Great Guns director Dan Trachtenberg is a big fan of free-to-play video game Warframe, so when the opportunity came up to helm a promo for the title he was beyond excited.
The result is an amazing six-minute CG film full of action including cutting-edge choreography, fight scenes and atmospheric pans that give a glimpse into the future where the game is set and offer a well-rounded context to the storyline.
Below, Trachtenberg talks about the steps he took to make the promo become a reality, citing technical tools used and the differences between working with CG and live-action.
Trachtenberg directed drama/mystery feature 10 Cloverfield Lane
Explain your approach to the project and what you wanted to achieve?
Digital Extremes, the guys who created Warframe, Steve, Geoff, and myself, were putting our heads together to think of the best ways to make an opening cinematic for a game that’s been out for six or seven years. It's been expanding and expanding, getting richer and richer for veteran players of the game and now has to create a better entry point for new players.
We wanted to make something that would create a context for how you fight in the game and also why. At the same time, we want to make something meaningful for people who’ve been playing the game for years and have some things in there that would further the story for them. It was uniquely challenging because we had to tell a prequel and a sequel all in one go and hopefully we achieved that.
Tell us about a tool or technique you used that people might not know about?
Honestly, we didn’t use anything super unique. It was motion capture animation. One unique challenge was that we worked with Digic, based in Budapest, while I was shooting a pilot for this show called The Boys in Toronto at the early stages. We used Dropbox or text message (iMessage) as our unique tool. Sheridan [Thomas], my producer, would be over there and he would shoot takes on his iPhone and text them to me or they would upload them to DropBox overnight because their day was our night.
I would wake up very early before going to the shoot of The Boys, scour the takes, give notes and go shoot and they'd wake up to them. We had a bit of overlap where we could talk in real time. But that was certainly a unique process that thankfully, I had Sheridan and ‘Pityu’ (István Zorkóczy) over at Digic to help coordinate everything.
How long did the production process take?
It was about a year and a half, two months shy of a year and a half.
How did it work with collaborating with the different teams?
Like I said, thanks to Sheridan and Pityu, we were able to co-ordinate not only the motion capture action with the choreographer and stuntman at Digic and his team, but also the animation and lighting departments. It was really with the help of great producers that we were able to do something so international.
Why was it best to present it in this format?
The game is incredible in its blend of science fiction and fantasy, and it was exciting to do something that wasn’t just in engine. We wanted to do something more special than that and make things less limited by the game engine and as beautiful as the way we all imagine the story behind Warframe to be.
If we'd have done it in live-action, it would've taken a lot of resources and money just to get things off the ground for building all the suits, for example. For something as short as this, it just doesn’t make sense. Frankly, I have done a little bit of pre-vis in CG and was bitten by the bug. I love the way you can make things iterate closer to the way you imagine them compared to live-action, so I was excited to do that for something that’s as magical and fantastical as this source material.
What was the most technically challenging part of the project?
It was probably working over long distance and co-ordinating our communication. Every day in the past year there was a phone and Skype call overseas to go over the last bit of the animation.
One of the most challenging things in CG when it’s as detailed as this is that the render time takes quite a while. You'd think that in CG, you’re only limited to your imagination (as opposed to live-action), but actually you’re really handcuffed by the constraints of what can be made physical, the weather, what can be built and schedules – that’s all still there in CG too.
One of the challenging things in live-action is making all these choices along the way; the script is a guess, the production is a guess and in the editing room you’ll see how well you guessed and you’ll start adjusting from there. CG is actually not that different. You’re still making guesses based on what the final renders are going to make it all look like. You see the final render and any issues, then identify all the interesting problem-solving choices. There are actually more similarities than differences.
How close to your original vision is the final film?
The final version is quite similar to what we originally had in our heads. The storyboards were very well drawn. We were very lucky to work with Brad Arnold, a friend of mine who first introduced me to the game Warframe, so it was incredible to sit down with him and say: “Now you’re drawing Excalibur (the first Tenno) for the game! We’re now making something for the game that we both put hundreds of hours into.” Actually, my favourite moments are somewhat unexpected.
There was a handspring the stuntman did that I wasn’t initially so sure about. But Pityu, the director at Digic, decided to twist the camera on that moment and it was exactly how I could have ever wanted it to be and looked amazing. On the other hand, there’s also a fight scene between Excalibur and a couple of proto Grineer (militarised human clones) where they slash back and forth and throw a kunai knife into one and grab it back out to use on someone else.
That was exactly how I wished that could've been. It comes off really well. So I love that there’s this combination of anticipated and planned highlights and things that were unplanned but even better than I could have imagined.