This means war
3D World discovers the secrets of DIGIC Pictures’ epic Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla cinematic trailer
“LAYOUT AND ANIMATION OF THE CROWD SCENES REQUIRED A LOT OF TIME AND LABOUR, WITH MANY, MANY ITERATIONS IN-HOUSE” Ágoston Princz, CG supervisor, DIGIC Pictures
DIGIC Pictures have been building a reputation for high-end CG animation across feature films, commercials, and the video game industry for the past 18 years. Their most recent collaboration with Ubisoft saw them create an action-packed cinematic trailer for Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, the latest in the beloved video game series and the franchise’s first release in the new console generation. The game takes place during the warridden age of Vikings and DIGIC were tasked with using their CG skillset to depict a bloody battle for its first trailer.
“Assassin’s Creed games have always introduced players to an enormous and detailed world, this is also the case with Valhalla,” explains character supervisor András Tarsoly. “We had to show this intricate world by making a trailer with a forward-looking attitude. All cinematics are different. The historical era is a given with this game, then the client tells us what they want to see in the cinematic. This can cover gameplay features or new capabilities of the engine that aren’t apparent at first glance.”
Although DIGIC have created no less than 11 cinematics for the Assassin’s Creed franchise, Valhalla was no walk in the park for the team. This cinematic is more story-focused than their last project in the series, the cinematic for Assassin’s Creed: Origins, the franchise’s foray into Ancient Egypt. “For Origins it was music video-like storytelling, ending with a battle among a few characters,” adds Tarsoly. “In the Valhalla trailer there were a lot of characters in closeup, then a wide shot depicting the battle, so the actors faced some challenges. The era and the location didn’t make the job easier, as there are a lot of characters with facial hair.”
The creative process began with the arrival of an elaborate script from Ubisoft, along with game assets such as characters and environments. “Based on these inputs, our main task was to create the whole cinematic according to our client’s vision and add that magic component that only DIGIC can,” explains CG supervisor Ágoston Princz. First, the team created a storymatic to previsualise the cinematic. “At this stage, many questions remained unanswered,” adds Princz, “such as details of the locations, the role of the priestess character, the sacrificial ceremony, and the film’s length.”
Following this, they began to prepare for the motion capture shoot, where they made many storytelling decisions. With the main story beats nailed down, a rough cut of the cinematic was assembled in Maya. “Once the previs is complete, the length of the film, the locations, events, and the shot number become clear,” says Princz. The unwritten rule during this phase of production is that anything can change at any time. “A lot of things can’t really be foreseen as the film progresses, there might be elements which need to be removed or put in. There may be a scene that doesn’t support the story well enough and therefore needs to be changed. For example, we were close to the deadline on this cinematic when one or two extra shots needed to be put in, and there was a significant change to camera movement,” Princz explains.
The detailed characters that populate the cinematic were a cut above DIGIC’S previous efforts in the franchise. “As time goes on, our characters become more complex,” says Princz. “This is reflected in the number of geometric polygons in the models, the resolution of the textures, and the quality of the different types of hair – on the head, fur, fluff, beards.” Then there are the eyes, the windows to the soul and a notoriously difficult thing to render well in CG. “This is where art and technology meet,” Princz continues, “tuning the shader’s physically correct parameters to get a gaze that is full of life.”
DIGIC’S character department was tasked with producing the cinematic’s plentiful cast of detailed CG characters, using Ubisoft’s concepts alongside their own. “To create a large number of characters, we had to innovate in several areas. We looked at how we could stay true
to the concepts, but simplify the characters from a technical aspect,” recalls character modelling unit lead Daniel Molnár. The need for masses of detailed clothing saw Marvelous Designer become a crucial part of the pipeline for Molnár and his character team, allowing them to change characters’ clothes as though they were shooting a liveaction film.
Then there was the cinematic’s abundance of detailed CG faces to consider, something that would need more than the traditional scanning and hand sculpting techniques. “Once in a meeting, I joked to our character art director, Károly Porkoláb, that I’d make a character-creator like the one you see in games,” Molnár reflects, “but then, thinking about it, I realised that the idea wasn’t crazy at all. We managed to fabricate a face-creating procedure that can combine the features of existing faces in many different variations.”
Another challenge reared its head in the form of the complex combat between these characters. “Battle scenes can’t really be captured with traditional motion capture technologies, as the mocap is based on capturing as many markers from as many angles as possible at the same time,” Princz explains. It is almost impossible for mocap systems to capture combat choreography with more than five to ten performers. “In this trailer, more than 100 Vikings and soldiers fight at the same time. Typically, most scenes include the recording of clashes of three to five people – duelling, small group fights, or similar combat situations. This makes lots of unique movement
choreography, from which battle scenes can be built up like building blocks.” Large crowd scenes can also be created through mass simulation, however, the more automated a system becomes the harder it is to make individual modifications.
For Valhalla’s cinematic trailer DIGIC combined two solutions to overcome their technical and artistic woes. “The more distant battle scenes were Golaem simulations,” says Princz, “while the closer ones were individually designed and timed. So, basically, the layout and animation of the crowd scenes required a lot of time and labour, with many, many iterations inhouse.” The solutions pioneered by DIGIC to overcome their challenges will help them continue to hone their craft across another generation of game cinematics and beyond.
“TO MAKE A LARGE NUMBER OF CHARACTERS, WE HAD TO INNOVATE IN SEVERAL AREAS” Daniel Molnár, character modelling unit lead, DIGIC Pictures