Director Duncan Jones and ILM Visual Effects Wizards Share WARCRAFT secrets with Famous Monsters


Since the late ’70s, so many of the greatest special effects–driven genre films, franchises, and top moneymakers in Hollywood have one major thing in common: special effects by Industrial Light & Magic. FM editor David Weiner had the pleasure of visiting ILM in San Francisco to speak to WARCRAFT director Duncan Jones and the VFX supervisors of the Universal film to learn a few trade secrets of how they brought those towering orcs to life so convincingly — and made them so relatably human.

Director Duncan Jones on the set of WARCRAFT

Director Duncan Jones on the set of WARCRAFT

In WARCRAFT, the denizens of the human realm of Azeroth are faced with an invading horde of orcs who have traveled through a portal to escape their dying world. As the two opposing races collide, thoughtful leaders on either side must determine if alternatives to war can be found. Travis Fimmel, Dominic Cooper, and Ben Foster play some of the key players of Azeroth, while Toby Kebbell, Robert Kazinsky, Clancy Brown, and Paula Patton portray the pivotal orcs.

Warcraft ILM orc 2“One of the things that was the biggest challenge with this film was obviously knowing how we were going to approach making the orcs themselves,” says director Jones, whose previous projects were SOURCE CODE and MOON, both effects-driven films, but to a much lesser degree in comparison. “We needed to have a way of portraying the orcs in a way where you could hold a close-up. Where you would actually have characters, people that you would empathize with and that would actually keep your interest.”

In order to humanize a major CG-driven summer movie based on the massive multiplayer online role-playing game WORLD OF WARCRAFT, Jones knew that he had to concentrate on a compelling story with multiple, sympathetic points of view first and foremost: “My interest is in human storytelling,” he tells FM, “in finding stories that get at the core of how people behave towards each other, how conflicts arise, and how they do or don’t get dealt with.”

Once that task was accomplished on the page, the next step was to enlist the wizards at ILM to create convincing characters from a mystical realm. ILM’s WARCRAFT visual effects supervisor Jeff White says, “All of our technology development on this film was really geared around, ‘How do we make sure that the performance that’s on [the main orc] Durotan is authentic to what [actor] Toby Kebbell did on set?’ … This film was really a checklist of all the most difficult things to do in computer graphics: Skin. Eyes. Long, braided hair. As my five-year-old twins can attest, I cannot braid hair to save my life, so there was a lot of research and development as far as figuring that out. But everybody was geared towards making sure that when you watch the film, you care as much about these orcs as you do their human counterparts.”Warcraft ILM orc3

Jones adds, “Jeff and his team gave us this amazing, amazing facial-capture technology, which they had advanced from the work they had already done on Hulk in the first AVENGERS movie. And, really, they delivered in spades, but we didn’t know that at the time we started making the movie. So there was a little bit of a lag between us starting production and us actually knowing for sure that these close-ups were going to hold to that level of detail. And when we first got our delivery of the finished shot — all of us, we had a little party.”

In addition to the simplest moments focused on facial expressions, the landscapes and the fight choreography also provided challenges for the ILM visual effects team to step up to and solve. “We use motion capture for an awful lot of the work we do,” says White. “Occasionally there are times where actors just don’t have the reflexes to pull off the fight moves that we want and [ILM animation supervisor Hal Hickel] and his amazing team made that whole fight choreography work.”

WarcraftHickel, whose focus is on character and creature performance, including the orcs, large frost wolves, and majestic griffins, candidly shares that the team was trepidatious heading into the project due to the nature of how much screen time the orcs have in the film — pretty much an equal amount to the live-action performers — and the fact that the orcs are so close to humans in their depictions, and humans are “famously difficult to do credibly.” More challenging than the epic battles that occur in the film are the quieter moments in which the orcs simply must “be,” or breathe, or act natural, as the narrative action goes on around them. But that challenge proved to be a refreshing change for Hickel and his team: “The thing we’re fondest of, or I am, after coming out of the other side of this project, [is doing this particular orc character work] because we so rarely get to do this kind of thing; we’re usually creating monsters or creatures and aliens and things that are not just sitting there like this, and that’s just so rare and awesome. But again, this is what made it tough.”

Surrounded by orcs, Commander Anduin Lothar (TRAVIS FIMMEL) knows that the battle is far from over in WARCRAFT.

Another element that viewers may take for granted when watching the final cut of the film is the simple proximity of the orcs to the humans, given their massive frames and size. “Difficult stuff,” says Hickel of the motion-capture process that strived to have the orc and human actors in the same frame, together in the moment, before the layered pixel work would begin. But their high-tech approach to visualizing the end-game product while filming in real time was made much easier with a system that allowed in-camera visuals of the orcs for size reference. Hickel explains, “For WARCRAFT, we knew that it was going to largely be shot on really elaborate sets, but indoors on sound stages, so we thought, ‘All right, let’s bring proper studio-style motion-capture and meld it with a shooting set with lights and actors so we can get the best of both worlds.’ And we had this real-time overlay of kind of game-level orcs on top of our live actors, so that the cameraman could really frame on the bulk of an orc — and not Toby, or Rob, or whoever was playing the orc —  and we could also tell the actors [how to best position themselves]. Duncan could really compose his shots correctly.”

Film Title: WarcraftILM’s incredible attention to every detail on the orcs in WARCRAFT — from the bones interlocked with their braids to the pores of their skin — is what sells these perceived brutes as sympathetic characters. On top of every facial expression and nuanced movement by the actors being captured and processed to sell each orc moment, the added layers of costume and hair movement, and the implied weight of such things as a necklace or a strand of hair, make or break those moments. VFX supervisor Jason Smith, who also finessed the details of The Hulk in AVENGERS, says, “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. Another area that we attempted to level up in is our skin development. And to start out with that, we actually went back to a practical approach doing a live cast of one of our primary orcs, Rob Kazinsky. And from this life cast, we pulled his actual pore detail that we used as a starting point for the orcs. Now, obviously orcs have rougher skin than we do, and the lips in particular are very, very different from human lips. But starting from this was a real part of getting that initial look to at least feel human before we started pushing the orc aesthetic. And that’s something that we found ourselves doing quite a bit, was let’s try to get something real first. Let’s try to get something human first. And then push it from there, so we know when we’re deviating.”Warcraft ILM orc

Making realistic CG humanoids on celluloid is indeed a tricky business. Viewers can edge toward that “uncanny valley” of unconscious repulsion due to interactions that appear inhuman, and at that point it’s game over. So perhaps it’s this attention to the tiniest little details on the orcs and other living creatures that makes WARCRAFT a work of digital art, regardless of what one may think of the film’s overall narrative.

For a more comprehensive look at WARCRAFT and more with Duncan Jones and star Rob Kazinsky, pick up Famous Monsters issue #285 on newsstands now or digitally through Magzter.

WARCRAFT is in theaters everywhere June 10. Check out a behind-the-scenes featurette below until then!