Blur’s The Elder Scrolls Online cinematic: 8 mins of action

Blur Studio enjoys a rich history in cinematics work. Their latest ‘Arrival Cinematic’ trailer for The Elder Scrolls Online is an eight-minute immersion into the world of that game. fxguide finds out how Blur, which worked with AKQA, Bethesda and Zenimax Online Studios on the trailer, made it happen.

The concept

Blur had previously delivered an Elder Scrolls ‘The Alliances’ cinematic to help introduce the game. “The mandate was for this new trailer to be even bigger and better if possible,” says Dave Wilson, Blur’s director on the project. “They wanted us to start off with the most exciting elements which were the portal and those anchors which are like aircraft carrier-sized chains flailing around.”

Storyboards from the cinematic.
Storyboards from the cinematic.

Starting with some early AKQA storyboards, Wilson fleshed out the ‘Arrival’ tale with a written description of the action and more extensive boards. These included the action of the large creature – The Atronach – and the behavior of the portal and chains.

Animating the animatic

Perhaps unusually for cinematics production, Blur tends to involve the stunt team early on in production to choreograph fights and action. This is before any CG animatics or mocap are carried out, and designed to aid in mapping out shots and working out the cinematic’s length. Oftentimes, some of this live action previs video taken of the stunt performances will remain in the eventual animatic.

Daedric concepts.
Daedric concepts.

“We are able to shoot the stunt performers very quickly in a week or two and get an idea of how long the cinematic was running,” says Wilson. “We were also able to figure out and how much fighting we wanted versus everything else that was happening.” Blur then spent around 10 weeks creating an animatic for ‘Arrival’, before bringing the stunt team in again to record motion capture for body motion (facial animation was all done with morph targets).

Camera style

A trademark of the cinematic is a camera that feels as if the operator is there amongst the action. “In that world,” states Wilson, “which is fantasy and demons and creatures and magic, you want to try and ground things as much as you can so it all feels somewhat believable. I think the camerawork is an easy way to accomplish that – to make it feel like there’s a cameraman on the scene.”

Concept art for the cinematic.
Concept art for the cinematic’s Scamp character.

During the blocking stage, Blur motion captured cameras for ‘boots on the ground’ action, and then would further refine these during previs, animation and the final polish stages. “There’s a natural process of finding your actors in live action,” notes Wilson, “and that’s what I love about virtual cinematography, but I don’t feel it has that same happy accident approach that can happen with live action filmmaking. So working some of that in in our cinematography is something I look for.”

“I wanted it to feel aggressive and chaotic,” adds Wilson. “I understand there are people who want to take the time to appreciate everything in there, but that’s kind of the whole point. I wanted our heroes to feel overwhelmed, or out of control. That’s the situation they’re in.”

Further concept work for the battle scenes.
Further concept work for the battle scenes.

Crafting characters

For the characters featured in ‘Arrival’, Blur had a wide scope in terms of their look and feel, since in The Elder Scrolls Online players also have the ability to craft their own characters. The process began with scans of the actual performers’ heads – but only for reference and to match the mocap, as character sculpts were done in ZBrush and Mudbox. “We then used 3ds Max for all the base meshes,” explains character modeling lead Mathieu Aerni. “We first create a polygon mesh and then send that to rigging once the proportions are approved. Then we sculpt it in ZBrush. The rigging is done in XSI which is also what we animated with. And then we rendered in V-Ray.”

Atronach concept art.
Atronach – final model.

“We started to introduce MARI into our pipeline when we were working on the previous Elder Scrolls trailer,” adds Aerni. “I personally liked using it on the big monster which had 17 chins. We used it primarily as a 3D painter, although we don’t use much of the shader part of it – we use with the shaders in 3ds Max. We also used MARI to create our diffuse, reflection and sometimes bump maps.”

Cloth sims were tackled in 3ds Max, and for hair simulation, Blur relied on Ornatrix. “It has some amazing results,” says CG supervisor Jerome Denjean, “mostly because it renders very well with V-Ray’s native renderer, so now we don’t have to set up a separate pass to render the hair.”

Final model for the Wood Elf.
Final model for the Wood Elf.

“I’ve never had so much fun,” notes Wilson on the character simulation work. “When we were doing cloth and hair I’d have playbasts with 20 different shots with hair and cloth in them waving around – it’s never been a more exhilarating process for me.”

Portals, destruction and layers of dust

A combination of Thinking Particles and RayFire was used to simulate the destruction, rocks and cracking effects seen in the cinematic. Artists then incorporated FumeFX sims for volumetrics and smoke. This was rendered in V-Ray and composited in Digital Fusion. “Having the possibility to render smoke, hair and everything in one single pass is a big deal for us,” says Denjean. “We tried to get a few master shots really early on and prepare a whole library of blowing smoke, battle fog, embers and have them sit in the scene ready to go when we get started, so that all the lighters and compositors would have a toolkit to work with.”

A final frame from the cinematic.
A final frame from the cinematic.

Sound design

“Sound is half the battle,” admits Wilson, who acknowledges that he wishes most people got to see the cinematic on a large screen with the appropriate sound system, instead of ultimately online or via their smart phone. “The seats are literally rumbling when we mix the sound.”

Blur worked with Gary Zacuto at Shoreline Studios on the sound, with music composed by Rob Cairns. “We had a much longer time to do audio on this one than we’ve had before,” states Wilson. “I feel a personal responsibility to make sure the audio is at least matching the dramatic quality of the visuals, because of all the effort the team has put into it.”


Final ‘Arrival’

The Elder Scrolls Online is due for release on PC on April 4th this year, with ‘next-gen’ Xbox One and PlayStation 4 releases looking set for June. And for Blur, its cinematics work continues to reach new heights. “I don’t think we’ll ever do something this complicated again where we have simulations driving simulations on top of all the crazy stuff going on around them,” says Wilson. “But the execution has surpassed our estimation – not only did we get there but we blew it by a factor of 10.”

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