Dan Trachtenberg gets animated for Warframe
The Great Guns director speaks to Jamie Madge about bringing the space-bound ninja samurai action game to the screen with his animation debut.
It used to be, back in the days of CD ROM and generation one Playstations and Xboxes, you couldn’t play a video game without having a deliciously pre-rendered, cinematically ambitious, wholly unrepresentative of the ‘actual’ gameplay, cinematic intro to work your way through.
Nowadays, all of the scene-setting and story-starting elements of a game’s narrative tends to happen in the first few minutes (or hours) of the action. But what do you do if you’re an increasingly popular online auctioneer with a 15-year history and a well-catered and loyal existing fanbase, but want to attract new players to the battleground? If you’re Digital Extremes, you draft in a megafan... who also happens to be a Hollywood director.
Making his first foray into the world of animation, after helming live-action favourites like 10 Cloverfield Lane and the short Portal: No Escape, Great Guns director Dan Trachtenberg jumped at the chance to create a universe-establishing cinematic for the videogame Warframe.
Well-versed in the lore - with 200 hours of gameplay under his belt - the project saw Trachtenberg summon his inner Hong Kong/Japanese-cinema auteur to create an action-packed, six-minute CG eye-popper, introducing newbies to the setting and character classes available in the game whilst doffing a cap to seasoned players who’d never seen the action look this good.
We caught Trachtenberg in a break from pre-production on his big-screen Uncharted movie, and just before his pilot for The Boys airs, to chat about making the transition to animation, how he choreographed the action and what being a fan brought to the (gaming) table.
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- Production Company Great Guns/UK
- Director Danny Trachtenberg
- Executive Producer Laura Gregory
- Producer Sheridan Thomas
- CG Animation Digic Pictures
- Grade Company 3/Los Angeles
- CG Animation Supervisor Istvan Zorkoczy
- CG Supervisor Tamas Sasvari
How did you get involved in the project? Were you a Warframe fan already?
Yes, I was a massive Warframe fan. I got into it around 2012. I would play when I came home from shooting 10 Cloverfield Lane. We were shooting in New Orleans, so it was a way to connect with friends back home.
My fandom grew and, 200+ hours later, I’d mashed through to rank 17 and started tweeting about my adoration for it.
I linked up with the folks at Digital Extremes and said “if you guys ever want to do a live-action commercial or anything like that, I’d be super down for it” and they were stoked.
We went from there.
What were the initial stages? How did you decide on working in animation?
Digital Extremes wanted to do something for new players, because the game had evolved so drastically over the years. They had really expanded the experience for veteran players, but never really went back to rethink how to include new players.
Because they wanted to craft something new, gameplay-wise, they wanted to finally create an opening cinematic, to draw people in.
We talked for a minute about the possibility of live-action, but because of the incredible designs of all the characters, their abilities and the settings, it felt like much of it would have to be computer-generated anyway, so it made more sense to just work entirely in animation.
I’ve recently been working on a previs for a movie project, where I got bitten by the animation bug and loved the experience, so I really wanted to make something more in the CG landscape.
That’s how we ended up working in animation.
What were the goals of the film? How did you set about achieving them?
The goal was, on one hand, to give context to why people play the game, what the game is about and what it feels like; the combination of East meets West, Ninja Samurai and Star Wars sci-fi fantasy.
I wanted to give people an understanding of how they would fight, why they are fighting and to show the human element, which takes a longer time to process when you’re playing the game. But we also wanted it to be incredibly meaningful to veteran players.
That was a unique challenge - making something that was both a prequel and a sequel at once.
The film features some incredibly choreographed battle sequences. How were they prepped? Did you work with martial artists?
We were really lucky to work with animation house Digic, who often work with a choreographer and a stuntman named Gábor. He was incredibly talented.
Because I grew up on Hong Kong action movies, and have been desperate to make action scenes the way I always dreamt of them, there were certainly things that I had very specific intentions for. But there were also things that I had no specificity for, so it was great working with someone like Gábor who could come up with some amazing stuff (and boy, did he!).
Some moments represent my intentions for martial arts on screen - wanting something to feel kinetic the way you don’t see in most American cinema, as it tends to have a lot of aggressive camera work and fast-paced, incoherent editing.
The martial arts scenes in Hong Kong movies are incredibly coherent and portrayed mainly through wide shots, with editing that ends after a sequence or motion takes place, instead of in-between motions.
I wanted to combine both flavours and make something that was both aggressive and visceral but also completely coherent. I think we were able to achieve that.
Cinematics like this have to tread a fine between being a fairly accurate rendition of the game-playing experience whilst not just feeling like a Twitch stream of a particularly good player. How did you balance showcasing game elements without it feeling like a powerset demo?
I’m lucky; one of the reasons I wanted to make this initially is because I didn’t think we’d have to cheat too much.
The abilities and the moves in the third-person game are incredibly exciting, so in being accurate we were able to have some breath-taking moments - we didn’t have to cheat things that aren’t actually achievable.
However, we did have to do ‘movie versions’ of things. All of the aesthetics of the abilities, we wanted to amp up a little bit, so it looked the way you’d imagine it, instead of the current-gen graphics engines.
I also think we really strived to add a little bit of personality in any moments we could. Even a small thing, such as having the [space dog] Kubrow and Excalibur share a look with each other before battle in the first of the Tenno sequences, adds just a touch of personality that you don’t necessarily get in the game.
What was the most unexpectedly challenging aspect of the production?
Production-wise, I was shooting the pilot for The Boys while this was going on, so there were a lot of very early mornings and late nights looking at take-after-take of the motion capture, because every bit of animation was motion captured.
I think that also brings up something that people don’t necessarily realize about animation: you think that you’re only limited by your imagination and, in many ways, that’s true, but there are still limitations. You still have to build sets, assets and animations, and you’re approving those things along the way.
The deeper you get, the harder it is to go back and change.
You’re still able to change and iterate so much, it’s amazing, but there are still production and post-production stages to it. Plus, there’s still a monetary aspect in every choice you’re making.
In that way, I was surprised to find it’s much more similar to live-action than I initially thought.
How long did the whole process take? What was the most satisfying moment?
We took almost a year and a half… maybe a couple of months shy.
I think the most satisfying moment in this, and in almost everything, is the sound mix. When you have several pieces of animation that, up until that point, you took for granted, and you’re able to add sounds to them, you really start to feel them and take notice.
I think, specifically, there was a moment when Volt, the super-fast guy, is running past bullets and one bounces off of him. That’s a piece of animation that kind of swept by us. We were trying to do things with the lighting and colour to bring the moment out more but it wasn’t really landing. I almost resigned myself to ‘well, this is just a fine detail if you’re looking’. But then, in the sound mix, we were really able to highlight it and now it’s one of the coolest moments in the whole piece.
I love being in the sound mix and being able to feel the story and the beats.
Your Portal film, No Escape, was a huge success a few years back. Are there any other video game adaptations you're itching to give a go?
I’m currently working on the Uncharted movie, which is one of my favourite video games of all time - many people’s favourite game of all time.
So yeah, that’s what I’m working on next.