love Jam
Narration - Richard Roxburgh
Created By
Sam Doust


Sam Doust, Frank Hurley, J.W. Brooke

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