Duncan Jones and More Talk Warcraft During Our Visit to ILM!
After ten years in development, WARCRAFT is finally coming to theaters next month! If you've seen the trailers, you know what a huge part visual effects play in the film, and who better to handle those effects than Lucasfilm's own Industrial Light & Magic. I had the opportunity to head up to San Francisco into the heart of ILM and speak with filmmaker Duncan Jones and members of the VFX team about the challenges and processes that went into making such an ambitious film.
No trip to ILM is complete without a photo of the Yoda fountain.
After spending some time in ILM's lobby to take the requisite Boba Fett selfies and admire the Star Wars memorabilia, our first stop was to the theater, where director Duncan Jones (MOON, SOURCE CODE) and Visual Effects Supervisor Jeff White screened some tasty footage and took us through the production process. After showing us an extended trailer for the film, which he jokingly described as, "very different from MOON," Duncan Jones spoke about the decision to used motion capture technology over the alternatives:
The biggest challenge was obviously knowing how we were going to approach making the orcs themselves. My pitch to Blizzard and to Legendary and Atlas, all the companies involved, early on was that if we were going to make this film and if it were to feel like the experience you have when you play the game, that you need to have a vested interest in characters on both sides of the orcs and humans, and I think that was one of the things that they were sort of coming up against before I got involved. But in order to do that, we needed to have a way of portraying the orcs in a way where you can hold a closeup, you know, where you would actually have characters, people you would empathize with and that would actually keep your interest. And on the technological level, I think, there are different ways to approach that. You could go the prosthetics route, but- for monsters, prosthetics work great, but if I want to sit for 5, 8, 10 seconds on a close up of one of these characters, and I want to understand what it is that they're thinking about, you can do that with a human being, but you can't do that with someone covered in prosthetics.
Jones went on to show off an intimate scene between lead orc Durotan (or Brad Porc, as they call him around the office) and his mate Draka. The scene begins with Durotan simply watching Daraka sleep, and it was this shot that gave the team confidence they could pull off authentic and subtle emotions with mo-cap technology and a hell of a lot of hard work. Duncan said, "when we first got our delivery of a finished shot... we had a little party."
As a direct contrast to the previous scene, we were then treated to a short battle sequence between Durotan and Gul'dan, the main orc villain of the film, because if you don't have orcs with hammers beating the crap out of each other, what's the point? Duncan gave credit to Hal Hickel and his animation team for this sequence, as they take over when movement and choreography are too difficult to create using only mo-cap technology.
Finally, we were treated to two VFX sizzle reels showcasing the intensive steps in creating the characters and sets. The best moment here was seeing the same shot broken up into four or five different versions, from an actor in a mo-cap suit to a minimalist rendering of the footage to a more complete version with layers of muscle, skin, and costumes, to the final rendered version. Jason Smith introduced the reels by discussing the team commitment to capturing the authenticity of the actors' performances:
Our main focus on this film was how to make these orcs incredibly compelling characters, and a big part of that in our early discussion with Duncan was, 'okay, we'll cast actors and you direct them on set, and we'll make sure that that's the performance that's delivered.' So all of our technology development on this film was really geared around, how do we make sure that that performance that's on Durotan is authentic to what Toby Kebbel did on set, and that allowed Duncan to iterate very quickly with the actors to figure out who these characters were and know that that performance is going to make it through, despite the fact that Durotan has huge tusks."
After all was said and done, we had time for a Q&A, during which Jones spoke more about the challenges and achievements that went to making the film. On particular bit of movie magic stood out:
We would get a great performance from our motion capture actors, and we'd be happy with that, and then all of our motion capture actors would actually leave the environment, and we would play back the, sort of, the low-res version of what our characters had just done, and Peter Wilke, our cameraman, could actually see that playing through his viewfinder, so he could recompose shots and actually move the camera around with the action going on in front of him even though there were no actors in front of him, so he could get the camera right in for a close up, or he could move around someone while it's going on, which is actually much harder to do when you don't necessarily know exactly what the actors or the stuntmen are doing, but having it already in the camera, you can kind of run through it a few times, know exactly where everyone's going to be, and move the camera exactly where you want it. And that was obviously important, because the live action element of the shot, all of the sets that we built, that's kind of locked. Once you move the camera and you record it, you can't move that again afterwards, at least not very easily. So it allowed us to get these great combinations of whatever we wanted from the motion capture performance and whatever we wanted in the live action environment.
After the main event, we broken into smaller groups to spend some time with different members of the ILM team and learn about some of the specifics of the effects. First off, we sat with Jason Smith, who worked on visual effects supervision on the film. Jason and his team brought Hulk to life in THE AVENGERS, so the basis for the technology was already there, but he assured us they had to "level up" for WARCRAFT. Aside from capturing the actors' performances in mo-cap, the next big challenge was making everything else on the character look real. In order to achieve this, real wigs, costumes, and props were made so that the VFX team could have a physical reference for the assets they created. As for managing hair, which is one of the hardest things to get right in CG, new software had to be created to keep up with the demand... yes, it was called Haircraft.
The costumes include fur pelts, dangling animal tails, bones, jewelry, you know, everything has to collide; there's feathers... even the tusks were pierced; nipples were pierced, shoulders were pierced, ears were pierced- if you could see it, it was pierced. And those all had to be simulated as separate passes. So it was really an incredible amount of complexity in the costumes, and I have no hesitation saying that they're the most complicated costumes we've created and simulated here.
Getting a look behind the curtain at what goes into creating a digital character is pretty nuts. Jason even demonstrated a piece of software which tracks muscle movement. Muscles are color-coded by how tense or relaxed they are so that the team can make sure every part of a character's body moves as it should. The same attention to detail went into skin, bone, shading, lighting, teeth, and hair. Jason joked the entire team became hair stylists on the movie thanks to how much research and work went into making it. Jason also mentioned the thought that went into the orcs' eyebrows, with less civilized characters having bushy eyebrows and understated characters even having less eyebrow hair than a human while still maintain their ability to express. The tusks, on the other hand, provided yet another challenge:
What we finally decided was, these guys were born with these... this is not a prosthetic to them; it's something that they are born with and they live with. And there might be an orc who's the type of guy who's just gonna let the drool flow, but there are other orcs who are gonna be kind of careful, and they've got muscles in those lips, and they'll be able to hold them up. But even on top of saying, yes, let's just buy into the idea that these guys are comfortable with these and they can still talk, we had a couple of challenges still. To form certain words, you've gotta have those lips contact... especially some of these more extreme orcs, when they're talking, they have to actually work to form an M or a P.
Some of the actors went as far as to use prosthetics during their performance in order to feel more in character or to speak a certain way, but it was up to them, as the ILM wizards took care of the rest.
Next we met with Art Director Christian Alzmann and Visual Effects Supervisor Nigel Sumner. Christian and Nigel's presentation focused on creating the five major orcs clans: Frostwolf, Laughing Skull, Black Rock, Bleeding Hollow, and Warsong. The challenge here was to make each clan unique as well as characters within the clan:
So, when we were trying to attack the design of the horde, first we just started out with: well, what's the graphic that gonna make each horde stand out from a distance? So that if we had, you know, fifty Bleeding Hollow a quarter of a mile from the camera standing next to fifty Black Rock clan, that we could tell them apart. And for me- and sort of a rule for us here bringing something into a live action setting and making it realistic- is finding real world references to anchor it. So we looked at a lot of real world tribes, people that are still wearing and still living as if they were in an ancient era.
Each clan has a simple representation (i.e. Frostwolf: fur tusks and blue body paint/tattoos), but also, each clan's personality dictates how every minute detail within the horde is designed, from body paint to hair to how they movie to the quality of their weapons. Nigel discussed how the artists would come up with their own narratives for even the most obscure character. For instance, if a certain elder of the clan doesn't fight anymore, it's not because he's old, it's because he lost a limb in battle or sustained a similar combat-ending wound. After seeing several sketches and designs of each of the clan, with an explanation of what makes them different, we were shown some footage of the film depicting a great battle, with Christian and Nigel showing us how easy it was to separate one clan from another.
Finally, Hal Hickel, the Animation Supervisor on the film, took us through the process of everything that could not be captured solely using motion capture technology. Hal talked about designing the beasts in the film from frostwolves to griffins (hinting that we'd get to see both of them in action during the battle scenes) and then went on to discuss the animation department's job when mo-cap stops and animation begins. Again, the focus here was on maintaining authenticity and doing everything in the team's power to preserve the actors' original performances:
Some motion capture projects, because the characters are CG, treat the original performance as kind of just a starting point, knowing that they can change anything they want down the road. They might take the face cap from one take and put it on the body cap from another take and slice and dice the dialogue. We all- and when I say all of us, I mean Duncan, Bill Westenhofer and those of us at ILM- were all very much on the same page that we did not want to do that. The more you pull apart the very dense web of interconnected things that have to do with body language and facial performance that communicate all the little conscious and unconscious decisions that are happening in the actor's brain when they're in the moment, the more you pull that apart and remix it, the less authentic and real and true the final result. So that meant that there was just as much emphasis on getting Toby's performance right as Travis' or anyone else that was being captured on film and then for us to really preserve that fragile thing all the way down through this lengthy technological and artistic process that was gonna follow.
As with our first meeting, Hal showed off a few clips, ranging from fighting beasts to quiet moments between CG characters. Once scene in particular featured Rob Kazinsky, who plays the orc Orgrim. Hal showed us a side by side of Rob's mo-cap performance alongside the finished product. The unique thing here was that we also got to see a very rough version of the animation. Basically just an immediate translation of the mo-cap footage, this allowed the actors to understand just how much of their performance would show up on screen. Many of them had done motion capture work before and were used to their live action performances being completely transformed by the time their character appears onscreen, so it was a surprise for them to earn how much that wouldn't be the case on this film.
That about wraps it up! ILM and Universal treated us to a fantastic lunch where we were able to chat a little more with Duncan and the team, and then we were off (following a quick visit to the gift shop, of course). Given that multiple people on the film are longtime Warcraft players, it's pretty great to see them be able to bring such a faithful and ambitious project to the big screen. Speaking of big screens, the footage we were shown in the ILM screening room has me convinced this is a movie to see in the theater, so get out there on June 10th!
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