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Duncan Jones Talks ‘Warcraft’

Director discusses bringing Blizzard Entertainment’s hit gaming franchise into the realm of feature films.

‘Warcraft.’ All images © 2016 Universal Studios. All rights reserved.

Since first taking the gaming world by storm back in 1994, Blizzard Entertainments’ Warcraft has become one of the most celebrated and successful game franchises in history. With the 2004 launch of their massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), World of Warcraft, further fueled by five subsequent game expansion packs, Blizzard now boasts a  subscription base of over 100 million registered players. With such a tremendous fan base, a creative foray into feature films seemed inevitable. Enter Legendary Pictures and producers Charles Roven and Alex Gartner, who secured the game’s film rights in 2006.

After several years of development, in 2013, the producing partners brought on director Duncan Jones, known for his work on Moon and Source Code. Jones, an avid Warcraft player, helped finish up the film’s script, bringing to it his sensibility that at the heart of the game is the notion that every player can be a hero no matter on which side of the conflict they fight. AWN recently had a chance to discuss with the director his take on the filmmaking process and how over 20 years of Warcraft gaming characters and narrative came together in his new film.

Spencer Fawcett: Watching the film, I noticed there were a few references to the RTS roots of the franchise. Did you feel that you “had” to pay homage to the game? Do you feel that film adaptations of video games should still retain those roots?

Duncan Jones: It wasn’t, in any way, an obligation. I really did play all of the Warcraft games from the very beginning. As a fan for 20 years, I felt that this was an opportunity to make a movie on two levels: for the people who know nothing about Warcraft and for the people that played the games. We wanted to invite the people that have never played the games, much like The Fellowship of the Ring invited an audience that may or may not have read the Tolkien books. I needed to let my audience know that we really, really cared about this film and where this story comes from. Lore characters, locations and meeting stones are all in the film because that’s the lore of Warcraft. But they work within the film itself.

SF: Did you have any previs for the film and if yes, how did you use it?

DJ: We did. I was relieved that we were able to work this way. I really wanted to make it feel like a live-action shoot as much as possible. And most of the time it was, other than the MOCAP component. So we were able to improv a little.

One of the issues with previs is that you get a lag. I think there’s an ongoing decision in the world of previs as to what level of fidelity and detail the previs needs to be spun at. And there is a calculation that you have to make as to how much detail is really helpful before it slows down to the process, where it’s actually playing catch-up with determining how you’re going to shoot the film. I feel like previs has its place but you can have less-detailed previs, which does the most important job that it can.

SF: So what was the main goal of your previs effort? How did it help you make this film?

DJ: Blocking, framing and timing. If your previs can give you that, then the level of detail becomes less important. If I’m early on in the process and we don’t have a definitive idea of what the location looks like but we have concept art and kind of work out what the shapes could be and what the general geography could be, I think that’s a place where previs can help you out. It helps establish scale and you get a certain idea of what that scale is through certain lenses so you can get some early ideas of what a virtual geography would look like and would that serve the purpose of the storytelling. You can maybe get a little ahead of the game as to what the framing would be. Plus, you can get a better sense of how many shots you need and what kind of coverage you’re looking for so you can give the VFX department a heads-up of just how many shots and what kind of work they’ll be looking at. Previs will give you more of a broad brush stroke on how an action scene will play out and that’s better than nothing when it comes to VFX companies bidding on work.

SF: Just to piggyback off of that question, as far as the mise en scene goes and the framing of the film, do you think that the ability to put anything you want in the background and possibly getting carried away with the effects disrupts the framing?

DJ: Yeah. I mean it’s the same with animation but you can have a bit more flexibility with the backgrounds down the pipeline - enhancing background details even when the shot is being worked on.

SF: What were some of the issues and concerns you considered when determining what you had to shoot practically vs. digitally? For example, Orcs being digital vs. Garona, who is played by Paula Patton, being practical.

DJ: One smart decision we made with Garona, early on, is that we would rotoscope Paula Patton with her natural skin tones and then add in the green skin in post-production, rather than trying to cover her in green makeup. We had seen posters for Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy and she [actress Zoe Saldana] looked like she had been painted green.

SF: What was it like working not only with Legendary but also Blizzard Entertainment? Was it an easy transition to go from Moon and Source Code to a summer blockbuster?

DJ: My choice to do Source Code after Moon was to dip my toe in the water as to what a studio film would be like. It was a step-up. But if you break it down as to what my job is on a day to day basis, it’s still working within the limitations and painting within the lines of what it is we are actually able to do. Even at this scale, there were lots of things that I wanted to do but couldn’t because of limitations with time and money. The picture may be more complex and the canvas may be bigger but it’s still limited.

SF: At the end of the movie, it is implied that there will be future Warcraft films. Is a sequel already in production or is Universal waiting to see how this film is received?

DJ: Absolutely. We have to wait and see how it’s received. With the way the business is these days and the number of Marvel, Disney, Star Wars, D.C. and Transformers franchises, trying to bring a new entity into this world with the size of audience you would need in order for it to keep going, you really need to know you’re in a safe place to do that. I think Legendary is being very smart about this by putting the first film out and giving it their best shot. And if there is an audience for Warcraft, then we’d love to continue, having this film as the first in a trilogy. I think this film works as a standalone film but there are future plans, of course.

SF: What video games would you like to see made into movies?

DJ: The Fallout series. I think it’s the most interesting and idiosyncratic. It’s got a great score and amazing source music. The world is rich and detailed. I think a Fallout movie could be fantastic. Probably not crazy expensive either.

SF: What advice do you have for other directors making film adaptations of video games?

DJ: I think the most beneficial thing that you can do, as early on as possible, is determine what your relationship is with the people who are in control of the source material. Get a sense of what that relationship is going to be. Make sure that you’re in sync and that you communicate with them as frequently and as early as possible. It makes the film stronger and you figure out early on what the film is going to look like.