How 'Warcraft's' Visual Effects Wizards Brought Thousands of Orcs To Life

VFX supervisor Bill Westenhofer talks about the movie's advances in motion capture — and why he insisted on including Murloc.

Making Warcraft was the “first time my experience playing video games has paid off," admits two-time Oscar-winning VFX supervisor Bill Westenhofer. I was a Warcraft addict when it was in beta." 

His prior work has resulted in Oscars for creating the famously photo-real CG tiger in Life of Pi as well as the CG polar bears in The Golden Compass. For the new film, opening today from Legendary and Universal, he was tasked with delivering the epic world of Warcraft — Blizzard Entertainment's popular role-playing fantasy video game franchise — complete with a cast of CG Orcs, surrounding environments and all-enveloping magic, driven by VFX house Industrial Light & Magic.

“We wanted to make something that the people who knew the world would feel comfortable in. We wanted them to feel right at home,” Westenhofer told The Hollywood Reporter of the Duncan Jones-directed film. "Even if the environments look real, the proportions tend to be large. That steered us to live set-builds and CG extensions."

“We wanted it to look like real brick or trees, and scaled to the Warcraft world,” he added. “We were taking the game's aesthetic and design cues.”

And, of course, there was the challenge of the Orcs, which live in the world alongside the humans. “Motion capture was the way to go, but Duncan wanted to get as close to a live-action experience as we could,” Westenhofer said, explaining that they employed a system shooting motion-capture with the actors so that they could see the actors as Orcs, in the environments, in real time during production.

“The facial performances is where I think ILM sets a new benchmark,” he added. “Usually facial capture systems give you a starting point. ILM’s Medusa system was a straight one-to-one transfer. It helped that they were anthropomorphic. There was very little animation interpretation to get the performance.”

The Orcs and their costumes were additionally challenging due to looks that involved hair, fur and textures such as leather, “all of which require intense simulation to move properly."

And consider that there were 14 hero Orcs and another 30-40 variations for generic Orcs. In some battle shots, in excess of 1,000 Orcs were required. “The simulation and rendering time on a single computer would have taken 30,000 years of rendering time,” Westenhofer estimated.

The busy VFX supervisor — whose next film is the 2017 release Wonder Woman — also wanted to give Warcraft a “sophisticated and unique style” of magic.

So in some of the live-action photography, “the actors would wear an LED light that would illuminate [the actors and parts of the set] to show when magic was being. We’d also use blasts of air on the set to further affect the environment. Where we could, we’d design the spell so those who play Warcraft might recognize it."

One last item of note for game-players: Westenhofter brought the amphibious Murloc to the film as his “gift for the fans."

"There wasn’t a plan to put this in," he says. "I dusted off my [animation] chops and got a software package called Blender, created it and put in the [film]. As a fan I wanted to put in the experience.”