War Game
Issue: Volume 34 Issue 7: (Aug/Sept 2011)

War Game

In combat-themed movies, it usually takes many minutes into the film before the explosive action begins to unfold. When Digital Domain created the reality-steeped, battle-intensive video game trailer for Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Future Soldier title, there was no lead-in; the studio had just 84 seconds to deliver audiences directly into the middle of the explosive drama and excitement. It was a mission that the studio accomplished in Silver Star fashion. 

Digital Domain masterminded the dramatic trailer, which first debuted at this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3). Tasked by developer Ubisoft Entertainment to create a visually arresting trailer that highlighted specific game elements, director Neil Huxley led a talented visual effects team of 15 artists at the Academy Award-winning studio to complete the ambitious project from concept through completion in just eight weeks.

Inspired by the gritty, particle-filled, light-saturated aesthetics of films like District 9, Black Hawk Down, and The Hurt Locker, Huxley artfully orchestrated a poetic ballet of death and destruction through a virtual 35mm camera lens.

“As a fanboy, I know what I want to see in a video game trailer,”says Huxley. “It was tremendous fun not only to brainstorm and then get the green light for a concept that really showcased all the cool aspects of the game, but also to continually improve on that concept throughout the creative process for the best result possible. Ubisoft was receptive to many of our suggestions,
and I think that seamless collaboration comes through in the finished version of the trailer.”

Set at a fictitious hostile enemy camp in Nigeria, the trailer opens with a brief mission overview. It then continues through the viewfinder of Ghost Leader’s weapon before cutting
to the sniper, Pepper, who has zeroed in on his target. Next, commandos Kozak and 30K are
shown planting explosives on a vehicle. Once the charges are set, they enable their optical
camouflage that renders them invisible, allowing them to get into position for the takedown.
Ghost Leader gives the call to detonate the explosives, and just before the charge blows, the
team fires on their target. Simultaneous to the explosion, a bullet-time 45-second fly-through
of the area set to a sound track of classical music highlights the augmented-reality elements
of the game, and reveals that the enemies have been taken out and that a hostage on the second
floor is still alive. Finally, Kozak executes an opposing soldier with a sub-clavicle stab sneak
attack, catches the drone, and then moves out of position.

To achieve the hazy, outdoor atmosphere, Huxley first developed a style guide by scouring films, photos, and the Internet for reference images to establish the desired overall look of the trailer. The team was then challenged to translate that feel into the many effects that appear throughout the spot.

For the Future Soldier trailer, Digital Domain motion-captured former military personnel to achieve realistic movements for the actors.

Given an early build of the game for inspiration and a short timeline to complete it, Huxley and the team worked at a nimble pace, overlapping many steps of the development process to operate at maximum efficiency. While select in-game assets requested from Ubisoft were being enhanced or re-created at a higher polygon count in broadcast quality, previs was finetuned and the groundwork for the motion capture was laid.

“The in-game assets provided by Ubisoft worked great in an engine, but didn’t hold up to the scrutiny of large projection screens, so we rebuilt high-resolution versions of the game assets featured in the trailer,” notes Huxley. “We were constantly collaborating with the development team at Ubisoft to make sure we were accurately representing the game. Once they approved the assets, we went straight into previs.”

Typically, a storyboard would have been generated to block out scenes in a project of this nature. Since 45 seconds of the trailer is a frozen moment, the team opted to skip this step and move directly into previsualization, building an animatic of the entire spot. Once the previs was locked, the project transitioned onto the motion-capture stage, shooting at Digital Domain’s new, state-of-the-art digital production facility in Playa del Rey, California.

“In order to create realistic military movements, we hired three exmilitary personnel to perform in the motion-capture suits,” Huxley notes. “By working with them, we were able to achieve authentic depictions of characters that move like real soldiers. In fact, the sub-clavicle stab kill at the end of the spot was added based on feedback from one of our military performers.”

As with most CG projects, the most noticeable progress on the spot was made during the last two weeks before completion as the details were fine-tuned.

“Every part of the team was working simultaneously on various pieces of the puzzle, so the final renders weren’t really nailed down until the very end,” explains Huxley. “It’s incredibly exciting and rewarding when all those pieces—the animation, shading, textures, environments, performance, music, and so on—finally come together and you can get a sense of the final polished product.”

The production team at Digital Domain used Autodesk’s Maya to generate the models and animation, and then rendered the scenes in The Chaos Group’s V-Ray. They completed the motion graphics in Adobe After Effects, and composited the trailer using The Foundry’s Nuke.

“The content showcased in game trailers must make a lasting impact. With a deep pool of visionary talent and technical expertise, we have the resources to produce high-quality cinematic experiences in a relatively short time frame, which we were able to deliver to Ubisoft for this game,” says Rich Flier, executive producer of video games at Digital Domain’s sister company, Mothership. “Their willingness to grant creative latitude let the team showcase its range of capabilities, and the trailer stands up as a fantastic piece of artistry.”