Middle Earth: Shadow of War‘s marketing campaign is in full force thanks to Director Neil Huxley’s live action film. We had the privilege to sit down with Neil and discuss what went into preparing the film, along with what it was like to shoot a live action set for such an iconic franchise. Huxley’s career experience in post-production was an enormous help in preparing for this “Friend or Foe” live action film. Add that to the photographic expertise of Game of Thrones veteran Fabian Wagner and prosthetic expertise of Lord of the Rings veteran Rogier Samuels, and Huxley managed to create an incredible interactive experience. Wagner shot the “Battle of the Bastards” famous scene in Game of Thrones, while Samuels led the prosthetics on the Peter Jacksons LOTR films.
You can listen to the entire interview at the bottom of the page as well. Enjoy!
Film Enthusiast (FE)– One of the most anticipated games this year is Warner Bros and Monolith’s upcoming sequel Middle Earth: Shadow of War, and we’ve covered it a lot on the site. It’s much bigger than the first game, Shadow of Mordor, and expands heavily on its innovative Nemesis System. We’ve seen much promotional material so far ranging from CGI to gameplay trailers. One thing we haven’t seen yet is a live action trailer. In fact, we haven’t seen any live action Lord of the Rings material since The Hobbit film in 2014.
That’s about to change with Warner Bros’ new marketing campaign, as Director Neil Huxley has teamed up with Ruffian and developed an interactive cinematic film with a number of endings for Middle Earth: Shadow of War. Huxley is no stranger to games. A gamer himself, he’s delivered the CGI/live action trailers for Assassin’s Creeed Unity, Ghost Recon: Future Soldier and Mad Max.
Mr. Huxley is kind enough to join us to speak about the film and what went into it tonight as well. Mr. Huxley, thank you for taking the time, how are you doing tonight?
Neil Huxley (NH) – I’m good thank you. Thanks for reaching out and having me be a part of this. This is cool.
FE – I gotta say, congratulations on this new cinematic. It looks amazing. What was it like to get that phone call asking you to come aboard such a landmark franchise?
NH – Oh wow. Well, it was hugely exciting to even learn about the fact that we were going to be pitching on such a project. It was a great feeling of elation and excitement and a little bit of nerves. All the usual feelings you get when you book work of this magnitude. I think for the first time in my career it was like, you know, there was also a feeling of relief that I was finally going to get a shot at doing something like this, which I’ve always dreamed of doing.
FE – How does your background in post and VFX help you with this cinematic? I’d imagine knowing what you need to do after production would helping during the actual production allowing for a more streamlined approach, no?
NH – Absolutely, absolutely yeah. Always try to be mindful not to tread on the toes of the VFX supervisor we had on set. It was a great collaboration. It creates a bit of shorthand between you and the VFX crew, and also minimizes the amount of work you have to do in the back end of the piece. Sometimes, you know, the smallest of things on set can have really big ramifications in post and cost a lot of money. That was the last thing you want with something like this. You want all of the firepower of the VFX team to be put in the places you planned it to be. So yeah, it always comes in handy for me that knowledge, especially for something of this scale you know?
FE- Oh, absolutely. There’s a lot I want to cover about these cinematics, but the first thing I want to ask you about is Ashley Beck as Talion. He looks amazing, almost as if his virtual character was just pulled into real life. Other than just the looks, he even moves with the same flow as Talion, speaks like him and has the same body language he does in the game. It’s quite uncanny. How did you find him, and how did that help in production having someone so exactly like the main character?
NH – Well, yeah, I’d love to take full credit for discovering Ash. But, he’s very very well known on the circuit for being one of the greatest stunt performers in the world, to be honest. Even though Ash would never, ever say that personally because he’s the most humble, probably one of the most humble, nicest human beings I’ve ever met. He’s an absolute killer. I mean the stuff that he does, the way he moves his body is unbelievable. He’s been doing this from the age of like five years old. It was all thanks to my stunt coordinator Nick McKinleass. He’s worked with Ash in the past, and me and Nick were talking about this show and I asked him “Who do you know who could play Talion?” There was a few names thrown around, and Ash was one of those in that group. I saw a photo of Ash wearing a wig for Dracula Untold, and he just looked like Talion. He had a little bit of a scruff and I was like “This is our guy, I really hope we get him”. We held the auditions in London, and Ash turned up with his own sword. It was a Kitana. He had just gotten off a plane from Spain apparently where he’d been shooting and he walks in with this Kitana. He managed to get it through security and all of that sort of stuff. It’s not a real blade, but it was a good sword. He had this thing worked out! I guess he must have done it in his hotel room that morning, but he had a complete sequence memorized, and it was funny. He bought the game a couple weeks prior to the audition.
NH- He must have just studied Talion, because our jaws just dropped as he went through this series of moves killing these invisible orc that were coming at him. He left the audition and we all sort of looked at each other like “Well, that’s a no brainer”. I don’t think we were ever going to get someone as good as him. It was also part of my plan to find an actor, because there wasn’t a huge amount of dialogue in this, that I really wanted to find an actor that was a stunt performer. That would enable me to shoot this in a way that’s different from a lot of movies. A lot of films cut away from the lead actors to the stunt performers so you can’t see his face. This lends itself to choppy fight sequences. I didn’t want to do that with this. I wanted to stay on Ash and be able to do shots where I’d never cut away. I’d always stay on him while he’s tearing through these orcs, and the camera just lands on his face at the end of the shot. It’s like it’s him, it’s the guy. It’s Talion. The way I shot that just makes it feel more authentic. It makes it feel like it’s this guy doing the moves, because it is. You know? That was all part of my master plan for this, and I’m so glad he never got booked for another job (laughs). It just worked out for us. We got him in the wig and on set in the armor and everyone said it. He walked onto set for the first time down on the Black Sea that was all frozen over in Ukraine, it was -15, and he turned up in the armor and everyone just knew we’d made the right choice. It’s all testament to Ash really.
FE – With most fantasy based elements, nothing can ruin a live action quicker than bad CGI or cheesy makeup. The addition of Rogier Samuels seemed like a no brainer after his work with prosthetics on the Peter Jackson films. Those films had much larger production timeframe windows, however. How hard was it to maintain the same realistic level of quality of prosthetics with your window limited to only five weeks of prep. and one of shooting?
NH – Yeah, well again that’s a great indication to Rogier’s talents and his team’s talents to pull off what he did in such a short window. It was quite frantic in a way that taking video game characters and their facial proportions are completely different to a humans. The fact that I wanted to do this in prosthetics. I didn’t want to go CGI with the route of the orcs because it’s a touh thing to get right. There’s very few companies out there that can pull off that kind of work. These films have incredibly large schedules and incredibly large budgets, which we didn’t have on this. So, that was always my proposal from the onset to do this practically. The other thing is you have to connect with these guys on an emotional level. And I find that you can’t do that with CG characters. I think the only guy I’ve ever done that with is Caesar from Planet of the Apes. And that’s because the work is just so good. That just reinforced the fact that we were going to do this with prosthetics. The game designs obviously aren’t based on any real world proportions, so having to translate those designs into the real world was quite tough. A game character, especially an orc, his eyes might sit slightly furhter apart than a human’s. Now, when that comes to designing prosthetics it needs to relate to a human face because a human is going to be driving this makeup underneath. So, there was lots of that, very much part of the process leading up to the shoot. Rogier never once seemed stress at all, but it was asking an awful lot of him and his team in a very short space of time. They pulled it off you know? I would go around on set and see these makeups being applied on the set very early in the morning for me anyway. It was just amazing to see these creatures in these makeup chairs just sort of come to life. Yeah, Rogier did an amazing job. And the actors underneath as well. If you’ve not got an actor that can’t perfrom throught the makeup, then the makeup will just feel dead. I don’t think any of these guys feel dead to me. They feel very much alive in this world like you can just reach out and touch them.
FE – Over 300 extras were used during filming. These were real people, not CGI. The logistics behind a scene so grand in scale has to be incredible. How was it trying to manage something like that? I figure there’s only so much you can do then just hope and pray, no?
NH- Well yeah, you gotta have (laughs) a big thanks to the Ukrainian crew there because obviously I don’t speak the language. It was having someone that could obviously communicate with a loudspeaker to lots and lots of extras running around in the snow. So, you just have a good crew around you. I had an amazing first AD and it’s all about communication at that point. Making sure people are where they need to be at specific times. There is a bit of a logistical nightmare, but you just sort of dig deep and get stuck in. After the first three or four hours you work out the kinks and you just fix it. It was great, everyone was pulling in the same direction. What that allowed me to do in post was to extend that battle. You’d be surprised how quickly 300 extras starts to really thin out when you’re in a super wide lens in front of a giant fortress. You have to extend that battle. What that let me do, and it was always the plan from the outset, was to not know where real life ends and CG begins. I find that’s when it’s most impressive when you can’t tell where the seams are you know?
FE- That was actually going to be my next question, because it’s what I found most impressive. Now, I’m watching Talion because we know Talion is real and the orcs are, with the giant flying dragon being CGI. One thing that looked impressive is when Talion yells “OVER THE WALLS!” and a big, giant Graug comes bashing through the fortress. Now, I know it’s fake because there’s no such thing as a Graug, but it looks so real. How did you manage to get the CGI to blend so it looked as realistic as real life?
NH – That’s in their amazing work. What they do on set is they take reference photography and they can basically recreate the same lighting conditions in their CG scenes. Then they take the game asset and up-render that with some z-brush modelers sculpting in all of that detail you’d never see in a game model. That combined with amazing shaders and compositing, you’ve got something that sits very nicely in the world you’ve created. I’ve simplified it a hell of a lot, (laughs) but that’s basically it in a nutshell.
FE – The Nemesis system was one of my favorite additions to gaming when it was released in Shadow of Mordor. I thought the snarky back and forth Orc remarks were hysterical. Shadow of War really expands on this system with a huge replay value by creating additional story arcs and plotlines depending on your choices. How did you go about trying to capture the variety of options available to us in game through the live action cinematic?
NH – Yeah that was beautifully written by the agency. It’s really their brainchild, this whole campaign. Actually wanting to create this interactive cinematic that gives you a little taste of what the Nemesis system is actually like to play. Obviously, there’s way more scenarios and combinations that can be created in the game, so it was how many can we realistically pull off in a seven day shoot? With all the makeup changes and costumes changes that needed to happen to create six different endings, we worked out that that was the magic number. If you go to save your ally there’s three possbile endings, and slay your nemesis there’s three possible endings that way. That was all Martin Agency’s idea, and it was down to me and Ruffian on how to squeeze that into seven shoot days.
FE – I’m sure there are a great number of places you could have shot that would fit the franchise well. Where in the Ukraine did you guys shoot, and why was this location chosen?
NH – Yeah, I mean look. Ukraine, you get a hell of a lot of bang for you buck down there. So, that was a big part of thee reason that part of the world was chosen. It’s also got some amazing old fortresses down there. One of the ones we chose was in Odessa, and which was a real tough place to shoot at just because of its location and the weather. That also played into the atmosphere and the tone we were trying to achieve in this . I really wanted to see the cold breath coming out of people’s mouths, you know?
FE – Ok.
NH – As they were breathing and talking things like that. You never really see that in in cinematics a lot. If you do, it’s usually added in post. So again for me that was all part of why we chose that part of the world. We were three days down at the fortress. My wonderful production designer created me a three world set down in Kiev, and we shot for four days there. What I’m hoping is that you can’t tell whether you indoors or outdoors. I actually brought rain towers inside the set because it was a drainable set. I left the doors open much to everyone’s dismay because it was minus 25 outside. You could still see the breath when everyoe was doing their lines. It was kind of like creating those conditions that we had outsides indoors. That part of the world, we were in the middle of winter. We could have gone to Prague but that’s getting expensive now. Romania, the crews aren’t quite there yet. So, my boss had a lot of experience wiorking with a company called Radioactive in the Ukraine and they were just amazing. They did a lot for us when we shot, and I’d love to go back at some point and shoot again with those guys.
FE – I read that you had to enlist the aid of the Ukrainian army to help you with preparation by clearing snow and ice to shoot as even the Black Sea was frozen over. How exactly does that phone call go? I mean, it doesn’t seem like one of those where you say, “Hey, if you’re not busy later….”
NH – That’s all thanks to Radioactive. They pulled all of that stuff off. We were down scouting the location. Snow was being marked as a concern for some. I think there’s a comfort level with certain people that run the project that they didn’t want the whole scene to be covered in snow. That’s understandably so. The film that you see would look very different if there was snow everywhere. A little bit of snow helps us feel like we’re in the guts of some fantasy world, the guts of Mordor. I like that about it. There was some concern the snow would be a huge deal for us. Not only visually, but just mobility. Just moving around when you’re in four feet of snow
FE – *Laughs*
NH- It’s really hard to move quickly. I didn’t even know that the army was being called in. I show up at the first day of the shoot and there are Army tents everywhere. These guys in fatigues and shovels just digging in the snow and I was just like “Wow, they really pulled out all the stops today” It was greatly appreciated.
FE – What was your favorite part of working on the cinematic, and what’s your favorite part of the game?
NH – Oh wow, favorite part of the cinematic.. That’s a tough question because I love it all. The reason being was becasue it’s the sort of job you get to dream about as a director. There’s not many people that can say they made a live action short film based in the wrold of Lord of the Rings. It’s hard to single out a thing I love the most because it was all so much fun. I think, to be honest, some of the most impressive moments for me was watching Ash with all his armor on and do some of his flips and spins. The things he would do with the sword, being down on that beach and the cameras being alongside him. He’s just stalking and carving through them. It looked so good. That was all Fabian Wagner, my wonderful friend in DP who shot Battle of the Bastards for Game of Thrones. Fabian just did an amazing job using all the natural light we had there carving out these beautiful scenes. The whole thing was just awesome. So yeah, it’s hard for me to sort of single one thingout. As for the game, I’ve only played the demo at E3. And I got my ass handed to me…
FE – *laughs*
NH – by this giant at one of the fortresses. The dialogue in this game, the AI and how the Orcs taunt you after they’ve killed you. Especially after they’ve been promoted, Captains or whatever. It really does just makeyou want to pick up the controller and jsut sort of dive back in. I dread to think how many hours I’m going to put into this game when it gets released because of that very reason. That’s what I loved about the first game, that repeat playability of it. TO go back in and find these people and exact your revenge on these Orcs that have killed you. To me, that was so much fun ni the first game. This one just looks like they’ve gone so much deeper with it. I thnk it’s going to be really cool.
FE – Well, I can’t wait for the game and the cinematics are amazing. It’s excellent work, and we’re all very impressed. That being said, when is your full length Shadow of War film going to be released? Who do we have to call at Warner to make this happen?
NH – Ha, ha, ha *laughs*. The fans need to get a petition together online and just get as many signatures as possible.
FE – GoFundMe or Patreon?
NH – On my Facebook page this morning, the director of the game over at Monolith actually put on one of my posts “When are we shooting the feature?” I said “I’m ready. Ready when you are”. So, you know I’d love to do something like that. it would also make an amazing TV series I think. You’ve got enough material there for a really cool TV show, so hey look. If there’s a will, there’s a way. So, watch this space I guess.
FE – Before we let you go, is there anything else you want to add about the cinematic we may have missed?
NH – No, it was an amazing experience and I just want to thank everyone that was involved in the project to help me bring this to life. I couldn’t have done it without them.
FE – Again, thanks for joining us tonight, we really appreciate it.
NH – Thank you very much, take care.
Thanks to Mr. Huxley for taking the time to speak with us again. Be sure to check out the cinematic below, and you can view how the Nemesis system works out in the alternate endings on the official site.
Middle Earth: Shadow of War releases on Xbox One and PS4 on October 10th, 2017