‘Warcraft’ Set Visit: From weapons to visual effects, everything’s bigger in Azeroth

On a cold day in early 2014, HitFix Harpy was among those invited to check out the set of “Warcraft.” Now I”m finally able to share (some) of that information with you! As a former World of Warcraft addict that occasionally lapses with each new expansion, I was skeptical. After all, video game movies don”t have the best track record. But after spending a day with the cast and crew of “Warcraft,” I think if anyone can break the video game movie curse, it”s these guys.

The “Warcraft” universe is vast, with over a decade”s worth of lore spanning both games and novels. Trying to condense that into a single film would be a fool”s errand so Duncan Jones and his collaborator”s had to pick a story. They settled on one surrounding the King Llane Wrynn of Azeroth, Lothar, and Medivh on the human side and Durotan and Orgrim on the orc side. If you”re a fan of the games, you can probably put two and two together. If not, I”ll let the actors describe their characters in more detail!

Image Credit: Legendary Pictures

Toby Kebbell: I play Durotan, Chief of the Frostwolf Clan. [points to Anna Galvin] And this is my lovely wife, Draka.

Anna Galvin: He”s the Chieftain and I'm his wife, but there's some lovely things that color our relationship. We're very much peers. And there's a great deal of respect and love between us. In the movie I actually can hold sway over him a little bit. He will listen to me. His word isn”t the law, at least behind closed doors for us. 

Paula Patton: I play the character Garona. She's a really fascinating character in this world. You have this woman who begins as a slave to Gul'dan, but has had to basically fight/beat her way into having any respect from the orcs because she's half orc, half human.  And that's what makes her really fascinating to play. And then she finds herself in the human world. Things change, and she changes. But, the thing about Garona, she never quite fits into either world.

Dominic Cooper: I play King Llane Wrynn. He's a good, solid, nice king.I'm always playing horrible people [so] this is my challenge; to actually play somebody who properly cares about his people and cares about resolving this situation he finds himself in. He's a good man but he trusts – possibly too much – the people around him rather than going with his instincts.

Travis Fimmell: I played Lothar. He's the commander of the Azeroth military. He grew up with the king, is sort of best friends with the king and had a childhood with the mage Medivh, too. [The King and I] sort of reunite with Medivh and there's a lot of conflict between us. You don't know who”s side Medivh is on.

Robert Kazinsky:  What happened was, we were shooting “Pacific Rim” and it was a slow day. I was sitting next to Jimmy and Cher from Legendary and I whip out my computer. And WoW pops out.  And they”re like ‘Are you kidding me?” And I was like ‘What do you mean?” They”re like “You know we're making “WarCraft.”  So for two years [I was just] harassing and harassing them. Can I read a draft? Can I read anything? Can I be involved? I'll be the tea boy. Genuinely I would've been the guy who carries Paula Patton's purse in this. At this time I think I've got 470 odd days played on this game. That's over a year and half of my actual life playing this game.  

Jillian [Share] eventually swore that I wasn”t kidding. She got me to sit down and do an audition and put myself on tape for Duncan, and Duncan and I hit off, and next thing I know I'm wearing pajamas!  

I would've done this film for a packet of crisps. Isn”t funny how life turns out? All those years I've spent playing this game and I'm playing Orgrim Doomhammer. Are you kidding me? 

A big part of what we saw on the “Warcraft” set dealt with the state-of-the-art visual effects. Inside a giant soundstage that had been converted into a battlefield between humans and orcs, there was a tent off to the side. Within that tent was more technology than you could shake a stick at. Visual effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer walked us through the basics. Each actor that would be enhanced in post-production was wearing the now instantly recognizable mocap suits – gray pajamas covered in balls and visual markers. But instead of merely capturing movement to build up later, the cameras were showing the visual effects team everything IN REAL TIME using Simulcam. As the sea of orc extras butted up with their human foes, crude outlines gave the director and others an idea of how far out they needed to be to make enough “room” for each other. 

According to Duncan Jones and the cast, the technology is mind-blowing.

Image Credit: Legendary Pictures

Duncan Jones: In some ways there are things which have technically been difficult to achieve the way we planned, but then you get pay offs in other areas. The technology is really on the bleeding edge there are things which are not going quite the way you want, but then there are other things like, oh, my God, that worked so well and we end up using it more. But, it's not all VFX.

Anna Galvin: [Our characters are] all so real and expressive because of the advanced motion capture.  It captures the performer's actions with such integrity and detail that it's going to heighten the world and make it more real than fantasy. I think it will blow the minds of people who are a fan of Warcraft.

Toby Kebbell: With the motion capture, our characters are so vast – especially mine – it's like puppeteering. We have to stand so far apart [due to the size of the orcs]. It [takes some] getting used to all of that. That”s the reason my stride is so much bigger. 

Robert Kazinsky: It's very difficult when you're doing something that's in your imagination. Every time I've playing anything in the past, whether it's when you put in your fangs or when you put on your costume or whatever it might be, there's something that gets you into character. I'm putting on pajamas. So then, you've got to find this other place within yourself. A kind of physicality of how you move that gets you into character. But it still doesn”t quite feel real because you're in pajamas with this silly thing in your head. 

But then, one day, Jeff from ILM, he brings in the first test. It was something that we shot before Christmas as a camera test, and it's [almost] rendered fully, like. I”d never seen anything like it.  I've never seen CGI of that detail. I looked to Orgrim's face and I was like, “Holy hell!”

Anna Galvin: When we first started working as Orcs, they'd have a screen facing us on this gray stage.  And we'd have all the balls and our little polyester jammies on.  And we'd be able to see ourselves animating our characters, not their facial expressions. But [once we got] on set, there's a device that the producers and directors have access to.  And they show it to us as well.  So, if we shoot a scene–let me see if I can explain this.  

For instance, if we shoot a scene in a tent, and we rehearse it and they shoot it with a couple of cameras, and then we leave the tent, and they shoot an empty plate of inside that location, we go to what's called a volume space where we do the virtual. We completely recreate that scene that was shot in the tent.  But it's just capturing all the motion capture. Then they can translate that in real time onto this little monitor device that has the location where we're meant to be, the tent, and our avatars are there moving around. So then they can play it back and show it to us.  That's gobsmacking as a performer to see that. It's awesome because my biggest challenge is to be faithful to Draka and show her dignity coupled with her warrior skills. 

Toby Kebbell: We're on a real time set with all the performers. We're real actors. It becomes that way.

Dominic Cooper: I do love these epic pieces but I've always felt slightly removed from the animation I think  – and the difference in this is that eyes are alive in this. We can always read eyes. And you can read eyes in actors. It's why film is so incredible because you're there with them in close up. And with this [technology] they are using, you can really see the actors who are playing these huge beasts. You can feel them and know what they're thinking and understand their intention.  And I think that will [make a bid] difference.  

While most of the plot was shrouded in secrecy during the set visit, we were allowed to see several locations familiar to players of the game. Using 3-D printers to create models, the city of Stormwind took up a large portion of a pre-visualization room. On the other side, Kodo-skin huts were created to scale and painted in a variety of ways to see which felt the most realistic. The models were then extrapolated into sets, both real and fake. In the case of Stormwind, the second level of the model was color-coded to indicate those bits would be added in by visual effects. The set designer lamented we had just missed the huge warehouse that had been Elwynn Forest but c”est la vie.

Instead we were walked through a construction site that was two-stories tall on our way to the armory. When completed, it would house the mage character of Medivh. From the interior of the orc tents to the dungeon to the aforementioned armory, the commitment to detail was impressive. Even the cast thought so.

Image Credit: Legendary Pictures

Robert Kazinsky: I'm not gonna lie about it. I was very excited to see the sets. The first set I saw was Goldshire Inn – Lion”s Pride Inn. They had so many little Easter eggs in there that I got excited about. And then I went to the Throne Room. Not gonna lie, I teared up. I really did. To see something, just to know that I wasn't alone in how much I loved this, you know? That somebody loved it enough to throw this humongous budget at it. 

The sheer detail that went into Elwynn Forest was–it blew my mind what they did with the trees, and everything we've done on Draenor. When you see the sets that they've built on Draenor, I–the scale of it. The gave us real sets, which they didn't need to do, and they were the most beautiful and just astonishing things.
Travis Fimmell: There's a place–the armory, where we keep all our weapons and a war room. I just walked through two new sets. The scale of them is just spectacular. We”re [tiny] compared to the stages.

Of course, what would “Warcraft” be without weapons? The props master walked us through the process of creating the super-sized swords, axes, and other assorted instruments of death that should be familiar to players of the series. The only problem? Human physiology isn”t really equipped to deal with such massive weapons. While some would be extrapolated on by visual effects – Lightbringer, Doomhammer, etc. – practical versions were made both for reference and actual use.

Image Credit: Legendary Pictures

Duncan Jones: [There] was a weird phase when our props master was asking us, ‘Are you sure you want this weapon this big?”  I was like yeah, yeah, yeah, we need it this big.  And it all comes together.  Obviously, we get our performances with our very large motion capture actors.  And then we also – and then there are certain scaling issues that we do after that. [Orcs] have quite big hands.  I mean the [weapons] fit into the Warcraft universe and they look real.  So, it's very cool. Thor, eat your heart out.

Travis Fimmel: The [weapons are] huge. I have a big sword. Then halfway through the movie I adapt to a different type of sword, which I think would be better to fight huge orcs, which are a bit slower at fighting than us. The designers and that just did a brilliant job. I need to go to the gym it's so heavy.

Dominic Cooper: I could hardly lift [my sword] up. So, I was filming a moment of where the king saves someone else just as an orc's about to kill them. And I try to–I was on the horse. The horse wasn't behaving well. That was one of my problems. The other problem was this huge greatsword that I could hardly lift. But when I did manage to lift it, I almost put it straight into the back of the stunt person. He didn't seem to mind. They never mind. They go, ‘No, no, that's fine.  Just stab me.”

Rob Kazinsky: Here's the thing, right? The weapon I wield, the Doomhammer, is the most famous weapon in the game. But when I'm on set, I don't get the Doomhammer. I get this black thing with lights on it, and it's hollow. And it's rubbish. But that's what they have to do, and then they render it in later. But sometimes when the hammer's in an actual shot – a couple of times I've had to smash things – they'll get they bring in the real Doomhammer. And [it”s huge] with a giant handle and I'm like, ‘Holy…”

As for the plot? Everyone danced around it, as was to be expected. The producers Stuart Fenegan and Jillian Share were most forthcoming, but mostly people played it close to the vest. One thing they all agreed on though? The lack of clearcut villains and heroes was a refreshing change of pace.

Image Credit: Legendary Pictures

Robert Kazinsky: To understand Orgrim, you need to kind of understand the Frostwolf [clan].The Orcs become a very warlike race. Now the Frostwolves are much more old-fashioned. They hail to kind of more traditional intense. They are–the best way I can kind of describe it is a tradition American Indian tribe is the closest thing you could possibly come to them. They are very shamanistic in the way they behave and spiritual and honest. They are essentially the representation of all that is good about the Orcs: honor, trust, friendship, family […] What's really great is the wise decision that Duncan and everybody made is that the Horde aren”t villains in this.  
Toby Kebbell: It's nice to play an Orc that isn”t just a pure beasty, evil warrior, that we have conflict on all sides. 

Anna Galvin: I think the Orcs that have taken [FelBlood] are sort of more bestial and hell-bent on strife and war. But the Frostwolf Clan hasn”t, and it comes from the top down. Durotan has refused it, we're still governed by a code of honor. Our behavior is tempered by the wisdom of our leaders and the shaman. The world that [orcs] come from, which is Draenor. is withering and dying. We have no choice [but to leave]. We've got to find somewhere else.

Dominic Cooper: [The script is] always giving the fans absolutely what they deserve as fans and what they need and what they expect from those characters. But also it needs to appeal to anyone, which it very much does. It's a very compelling story. There's a human element very much to it, which I always thought might not exist within this world. 

Paula Patton: What we discover is it's so relevant to the world we live in now. Wherever you're born, you're patriotic to that place, you know? And what this movie does is it says orcs are not bad. Humans are not bad. But, maybe they are. One is not more or less than the other.They're given equal understanding. Here we are it's called “Warcraft,” but –isn't that the problem with war? Not understanding the other side. It's being so one minded that you can only see it one way.

Robert Kazinsky: There are people who have asked me if [the movie] is like game. This isn”t a movie about the game. This is a movie in its own right based on the stories of first Warcraft game. We are not trying to make a direct tradeoff from the game to the movie. This is one of the things when they first sent me the script, I was worried. I was scared. I was like, what if it sucks? Because let's be honest.  There's never been a computer game movie that hasn't sucked. So, this–I was like what if it sucks?  What if they [screw] up Warcraft? I'll be so upset. And then I read it. And I read it from two sides. It it walks this line [between the Alliance and the Horde]. 

“Warcraft” arrives in theaters on June 10, 2016.