Warcraft is the debut film from Blizzard Entertainment, the goliath video game studio based in Irvine, California. Also known for international juggernauts such as StarCraft, Diablo, Hearthstone, and the newly-released Overwatch, the jewel in Blizzard’s crown is still its flagship franchise, Warcraft. The game has a long history as the studio’s most successful title, first released in 1994 as Warcraft: Orcs & Humans. With six games and at least ten expansions across the board, Warcraft has been a major part of gaming culture for more than twenty years. It’s no wonder that it has taken Blizzard, Legendary Pictures, and Universal ten years to develop a film that they feel is the perfect blend of the high fantasy, campy origins of the franchise that its fans love, and the sort of dramatic story telling movie-goers have come to expect in big summer blockbusters.
For a film that would need extensive motion capture and CG, there are few designers with a more impressive reel than costume designer Mayes C Rubeo, so it’s no surprise the production landed in her lap. Rubeo’s design credits include Avatar, World War Z, John Carter, and Apocalypto.
Warcraft (the film) returns to the game’s humble origins, Warcraft: Orcs & Humans, a real-time strategy game inspired by Tolkien and Star Wars first released more than twenty years ago. The MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) that we are familiar with today was released ten years later, in 2004. This summer’s video game blockbuster is inspired by the storyline leading up to the MMORPG, World of Warcraft (WoW).
World of Warcraft has come a long way in the twelve years since it flooded the gaming industry. The aesthetic of games in the late 90s, when it was first being developed at Blizzard, has evolved tremendously. This is in no small part due to the evolution of processing power.
But we’re interested in costumes! How is this important? Since the franchise debuted in 1994, our processing power has grown by more than one thousand percent. In 3D entertainment, processing power controls the project’s quality boundaries. As laymen, we often misconstrue computing limitations as bad art and storytelling.
However, this is an important creative challenge to recognize when talking about the crossover between the gaming and film industries. When WoW was first modeled, designers had to rely on shape and color exclusively to communicate character. This naturally resulted in a colorful and exaggerated world. Below is a comparison of an orc model pre-2004 (left) versus the franchise’s most recent expansion (right).
This legacy continues to inform the aesthetics of the games, but just like the Batman franchise after its Tim Burton phase, Warcraft shirks the 90s in favor of our current fascination with complex heroes operating in the grey areas of morality. Although the story still hinges on the differences between green orcs (those tainted by dark magic) and tan orcs, the aesthetic of the world has shifted drastically, evolving from its hyper-colorful pre-Y2K years.
It should also come as no surprise that Blizzard Cinematics is considered one of the top teams in the industry, and provided a lot of inspiration for the look of the film. Below is a screenshot of Blizzard Cinematics’ World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor trailer (top) compared to the film’s trailer (bottom).
The film, however, does deviate from the original intention of the studio. When director Duncan Jones got ahold of the script, he chose to make several edits. For Jones, as a director and an avid Blizzard fan, both human and orc stories were equally important. Rather than trying to tell the entire epic of WoW’s origins, he decided to focus in on the family of Duratan, an orc chieftain and Lothar, a human knight, both men caught between saving their families and doing what’s right.
With this in mind, Mayes Rubeo was able to interpret Duratan’s design with more emphasis on his humanity rather than the war-ready orcs of the game. The complexities of actor Toby Kebbell’s performance (also known for his portrayal of Koba in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) were of particular importance for the production, and supported the subtleties of culture and family Duratan’s character called for.
Thanks go out to Jessica Dru Johnson and Tim Vo at Blizzard for sending me in the right direction. And thank you Mayes Rubeo, Blizzard Entertainment, and Legendary Pictures for continuing to inspire gamers and push the envelope in fantasy storytelling!