Creative studio collaborates with 215 McCann, XBOX and The Coalition to produce, design and animate three key pieces of game launch content.
Gears of War 5, the latest chapter of XBOX’s popular Gears of War franchise, was released this past September with a stunning launch campaign. Creative directors Andy Hall and Noah Harris and the team at Elastic worked closely with 215 McCann, XBOX and The Coalition, a creative collaboration that enabled them to produce, design and animate three exciting and key pieces of game launch content.
To envision the :90 Main Titles, Elastic’s Noah Harris stepped forward as creative director. Harris and the Elastic team worked together with The Coalition to develop the sequence, which takes the player on a visceral CG odyssey through the interior of new female protagonist Kait Diaz’s body, where the lava-like bubbling of her blood cells and the arterial flood create a nightmarish landscape.
With 20 people in-house focusing solely on the CG production, not including the engineering, editorial and creative teams, a lot of time was spent on the creative phase working on various concepts, scripts and concept artwork. 6+ months was spent during that phase trying to find the right tone and storyline. When production began, the sequence took about three months. Medical photography, oil painting and electron microscope imagery was referenced for the creative development.
“The extra time spent during the creative phase of the project and all the exploration that was done in concepting was extremely beneficial,” CG lead Andrew Romatz shares. “The design team at Elastic created incredible artwork for each scene that was invaluable in nailing the look of the piece. We were after a look that wasn’t necessarily filmic by default, but was impactful and striking, so we had come at a lot of the work from an approach we wouldn’t normally take. Developing that language took a fair bit of trial and error.”
After delivering the epic main title sequence, Elastic’s understanding of the game’s hero character was evident; 215 awarded Elastic the opportunity to work on both the E3 trailer and the official game launch trailer. All told, this partnership culminated in three visually striking pieces of content that reveal Gears 5’s Kait Diaz as a conflicted hero torn between her loyalty to her squad and a mysterious pull to her sworn enemy.
The piece that highlights the game’s renewed focus on character-led drama is the “Kait Broken” trailer, shown earlier this year at E3. Hall’s ability to capture believability in characters was evident. Set to Billie Eilish's “Bury a Friend,” the film is a stark character study of the hero Kait, as various identities and painful memories try to tear through her emotional psyche.
Knowing that the work needed to remain true to the game, the team was given early access to the game concept art and video captures.
“This was hugely important in helping to define the feel and tone of the spot and it gave us a strong reference point as we began our work,” Hall explains. “We collaborated with The Third Floor to visualize all the shots early in the process, which helped us tremendously as we ramped up full production.”
In order to understand how all the performances overlapped, the team found previs essential in terms of timing; it allowed for everything to be captured with a single shot. This was a noteworthy but challenging aspect of the production, the idea of one isolated performance with no cutaways that had to convey Kait’s emotional struggle and conflict without dialogue.
“In the case of Kait’s hero performance, it had to feel like one unique take, even though it was comprised of probably 12 to 14 different pieces of facial performance,” the creative director continues. “Editorially, you can build it all in previs and get a sense of the action and emotional journey, but that can’t take into account a real actor conveying those range of emotions. So, we had to be economical with how we then rebuilt the single performance. And that’s a testament to the animators recrafting all the data and doing a lot of hand keying on top to reconcile and bring it back in line with the original intent of the film.”
“I think you get a real sense of Kait’s internal struggles, which comes from a combination of the chemistry of a great performance from Laura Bailey, the animation team juggling the data from motion capture, and manipulation of that performance to feel believable,” Hall concludes. “All of that, coupled with beautifully crafted CG work and a delicate hand in compositing, allowed the story to be told.”
The launch trailer, The Chain, follows Kait on an action-packed minute-long journey, as she battles obstacles both real and imagined. Set to a cover of the Fleetwood Mac classic sung by Amy Lee of Evanescence, The Chain required a combination of character work with large-scale FX to create the setting – a desert during a category 4 storm, where all hell is breaking loose.
Approximately 25 artists worked Elastic’s project specific pipeline using Maya as the base 3D package, Houdini for FX animation, Substance Painter for texture work, ZBrush for sculpting, Marvelous Designer and Ornatrix for cloth and hair sims; everything was then composited in Flame. All the FX were exported out of Houdini as either .vdb or Alembic, subsequently brought back into Maya and rendered with V-Ray. This kept everything unified while changes to animation, effects, and sims were ongoing.
Elastic utilized keyframe animation to capture all Kait’s movements and emotions. That, combined with extensive CG FX, not only allowed for the integration of the character within this red-sand world, but for the addition of elements like fire tornados and obsidian formations that manifest from the chaotic desert landscape. This required extensive rendering, as most shots consisted of 60-70+ layers of CG, all running through Flame at 4K.
“I think the launch spots for Gears throughout the years are iconic,” Romatz notes. “That marriage of action visually playing opposite the music track created something unique. So, to have the opportunity to create another chapter in that storytelling is amazing. And it’s all about story, about capturing a singular aspect to the central character in the story that resonates with the themes of the game. It offers a unique challenge that makes the experience memorable.”
The Chain created unique challenges for the team, constantly juggling many different forces at play at the same time. However, collaborating with the agency, 215 McCann, Microsoft and The Coalition was a positive experience for the team as all parties pushed the story and visual forward; working together created a level of trust that help pull all of the pieces together.
“Even with a project like The Chain and the short time frame we had - which was only 6 weeks for production - it’s the process that worked and made us a team,” Romatz states. “No project ever goes perfectly. But the process can, which makes creating films like The Chain and Kait Broken so rewarding.”