Claudio Miranda, ASC, exploits real-world locales for Destiny’s planet-hopping video-game series

When a trio of tough-talking, space suited soldiers turn up armed and dangerous on three neighboring planets in rapid succession, it doesn’t take a big leap of imagination to make viewers think they are seeing clips from How the Solar System Was Won or a new installment of Starship Troopers. But, in truth, they’re being treated to a promotional tease for Destiny, a gaming adventure by Activision and Bungie featuring the adventures of a Fireteam of Guardians (no relation to the Marvel variety) and their hovering AI Ghost (originally voiced by Game of Thrones’ Peter Dinklage).

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This was the first of a series of spots directed by Joseph Kosinski [Oblivion, Tron: Legacy] for agency 72andSunny. “I got my start in commercials doing video-game ads,” observes Kosinski. “The first was for the game Gears of War, then right after, I did a spot for Halo 3. That past could have been in the agency’s mind when they were considering directors, but I think it more likely that my feature work was a factor, because this was after Oblivion [see ICG April 2013] came out.

I find advertising to be an amazing test bed for features,” he adds. “The methodologies are largely the same, but the time frame is just so different. It also keeps you on the floor and working, which is so important for directors, as it affords me the chance to do more work with my regular team while getting experience with new cameras and technology.”

For his key collaborators, Kosinski brought in veterans of his past feature work, including Senior VFX Supervisor Eric Barba and Claudio Miranda, ASC, who after winning the Oscar for Life of Pi (see ICG November 2012) had shot Oblivion on the then-brand-new F65 from Sony (which would again see action on the Destiny spots).

Joe’s first work on Gears of War was pretty much just an elaboration on the game itself, but then he progressed to shooting live-action with actors in costume and using mocap, so the work becomes more sophisticated each time out,” Miranda relates.

Miranda first shot virtual material when Kosinski hired him as a camera operator on the director’s second Gears spot. “I operated a monitor that was used like a camera for some shots, and found out how moving in the [capture] volume lets you change perspective very fluidly while framing the performers’ actions,” he recounts. Subsequently, the DP shot the first Destiny spot for director Jon Favreau before tackling the Kosinski-helmed spots Become Legend in 2014 and last year’s The Taken King.

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For Kosinski, his initial idea was to get as much in camera as possible. “The agency seemed to like that idea,” he recalls, “and the beauty of doing so much with live-action is that the client can be there along with everyone else on the day, seeing the same things. That eliminates, or at the very least minimizes, any fiddling that might happen down the road, as that up-front agreement works against those kind of rethinks.”

Eric Barba admits that there aren’t many VFX supervisors who continue to work on commercials between feature-film projects. “Having done a lot in both forms right from the beginning,” he explains, “I find it super-fun and creatively satisfying to just jump right into a spot, especially when working with such great agencies and artists. If features can be likened to running a marathon, then these are sprints, and I like exercising my creative muscles in different ways; plus, it somehow engages me in a more immediate way when I go on to the next feature film.”

The supervisor recalls that the team at Bungie was always a part of the creative process. “Joe had his own color choice ideas and notions for guns,” Barba relates, “but it was all pulling from the game itself and the world Bungie had built. Joe happily works with everyone concerned, right from the beginning, to get costumes and palette right in order to deliver a live-action-movie version of the game. After he sent his initial boards to my team and me [at Digital Domain], we got together to figure out how much previs was needed. Then he could plan with Claudio about what kinds of cranes and cameras would be needed for the live action.”

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Kosinski’s preference for previsualization does not include working out every single element, beat-beat-beat. “Everything is going to change once you are into shooting the live action,” he declares. “You find better angles or something unusual in the light, and each change has ramifications. In advertising, previs is often mostly about presentation, showing the agency and client a moving storyboard so they understand what we are doing. I’d have been comfortable going straight from boards to live action for both of these ads, with previs being used in more of a tech-minded way, to determine what rigs will be needed or how big of a set is required to accommodate your vision for a certain shot.”

Halon handled pre- and postvis duties, employing an array of tools that included Autodesk Maya, Mudbox and MotionBuilder, SynthEyes, Viewport 2.0, Adobe Photoshop, Premiere and After Effects, plus a NaturalPoint OptiTrack volume with Motive software. “Postvis is especially important when shooting live action,” acknowledges Kosinski. “Being able to rough-in the CG elements aids communication during editorial and lets everyone see the plan and how the shot is progressing.”

The director’s live-action/in-camera approach meant finding earthly settings that could stand in for Earth’s moon, as well as for Venus and Mars. “That was a very big order,” he admits. “Between general scouts, tech-scouting and actual shooting, I logged 21 or 22 flights to nail down our locales.”

Mars was represented by Moab, Utah, while the moon was found on the border of Southern Utah and Arizona. Venus utilized two Mexican locales, a temple outside of Mexico City and The Cave of Swallows. “The only thing I’d ever seen shot there was the Blue Planet documentary from ten years ago,” Kosinski notes. Some base jumpers with GoPros on their heads have jumped there too, but it hadn’t been exploited for narrative or ad work, so it was worth the trip, though very difficult for us to reach, as we had a three-hour drive after our flight. The cave was about 500 feet below the road, so we had to break the crane into pieces, hand-carry it down, then reassemble at the mouth of the cave.”

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Miranda recalls that getting a camera down inside the cave for the looking-up shots was an adventure unto itself. “That was the most labor-intensive aspect of getting in-camera imagery,” says the cinematographer, who shot on the Sony F65 for its resolution, which allows flexibility for repositioning in post without image degradation. “One of my operators went down a line inside this cave that looks like it could hold the Eiffel Tower. We had twelve guys taking turns hand-lowering him down, so for all the high-tech aspects, there was still a real down-and-dirty feel to getting that shot. It took a half-hour for him and his guide to be lowered to the bottom. There wasn’t any way to arrest the spinning motion during descent, and his guide threw up; fortunately he was twelve feet below my operator at the time!”

When shooting the moon, the team encountered the one thing our natural satellite lacks – weather. “It was overcast when we shot, but while there is either extreme brightness or total darkness on the moon, there isn’t really an in-between setting!” Miranda laughs. “Somebody made the call that by this time in the future, the moon has been partly terra-formed and has atmosphere [laughs again], so we just got on with it. We rigged a dolly to follow the assault team at full speed as they charged down a grade. Then we built a rig that let the camera circle the three characters as they fired off round after round at the alien attackers. We could make a complete revolution in just over one second, with the arm 15 feet from the platform, rotating on a turntable, while shooting at 120 frames per second.”

Surprises for the Become Legend promo on the VFX side were kept to a minimum, owing to Barba and his crew on location acquiring set data. “We knew what was going to be handled practically beforehand,” Barba shares, “and if something didn’t work out just right during the shoot, then we would take that on as well, using what was shot as a guide.

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We also do a lot of VFX planning in the postvis phase – after editorial can get stuff to cut, as the battle scenes progress pretty rapidly,” he continues. “On a feature there is time in preproduction and during shooting for look development, so the whole machine is oiled and rolling along, which makes the hundreds of shots needed more manageable somehow. With commercials there isn’t time for reflection – that first one had a three-week backend after we received plates, and the second one had maybe four-and-a-half – so you have to plan more tightly with a smaller crew on this compressed schedule.”

Barba’s role on the follow-up spot, 2015’s Evil’s Most Wanted (promoting The Taken King), required more time because of the extensive and close-up interaction between live-action and animated characters, which included mocap work.

In the first spot we were augmenting locations,” he elaborates, “adding CG work in background to make things look like another world. The second spot required us to figure out fight choreography and provide editorial with versions to evaluate how it all fits together and whether we’d need to add two frames to one cut or reposition an element so that it seems that everybody is seeing and fighting each other with the right eyelines.”

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Filming for The Taken King: Evil’s Most Wanted took place entirely on stage in Culver City, where Miranda shot the human-monster live-action using a Mo-Sys Lambda remote head. A practical full-scale floor was custom built for the sequence, along with a partial interior for a spacecraft approaching Saturn’s Titan moon.

I added the shot of the cockpit, which wasn’t in the original script,” Kosinski recalls. “It felt like we needed to establish who they were talking to down on Titan. So building a seat and partial dash with controls to hold was enough to give the cockpit a sense of reality that you can never quite get with CG [characters]. I find the wear and tear on cloth costumes as created by talented artisans carries with them a presence that is hard to match no matter what kind of digital asset gets developed.” For both spots, costumes and weapons were built by Legacy Effects. [See Creature Features, ICG March 2013.]

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Kosinski says 90 percent of combat was derived from live action. “The alien makes a big jump that was CG, because if you tried doing that with wires it would be slow and tedious,” he states. “Basically, when he defies physics or conventional stunt abilities, you choose CG. We had a stuntman performing the alien character so our heroes had somebody to react to, and then a digital creature whose movement was driven by mocap done on a different shoot day replaced him. We had the same actors in the roles, but sometimes they would be playing live-action characters and other times they would be doing motion-capture in a volume, and Eric was able to meld those two worlds together.” For both spots, Digital Domain employed their usual toolset for animation and particle effects, which included Houdini, Maya, ZBrush, NUKE and V-Ray.

The director’s final thoughts concerning his approach to marketing the game reflects a filmmaker’s mindset. “It’s not just about introducing gamers to a game,” he insists. “You’re introducing every potential viewer to a new universe, a piece of IP that could grow well beyond that. If you’re only trying to sell the game itself, you can just run some footage to make your point.

The live-action approach was a good way to get people outside of the gaming community interested enough to want to know more about the property. To me, this broader reach is preferable, and what made both spots exciting. I’ve heard talk that the game could be developed into a feature; it has been over a year since its debut, and it continues to get more people playing, so you could make a good case for it to the studios.”

by Kevin H. Martin / photos courtesy of Digital Domain/Bungie/High Moon Studios/Activision