We all thought it. We watched the first Warcraft trailer and thought, “Oh no, that’s a lot of CGI.” Immediately, the nightmare scenario popped into our heads: the possibility that this amazing video game had been turned into a sterile mess, without a shred of drama or humanity.
But when we got to talk one-on-one with the film’s stars at BlizzCon, they emphasized just how many practical effects there are in this movie, and how real it all felt. Sure, writer/director Duncan Jones is adapting a world that features fantastical creatures and places, which require plenty of CG, motion capture, set extension and more. But everyone involved with making this film talked about the real sets and effects, and how that affected the performances and mindsets of the actors. This helped them dive head-first into what’s one of 2016’s most anticipated, and risky, films.
“They closed that soundstage door, and it was a real forest,” Paula Patton, who plays the half orc, half human Garona, told io9. “It was true to scale and we had our horses in there and we were jumping out of trees and such. And then you’re going up mountains that have been built by these set designers. So you really enter the universe and that kind of gives you a sort of faith and excitement.”
“A lot of actors are fearful of doing motion capture or any kind of virtual stuff because you have to imagine all that stuff,” added actor Daniel Wu. “But, [in Warcraft], it was there. There’s a bit where I summon the Fel energy, to get Blackhand to take the Fel into his body. And that was done with a practical set. We had this big urn in Gul’dan’s tent that had green fucking fire coming out. It was awesome. It went up like eight feet high.”
Don’t let some of that Warcraft jargon fool you. The story is actually quite simple. As he mentions, Wu plays Gul’dan, an evil orc warlock who opens the realm between orcs and humans for the first time ever. In the film, the orcs have run out of resources in their world, so Gul’dan comes up with the idea for them to invade another world: The world of humans, Azeroth. And of course, the humans aren’t going to let that happen without a fight.
The humans are lead by King Llane, played by Dominic Cooper. And like his co-star, he had lots of real stuff to work with.
“Scale is part of Warcraft,” Cooper told io9. “I had really huge gold armor. We had to fight, we had to ride horses, we had to march. And that was incredible about it. It gives you the physicality. They make your shoulders eight times bigger than they are. They’ll give you a huge presence on screen.”
While the armor and weapons give Llane and his people a “huge presence on screen,” the film’s biggest presence is probably Patton’s character, Garona. Her half human, half orc character bridges the gap not just for audiences, but in the story as well.
“I think she speaks for a lot of fans,” Patton said. “Garona gets in, and it’s her intuition that she’s gained as a woman—and probably being an Orc—and what she’s done, that can potentially change the course of a war.”
And amidst the huge sets and significant digital effects, Warcraft still has to be about two things: character and story. Which, thankfully, Cooper said Jones was able to keep in mind at all times.
“The scale is just so, so huge, you can very easily get lost in it,” Cooper said. “The director certainly has so much to focus on that, they can often get distracted or not necessarily have the characters and the acting as the main focus. But that always seemed to be his priority. No matter how large the scale of the piece was, he wanted to make sure that that story that he was trying to tell was being told.”
That story is very much an adaptation of the first Warcraft game, with a few minor changes. If audiences turn out, it also potentially sets the table for a franchise. After all, there are two decades of Warcraft stories that could be told, including full histories for every single character, and a legion of fans. Even so, Jones didn’t want his actors to delve too deep into that potential treasure trove of information.
“I told him I was sifting through all this stuff, but ‘It’s so difficult,’” to understand, Wu said, and Jones responded: “‘Don’t do that. Don’t do it,’” according to Wu. “‘Half of it is gonna be useless. Some of it is what we’re putting in the movie, but most of it you’re not gonna need.’”
That sentiment was shared by Cooper, who believed while lots of people had interpretations of his character, he had to make it his own. “I had to take responsibility as an actor,” he said. “I couldn’t be in the shadow of what I thought others thought this person was.”
But Patton felt the opposite way. She believed knowing the rich video game history of Garona was essential for a nuanced performance. “The more knowledge I have of a character, I’ll take it all,” she said. “You put it inside your soul and then it’s kind of an energy. It’s not necessarily that all those stories are maybe told or maybe you see them. But hopefully when you watch it, you feel like you can see it in her eyes and her soul.”
That’s not to say there was no preparation for these characters. Though Jones didn’t want Wu to look at Gul’dan’s Warcraft history (seen above from the video game, not the movie), he didn’t mind comparisons to actual history.
“The thing that really hit home for me was that this is a monster Orc character, right? But he has a really human desire, which is that he’s trying to ensure the survival of his his race,” Wu said. “And so you can look at him like a Napoleon or even a Hitler, in that he’s fully passionate and believes this is the right way to go.”
If that assessment sounds like Gul’dan is important to the Warcraft movie, you’d be right.
“He’s kind of really driving the momentum that all the characters are working against,” Wu said. “Because if they don’t take care of this problem that Gul’dan is actually initiating, then it’s gonna be detrimental not just to the Orcs but also to the humans as well.”
That’s a big part of what makes Warcraft unique. As with the game itself, Jones has crafted something where you choose how you want to view this world. Do you want to focus on the CG? You can. Want to admire the practical sets and costumes? Go for it. Are the orcs the good guys or are the humans? Exactly. None of the characters have a real clear moral classification.
“I think it follows the lore completely,” Wu said. “That’s really what I liked about the story is that Duncan did a really good job of not making the orc race the bad guys and the humans the good guys. There are bad humans as well as there’s bad orcs and there’s good orcs as well as there’s good humans. And then they mix together on that those two levels, the good and the bad.”
Warcraft opens June 10. Here’s that trailer.
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