Duncan Jones on bringing World Of Warcraft to the big screen
Duncan Jones smiles. “I know Edge very well. Back in the day, when we did the developer diaries on Republic: The Revolution… A long time ago. God, a life ago.” To be precise, it’s been 18 years since Demis Hassabis wrote his first Edge column about establishing Elixir Studios. Then, Jones worked on Republic’s cutscenes. Now he’s directed the big-budget movie adaptation of Warcraft.
The ambitions for both projects were high. Republic had its Infinity Engine and the aim of simulating an Eastern Bloc country. In a Hollywood runtime, Warcraft is attempting to pull together a world drawn across 22 years of games and a tangled forest of stories, characters and locations. The hopes are similarly high. Jones said last year, “Warcraft will right the wrongs of game movies”. As a man who is not only a game industry alumnus but also the director of two highly regarded sciencefiction features, Moon and Source Code, Jones is better placed than anyone in Hollywood to realise this.
However, the director simply sees his promise for Warcraft as a function of time. “There was a time when there were filmmakers who were making movies based on comic books but the filmmakers never read comic books, you know?” he says. “They were there as filmmakers but they didn’t appreciate what it was about the comic books that people cared about, and I think that changed as a generation of filmmakers grew up and started making movies who themselves had been comic-book readers, and I think the same is absolutely true for videogames.” Jones comes from what is perhaps the first generation of filmmakers who spent all their lives playing games. He started on a Commodore 64, and is currently on his second XCOM 2 playthrough. “All of that history is stuff I take with me,” he says, “and gives me a true appreciation for what the experience was, and what it was about it that I want to carry into a film universe.”
Jones is careful to note that he also has a responsibility to filmmaking, however, which means bringing mass audiences along, whether they know about the game or not. Jones describes the process of developing Warcraft as puzzle-solving, the first challenge being that of picking through all of the lore in order to find the story to tell. “The conversation we had really came down to, what are the essential elements of Warcraft? What makes it Warcraft?” he says. The answer was the orcs’ initial appearance in Azeroth, having stepped through a portal from their own planet, the moment that kicked off an age of constant war.
The next challenge was to find characters that could translate well to
“Family, loyalty, having a baby – these are things that audiences around the world can understand”
film. The characters of Blizzard’s Warcraft are drawn large so that they can make themselves heard among all the other figures who compete for the player’s attention. But while they’re often underscored by grand pathos, they aren’t exactly nuanced. “If there was any place where there was a little room for a new creative voice, I think that’s where it was,” Jones says. “They are big, broad-brush characters in the game world, and there was room for a bit of nuance in there, for the motivations of the characters and who they were. That’s what we tried to fit in.”
The solution was to follow the story of Durotan, orc chieftain of the Frostwolf Clan – little-known, so there was space to develop a character, but instrumental so that he plays a role in the stories players will know. Durotan is father to Thrall, who goes on to lead the Horde, and the lands settled by the orcs in World Of Warcraft are named after him. The first game he appeared in was the most recent expansion, Warlords Of Draenor, but he was established as a supporting character in the 2001 novel Lord Of The Clans, which was itself based on a story developed for the cancelled adventure game Warcraft Adventures.
The film also follows another lead character, the human champion knight, Anduin Lothar. Warcraft presents yet another challenge to traditional Hollywood filmmaking, because it has to represent both sides of the conflict. Anduin features in Warcraft II, in which he fights in a war that ends in the closing of the portal between the orcs’ world and Azeroth. It feels like quite a lot to ask of a single film. “You really need to be able to get to the heart of who these characters are as quickly as possible, and at the same time make sure they come across as having some depth,” Jones explains. “That was hopefully where I came in and did a little bit of what I hope I’m good at.”
Not that this is necessarily illustrated by the director’s previous films. His debut, Moon, features a single actor confined to a small space, while 2011’s Source Code follows the same small group of characters repeating the same slice of time, over and over. They’re intimate and focused, and very high concept – and therefore pretty much the opposite of this huge and muscular new film.
Warcraft’s orcs are also computergenerated. “In a funny way, it was easier with the orcs than the humans,” Jones counters, pointing out the plight of the orcs, who are chased from their own world and are simply trying to find themselves a new home. “Family, loyalty, Durotan having a pregnant wife, Draka, and having, pretty early on, a baby – these are things that audiences around the world can understand and empathise with pretty immediately.” It was the human point of view that needed extra embellishment, and for Jones, using CG was a simple choice, given the need to represent fearsome orcs. Ensuring it was done well was about exercising the now-standard practice of filming as much as possible on location, or on vast sets. The actors on which the orcs are based were fully motion-captured, just as Caesar was, so successfully, for Planet Of The Apes.
Warcraft has famously been in development for a long time, having been announced way back in 2006. Sam Raimi was appointed as director in 2009, but Blizzard would not approve his story proposal, and he left the project in 2013. Raimi claimed it was a matter of miscommunication, while Blizzard’s only public statement on the matter was a tweet from Rob Pardo, then chief creative officer, saying that “there are two sides to every story”. Duncan Jones offers a little more insight on the matter: “The reason it kept coming up against stumbling blocks and not getting made was that the filmmakers were not seeing it the same way that Blizzard were.”
Jones’ pitch defined the Warcraft universe as a place where heroes can come from anywhere, whether they’re orcs, humans, dwarves or elves. Blizzard immediately loved it, he says. The resulting film is the product of close collaboration between the game and movie worlds; Blizzard creative lead Chris Metzen shares a writing credit with Jones and Charles Leavitt (Blood Diamond, In The Heart Of The Sea). Blizzard also lent the film one of Warcraft’s principal concept artists, Wei Wang, who adapted the games’ stylised orcs into credible figures. Some of the film’s developments have also fed back into Blizzard’s game work, such as Durotan featuring in Warlords Of Draenor.
Jones, who has until now enjoyed a comparatively independent career, gives no clue as to whether he found this relationship difficult, but it hasn’t put him off working more closely on videogames. “Don’t be surprised if I get involved in the games side a little bit more at some point,” he says. “It’s absolutely part of the world I was brought up in.”
Jones isn’t precious about movie origins: “It doesn’t matter if it’s a game, or an app, or your favourite book or your favourite meal – you can make a movie as long as you have a good idea about what to do with it”
Warcraft is Duncan Jones’ third feature, following Moon and Source Code