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Everything We Learned About WARCRAFT and Orc CGI at ILM

Last week, Nerdist got an opportunity to head up to ILM (Industrial Light & Magic) in San Francisco to check out some new footage from Warcraft. We got to hear from director Duncan Jones, as well as from Jeff White, the Visual Effects Supervisor at ILM, and some of the crew. Hey, when half of the characters in your film are CGI, you have to get the best, right?

First we saw the footage from the film that was shown at CinemaCon in Las Vegas a few weeks back, which was an extended trailer of sorts. We saw battles, the conflict between the Horde and the Alliance, and how Durotan the orc (Toby Kebbell) tries to appeal to the humans to help save his people from the Fel, a demonic blight that makes the orcs more powerful, but corrupts their souls.

Jones, who is a lifelong World of Warcraft player, talked about signing onto the film and what it took to get the project off the ground: “My pitch to Blizzard and to Legendary and Atlas, all the companies involved early on was, if we were to make this film and if it were to feel like the experience that you have when you play the game, is you need to have a vested interest in characters from both sides; the orcs and the humans. And I think that was one of the things that they were sort of coming up against before. 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 could hold a close up. Where you could actually have characters, people that you would empathize with, and that would actually keep your interest. And on a technological level, I think, there are different ways to approach that.”

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Jones talked about how you could use prosthetics, but that it wouldn’t have sold the size and scope of the characters, and wouldn’t have allowed the right facial expressions to give the characters real emotion. “If I want to sit on a close up for six, eight, 10 seconds on 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 a human covered in prosthetics.”

Jones explained that White and his team created a new facial capture program, based on the work they’d done on The Hulk and the first Avengers movie. “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, for sure, that these closeups were going to hold to that level of detail. When we first got our delivery of a finished shot… all of us, we had a little party.”

That first shot he was talking about was of Durotan and his wife and fellow warrior Draka (Anna Galvin). In the scene, we see a close up of Durotan’s face, with emphasis on his very expressive eyes. He’s watching Draka sleep, until he realizes she’s awake. She’s pregnant and the two joke lovingly about the baby, his name, and their relationship. It’s a scene one wouldn’t expect to see from orcs, unless you play the game and know just how “human” they really are. Jones joked that the scene was about himself and his very pregnant wife, who was in the theater with us. The crazy thing about that scene is, even before you hear him speak, you can see the emotion in Durotan’s eyes. Jones and White told us that they knew the film was going to work after realizing that you could really see Kebbell’s performance and all its nuances in a computer generated character.

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There is so much detail for each of the orcs, and it takes a lot to take them from the humans that play them in mo-cap suits, to what you see on the big screen. Orcs are six-and-a-half to seven feet tall, with heads the size of humans, but with huge shoulders and massive bodies and hands. To get sense of what this would look like on screen, the monitors on set showed a rendering of each orc superimposed over the actor in the suit. That way, as they were filming, Jones could see if the actors were bumping into each other and how they related to the human characters. He talked about one character who has massive skulls on his shoulders, turning to look at another character, and realizing that he’s really be talking to the skull. It informed the way the actors moved their bodies and interacted with each other.

VFX Art Director Christian Alzmann showed us renderings of Durotan in a number of different states, and showed us how they added incredible nuance to each shot, from hand-animating the tongues from video of the actors themselves, to the way the tiniest bit of red in a shadow in direct sunlight had to be added to faces. He explained that they had to find a way around the fact that orcs have massive tusks coming from their bottom jaws, meaning their lips never completely closed. He said that most of the actors wore something in their mouths, but they had to create a way to use them in which they’d still portray the emotion that human lips do. Alzmann said that even the clothing was complex. The character of Gul’dan (Daniel Wu) had skulls hanging from bits of cloth and he said that every effects pass found another skull moving through another part of the costume. Jones joked that Gul’dan’s costume, made of strips of fabric was his first and last foray into fashion design. Jones and White also talked about the hair and how complicated it was. White joked that it was called “Haircraft” and that his twin daughters could tell us how bad he is at braiding. They came up with a system that consisted of moving “tubes,” allowing the artists to create braids inside of them. The orcs even have nose and back hair!

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Orcs are far more complex in terms of their society than many non-gamers might realize. There are many different tribes, they have specific cultures and style of dress. Hal Hickel (Animation Supervisor) and Jason Smith (Visual Effects Supervisor) showed us drawings of each of the tribes and the defining characteristics of each, from facial masks to metal-based clothing to the forest clans’ wooden armor. They explained that the orcs have big hands and therefore aren’t as artistic as the humans. Their clothing and props had to feel rough hewn.

One final piece of footage we saw was a sort of behind-the-scenes video of the actors working in mo-cap suits, then the same scene with the CGI characters. Everyone mentioned at different times during the presentation that they realized that not everyone would even notice all the work that went into this film, but they they hoped the effect would make it all feel believable. Incidentally, fans of the game are going to be surprised by a few special characters that I can’t reveal here. Let’s just say one in particular is going to make you excited for the next World of Warcraft expansion.

Warcraft will hit theaters on June 10, 2016. Tweet me/us @JennaBusch/@Nerdist and let us know if you’re excited for the film. For the Horde! Um, I mean, the Alliance, too. Yup. That’s what I meant. And check our gallery below for a slew of Warcraft character posters.

Images: Legendary Pictures

​(Editor’s note: Nerdist Industries is a subsidiary of Legendary Digital Networks.)



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