Shadow of War – Epic Middle Earth Ad Rivals Peter Jackson's Films

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Today a new campaign for upcoming video game, Middle Earth: Shadow of War, is released and it’s an epic adventure to rival the world built by Peter Jackson in his Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Directed by Ruffian’s Neil Huxley [pictured above, left, just in case that needed pointing out], the campaign comprises a number of components. There is a main hero film, called Friend of Foe [top], which pushes people to the Shadow of War website. When viewed online the Friend of Foe spot has an interactive element which allows users to make certain choices within the film. Those choices then dictate the other footage you see. “The idea is that ‘your choices have consequences’,” explains Huxley on a Skype call from his base in LA.

Huxley is no new-comer to video game advertising having been involved with the campaign for the game’s predecessor, Shadow of Mordor, as well as directing spots for games such as Assassin’s Creed Unity. The fact that he’s actually a big fan of the game franchise as a player, too, doesn’t hurt.

“It was a point of difference,” admits Ruffian’s MD, Robert Herman. “There are a lot of games commercials and a lot of directors who say they’re gamers, but Neil is a genuine gamer who’s passionate about them. He’s intimately versed in the game and that helped us connect with the script, with the agency and with the new game.”


One of the more comedic spots for the release of Shadow of War.

Middle Earth: Shadow of War has already seen two, more comedic, spots released earlier this month [Not Today, above] but Friend or Foe is a far more dramatic and ambitious undertaking, firmly placing the viewer in the world of Tolkien’s imagination.

Below we talk to Huxley and Herman about the campaign, its huge scale and the challenges that come with, essentially, directing a mini-epic film.



What did you think when you first received the script?

NH: The Martin Agency are some of the smartest people I’ve ever worked with. Often the agency has never played the game, but these guys really had, and had written a script that reflected that. Monolith, the developer, and Warner Bros, the distributor, really liked the way the agency had humanised the orcs. They wanted the audience to connect with the creatures. They weren’t the snivelling orcs like in the Peter Jackson films.

Most, if not all the other directors we were up against wanted to go with CGI orcs, and I just thought that was a really bad idea given that to get photo-realistic CG, whatever the schedule, is a real ball-ache. Even on feature films, with all the money in the world and a two-year schedule it can sometimes fall short. And I like in-camera prosthetics for creatures and characters that are close to camera.

[I thought] if we get good actors then the performance will be able to come through the make-up. My plan with these things is for the viewer to, hopefully, never know where the seams are. Obviously, dragons and larger creatures are CGI, as are some of the set extensions [but] everything I could get in-camera, I did.



Where did you shoot the film?

NH: We shot in Ukraine, in Odessa, in the middle of winter in minus 15-degree weather. The Black Sea was actually frozen over it was that cold.

RH: We had a unit of 400 people on the shoot of which 120 were from the Ukrainian army.

So, the budget was pretty substantial?

RH: I would say we had an unusually small budget, especially for a games job. I think we were significantly cheaper than our nearest competitor; that was through production solutions. I’d worked in Ukraine a lot and worked with people over there who’ve been important allies for us.

To shoot that commercial [in the US] it would have been a $10m exercise. I think in the UK people are used to working and shooting abroad and in low cost centres in the East. Here, in the States, people are less used to it and a little bit scared of it because it’s so alien to them.

There are compromises, which are usually food and comfort, but there’s a lot of craft here and you can easily bring in other great people from places like Prague… make-up, armoury and things like that. The key to the whole thing was that there was no creative compromise.


One of the endframe sequences which appear depending on your choices through the online, interactive film.


How daunting was it facing such a huge shoot?

NH: From the very beginning I said to everybody that we cannot fall short of the Peter Jackson films otherwise we’re just going to get laughed at. You get very little direction from the developer because they’re trying to finish the game, you just have to make a choice and go. Because I played the previous game I had a shorthand there; other directors wouldn’t have known things like characters holding the wrong weapon or wearing the wrong armour. I got knee-deep in this because it was a dream job for me, it was like a schoolboy dream come true. Essentially, I got to make a short film in the Lord of the Rings world.



So you weren’t nervous at all about the undertaking?

NH: I remember sitting in a meeting the night before the shoot and I remember saying to everybody that I should be shitting myself right now. We were about to embark on something that wass huge and which had a lot of moving parts. But I wasn’t. I was really excited, and that was a lot to do with everyone on the team pulling in the right direction and bringing their A game.

The thing I couldn’t control was the thing that fucked us up the most, and that was the weather. We wanted dirty, grey weather and skies, which we had the day before the shoot. Then on the first day we got beautiful blue skies, and it was like that for the next three days. Skies are easy enough to fix but if highlights hit your main characters, painting them out [in post] from their costumes, their armour or their skin, becomes an absolute nightmare. Luckily the way we planned the shoot was to work in the shadow side of the fortress location we were shooting in, which helped, and then it was a case of the sun going behind a cloud.



Can you tell us a bit about casting the main orcs in the film?

NH: It was one of the most interesting casting sessions I’ve ever done. We gave people fake weapons and asked them to act like savages; you get degrees… absolute psychopaths and then someone like Spencer Wilding, who plays the main bad guy and who played Darth Vader in Rogue One; he’s used to five hours of make-up before shooting.

 One of the guys who hadn’t done it before found it hard. He would close down after half an hour in make-up. You have to be able to act through the make-up, things have to be exaggerated. You need the physicality but you also need someone who can act.


Another of the online endframe sequences.

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