Earlier this month, Screen Rant got an opportunity to visit Industrial Light and Magic, the legendary visual effects house founded by George Lucas and now owned by Disney, for a look at some of the incredible work that has gone into the upcoming movie adaptation of the massively popular Warcraft video game franchise. Without passing judgment on the film itself at this stage, one thing is certain: director Duncan Jones – a passionate Warcraft player himself for years – and the team at ILM have put an astounding amount of work into this production. Principal photography was completed nearly two years ago and it’s only now that the extensive performance capture and digital world building needed for create this universe has been finished.
During our trip to ILM (located in California’s Bay Area), we got to meet with and hear presentations from Jones, visual effects supervisor Jeff White, visual effects art director Christian Alzmann and effects supervisor Nigel Sumner, animation supervisor Hal Hickel and VFX supervisor Jason Smith. Jones and White gave us the overview, while the others delved into the design and creation of the orcs and other creatures, along with other aspects of creating the worlds of Draenor and Azeroth and their inhabitants. Here are 10 major things we learned, along with side-by-side images of the actors and the orcs they play, plus a featurette (watch it above) on how it all came together.
The Orcs Required a New Level of Facial Capture Engineering
On the surface, Warcraft is a simple story: orcs from a devastated planet called Draenor pass through a dimensional portal to the serene world of Azeroth, which they intend to conquer and colonize – except that the human and other races already living there have something to say about it. But in order to capture the feel and look of the orcs from the game, Jones and company realized that they couldn’t just slap prosthetics on a bunch of actors. That meant that the orcs were all created through some of the most groundbreaking performance capture technology used to date.
“My pitch early on to Blizzard and Legendary and Atlas, all the companies involved, was that if we were going to make this film and have it feel like the experience that you have when you play the game, then you need to have a vested interest in characters from both sides -- the orcs and the humans,” said Jones. “I think that was one of the things they were coming up against before I got involved."
To that end, Jeff White and his team came up with “amazing” facial capture technology which was built on the work they did for the Hulk in the first Avengers movie. Jones explained that they “needed to hold a close-up on the orcs and have characters you could empathize with and keep your interest,” which would not work with prosthetics.
Getting the First Shot
In the ILM screening room, Jones and White showed us one of the early scenes from the movie, a quiet moment between orc leader Durotan (Toby Kebbell) and his pregnant mate Draka (Anna Galvin) that is meant to establish their characters and clearly loving relationship. The scene opens with Durotan simply watching Draka sleep, and as emotions play over his face the effect is quite remarkable and even breath-taking in its realism.
This was, the director tells us afterwards, the first shot that was completed and in essence the shot on which the fortunes of the entire project rested – seeing that they could achieve incredibly lifelike movements and subtle hints of emotion gave the team the boost they needed to move forward. As Jones explained, “When we first got our delivery of a finished shot…we had a little party.”
The Initial Orc Design Came from a Fan
The Warcraft game is over 20 years old and the original designs of the orcs and other creatures reflected not just the era in which they were created but the nature of video games themselves. So how do you take that and make it look cinematic and realistic for general audiences while also making it recognizable to players of the game?
Enter Wei Wang. According to Jones, he was a Warcraft fan living in China who “didn't speak any English, but started submitting fan art to Blizzard years ago.” They were “blown away” by the quality of it, hired him and brought him to live in the United States, where he has been working for the company ever since. It was Wang who drew an initial sketch of what the orcs could look like for the movie – and that sketch became the basis for the entire design of the orcs in the film.
ILM Also Developed New Technology for Hair, Muscles…and Tusks
Hair is one of the most difficult things to create through digital technology, so of course Warcraft is full of it: the orcs have long, complicated braids that must move and whip around and flail just like real hair. So the designers created a new software, called “Haircraft,” to deal specifically with that problem. “By the end of the show, everyone became a hair stylist in some form or another,” said Jason Smith. “There was so much hair, so many different styles and looks to deal with, we were all deep in hair for most of the show.”
Other new programs also developed for the film included “Muscle Meter,” which handled the orcs’ muscles, and a special Tusk Deformer – which was developed with some help from sister company Pixar – to make the tusks that protrude from the bottom of the orcs’ mouths more realistic-looking (some of the actors wore special appliances on set to approximate how their mouths would move with tusks in them, which would then match up with the tusks digitally added later).
How to Make a Horde of Orcs
More than half the cast of the film is orcs, and Christian Alzmann and Nigel Sumner said that the conception of the orc horde came from photos of actual tribes, with said photos used as a reference throughout the design process. Some 52 unique orcs were created (including nine main ones), from which hundreds of others were generated. The designers also worked on dozens of different helmets, shoulder pads, chest plates and other articles of clothing or battle gear and created a program through which they could randomly “mix and match” all the different articles.
The result of all this was hundreds of orcs that all had some sort of unique detail to them – a background crowd that the filmmakers treated as if they could zoom in on any of them and see a creature different from all the others.
Each Clan Had Its Own Distinguishing Features
There are several major orc clans represented in the movie, and it was important to Jones, said Alzmann and Sumner, to create real societies for each – not just clusters of battle-scarred warriors but men, women, families, teens and elders. Each clan had its own color coding and distinguishing features. The Frostwolf clan – the one led by Kebbell’s Durotan – was mainly coded blue, and wore a lot of fur reflecting the chillier regions they came from.
The Bleeding Hollow clan’s armor and weaponry was more primitive, made mostly from trees, bark and branches. The Laughing Skull clan used a lot of bones in their gear and clothing, while the Blackrock clan had a red and black color scheme and were the most “high tech” of the four, using metal as part of their accoutrements.
Performance, Performance, Performance
Jones was all about capturing authentic performances from his human actors and retaining as much of that as possible when they were overlaid digitally with their orc counterparts. A special camera was used on the set through which the actors and filmmakers could see rough images of the orcs where the actors were, to get a sense of how the final scene would look and how shots could be composed. “All the tech development was geared toward capturing the actors' performances on set,” said Jeff White.
One thing Jones was adamant about was not stitching together a performance from different takes, but using as much of a single take as possible, putting the CG over that, and then using animation to fill in the last 10 percent or so – with the latter used for as little of the performance as possible. Animation supervisor Hal Hickel said, “We were going to treat the motion capture performances, as much as possible, just like the live-action performances, which what you get on the day is what you get.” The results were more realistic and textured performances and the actors “seeing” much more of their own work in the finished, rendered orcs on the screen.
Moving the Camera
Because Jones and director of photography Simon Duggan and camera operator Peter Wilke could see the actors’ movements inside the camera that were using – after the actors had left the shot – they were able to make adjustments to or even change their compositions without needing to restage the scene or call back the actors. Here’s Jones: “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 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…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.”
Warcraft MVP: Movement Coach Terry Notary
You may not know who Terry Notary is, but you have seen him before and you will see a lot of him in Warcraft – and if he sat down next to you, you still probably wouldn’t recognize him. Notary is a movement coach who has worked on performance capture-heavy pictures like the Planet of the Apes reboots and The Lord of the Rings. Notary worked with the main actors to develop their movements as orcs, and also played a lot of background orcs himself as well as supporting character Grommash Hellscream.
One thing that helped Notary with his job? For a movie so reliant on fashioning wholly digital characters based around human performances, the environments themselves that the actors worked in were not as minimal as you might expect. Production designer Gavin Bouquet, according to Jeff White, built a number of “incredibly detailed and vast” sets (many extended digitally on film) that included things like massive doors to give the actors the proper sense of size for their movements.
Months for a Single Shot
You read that right – months. It all started with the performance captured on the set from the actors. Then fashioned over that was the orc itself – starting with an actual “skeleton” created in the computer, to which was added layers of muscle, fat and flesh, then veins and tattoos and scars, then facial features, tusks and hair (that pesky, abundant hair), and finally clothing, accessories and weapons. Tons of little details, like the texture of a cheek or how an eyebrow moved, were part of the decision-making process every day.
As a result, a lot of shots in the movie that you will ultimately see took months to render at full resolution in a computer. Months to create a few seconds of film. That’s why Jones and the ILM team have been working on this film for upwards of three years or more, with Jones often approving simulated versions of shots long before they were completed in a hard drive. Jason Smith called the process “crazy,” but you get the sense that he and the other wizards at ILM are anxious for people to see just how far they have pushed the technology with this motion picture.
In the end, viewing clips and FX demonstrations (like we did at ILM, which is a fascinating place to visit on its own terms) is no match for seeing the finished film. It remains to be seen whether Warcraft is a good movie in terms of story, character, clarity and emotional involvement, especially for moviegoers (like this writer) who have no previous knowledge or interest in World of Warcraft or video games in general. But Duncan Jones is a crafty and smart filmmaker, the people at ILM have a standard of craftsmanship and excellence that is second to none, and so that three-plus years of work may have yielded something remarkable on a purely visual basis alone.