Making the Perfect Orc in Real Time, Crafting Every Location from Scratch, and a Single Degree of Separation from Star Wars

Director Duncan Jones established his sci-fi bona fides on a small scale in 2009, with Moon (read our interview from the archives), and expanded them to Hollywood proportions for 2011's Source Code. So progressing quickly to a massive fantasy film based on an epic videogame saga was still a leap, but not out of character for the ambitious director. Fans have been waiting for years, and the film is finally open internationally in advance of a June 10 release in North America. Drawn mainly from production notes provided by Universal, here's what we know about the film's shoot and its VFX work.

It's been a long time coming.
Blizzard Entertainment and Legendary Pictures first announced a live-action Warcraft movie in 2006. Sam Raimi was signed to direct back in 2009, but he left following what he said were disagreements with Blizzard during the story development process. (Raimi made Oz the Great and Powerful instead.) Director Uwe Boll claims to have applied for the job, only to be told, "We will not sell the movie rights, not to you — especially not to you."

It was captured in ARRIRAW in Open Gate mode on the ARRI Alexa XT. 
Warcraft was one of the first films shot by DP Simon Duggan, ACS (The Great Gatsby, I, Robot), in ARRI's Open Gate recording format, which records data from the camera's full 3.4K sensor area for the highest possible resolution, useful for upscaling to 4K — or, in this case, for maximizing the detail in VFX shots.


98 percent of the film was shot on stages in Vancouver.
Except for a single landscape-and-river location and the exterior sets for sections of Stormwind, the whole picture was shot on a soundstage. Principal photography began in early 2014 and ran for 18 weeks at Mammoth Studios, the Bridge Studios and some warehouse locations in and around Vancouver before the shoot wrapped in May.

Production designer Gavin Bocquet had to build 90 different sets.
The idea of shooting on location was dismissed early on because of the scope of the story. "All our work was basically stage-orientated; that was the design idea from the beginning," Bocquet said. "Duncan wanted to create all the environments, build what we could build and then digitall extend them, where requried … but still keep the sets gritty and real so that the audience would believe we were on location, rather than creating a fantasy world."

One forest in front of a big blue screen makes multiple locations.
Building Elwynn Forest meant first scouting a real location in Windsor Park, where a 600-year-old oak tree with a trunk six feet in diameter was found. The construction team was then assigned to create a forest of nine fabricated trees twice that size — with trunks 12 feet across. The synthetic forest was large enough to allow soldiers to ride through on horseback, and it was built in front of a huge blue screen, allowing it to be used with six different backgrounds suggesting six very different locations. 120-foot swamp trees were built for the jungle of The Black Morass, which was otherwise a mostly digital environment.


Lots of physical set dressing made digital set extensions more believable.
The massive library at Karazhan was mostly CG, but still required set decorator Elizabeth Wilcox's team to create more than 3,000 scrolls and books to fill the physical bookshelves on the first level. For the marketplace at Stormwind, fresh produce had to be shipped in to the Vancouver production from California. "The produce also had to reflect the time, so the cabbages had to have their outer leaves on them and not be the perfect ones from our supermarkets; the onions and garlic had to have their green top growth and roots on them," Wilcox said. "The potatoes we purchased had to be dirtied with mud; even our fruit was splattered with bits of color and natural debris to look less perfect." Orc Gul'dan's 50-foot wide tent in Draenor was made of handmade Turkish yurts of woven goat hair, which were built in the mountains of Turkey based on patterns provided by the production, then mailed to Vancouver. And the armory at Azeroth required the presence of more than 200 shields, 750 swords, and 300 halberds, among other combat gear.

Costumes came from every corner of the world.
Costume designer Mayes Rubeo managed workshops in Vancouver and Mexico, sourcing fabric from locales including Italy, Germany, France, Mexico, India and China for more than 650 separate costiume elements. Close to 100 suits of armor for Stormwind's army were built at Weta Workshop in New Zealand, using urethane as a lightweight component to ease the burden on the actors. Armor for the orcs were created using natural yarns and "tribal textures." Armor for the soldiers' horses was built of foam and plastic in England, based on scanned physical measurements of the animals, and saddles were made in Spain.


Orc performances were upsized to their final scale in real time.
Close to 1,300 VFX shots involved the film's oversized orcs — each one seven to eight feet tall. To get the performances right, director Duncan Jones wanted to shoot the actors portraying the orcs alongside their human counterparts, meaning motion-capture technology was used to check the look of the final shots as they were captured. Multiple cameras were hidden throughout the sets — as many as 125 cameras were strategically placed in Elwynn Forest — to capture the body movements of the orc actors as they performed in body suits with digital markers. Those movements were processed in real time so that the camera viewfinder could show an image approximating what the orc would look like in the finished film. "The actors could get feedback right away that their performance was working," said VFX supervisor Bill Westenhofer. "As well, the camera operators could see that this seven-foot-tall creature would actually fit into the frame next to Lothar." Among the unexpected challenges? Mo-cap cameras couldn't be mounted on the walls of a wooden-frame building because the wood would expand under the influence of temperature over the course of the day, throwing off the calibration of the multiple cameras.


ILM brought its latest facial-capture system to the party.
Jones was a little worried about the ability to make his orc characters believable on screen. ILM came on board early on with tests of a new facial-capture system that could capture nuanced performances on set. The actors wore 120 dot markers on their faces that were recorded by small head-mounted cameras. "When ILM delivered those preliminary studies on what the orcs were going to look like, it was a huge relief," Jones said.

Talk about a blockbuster legacy: Warcraft film editor Paul Hirsch, ACE, was one of the editors on the original Star Wars
Star Wars won him the Oscar. He also cut Ferris Bueller's Day OffFalling DownRay, and 11 films for director Brian De Palma, starting with Hi, Mom! in 1970.