After impressing audiences with his first two sci-fi steeped films, Moon and Source Code, director Duncan Jones has taken on an even greater challenge, one literally years in the making, with his new movie based on Blizzard Entertainment’s Warcraft games.
Warcraft tells the story of two races, the Orcs of the Horde and the humans of the Alliance, who come into conflict over the fate of Azeroth, their shared world. When the leader of the Horde’s Frostwolves Clan, Durotan (Toby Kebbell) leads his men and his pregnant wife Draka (Anna Galvin) through a portal created by their shaman Gul’dan (Daniel Wu), they end up in the land ruled by King Liane and Lady Taria (Dominic Cooper and Ruth Negga, both of AMC’s Preacher).
Azeroth’s Guardian Medivh (Ben Foster) is sworn to protect the people of the kingdom along with Anduin Lothar, the Commander of the King’s army, but Durotan just wants to find safe haven for his tribe and for his family while Gul’dan has more nefarious plans for the humans.
It’s a lot of characters for anyone being introduced to this world for the first time, but even if you aren’t familiar with the games, Jones has done a fantastic job of world-building his fantasy, not unlike what Peter Jackson did with J.R.R. Tolkien’s books. It’s also an amazing achievement in visual FX with nearly half the movie’s cast being created by motion capture and CG ala the recent Planet of the Apes movies.
Recently, Den of Geek spoke with Jones about the challenges of taking on Warcraft, including the biggest hurdle that involved making the Orcs more human and the humans more lethal, as well as his hopes to turn it into a trilogy.
Den of Geek: When I spoke to producer Chuck Roven a few weeks ago, he mentioned what got you the gig directing Warcraft is that you wanted to humanize the Orcs and the Horde. When you came up with that idea, did you know how you were going to do that, using performance capture? Was that part of your pitch?
Duncan Jones: It wasn’t part of the pitch but it was certainly a decision that needs to be made very quickly if we were going to proceed with the film as I was pitching it. I made my pitch based on story and character. Really, by everyone agreeing and consenting to that, immediately it became absolutely clear that if we’re going to get the audience to empathize with these characters and have more emotional character moments, then we’re going to have to be able to hold a close-up with one of these Orcs and let them emote and talk about what’s on their mind.
You’re not going to be able to do that with a guy covered in prosthetics or with older versions of mo-cap. We need to know what is possible right now, on the leading edge of that technology, and that’s where ILM came to the rescue, having just done the incredible Hulk character in the first Avengers movie.
When you had to cast actors to play the Orcs, how did you go about doing that? You can get really good actors, but you won’t really know how it’s going to work with the mo-cap unless you do a lot of testing.
Certainly, Toby [Kebbell] was a natural and a shoe-in. He just played Koba in the Planet of the Apes movie and on a performance and character level, I’d just seen him in Black Mirror. There was an episode that he did for that where I thought, “Okay, this is a guy who can absolutely carry the more nuanced aspect of the performance that I’m looking for.”
So, Toby was a natural fit and that was an easy decision. Moving up there, we had Terry Notary who was going to be involved, having done so much mo-cap work before, so he was really going to be in the trenches with us, teaching all of the actors who were going to be doing mo-cap what they needed to do. Clancy Brown already had a previous existing relationship with Blizzard, having done voice work with them, and knew the characters. It’s the Kurgan from Highlander, so obviously I wanted to work with him, and he kind of knew the character Blackhand that we wanted him to play.
Rob Kazinsky—massive Warcraft fan—had never done mo-cap before, but his sheer enthusiasm won me over when I got a chance to have an interview meeting with him. Anna Galvin was a Canadian local—Australian actress, incredibly talented, had done very little mo-cap before. Took a little bit of a gamble on her, but we did some readings of the script with her and she was fantastic. I was basically saying, “If you could do this while you have silver pajamas on and you don’t get embarrassed by that, you’re going to do fine.” That’s exactly what she did, and she was absolutely fantastic. We feel like we’ve found a real treasure in Anna Galvin—she was really, really terrific.
Daniel Wu was an actor that I knew as a friend before we worked on Warcraft, and it was one of those times where you get to work with someone who you know from outside of work, so working with Daniel was a lovely piece of happenstance.
How was it working with them on set since you were mixing it up with actors playing humans on real built sets and then the Orcs, as well as I assume a lot of the background, being CG?
You are incorrect, sir. Actually, we built an extraordinarily large number of incredibly detailed film sets, so even our Orc characters were performing, on the whole, in actual filmed live action environments whether it was the Orc tents themselves or the interior of the Orc tents, some of the landscapes. It was actual real stuff in camera that we built, and that was down to the incredible work of Gavin Bocquet, our production designer, and his team, who really pulled together some amazing places for us to shoot, even with the limited resources that we had available.
I was wondering specifically about the mountain locations and the Horde’s original home. If this were all done in live-action, you would just find a location and shoot there, but I would think there would be so much technical stuff involved that would make it hard to do performance capture in those settings.
There’s something that we used on Moon actually called “nesting” where you shoot a live-action section of the shot and then “nest” it in a larger digital environment, so obviously when you get too wide, you obviously can’t find that on location, but you can nest it, so you can shoot something that is live-action and then posit that within something that is digital. We did that occasionally and there was obviously some digital work as well, but I really want to emphasize the fact that certainly when you were down and dirty in the Orc camp or when we’re in any of the tents, all of that stuff is live-action set building.
The visual effects are pretty amazing—I think I might have seen three scenes that didn’t have any visual FX at all, whether it’s the Orcs or the magic. I know you’ve done a lot of FX work before but was this just another level of that?
It’s funny. I think all of the mechanics of how you do that stuff, it’s really about just surrounding yourself with the right people. As long as you know what you want to achieve at the end of it, they will help you get there. My job is really to focus on making sure the storytelling works, and that the actors understand what is going on so that they’re able to perform in a very natural way, and in a believable way. But it’s kind of like lighting. It’s certainly something where there is a skill that is at work in order to achieve a look, but as long as it’s done properly, hopefully it becomes invisible to the process of making a movie and allowing the actors to perform.
Did you end up spending most of the past few years at ILM on the FX?
Yeah, certainly in post-production, I was up there constantly. We had guys from ILM up with us in Vancouver when we were shooting, and once we started to feel like we had our off-line at a point where we were able to start making commitments to visual FX shots, I was shuttling back and forth between where the edit was and San Francisco where ILM is in order to oversee and be involved in the FX work.
Chuck mentioned to me that there are a lot of books and material based around Warcraft, and I was curious how much of that you delved into without just adapting a pre-existing story?
Not too much. My knowledge of Warcraft was based on having been a long-time player of the game back from the very first real-time strategy game 20 years ago, and then my conversations and ongoing relationship with Chris Messon and the guys at Blizzard, my storytelling came out of those two experiences.
Considering the first target audience is going to be fans of the games, what was the most important thing you felt you needed to get right for them?
Well, it really was trying to make a movie that works on two levels, so it was kind of like trying to make a Pixar movie where you’re making a film for the kids and then also for the parents. We were trying to make it for people who know nothing about Warcraft, and make it a fantasy film that would bring them in in the same way that The Fellowship of the Rings brought in people who had never read Tolkien. At the same time, you want to have a meta-layer of stuff, Easter eggs, and elements that people who were fans of the game, it would make them feel like it’s a place that they recognized and it belongs to them.
I think just on a holistic level, what we wanted is when people who were fans of the games go watch the movie, they will feel like they’ve gone home. They will go to a place is very much recognizable to them. If the camera was pointing in one direction, if they could just make the camera pan, they would know exactly what’s going on beyond where I cropped the framing.
As you probably know as a gamer, movies based on games have rarely gotten a fair shake, maybe because there have been so few good ones. It’s also very hard to convince people who don’t play the game to take it seriously as a movie. I was curious about making a movie with that kind of burden.
I really believe that we approached this as an opportunity to make a fantasy film that would stand up in its own right. I remember back when the first Lord of the Rings film came out. When Fellowship of the Ring came out, a lot of people said, “No one wants to see this. Nobody reads Tolkien anymore.” I think the fact is that Peter Jackson was able to invite and bring in an audience that saw this fantastical world and amazing characters, even if they’d never read Tolkien, it was enough to draw them in. And I’m hoping that we can do that with Warcraft.
Whether you love the game or even hate the game, this is a film, and it’s a fantasy film, and it’s certainly on the same scale as Fellowship of the Ring. I think if audiences give it a chance, they’re really going to enjoy it, whether they know about Warcraft or not.
One of our resident Warcraft fans is very optimistic about future movies, and she has a lot of ideas about what she’d like to see in other movies. Has anything been discussed about where to go from this movie? You obviously left it in a place where they could be more stories to tell.
It’s kind of interesting because like I said, Warcraft as a game has had 20 years of storytelling, and the way games work and the amount of new characters, new elements, big events, that happen in a game is quite rapid in order to fill up a game. On a filmmaking level, I think you need to take a really thin slice of game story in order to do it justice, and make it work in a more linear narrative form. Our film obviously takes place with Durotan, the leader of the Frostwolves on the Orc side, bringing his people out of a world, which is dying and putting them in this new world, hopefully to find a new home. If we’re fortunate and people love the movie enough that we get the chance to make the other two—because I would love to do a trilogy—I would hope by the end of that trilogy, we would know what the Orc home is going to be.
She also wanted to know if we’d ever see the origin of the Horde or the Alliance factions, going even earlier back from where this movie starts.
At this early stage, I think the sensible thing to think about it is the characters we have in this movie, we’re going to want to continue their story. We’ll certainly be introducing a couple more characters, but really, you kind of know what the timeframe is as far as where the story takes place, for those who know about Warcraft.
Warcraft comes out in North America on Friday, June 10 with previews Thursday night.
You can also read about Jones’ prospective next project Mute, which he’s been developing for 14 years, right here. (Thanks to Den of Geek’s Warcraft Expert Laura Hardgrave for the questions!)