Watch two seconds from Warcraft and it’s obvious that visual effects are essential to its existence. Virtually every shot contains some kind of digital element, making it a fantasy in every sense of the word. So to keep the movie grounded, director Duncan Jones told the team at Industrial Light and Magic there would be one rule they must follow, no matter what: Do not fuck with the actor’s performance.
In Warcraft, half the main characters are orcs, massive beasts played by humans in performance capture. It’s a process audiences have been seeing for years, from Lord of the Rings and Avatar to Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Actors wear a body suit, including a helmet with cameras pointing back at them, so a computer can track every movement not just of their bodies, but their faces. That data is then put into a computer, and then their performances can altered in any way the director desires.
And yet that kind of freedom has its own price. If an actor isn’t quite nailing their performance, or if a director has an idea after filming, he or she can just change it. A tweak of the eyebrow here, a lift of the lip there, and a whole other emotion can be evoked. In fact, many actors who sign on for a performance capture role rarely expect to recognize themselves in the final film.
And yet, from day one, Jones stressed to everyone on working on the film he wanted the performances to remain as is, no matter what.
‘[Everyone] had a philosophy going into this project that 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,” said Animation Supervisor Hal Hickel. “You treat it with the utmost importance and care and then really carry it like a fragile thing all the way through this lengthy technological and artistic process. [We didn’t] let it get derailed, stomped on, modified and turned into something else.”
The first day someone was brought onto Warcraft, they were told about this mandate. Fix technical problems, of course, but do not do any animation on the face or body. “There were adjustments that had to be made for the bulk of the orcs,” said Hickel. “Where their hand would end up or the length of the arm. Perfunctory things. But we’d say ‘Don’t try to animate it or fix it. Let’s see it out of the box, show it to Duncan that way and we’ll have a discussion about what we need to do to make sure the performance is serving the film.’ There was a learning process there for sure.”
“What we found is, the more you do the less authentic and real and true the performance ultimately feels.” Hickel continued. “There’s a really dense web of interconnected decisions, both conscious and unconscious, going on in the actor’s brain as they’re reacting in the moment. What their body language is, the tilt of their head, when they blink, how they blink—all that stuff adds up to a thing that if you start to break it apart into components and rearrange them it just starts to not work anymore.”
“As opposed to the uncanny valley phenomenon, you can get a Frankenstein phenomenon where you start taking little bits from so many different things and putting them together,” said Jones. “Then it’s not an [orc] anymore.”
That level of commitment was both beneficial and a nuisance. On the plus side, having that data and not being able to mess with it meant the animators were given more time to concentrate on the little details that make an orc an orc.
“The capture gives us tons of weird, interconnected details in the face that an animator might not necessarily think of,” Hickel said. “So the animators can concentrate on the last 10 percent of what really makes a shot look beautiful. Instead of doing all this heavy lifting to get it to 90 percent, they can really focus on the sweet stuff that really pushes it over the edge.”
However, the amount of characters and details on each character meant that ILM had to “level up” on several things, according to VFX supervisor Jason Smith. New technologies like “Haircraft,” “Muscle Meters,” and a special Tusk Deformer (which was created with an assist from ILM’s sister company Pixar) had to be developed in-house to make cleaner, more believable simulations of hair, muscle, teeth and more. These were used to add layers and layers on the strict performances of the actors.
“By the end of the show, everyone became a hair stylist in some form or another,” joked 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.”
Just because the faces were locked in by the performances of the actors, though, doesn’t mean anything else was. The team used the concept art of Wei Wang from Blizzard to figure out how to bring the characters from the video game into the real world. Then it was about making every single one of them unique. Outside of the eight hero orcs, 52 different orc types were created, and using a huge cache of different tattoos, armors, hairstyles, and looks, they were able to turn those 52 into hundreds and thousands of different variants.
All of this on top of each other meant that some shots on the film took literally months for a computer to render at full resolution. “Which is crazy, I know that sounds crazy,” said Smith. It’s why even though Warcraft finished filming in the summer of 2014, it’s taken this long to finally make it to the big screen. And when you see it, you’ll know the orcs on-screen may be digitally created, but they’re also as real as they can be.
Here are some exclusive side by side images to show just how close the characters are to the actors portraying them.
Note: Universal Pictures paid for io9/Gizmodo’s travel to ILM in San Francisco to report this piece.