A new docudrama featuring the attack on the Sorpe Dam, using motion capture technology and 3D scans to create life-like digital representations of RAF 617 Squadron aircrew, is being premiered in Bristol on 13 May 2023 to coincide with the 80th anniversary of the Dambusters raid.
Bristol-based film maker Andrew Panton worked with University of Bath researchers at CAMERA, using the latest digital technology to recreate specific scenes for a film featuring the attack on the Sorpe Dam.
Andrew started working on the documentary in 2017 with the last surviving Dambuster George 'Johnny' Johnson, who died in December 2022, aged 101.
The film, narrated by Mr Johnson, features his personal account of what happened on the night of May 16 1943, when his crew, flying in Lancaster AJ-T, attacked the Sorpe Dam in Germany. The Sorpe was one of several dams targeted in an attempt to flood the factories supplying the Nazi war industrial machine.
The film features a mixture of real actors and digital characters, together with a variety of historically accurate digital reconstructions, including the Sorpe and Mohne dams, as well as the inside of the Dambuster Lancaster.
The researchers at CAMERA, the University’s Centre for Analysis of Motion, Entertainment Research & Applications, 3D-scanned Andrew as well as James Fitzmaurice, Claire Hack and Emma Powley wearing various original World War 2 RAF uniforms, to create life-like digital characters.
In addition to the scanning sessions, the actors wore motion capture suits to collect movement data, whilst acting out various scenes. Their movements were then applied to the digital characters so they could move in very precise ways.
The output from this work enabled animator Piotr Forkasiewicz to create a large digital audience during a scene when the aircrews are listening to their operational briefing. Piotr was also able to create a scene with ground crew preparing the aircraft on the airfield before take-off.
Andrew said: “One of the challenges we had with this film was to show people moving about in locations that either no longer exist or have changed significantly since the time of the Dambusters operation.
“For these scenes we decided to recreate the environments digitally, for example, we recreated the inside of the Briefing Room at RAF Scampton, as well as the airfield from which the aircraft took off, including the hangars and other associated buildings.”
Since the original Dambuster Lancasters no longer exist, Andrew decided to recreate them digitally, and then filmed scenes at CAMERA using motion capture technology to animate the aircrews climbing on board.
Andrew added: “Martin Parsons and colleagues at CAMERA have been helping create and animate the characters for the scenes with large amounts of people that we couldn’t easily film in person.
“Blending together the digital aircrews with real human actors, for example, on the digital airfield really proved invaluable in helping us recreate that specific moment in history.”
CAMERA Studio Manager Martin Parsons said: “Normally you’d have a big team working on projects like this – but we were trying to achieve similar results with a tiny team and very limited resources, so we worked hard on making the whole process more efficient.
“When you’re trying to make realistic shots, it can be complicated getting the lighting right, for example showing shadows in the creases in clothes which move when the body moves.
“So instead of using a complicated model for simulating cloth movement, which uses a lot of processing, we scanned Andrew wearing the uniform in several different poses and then fitted the scans onto the digital character posed in the same positions.
“It’s kind of like animating scans to get that photo-realistic effect with natural-looking movements.”
“I had an Airfix model of a Lancaster when I was a young boy, so it’s wonderful to be able to use this technology to recreate the past, made even more special because we did it in collaboration with one of the people who was actually there.”