Mind-blowing VFX in epic Starcraft II trailer

Jose Jacas to create a trailer for Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm in a very short time frame. Here, he reveals how he did it...

Starcraft 2 trailer

Back in October 2012, I was commissioned by Blizzard Entertainment Europe to make a trailer for the StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm European launch event. They were aware of the trailers I had made in the past for DreamHack Spain, and wanted something in a similar style to promote the Heart of the Swarm launch.

As a big fan of Blizzard’s games and cinematics, this was an incredible opportunity for me – probably the best thing that has ever happened since I’ve been doing VFX. I had my doubts about being able to do something worthy of Blizzard quality, but I couldn’t say no.

Alien invasion

The idea was to simulate an alien invasion of the city where the event was going to be held. At that point there were several candidate cities, so we had to plan out shots that would work in any of the possible locations or that could be modified easily to fit the final city.

Once Versailles was selected as the event location, we came up with a couple of specific action scenes and roughly scripted them out to happen at the Blizzard Europe office and the Palace of Versailles. The final green light for the shoot came a month and a half before the deadline, so time was critical.

Since all of the action was going to be CGI, I opted for guerrilla-style shooting all over the city

Since all of the action on the video was going to be CGI, I opted for guerrilla-style shooting all over the city and deciding later what would happen in each of the shots. As we scouted the city and found interesting places, I imagined action scenes in my head, filmed the empty streets with my Canon 7D and took mirror ball HDR shots for lighting.

Starcraft trailer

Shooting included several sites from around Paris, including the Blizzard offices

With a crew of three, we filmed all over Versailles and Paris in three days; including the planned shots in the Blizzard offices and the Palace, where we were able to use Blizzard employees as extras. My trusted friends at Canales helped us organise the shoot so we could get all we needed in the little time we had.

Tracking shots

Once back home, my first task was to go through all the shots and select those which I felt could become a scene for the trailer. These were all shots of empty streets and alleys, so it was mostly a combination of shots that would be easy to track and those which would need as little clean-up (removing pedestrians and cars) as possible. I created a rough version of the trailer on my editing timeline and started tracking shots on PFTrack.

For most shots the workflow was the same: track in PFTrack, bring into Maya, place all 3D props and models and then light using the HDR light probes. I would then render out several mental ray layers to composite in Nuke, where I also added all the bullet hits and explosions.

Jose took some properties from the game cinematic, such as the explosion and fire effects, and composited them in Nuke

Although I’m a bit of a 3D generalist, I specialise in compositing, so my animation and modelling skills are rather basic. Luckily I was provided with all 3D models and animations from the in-game StarCraft II cinematics (not the pre-rendered ones, just the ones handled by the game engine), so once I selected the models and animations I needed, I just had to place them in the scene and make everything work out together. I did modify a couple of them, but most of that work was already done by the brilliant Blizzard artists.

Troublesome tourists

One of the most time-consuming shots was the Palace of Versailles mutalisk attack, which we shot using two guest actors. As with any tourist attraction the place was flooded with people I had to paint out. I opted for leaving them in at the beginning of the shot, and having them disappear by the time the mutalisks have invaded the place – as if they had all ran away.

As with any tourist attraction, the place was flooded with people I had to paint out

After tracking the shot I made a clean plate of the background and projected it on to a tracked card. Since there was no parallax in the shot, there was no need to project more complex geometry. A quick fade from the video background to the painted still solved the issue with the tourists.

One of the most time-consuming shots was the Palace of Versailles mutalisk attack

The final shot, in which a battlecruiser falls into Paris, was a homage to one of the last shots in the Heart of the Swarm intro cinematic. For that shot, I stitched a giant panorama of the city skyline and split it up into three layers which I later set up as cards in Nuke’s 3D environment.

The sky was grey and overcast when we did the filming. I created a new one with several layers of photographic clouds as well as a final layer of Maya fluid clouds. I then animated the battlecruiser crash and simulated the smoke and fire in Maya. A few fire and smoke elements as well as the flying mutalisks gave the finishing touch. This is my favourite shot in the entire video.

Challenging times

The main challenge on the project was completing it on time and at the right level of quality. There were several times when I had to decide a shot was finished even though I still wanted to put some more work into it.

The scale of the project required me to use all the tricks and short cuts I could possibly come up with to finish on time. With some more pre-production work, I probably could’ve had most shots set up with models and animations before shooting anything. However, this was virtually impossible as we didn’t know where we would be filming until the very last minute.

The scale of the project required me to use all the tricks and short cuts I could possibly come up with

There was a constant stream of feedback between Blizzard and myself during production to make sure we were all happy with the final result. In the end, the video actually had more shots than we had planned, and Blizzard seemed to be really happy with the product – which was the most important thing! To date, the video has almost 700,000 views on YouTube. It was streamed during the launch event, and has had some very positive feedback.

The main challenge on the project was completing it on time and at the right level of quality

Jose Jacas is a freelance VFX artist, specialising in compositing. He’s based in Valencia, Spain. He has recently worked on the DreamHack Valencia trailers and is currently working on the 2013 edition.

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