Translating the game experience into a live action launch trailer can be a daunting task, but it’s one that Pony Show director Peter Berg and a crack team of filmmakers have achieved with ‘Discover Your Power’ to promote the release of Activision's Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. The 90 second spot from agency 72andSunny was filmed in a first person perspective as a hero soldier is joined by another (played by Taylor Kitsch) using advanced weaponry against a sea of foes in Lagos, Nigeria in 2059. Filmed on sets and in the Californian desert, MPC LA transformed the photography into a frenetic action piece. Visual effects supervisor Paul O’Shea gives fxguide a blow-by-blow account of the shoot and effects work.

- Above: watch the spot.

Planning for POV

A clear vision from Activision and agency 72andSunny was that the spot had to feel like a live action cinematic, even though it would involve significant game and CG imagery and visual effects enhancements. That meant a strong practical photography shoot that still held up to the fast-paced aesthetic of the piece. “One of the things we wanted to do was plan it so that some things weren’t just punted over to be done as visual effects,” relates O’Shea. “Rendering in computer games has come such a long way that it actually puts a lot of pressure on the VFX to be so much better, too.”

Filming the wire gag for one of the final bridge shots.
Filming the wire gag for one of the final bridge shots.

Unit 11 produced a previs for the spot that was then broken down by Berg, 1st Assistant Director Josh McLaglen and O’Shea in terms of what could be achieved with live action, stunts and visual effects. “We really pushed the other departments to take as much as they could,” says O’Shea, “and then we could break down the shots and transitions and how we get between one and the other.”

That planning extended also to the manner in which the spot would be filmed. Since it had to be a first person perspective, the team lead by DP Greig Fraser researched a number of camera rigs that could be attached to the hero soldier - a stunt performer who effectively became the camera operator. The solution was ultimately a mix of a RED DRAGON and the Codex Action Cam attached to a helmet worn by the performer, and then some serious tracking and matchmoving work by MPC for the entire spot.

A final POV shot from the spot.
A final POV shot from the spot.

“The Action Cam had such great form factor, but we really needed the DRAGON - shooting at nearly 6K - to re-frame inside the shots,” describes O’Shea. “We inverted it on the helmet and it was counter-balanced with a weight to help protect his neck. Because it was offset to one side, it also doesn’t center the camera in the middle of his chest. So we had to do some bluescreen plates of just arms and hands so we could center him and his body.”

“We still took the Action Cam with us as well,” notes O’Shea, “in case the helmet became too big and any of the stunts weren’t possible. I ended up shooting bluescreen elements with the Action Cam. It’s such a small thing but the color depth of it is quite impressive.”

Shot by shot

‘Discover Your Power’ begins with an enemy delivering a punch in the face to our soldier before another hero played by Kitsch delivers his own knock-out blow. This opening scene was filmed on a stage, although the original planned location was actually a real building in in Los Angeles. “We had surveyed the location,” recalls O’Shea, “and mapped out what we were going to do, where the fake walls were going to go et cetera. And then they sold the building - two weeks before the job! And the people who bought it canceled all the contracts.”

The hero soldier is given advanced warfare armor and weaponry. Legacy Effects produced the suits and guns, with MPC adding in CG readouts for some shots. The soldier gets up from the floor while an attack commences. “For that part we added a CG ceiling,” says O’Shea, “and what he looks down at along the corridor is a bluescreen above and at the end, and we added in the blasts and did an extension.”

CG work in progress assets.
CG work in progress assets.

“Then he goes up to the doors, we cut at the door, and added some CG doors so they can bend,” describes O’Shea. “There’s a couple of different takes there where we’ve got different takes for his hands that have been comp’d in (Jake Montgomery was the 2D lead for the spot). He goes through the door, there’s a couple of different takes with extra debris.”

Once through the door, a stunt performer as Kitsch slides through. “We lose him and we pick up a different take so that Taylor can come in on the left,” says O’Shea. “Then we do a take-over into a little CG piece done on a Flame with the threat grenade. The grenade is caught and it’s a separate take for his hand and we do a little bit of CG on the top of the grenade. He throws that and we take over the grenade and do CG explosion and set extensions.”

The threat grenade reveals adversaries.
The threat grenade reveals adversaries, in this still from the spot.

The threat grenade reveals a mass of soldiers in red ‘point-cloud’ form through the wall poised to attack. “These guys were former Navy SEALs that Peter Berg knew,” says O’Shea. “They were shot bluescreen. I shot them on stairs and on platforms. This SEAL team was just fantastic blokes. They’re the sort of people you want to make more of because they’re sort of stoic and professional. You’re on the bluescreen and you say, what would do in this situation? When they start to show you how they would clear a room, they’re pretty sharp and scary.”

Our soldier then runs to a set of glass bricks - a set piece that MPC completed a take-over for as the performer ran onto a bluescreen for a fall to the street below. “That was CG glass, and a CG exterior,” explains O’Shea. “We come back to the guy in a parking lot landing on the top of a container that was static. We had CG roads, CG traffic, CG city and matte painting.” Only occasionally were CG digi-doubles required for the spot, but MPC did build these based on T-pose scans and textures acquired at Legacy suit fitting sessions.

Original plate of the fall.
Original plate of the fall.
Final shot.
Final shot.

“Then we pick him up on a wire," continues O'Shea. "He dropped the last probably ten feet onto this container. He’s pulled off the container off the side and then we cut and we pick him up again and he looks at his hands, we’ve got CG animation on the gloves and we’re also moving the road. He’s on a wire walking alongside the container. He gets to the front - the guy in the front is framed by a bluescreen, he looks down, shoots, we’ve added in the tire and done the tire explosion.”

Original plate.
Original plate.
Final shot.
Final shot.

A CG road environment then leads to live action pick up as the stunt performer swoops in - via a wire gag - to a facade set. “The facade set was actually built for a different show,” notes O’Shea. “I got the SketchUp model of that set and it was all kind of old fashioned wild west facades - just flats with battens at the back. So we’ve extended all those, given them roofs. Having the SketchUp model made the survey of that place much easier. We swamped it with photogrammetry to make the bridge between the SketchUp from the art department and to allow us to align that all up.”

Landing on the ground, the dazed soldier sees what appears to be a beautiful woman (played by actress Emily Ratajkowski). This was filmed from the helmet cam. “We did set extensions behind her,” says O’Shea. “Many of our backgrounds were matte paintings done by Rocco Grioffre, who worked on the glass paintings in Blade Runner. He now works digitally and I think he’s a master and extremely generous and a great man to work with.”

Emily Ratajkowski plays the imaginary woman.
Emily Ratajkowski plays the imaginary woman.

The woman turns out to be a goat and the action continues as the two soldiers encounter a drone that swarms towards them - a CG effect created in Houdini and overseen by 3D lead Andy Boyd and FX supervisor Jonathan Vaughn. Kitsch’s character and our solider then jetpack onto a nearby building - a wire stunt gag with a mid-air CG take-over. The action picks up on a different wire shot as the soldier pushes through a hole in the roof. “We added the roof and glass in CG and added the gun and muzzle flashes,” says O’Shea. “Then he comes down into a practical shot with a bit of CG debris, hits the guy in front who’s on a wire and pulls back away from us.”

The drones swarm.
The drones swarm.

The next view is of adversaries firing from a balcony. “Those guys on the balcony are practical,” explains O’Shea. “Our guy runs to the door - we had to speed that up to get the length right by controlling the areas of travel. He pulls a set piece off, we add CG glass. Then, they have rules that you’re not allowed to fire at the camera, so the glass cracking is all CG. He pulls it back to throw it, drops it, doesn’t throw anything. We do a CG take-over so the door goes away. It hits the balcony and there’s a CG explosion.”

Kitsch’s character then appears on a hover bike, and the two speed through the market place. Much of the bike footage came from helmet-cam plates shot on real motorbikes, after tests proved promising, despite one small altercation involving production designer Jeff Mann. “Jeff had the camera on and he disappeared off on the bike to see what the POV footage would look like,” says O’Shea. “And he comes back and looks a little shaken and is a bit dusty. And his knee is bleeding! And he says, ‘Oh it’s nothing, it’s nothing.' Then we look at the footage and it turns out he’s gone out to the location and come off the bike, got quickly back on it and keeps going. The footage shows him wiping out.”

Original plate.
Original plate.
Final shot.
Final shot.

MPC roto’d out Kitsch from the real bike, removed the bike, raised the actor slightly so that he could have some movement and then comp’d him onto a CG game asset of the hover bike. The asset, like the helicopters and other some other vehicles seen in the spot, were up-res’d and fleshed out with more textures.

Hover bike bluescreen prop.
Hover bike bluescreen prop.
Final shot.
Final shot.

“Then we get onto the bridge and that’s where things got crazy,” notes O’Shea. For shots approaching the bridge, Kitsch was filmed on a bluescreen hover bike that was the correct dimensions, on a motion base. “I shot that with a camera on a rail and we did some up and bys with the camera on the rail so I could get changing perspective on Taylor. He did lines to camera while we were doing that.”

Kitsch on the bridge set, with CG pieces to be tracked in.
Kitsch on the bridge set, with CG pieces to be tracked in.
Final shot.
Final shot.

A rain of missiles are launched and destroy half the bridge - an all-CG environment with Houdini-created explosions, that also included a wire rig as our hero just catches the bridge's broken edge. As he turns to see Kitsch the scene actually featured several cuts while dialogue is delivered, with MPC Flame artist Benoit Mannequin morphing the pieces together. “Some of the invisible work that we’re proudest of is how well Benoit did in that end scene so that you don’t feel the amount of cuts there are when we hit the bridge.”

Original plate for bridge.
Original plate for bridge.
Final shot.
Final shot.

Live action for the bridge confrontation was filmed in a car park with only five or six performers and then expanded with a CG environment, tank vehicles, soldiers, gunfire, missile trails and explosions. That work is possibly the most visual effects heavy in the spot, but was still informed by what had been captured on set. “Some of the shots are overtly effects shots,” notes O’Shea, “but I try at the end of it to leave no real footprint so you can’t really tell.”

Work on a Peter Berg spot, join his gym…

The spot has become hugely successful, amassing more than 16 million views on YouTube to date. For O’Shea, the experience was a chance to add a lot of cinematic value to a computer games spot. It was capped off, too, when Peter Berg had a somewhat unusual request for the visual effects supervisor.

“I went over to present the work to him, and he was at a boxing gym he owns in West LA called Wild Card West. I go over there with my little Flame on a laptop and I show him the work in progress. Just as we’re packing up he goes, ‘Why don’t you come down to the gym for a workout? He looked over my shoulder and pointed at this trainer and says give him a fitness test! So I had to go through this fitness test at the boxing gym. About 45 minutes and I thought I was going to die! But it was so good that I ended up sticking with it and joining the gym.”

Peter Berg tests the blue screen hover bike prop.
Peter Berg tests the blue screen hover bike prop.

“I don’t really do the punching bit for the boxing, but I know what’s going to happen some time soon. I’m going to see Peter in this gym and he’s going to want to spar with me. And he’s going to punch me - I know it’s going to happen! And I’m really not looking forward to that at all. But actually I’m feeling really fit and it has been great.”

Click here for the spot’s full credits.


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