Warcraft: A Virtual World from a Virtual Production
August 1, 2016

Warcraft: A Virtual World from a Virtual Production

The worlds of orc and human clash in Duncan Jones’  Warcraft , the Legendary/Universal film based on Blizzard’s wildly popular MMORPG video game.

When it comes to orcs versus humans, it’s safe to say intense action ensues. But just how did Jones and his collaborators craft a race of orcs – taller and more muscle-bound than humans – and feature them not just in ferocious mega-battles, but also reveal their more subtle and nuanced emotional lives? 

The answer lay in the use of motion capture and virtual production tech, supplied by performance capture leader Animatrik. 

Animatrik’s camera tracking, motion-capture suit and simulcam technology enabled complicated and realistic on-set performances from the orc performers. This data in turn aided visual effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer and VFX studio ILM to easily transfer those performances into the digital realm, creating the photoreal orc “digi-likenesses” witnessed in the final film. (For an extensive look at the visual effects creation, see “Crafty Effects” in the July.August 2016 issue.)

Warcraft was the largest virtual production Animatrik has ever been involved with,” says president and CTO Brett Ineson. ”The production had eight different stages over five months of shooting. Some were 300 feet in length, and there were even outdoor stages where the team had to film in the rain!”

Compositing Orcs in Real Time

Animatrik delivered several motion-capture services throughout production; “the full monty,” as Ineson describes it. “We supplied tracking cameras, tracking weapons and props, all integrated with live action sets and live action actors, and then integrated those CG sets and actors together,” he explains.

“The idea was that as we were filming you could see everything happening through the eyepiece of the movie camera – all the backgrounds, orcs and creatures composited in real time with our tracking tech,” Ineson notes.

Animatrik deployed two kinds of motion-capture camera technologies – NaturalPoint and Vicon cameras and a SolidTrack system. 

The first tech setup was coined “outside in,” and relied on capturing the motion of performers in motion-capture suits along with the main film camera. This provided a real-time simulcam composite of the characters and their backgrounds. 

Integrating Simulcam

When there was no motion-capture camera equipment on set, or the actors walked inside sets or areas where the cameras could not see them anymore, Animatrik used an “inside out” approach. 

“We’d mount a small vision survey camera to the movie camera,” explains Ineson. “This camera would integrate with a system called SolidTrack, which would lock onto every pixel it sees and calculate its 3D position to the world around it. We could then work out the offset between that camera and the movie camera for the simulcam view.

“Having that simulcam view was so valuable for everyone on set,” continues Ineson. “It really helped with things like framing, since the orcs, for example, might be up to 12 feet tall. Knowing that on set meant the camera operator could re-position for the best angle. 

“Simply put, the production was able to shoot Warcraft as if it were a normal movie . This drastically reduced the changes necessary on the back end.”

The Great Outdoors

Animatrik’s motion-capture tech helped solve another challenging aspect of Warcraft‘s outdoor shoots. 

Motion capture outdoors has traditionally been much trickier than a controlled stage environment, but Animatrik was able to use past experience to overcome the challenge. The team used active marker suits fitted with LED lights developed with Standard Deviation to achieve highly accurate motion capture. 

“Because of the outdoor sets, light pollution and rain, we needed to create LED suits for the actors to wear because we knew we would have trouble bouncing light from the camera to do a traditional motion capture,” says Ineson. “The LEDs are synchronized to pulse in time with the motion-capture camera and, therefore, not impact on the main photography. This allowed for much more precise outdoor performance capture, and a more realistic performance from the actors themselves, who could more realistically place themselves into the scene.”

The Subtlety of Facial Performance

Animatrik’s work was not done yet – the company also played a big part in the orc’s facial-capture solution. 

In order to capture the orc’s emotive performances, the on-set actors wore a helmet camera system developed by Technoprops, consisting of a pair of stereo cameras that delivered two streams of video. These cameras caught every nuance and subtle shade of emotion that passed across the actors’ faces as they performed.

“Animatrik’s role in the facial animation was in the post-process tracking of the data that came off those cameras,” explains Ineson. “The stereo cameras meant we could track the data in 3D as opposed to 2D. We would track the facial marker set into 3D and then deliver that data over to the VFX vendor, in this case, ILM, which then worked with it in their proprietary facial animation solver.”

Seeing the results of Animatrik’s motion-capture work still causes Ineson to marvel, especially considering the scale of the shoot.

“It was just so complicated,” he says. “It’s one thing to capture performances, but when you have nine orcs fighting nine humans with moving cameras and all that action happening, the fact that the cameraman could see this all in his camera in real time, it was so great. It’s also fantastic to see just how much of the actors’ likenesses and performances are retained in the orcs. You can see the personality shine through each of these digi-likenesses.”

Not only was Warcraft an evolution of Animatrik’s craft, but it also helped the team make a major leap in the services the company now offers. 

“There was a lot of R&D involved in Warcraft, and a lot of things that had to be custom build in order to make the movie possible,” says Ineson. “Our services have really benefited and we now have even more experience of capturing in some really challenging environments.”