Director Duncan Jones discusses what makes Ben Foster’s magic work in ‘Warcraft’

Duncan Jones is having a very strange year.

There can”t be any easy way to lose your father, but when your father is an icon known the world over and his death is a cultural moment that creates worldwide shock waves, I can only imagine the way it magnifies your pain. Add to that a global press tour in which you have to sell the movie that you”ve just spent three years making, during which you”re going to be asked thousands of wildly insensitive if well-meaning questions about your father, and I can”t imagine the strength it took Duncan to make it through without collapsing. I”ve known him casually for several years now, but I made sure that when I sat down with him to discuss Warcraft, his new film based on the massively-popular Blizzard game, I kept the conversation firmly on the film and nothing else.

“Do your kids play World of Warcraft?” Duncan asked as I settled into my chair. Universal transformed one full soundstage into a sort of catch-all set from the film, full of props and costuming. It”s always impressive to see just how much of this stuff they have to create for a movie. I am unfamiliar with the property, though, so I was interested in the conversation, not the set dressing.

“No. I think it's a little advanced for them still. My oldest is 10, and he's starting to ask about games like this, like strategy games. He still prefers pure action. The little one”s got the mind for it, though.”

He laughed, and I finished setting up my recorder. “Okay. First of all, having just seen it last night, I'm still not sure what I saw. There's so much work that ILM does that is really next level for them and for digital performance in general. Walk me through an average day on Warcraft for you.”

He considered the question for a moment. “Well, you know, we made a decision early on that with the anatomy of our Orc characters, we felt like the best way to pull that off was to do it with motion capture. One of our concept artists is this amazing guy called Wei Wang who was actually a fan of Warcraft. He had done such amazing artwork and he submitted it to Blizzard, and they hired him to come onboard for them. He was the one who realized the sort of true dimensions of an Orc and how to realize them in a sort of live action environment. They're almost like a Humunculous. They have a head the same size as a human being, but then their shoulders get bigger, their arms get bigger than that, and they have massive hands. We were never really going to be able to pull that off with prosthetics or costumes or anything like that, so we went the motion capture route. Knowing that we were going to do that, we wanted to surround them with as much live-action real stuff as possible. So Gavin Bouquet, our production designer, basically made just a vast number of huge beautiful live action sets where we would shoot all of our content with our Orcs and our humans. So when you say it looks spectacular, a lot of it comes down to ILM, and also a lot of credit goes to the very practical, physical stuff that was made by Gavin Bouquet and his team, Mayes Rubeo who did the costuming and the wardrobe, and WETA, who gave us our weapons and built our armor.”

I”ve had a growing problem with video game movies, and it boils down to the difference in the way we digest the two things: movies are, for all the involvement you feel with them, passive experiences. You watch them. You may feel personally invested, but you cannot control the outcome of the film. With video games, you are constantly in control, and depending on the scope of the game, you may have the ability to have a completely unique experience than anyone else who ever plays that same game. Those two things do not seem easily reconciled to me, and I asked how important it was to make the Orcs feel like they fit into the same world as the humans as a way of pulling the audience in and making them invest as deeply as you would hope people invest in a game.

“My thinking was that it's going to be easier to get the audience to care and get engaged with the human characters. I want them to care about these Orc characters up front and not see it as a gimmick but really understand and root for these guys as much as they do for the humans.”

I mentioned the film”s opening shot, a close-up of Durotan (Toby Kebbell”s Orc character), and the insane amount of detail that went into making it look alive.

Duncan said, “Hanging on that shot as long as we did was really a start of that job of getting the audience to empathize with a father, a husband, his baby that's on the way, and his people who are really in this critical situation where they need to find a new home.”

I asked him if it was important to hire a lead actor who had some experience with this sort of motion-capture performance work. Toby Kebbell did such a great job playing Koba in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes that I”m not surprised to see him getting more of this kind of work. Andy Serkis seems positively evangelical about getting other people involved in this type of performance work, and Terry Notary has made a new career for himself training other people to do this work.

“It was really important that if we were going to be hiring actors who had never done it before, we really had some sort of a trunk to help support the tree. Toby and Terry [Notary, who plays Peon, one of the Orcs] were really the guys who had the experience and were able to encourage the others. Toby in particular has this amazing acting ability beyond the motion capture. I don't know if you ever saw the Black Mirror episode that he did. He's a fantastic actor.”

I agreed. “He seems to be good at figuring out places for the subtle stuff that punctuates performance, the things that read through what he does.”

“That”s kind of a newer thing,” Duncan pointed out, “because the development of the facial capture in particular is a next step in the technology. Things have progressed thanks to what Jeff White [visual effects supervisor] at ILM had developed for our movie. They”ve gotten so much better at getting the new assets and allowing Toby to just be as subtle as he wanted to and have the confidence that all of that would be picked up without animators having to physically manhandle his model to do it.”

Yes, this conversation”s going to get nerdy, but how do you avoid that in talking about the technical breakthroughs made to bring a film about Orc armies to life? I”ve been in love with this stuff my whole life, and I still remember the first magazines I bought to read about how they made Star Wars in 1977. I am constantly thrilled to see how these amazing artists push the tech forward, and how the tech serves to help them make their art. It”s a great back and forth, and I love watching it and reporting on it.

“You also had Hal Hickel on as your animation supervisor, I said. I love him because he”s also a director, and it seems like he approaches this work as a filmmaker.”

“I absolutely love Hal,” Duncan said, lighting up at the mention of each of these collaborators. “I love Jeff and Hal and Jason [Smith, visual effects supervisor] and all of that team. We had a lot of fun working out how… you know going in that there were moments in the film where the physical movements that you want from an actor are never really gonna do justice to what an Orc is capable of. Or what an Orc on Orc mano a mano fight might be like, so Hal absolutely added a whole level of hyperreality to those movements. He”s amazing because he was also able to deliver on the subtleties as well, where maybe something wasn't quite what we needed it to be, but we knew what we wanted, and he managed to get us there.”

One of the film”s boldest choices is how it starts on a close-up of Durotan, and then we spend 10 minutes with only CGI characters, finally introducing some of the live-action cast after that, and even then, never really offering the audience a movie star or something overly familiar to latch onto. It”s a pretty ballsy way to kick things off.

“That”s a scary choice for a studio,” I said. “Was Blizzard considered the movie star here? Was that the star above the title that allowed you to cast the people that you wanted, regardless of their box-office power?”

He nodded as he replied. “It certainly gave us confidence and maybe a little bit of a safety net that allowed us to go after the people we thought were the right actors for the parts. I was a fan of Travis Fimmel from Vikings. I was definitely a fan of Paula Patton, and I felt like if we were gonna do the character of Garona in live-action, there was a very, very short list of people who I felt comfortable could make it work. I'd seen Paula Patton in Mission Impossible, and I thought that quality in that role, that's the right person for this role.”

I laughed, because I feel exactly the same way about Patton. “When she kicks her shoes off to go chase the other spy, you know right away that other spy is going to get her ass beat.” Duncan started laughing as well. “That”s what makes her great in something like this, that confident physicality. That”s a big choice because her character is the only Orc created as a live-action character.”

“Beyond that,” he continued, “I would say in Mission: Impossible, she did a certain thing … In this role, what she was being asked to do on an acting level was much wider. I think she really delivered, and I truly believe this is the best Paula Patton has ever been in a movie.”

I love that a director is that big a cheerleader for one of his actors. “You gave her those teeth. Those things are an obstacle. Right away, they change her face and her jaw dramatically.”
“We did. Although we didn”t paint her green, which is one of the things you might be surprised by.”

“Wait… really? Did you rotoscope her?”

“We had to roto her for every shot in the movie, and we just color shifted her entirely. The reason we did that is because we had seen what Guardians of the Galaxy had done with their green lady character, and we felt like it looked like someone had just been painted green. Our feeling was, you know, skin doesn't look like that. Skin has different colors all over it. The way to do that is to keep the skin as it is and shift it.”

“So, just piecing all of this together and making sure that you had everything that you needed as a filmmaker, was there ever a moment where it just felt like this crazy math problem that you're constantly writing?”

He laughed again. “Yeah, 5D chess. Absolutely. Between the technical challenges and the scale of it and working with such a large cast who were all separated into separate camps between the Orcs and the humans, it was a constant game of 5D chess, all trying to make sure that no matter what technical challenges will be thrown at me or what improvisations I worked on with the actors, we always remained focused on ‘Okay, what is the story we're trying to tell? Who are the heroes? Who are the leads? How are we trying to drive the story forward ad bring these characters all together at the right moments?””

One of the film”s big choices is to tell a story that is definitely not over as the closing credits roll, an introduction to the characters and the stakes as things move into place.

“In the last few minutes of the film, you snap everybody into a very different role than they've had before, I pointed out. So the next time out its gonna be radically different, they're gonna have radically different relationships, and you've definitely left us with a lot of questions at the end of this one. Was there ever a push to make it more closed?”

“No,” said Duncan, “there was never a push to do that. I think the challenge was to make sure that even though we leave that opportunity to move on to a fuller trilogy of a story, that this felt like there was a story that had been told in this film. That's a challenge for any film. Normally, the biggest challenge is for the middle films. What we tried to do was set up how the Orcs find themselves in a place. They can't stay in their world anymore, so they've invaded this world. Durotan has led his people to a new world and is trying to find a home for his Orcs. At the end of this movie, they don't have their home yet, but we know that they're looking for it. And I think if we ever get the chance to make more of them, I would hope by the end of the trilogy, the Orcs would have their new home.”

“So you seem to have cast Ben Foster with every intention of asking him to go full Ben Foster in the role…”

“That's why you cast Ben Foster,” he said, laughing again. “If you cast the right actors for the right roles and they're into it and they're willing to go for it, you get magic.” Seeing my reaction to the pun, Duncan burst into long, loud laughter. “Wow, I didn't even attempt that.” It was impossible not to collapse into laughter as well, seeing how entertained he was. “Thank you for coming with me on that pun.”

I mentioned how Foster reminds me of the work that Mark Hamill did in the Star Wars films. He always seemed to believe in the world and the details of the world with such ferocity that it made it real for me as a viewer. He felt comfortable, like he really lived in the world and didn”t just pick up these props for the first time in his life. “That”s the real trick in these films,” I said.

“It”s beyond a trick,” Duncan replied. “Ben Foster was challenging me constantly when we were in pre-production to explain to him how magic worked. What is the vocabulary that he's speaking? What do these words mean? What are the movements that he should be doing in order to cast spells? He was grilling me, and we basically worked out how to cast the spells that he casts throughout the movie and how they relate to each other. When Ben Foster was casting magic and Ben Schnetzer was watching him in this kind of apprentice relationship, Ben Foster knew his stuff. He could actually teach Ben Schnetzer how to do things, and it wasn't just, ‘I”m gonna wave my arms and special effects will put something there.””

“This speaks to the faithfulness to the game that you”ve maintained,” I said, and I”ll be honest… that”s not something I can speak to. I come to this fresh. I talked to one gamer afterwards who was really surprised by how much it felt like Warcraft. She felt like, ‘Yep, that's the world. It”s not the exact moment I play, but it”s the world, and it”s right.” How did you strike the balance? Because I love that you don't have any sort of opening crawl. You don't bury us under exposition in the beginning. It”s only seeded as we go and you sort of feed it to us little bits at a time.”

“If you're a little bit lost for the first 10 or 15 minutes, I”m okay with that. As long as by the end of the movie, you feel like you understood what's just happened.”

“Do you have a favorite creature or creation for the film, something that when you saw it fully-executed felt like you nailed it?”

“Durotan and his wife Draka. In particular, Draka, and it”s more than just the creature onscreen. We found this amazing performer and actress by the name of Anna Galvin who plays Draka. She's an Australian, she lives up in Vancouver, and she had really not done that much. She had done one or two bits in motion-capture for a computer game before, but she hadn't really done it for a full project. She was all-in to play this character Draka. A lot of us who saw her performance were like, ‘Wow, you went for it in a way where we all feel like we need to raise our game.” She was phenomenal. And that led to a final character that was even wilder because of her.”

I mentioned that there”s a moment near the end where Anduin”s big griffin goes to town on some Orcs that just made me belly-laugh. “Yeah,” he agreed, laughing as well, “there”s some good stuff in there.”

I told him about my own experience as a motion-capture performer when we made a pilot for Comedy Central for a possible Ain”t It Cool News TV show. I was supposed to play Moriarty each week as an animated character to look just like the Cartuna drawings that were part of the site”s identity, and I”d interact in real time with Harry, who was shot on a live-action stage next-door to where my performance was being captured. It was a crazy complicated way of trying to share movie news and rumors, but fun to try to pull off. The guys who were in charge of the performance capture were the same team who had just finished the Agent Smith fight in The Matrix Reloaded, and they had a ton of stories about how they were pushing things forward, about what the cutting edge really was at that particular moment. Part of the thing that drove them crazy on our show was trying to map the seven-foot spindly thin body of Moriarty onto the six-foot pear-shaped fanboy physique of me. I asked Duncan how they approached trying to map a human physiology to that of a giant oddly-proportioned Orc and how far things have evolved in the 14 years between my pilot and this film.

“The only thing that we added was at the actors' request if they wanted to wear tusks. It just gave them a slightly different way of talking when they're performing. Some of the actors wanted to do it, some of them chose not to, but that was really it. What we did have on set that was very useful was live playback of a very simplified version of the asset. That becomes really important for framing. Orcs range from seven and a half to nine feet tall and they are three to four feet wide. They're just incredibly wide and obviously that affects how you frame things. In order for us to be able to frame a shot, we needed to be able to get a sense of just how much space they”d occupy. I mean, Rob Kazinsky is a pretty big guy, but he ain't that big. We needed to know how much space he would be taking.”

I told him that I”m fond of Kazinsky because, like Vin Diesel, he”s a total giddy nerd on the inside who just happens to look like a comic book superhero on the outside. I know Kazinsky”s a gamer, and I asked Duncan if there was a learning curve where Rob was able to slip into the skin of the Orc more and more as he worked with it and got to live out his fanboy fantasies.

“Well, like you said, he was in there right from the start. He walked in knowing who Orgrim was, what the lore was, where that character was going to end up. I think he wanted to do justice to a character that he really knew well in the same way any Marvel fan, if they had the chance to be in a Marvel film, would. He was right there from the start, but I think the confidence of doing the motion-capture work came about thanks to working with Terry in what we called Orc camp with Toby, where they just spent time coming up with and learning a vocabulary of movement for the Orcs. How to move like an Orc, how not to turn your head like this but actually turn from the shoulders to make sense of these giant neck muscles that they have. There's all sorts of things that you don't naturally think of until you realize that the anatomy of your character is way different from your own and you're gonna have to move to make that work.”

“Does making a film this big change the way you approach the next film you make? Is there anything you take with you from this into Mute?”

“I”ve wanted to make Mute for such a long time, and I'm fortunate because it looks like now I'm gonna have the opportunity to do it with Paul Rudd and Alexander Skarsgard and a number of other people who haven't been announced yet. It”s gonna be a palate cleanser. It”s on a much much lower budget, and it”s back to science fiction, but a very different kind of science fiction. It”s gonna be great to take that break from this kind of filmmaking to go back to that one, and hopefully if this goes down well, I'll get the chance to come back and do another one of these. I hope you enjoyed it.”

How about it? Now that Warcraft is open around the world, I”m curious to see how you guys are reacting to it. Even after writing and posting my review, I certainly haven”t stopped thinking about it, and the boys have been asking, so I”ll most likely end up taking them to see it. Are you guys open to another one? Did you find yourself drawn into this world or distanced from it? And if you”re a super-fan of the games, do you think this is something that was intended for you instead of a broader audience?

Warcraft is in theaters now.