Founded in 1975 by George Lucas, Industrial Light & Magic, or ILM, became the premiere special effects house in the world after 1977’s Star Wars changed the perception of what could be accomplished in visual effects realism, and has held on as a leader in the field since then. When George Lucas sold Lucasfilm to Disney in 2012, in addition to the Star Wars and Indiana Jones brands, ILM and industry sound leader Skywalker Sound were both part of the deal.
Like its parent company Disney, ILM specializes in mixing the real and the imaginary; reflected in the driving directions to the Lucasfilm compound in San Francisco’s Presidio, which inform visitors to walk past the serene Yoda fountain before entering reception. Inside, bay windows run along the outward walls of the lobby and high mounted lamps augment the natural light beaming in from a skylight; the light sculpts the room like a film set of an indoor den or personal library — the little slice of Hollywood in San Francisco shows its artifice in decorative lamps that can't turn on, the power cords cleanly cut through. The layout of the bookshelves is punctuated by full sized statues of Boba Fett and Darth Vader, and everyone takes a selfie next to the Force Awakens stormtrooper just inside the lobby doors.
The rest of the lobby — with some exceptions — is prequel-era-centric, with a shelf of Star Wars: New Jedi Order expanded universe novels two shelves below Emperor Palpatine's elegant gold-colored light-saber. Here the legacy of celebrated visual effects work is literally mounted on the walls, including some of the most popular sci-fi/fantasy franchises in history.
"I play Warcraft," says Duncan Jones, director of the upcoming film, before screening footage in ILM’s full sized theater for the press. "I’ve been a Warcraft player since before Warcraft: Orcs and Humans, since Lost Vikings," he later adds.
Director of the indie-hit Moon — and son of recently-passed music icon David Bowie — Jones has short wavy hair with a high widow's peak, his face framed below by a close cropped beard above a t-shirt featuring one of the film's orcs. Jones has taken inspiration from games before; in 2011's Source Code, he tracked a continuous shot of Jake Gyllenhaal's character, Colter Stevens, tumbling and rolling after he jumped out of a train, inspired by the rag doll physics of Grand Theft Auto 4.
"Are we gonna stick Hugh Jackman in this movie, and Johnny Depp? Or are we going to allow our characters to really inhabit, basically, the heroes that are known from the game?" Jones says it was the studio’s decision to let him make the film character-driven. "And I’m glad they went that route, instead of making it a star vehicle. It allowed us to focus on these two ensembles of characters. We have a group of humans and a group of orcs."
An origin story set during Warcraft’s First War gives Jones a lot of lore to draw on — while having what he calls the "First Contact" moment between the Alliance and Horde — without being overburdened by too much backstory. The two ensembles mean having to find a way to make the orcs sympathetic heroes in their own right, and early in the development process, making a decision between actors wearing prosthetics or using motion capture for computer generated characters. Jones says of the process, "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 who would actually keep your interest.
"For monsters prosthetics work great, but if I want to sit for five, eight, 10 seconds on a close-up of one of these characters, and I want to understand what they’re thinking about; you can do that with a human being, but you can’t do that with someone covered with prosthetics. Jeff [White, visual effects supervisor for the film] and his team gave us this amazing facial capture from work they had already done on Hulk in the first Avengers movie."
To demonstrate how this translates in Warcraft, Jones and White show a quiet scene of Durotan (performed by Toby Kebbell), chieftan of the orc Frostwolf clan, in close-up quietly deliberating in firelight, his eyes twitching, micro-expressions betraying his thought process. A second, character building scene, shows Durotan with his mate Draka (Anna Galvin), speculating about the future for their unborn child; concern, hope, and affection clearly emoted by the digital characters. It works, maybe too well; in the video examples where the orcs interact with humans, the orc faces seem almost more real than the live action human performers. It’s an odd effect, as if Jones and the artists at ILM have climbed out of the uncanny valley onto some kind of "canny plateau."
At its best, the motion capture effect is seamless and emotional. At its worst, it creates what Jones and White refer to as the opposite side of the uncanny valley: the Frankenstein phenomenon, which White says creates a disjointed effect by taking different parts of captured performances and sewing them together. While White and Jones talk about avoiding using different parts of the facial performance — the eyes from one performance, the mouth from another — in some of the action shots the higher quality facial capture seems slightly disjointed from the looser body animations.
While capturing the motion on set, like in James Cameron’s Avatar, and the Uncharted games, the actors’ facial performances are captured at the same time. Unlike those titles, the process on Warcraft used two cameras to provide 3D facial capture instead of a single one as reference for animators, getting those facial ticks and micro-expressions that are hard to animate from scratch. Mocap is done on physical sets, so that the orc and human actors can interact directly; the team has to carefully hide their mocap cameras around the set. In the camera viewfinder, low res versions of the digital characters are overlaid on top of the actors, so they can have the actors adjust their performances based on the much larger physiology of the orcs.
In a small screening room, visual effects supervisor Jason Smith runs through the different phases of how the visuals are created from a mocap session with Toby Kebbell; starting with the tracking data of dots drawn on his face. A second pass tracks the eyelids, and Smith says that even a change of a pencil line-width on an eyelid’s position is the difference between a sleepy and angry expression. A third pass tracks the eyeballs and teeth; and the video on screen is of a pair of twitching socketless eyes floating above a set of gnashing teeth — allows the artists to separate "the skin motion from the rigid jaw."
To demonstrate what this actually translates to, animation supervisor Hal Hickel shows footage of actor Rob Kazinsky performing facial capture as orc warchief Orgrim Doomhammer. In the live action version, Kazinsky, wearing the grey skintight mocap suit — which Jones refers to as "silver pajamas and a helmet" with two cameras — delivers his lines and spits. This is followed by a video scene of the CGI character, all in greyscale without lighting, using just the mocap data; which was fluid but also waxy and lifeless. A second pass, adding adjustments to the lips around the orc tusks and what Hickel referred to as an animator’s "love," finesses the performance to add nuances from the original performance that are missing. A final color render, with firelight lighting, might necessitate "pushing" the animation if the more subtle visuals are lost in darkness.
Creating the photo-real look is a challenge; live action performances for the human characters are locked in, and can’t have the cartoony anatomy from the game, according to Jones. The orcs, and also the dwarves — whom he describes as "almost shaped like old-fashioned bombs or bullets" — have been modeled off of that stylized anatomy.
The effects artists frequently speak to the size of the orc shoulders and hands, and how that changes spacial relationships for the actors. VFX art director Christian Alzmann speaks about maintaining the "silhouettes" of Warcraft’s orcs and dwarves so they are recognizable not just in close-up, but in battles with thousands of characters. Jason Smith later mentions using game footage to make sure that the runes from the spells are accurate, and Jones mentions that there are easter eggs throughout the film.
Jones adds, "It’s a juggling act, I’ve got to make a movie for people who know nothing about Warcraft, who feel fulfilled: they understand the characters, they understand the story, they’re amazed by the spectacle. And at the same time the fans are saying, ‘Oh my god I’ve been there! I know what that is!’ It’s a challenge."
Audiences will be able to judge how well he and the effects team meet that challenge, and the mix of stylized visuals and live action, on June 10 when Warcraft releases in theaters.