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MPC LA Seizes Glory for ‘Call of Duty: Black Ops 3’ Trailer

Only a few days ahead of the 6 November release of Call of Duty: Black Ops III, Activision Publishing launched its creative and marketing campaign with a new live-action trailer titled ‘Seize Glory’.
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The story follows a gamer named Kevin, an unlikely hero, traversing various war-torn levels without missing a beat. As a smooth-talking narrator hypes up the drama, we watch Kevin take out Black Ops soldiers, robot enemies, flesh-eating zombies, tanks, planes and buildings. Working alongside director Wayne McClammy, MPC LA led on-set supervision, visual effects and post production.

On-Set Data for Post

The film was shot over five days in an abandoned mall in Southern California, where the natural decay and destruction gave the shoot a more authentic feel. “On set we pushed to increase the speed and efficiency with which we gather survey and location data,” said the team’s creative director Paul O’Shea. “Our VFX supervisor Zach Tucker brought a lot of feature film experience to the shoot, and his own passion for developing opportunities on-set that will support and improve the work in post. We aim to make the smallest footprint possible for production, but generate fast, thorough, focused data for post.

“By the time we received an edit, through the use of image-based modelling and existing databases we would have recreated environments and built out lighting scenes, and when the plates were cleared to go online, CG renders were ready to drop in.”

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The scope of work involved creating the zombies, photoreal water simulations and the robots in full CG, choreographed using actors on a rainy set with moving cameras. Tasks included hard surface modeling and up-rezing of game assets, matte painting, compositing from MPC’s film library of practical elements. Specific CG pyrotechnic effects were created and embedded into the practical base. Therefore, MPC’s teams located around the world were a critical element in meeting the demanding schedule. Between Bangalore, London and Los Angeles, the studio worked around the clock.

The Gaming Experience

MPC LA started working with the director Wayne McClammy intensely in 2014 about 18 months ahead of the game’s November 2015 release. Paul talked through the development and creation in detail with Digital Media World. The project required extensive work on set, which ultimately shortened the post production stage and made it more efficient, and improved the quality of the final result.

“Over that time, all of us developed a good, mutual understanding. In the prep stage this meant our concept and look development was well focused. Having made the previous year's Call of Duty spot, ‘Discover Your Power’, also helped us understand the game assets, what is and is not useful and how best to approach the developers for assets and reference.

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A primary goal for producing this particular live-action trailer ‘Seize Glory’ was to strike a balance between practical and digital, bridging the gap between the player’s experience of playing the Black Ops 3 game, and the game as a real experience. The Call of Duty spots are deliberately intense, and expectations are high. “We looked at a lot of images and footage provided by the agency and conducted a virtual technical scout of the game level environments we were going to highlight. We secured access to an early build of the game and, in ‘god mode’ with no restrictions or vulnerability, explore angles and action while recording the output.”

Laying the Foundation

During the tech scout, they were able to survey the locations and model them in a very basic manner from stills. A simple LIDAR scan accurately registered and gave scale to these scenes, tying the practical and virtual sets together. Paul said, “We used Agisoft to derive the models and this laid the foundation for lighting schemes, orienting the HDRI sets and any art department models made in SketchUp. A survey of the locations - which were fairly authentic before set dressing - included a texture shoot where we cancelled out lighting direction or ambient colour bias, making sure the photography was useful with minimal post processing.” 

On set, Paul’s team of just two to five people aimed to form as focused but unobtrusive a unit as possible. By working with the crew beforehand, they developed a kind of shorthand and level of trust reassuring everyone that what they were asking for was needed for the best result.

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Every character was shot as high resolution stills on a turntable as insurance against the need for digital doubles. Each of the motion capture stunt actors were also photo’d, resulting in scaled models to use for the match move.

Lens data, camera placement and compositions were all authentic. The cinematographer Dion Beebe brought his experience from shooting ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ to the process, which was an important reference for MPC’s artists. He was involved throughout and attended grading sessions working with the colourist Ricky Gausis to balance the scenes and create coherent but distinctive looks for each vignette.

Previsualisation

By working this way, they were able to produce concept work early enough to provide content for the preproduction book and useful context for the shoot. “This helps reassure the clients and allows them to visualize things during shooting that they cannot see,” Paul said. “We could rig and adapt the game assets to provide blocking for the edit, but on set we preferred to use stunt men in mocap suits as proxies for the robots. This gave Wayne and Dion Beebe something tangible to frame up on and track.

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“The entire spot was previsualised but the story developed so dynamically in response to it that sometime it was a basis for the action, sometimes a guide for what not to do, and sometimes a reference for the pace of a shot and how the story could be adapted to the many different durations and versions a spot like this can develop.”

They had roughly ten days to work on the previs with a team of four to eight at one time. The entire spot was rendered and iterations presented both at preproduction and during the shoot. Apart from giving the director and agency a chance to explore and discount options, it also gave Activision a means of joining in with and understanding the process. “It was evolving fast and was based on conversations, trust and an intangible understanding between different departments. The previz helped communicate spatial relationships as well - the director and DP would review it to short cut some of the lensing and spatial experimenting," Paul said.

Scene Building

Once they got stuck into the modelling, the up-rezing of game assets was in fact not entirely straightforward. In most cases, they had to start models from scratch to ensure subtleties of edges and detail that bring the objects to a photoreal standard, but the game assets gave them a good template. The environments were built from scratch with much of the set dressing, like the tower and antennae.

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A proxy and a hi-res version were built of most objects. The previz and distant background action could be handled with the proxy models, and the hero pieces were modelled and textured with particular attention to detail to stand up to the camera and frame by frame scrutiny. The texture artists customized several versions of each asset type to avoid repetition.

“We used practical lights to create interactive light effects where we knew explosions would be, in the bio dome and shipping container sequence, for instance,” said Paul. “In the Zombie scene, we used strobe lights and LED sets on the end of the pistols to create light and then replaced them with muzzle flares. The end scene had numerous practical explosions, but we ultimately replaced the water and so had to reconstitute the reflections and light by re-projecting the plate and simulating fire and other lights in CG.”
 
The character animation began with a round of match moving of the stunt actors, based on the scaled models from the photography, but the lead animator was quick to take this over and decide what was useful. While the original action was helpful for framing and eye-lines the animators often departed from it because the direction of the action had to change in response to the edit.

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“The full range of techniques and reference went into the environments,” Paul noted. “They were concepted in 2D and ultimately feature assets from 2.5D cards up to fully CG buildings. We augment this with assets from our library that has been built up over the years and been added to by the commercials and feature department. Smoke, debris, flares, bullet hits and fire are spotted over the matte paintings by the compositors to blend everything together and make sure nothing seems static.

Heroic FX

“Explosions are critical to this story, and special effects supervisor Dave Peterson provided a great practical base for each scene. We were determined from the start that his work would be a real star in the piece. Missiles were guided along wires and huge explosions set off to make this spot feel authentic. Dave and our team have worked together many times now and have a good understanding of where he leaves off and we take over. We shot close to one of the city airports and after the first couple of days, this affected how big the pyro could be. We adjusted the balance a bit here and there but when the pivotal, high drama scenes happen, Dave let everything on the truck go – it was epic.”

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Of course, all gamers know that glory is fleeting, and in the final moments of ‘Seize Glory’, Kevin is seriously upstaged by a new warrior. As she descends onto the flooded set, a beautiful gush of water washes him out of view in a precisely orchestrated series of events, starting with a plate containing some ingenious stunt work.

“Because this was such a complex effect, it only came together in the last two to three days. It's a mixture of Houdini simulations and careful Flame work with our library elements. The dressing of the splashes on the lens provided a bit of misdirection to help the realism. We played with different levels of electricity in the water from the gravity spikes - the signature Black Ops weapon - but finally the water looked sufficiently real that it was better to knock that part of the effect right back. Timing Kevin's exit and the wave required some detailed adjustment in the Flame until the shots worked.”   www.moving-picture.com