Ben Hur

The epic story of Judah returns to the silver screen. After being falsely accused of treason by his adopted brother, Judah returns to his home to seek revenge. 
  • Starring: Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell
  • Director(s): Timur Bekmambetov
  • Producer(s): Mark Burnett, Sean Daniel, Duncan Henderson, Joni Levin
  • Screenwriter(s): Keith R. Clarke, John Ridley
  • Distributor: Paramount Pictures
  • Animal Coordinator: Zoogrunwald, Steve Dent, M Perla
  • Release Date: Friday, August 19, 2016
  • Rating: Outstanding

Featured Animal Action

All horseback riders were stunt riders or experienced actors who were skilled at riding, mounting and dismounting. All running/galloping scenes were well choreographed, and actors used caution while on and near animals. The horse(s) rearing was a trained behavior. The horses were specially trained “falling horses” and “lay down horses” that fell on cue onto a soft landing area.

When teams of horses pulled chariots or carriages, the drivers were experienced and teams of horses were familiar with each other and accustomed to the pulling action. Whenever horses were seen tied to posts/fences, they were attached to lead ropes tied to posts.

In the opening sequence when the two actors race against each other on horseback in an open desert, stunt doubles rode their horses at a gallop at approximately two hundred feet. Styrofoam rocks were used to distinguish the finish line. The horses took breaks after each take. The stunt coordinator and safety crew members stood next to lowered camera as horses veered on either side of camera. The brush they get hit with while riding past was a soft brush placed by props.

In the quick shot of the finch in the birdcage, the trainer made sure the finch was placed in shade and provided with food and water.

When we see a man in the marketplace selling birds in a cage and we see a camel in the background, the pigeons held up outside their cages had leg ties on, so the handlers had some security when holding them. Additionally, the handlers held them up to the steadicam so they fluttered their wings as the camera moved forward.  In the background, the trainers held the camels, goats and sheep on their marks.

In the scene when the two main characters encounter Jesus and we see a team of sheep being led down through the marketplace, the sheep had a rope collar and were tied to the wall at the back of the set.  A handler in costume stood beside them for the entire time they were there.  The sheep were driven through the set by a handler in costume carrying a bucket, which the sheep followed.

In the scene where Juda’s love interest is leaving on a carriage driven by a donkey, the trainer was driving the carriage and made sure the reins were fastened safely.

In the scene where Judah rides his horse through a tunnel, the actor was shown the route by the trainer and rode the horse at a slow canter. They then cut and got another shot of the stuntman riding the horse through that same trajectory. When the actor sees his loved one, he jumps off the horse and rushes to her.

In the scene where the Roman soldiers come to take Judah, the groom held the horse’s head while the actor mounted the horse using a mounting block. The other groom held the stirrup on the other side for security as the actor mounted the horse.

In the scene where Judah shows off his new white horse to his friend, and they lead the horse through a stable with other horses, the actor’s horse was led to set. Background horses were led into position by grooms and backed into the stalls. The background horses were then tied up in the stalls and a groom in costume stayed with them.  The actor mounted the White horse while it was held by the trainer. On action the actor turned the horse to circle the other actor in walk (neck-reining round and round).

In the scene where the Roman soldiers march down a dirt road flanked by men on horseback and into Jerusalem, the troops were positioned at one end of the road.   On action, the whole troop moved forward at a brisk walk.  The drone-mounted camera took off just after the troop was moving.  The whole troop moved along the roadway, while the drone flew above, beside and behind the action. In this same scene when the boy attacks the soldiers with a bow and arrow, the arrows were inserted in the scene through CGI. When the (cgi) arrow was “fired,” the AD shouted "arrow" which gave the signal for the stunt men and actors to jump off their horses.

The rats that run through the shop were created by CGI.

In our introduction to the Coliseum and the chariots and we see Messalla driving a chariot, the team of horses were harnessed to the chariot at the stable area and driven to the set by a trainer.  They were accompanied by four grooms.  A pole support was placed under the pole while the horses were standing by.  The trainer walked and trotted the horses through the action several times to get the line ups for the cameras.  The actor stood on the chariot, with a trainer hidden in the front of the chariot for safety.  The actor drove the horses at a canter. The actor drove the horses from a trot to a walk and then back to a trot for the close up shot. The driver’s reins were then put on the horses, so the hidden trainer had control of the horses. 

The seagull floating above Judas’ body was created by CGI.

In the scene where Judah wakes up to a white horse hovering over him, the horses were brought to the set by their trainers and positioned in the tent. The horse nearest the camera was instructed to lower his head by one of the grooms touching his neck in front of his withers.  This horse maintained this head-down position until released with a que from the trainer. When the horse lies down and the actor pets horse’s head, the horse that is supposed to lie down had a bridle fitted while he stood in the tent. Once the cameras rolled, this horse was laid down by the trainer typing his left leg and holding the right rein over his neck.  Once he was laying down the bridle was removed. The area for him to lay had a thick rubber mat and blanket hidden under the sand.  Trainers stood the horse up when they called cut.

In the scene where Judah tries to stop a man from driving the chariot and the chariot tips over and  the chariot continues to be dragged, upside down, around the encampment and we see another actor jump on top of the upside down chariot and pulls the horses up to a halt.  There are seven camels in the background around the camp, two donkeys and a pen of and goats, with some sheep tied outside the pen. This sequence was accomplished in several ways across three days, the quieter team of four horses were led to set wearing their harness by the grooms.  They hooked up to the normal chariot and a stunt driver hid (squatted down) inside the chariot, holding the reins passed through a gap in the front of the chariot to control the horses. The actor then got onto the chariot and stood directly behind the hidden driver.  The horses were driven at a canter around the track, which was driven by the hidden driver, the actor holding a false pair of reins.  The actor made actions as if whipping the horses - the whip will be added later in post production. A real whip was never used. The sides of the tent were tied up securely to leave enough headroom for the horses to be driven through the tent.  The trainer drove the horses through the tent at a jog several times to familiarize them with the route. On action, the trainer (hidden beneath the upturned chariot) drove the horses through the tent at a trot. In this same sequence when the chariot crashes, grooms stood at the horses’ heads and the actor-double driver got into the chariot.  On action, the grooms stepped away and the horses were driven at a canter around the track.  On the corner, the tilting chariot was activated remotely, tipping the chariot up to 45degrees, with a hydraulically operated skid.  It was dropped back down immediately.

When Judah jumps on the chariot to stop it, no horses were used for this scene. The chariot was dragged by a truck and a camera was mounted on a quad bike.

In the scene where Messelah rides through the city at night, the actor rode to a doorway, where he stopped and dismounted. The actor took the reins and tied him (using the reins) to the door.. There was some food sprinkled on the floor for the last camera position (c) to keep the horse occupied while the actor completed the scene.

In the scene where the Roman Soldier had uniformed dogs on leashes while he grabs at victims being led to prison, the dogs’ trainers were standing off camera cuing the dogs to bark while the people playing the Jews were off camera. The dogs were rewarded with treats.

In the scene where Judah and Drusus, the thief, ride through the grasslands at a gallop, the area was double checked by the trainer to make sure the area was clear of rocks. The horses were ridden by stuntmen. In the subsequent scene when they come out of the prison and get on the horses and leave, the actors get on the horse with a mount and ride.

Chariot Race

The major chariot race sequence was prepped and filmed over many days. Much of what we see including the crowd and some of the closeness of the chariots and accidents was achieved through CGI> The following are some descriptions of particular shots for that sequence: When Judah first rides in with white horses and takes his first turn, the horses were driven to set by the trainer and accompanied by grooms.  The chariot was slowed going along the straight and around the corner.

The horses were harnessed at the stable area.  They were led to the set by trainers and grooms.  The chariots were in position in the start gates and behind the gate area, in the alleyway.  The horses were hitched to their respective chariots.

.

For each chariot a camera operator sat in the passenger seat and held the camera, to give the POV of the driver covering the action. In the opening, on action, stuntmen pulled ropes to open the gates and the teams were sent off out of the gates. On action they were driven forward and the tech vehicle travelled along the outside of the track, with the crane camera sweeping towards and away from the chariot.  The horses were driven in a swerving action along the straight. 

Whenever we see a crash and the horses recover, trainers brought the horses to the track and laid them down. On action, they slowly pulled the horses up. Of course, no chariots were racing during this action. Whenever they round corners, the chariots are only being ridden at a trot, the speed of the race is increased in post production.

In the scene where Judah is being dragged by a chariot, the actor and the stunt double were dragged at a slow motion behind a chariot being towed by a truck while two riding horses were cantered behind, so the legs of the horses were filmed beside the actor, making it look as if he’s being dragged by the chariot.

Whenever we see the chariot riders side by side with their wheels coming very close together, the chariots used had 3/1 splinter bars, which enabled the chariots to be driven much closer together. The horses were started at the top of the course and galloped along the straight and stopped in the area in front of the gates. As they were driven down the straight, the drivers swerved the horses in and out slightly, so the chariot wheels came close and overlapped. 

The tech truck started from the end of the straight and travelled alongside the teams with the cameras low, looking at legs and wheels.  The pursuit car travelled in front of the teams, with the camera looking back. 

In the scene, where the team of four white horses pulled a stunt-rig chariot, driven by a stunt double, and  at the end of the straight the chariot jumps up into the air, as if it has driven over the Greek, before landing and being driven round the turn. The hopping chariots was activated by a pedal by the stunt driver.  All the drivers wore earpieces so the trainer could communicate the action to them. Between shots the track was harrowed, and the horses taken out to the holding area to stand in the shade.

In the scene, where the chariots travel around the track and the Persian chariot flips over, catapulting the driver to the ground, on action, the Persia stunt rig and Messalah chariots continued in the clockwise travel, building up speed, while the Greek chariot turned early to be facing the straight. The flip mechanism of the chariot was triggered by the stunt driver and the chariot flipped over and a small explosion, squib went off at the same time. At that moment, the stunt driver was thrown from the chariot and landed on the sand.  The horses were still under control of the riders and they brought the up-turned chariot to a halt halfway.

Whenever a driver falls off the chariot they cut camera and placed a rubber ball where the fallen man was located, so the other chariots wouldn’t come near it. In post production they create the image of a man down on the track. Also, whenever a chariot falls and we see horses that are on the ground and get up, the trainers came to the set, laid two of the horses down and the third horse was held by a groom in costume who hid in the coliseum doorway.  On action the trainers ran off the track, causing the horses to get to their feet and gallop off screen.

When we see Judah being dragged behind a chariot, this scene was done with a huge crane truck with a chariot mounted to the lift gate, basically simulating Judah being drug and climbing into the chariot.

In the scene where Judah’s and Messala’s chariots become entangled and they fight, two drivers were in each chariot hidden in front of the actor’s. The drivers drove the horses around the track, with an insert car positioned in front of each chariot. During the drive, the actors acted as if they were fighting with each other.

In the scene where Judah reaches the finishing line with one wheel, the horses were hitched to a chariot with one large wheel and one small wheel, to make it appear tilted. They were driven to set by the trainer who was blind-driving them. On action, the team were driven by the blind driver while the stunt double leant off the back of the chariot.  When they sped up a bit, the stunt double pulled himself onto the side of the chariot. The reins the double held were attached to the harness so he could hang onto them without interfering with the horses. After Judah wins and he falls over his horse, trainers laid the horse down, then on action had the actor lie on the horse. After they cut, trainers came in and helped the horse to his feet.

In the scene where we see the caravan returning to Jerusalem,  The set was approx 100yards long.  The procession only moved along about fift yards of it. The camels and donkeys were loaded with luggage before coming to set, each led by a handler in costume. All the animals were provided with food and water between takes.