Director Neil Huxley has signed with Ruffian.
The news coincides with the release of a powerful advertising campaign for Middle Earth: Shadow of War, the latest video game from Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment and Monolith Studios, directed by Huxley under the Ruffian banner.
Gamers will recognize the hotly-anticipated sequel to Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, a new outing in J. R. R. Tolkien's fantasy universe as popularized on the big screen by Peter Jackson. Shadow of War continues the Middle-earth narrative with events taking place in time between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.
"Friend or Foe" opens on a large-scale battle in Mordor before a towering enemy fortress. The Ranger Tailon - the game's protagonist - surges forward with his army of Orc's to break through the enemy stronghold and confront its War Chief, Noruk.
The online spot drives viewers to shadowofwar.com where they can experience an interactive version of the film entitled 'Choices' where they get to choose from alternate endings, each leading to a different outcome. As the final tagline hints: "Nothing will be forgotten."
The cinematic campaign offers a glimpse into playing with the award-winning Nemesis System, changing characters relationships based on a player's actions and decisions. By adapting to a gamer's tactical moves, the Nemesis System changes storylines and creates a personal world unique to every gameplay experience.
“The Nemesis System is fascinating because it remembers all of your choices,” Huxley explains, noting its success in Shadow of Mordor. “Now it has become a far more extensive and deeper part of the experience for players, so the goal was to highlight this in an interactive way. If you kill a character, or a character kills you it has consequences, so every time you play you’ll get a different experience. This gives an instant replay factor, more so than most other games. People won't see me for weeks when this game comes out!"
Shot on location in Ukraine over seven days, Huxley prepped for five weeks in frigid winter temperatures – even the Black Sea was frozen over.
With a crew of hundreds, including the Ukrainian army brought in to clear snow and ice, close to 300 extras were finally cast to create the spot's epic battle sequences shot in front of a 13th Century castle. Game of Thrones cinematographer Fabian Wagner brought new anamorphic master prime lenses from ARRI to the shoot, capturing breathtaking images on ALEXA equipment.
"These lenses gave us a very crisp, cinematic look,” Huxley explains. “Combine lenses of this quality with a world-class talent like Fabian and you get footage that looks insane before we even touched it in post."
Seeking cloudy, diffused light backfired during production, however, as the sun came out from overcast skies. This handed Huxley and Wagner harsh light and extensive problems to deal with on-set.
“The sun really screwed us,” Huxley continues. “We were chasing shadows the whole time. Luckily the fortress location we chose had high walls on the beach side, and a lot of coverage was planned in its shadows. Patching over sunlit ground planes in post are hard enough but if you get highlights on actors it really becomes problematic in post, so we avoided that as much as we could."
Deciding whether or not to go with CG or in-camera prosthetics for the Orcs, Huxley pitched the latter to agency-of-record The Martin Agency. All agreed prosthetics were the best way forward as it gave an authenticity to each character on screen, as well as an emotional subtlety that is extremely difficult to capture in CG, unless you have an extensive schedule and budget to match.
“Using prosthetics was never a question in my mind. The whole point of the campaign was to connect on a visceral level with these characters so that the moment of choice has an emotional gravitas, otherwise the film would fall flat,” Huxley adds.
“I think in-camera prosthetics on humanoid characters, when its done right, always looks more believable. It was important to make them this way to carry the narrative. You sense their intelligence on screen, and so you relate to them. Plus this approach allowed the amazing VFX team at MPC to use their firepower for set extensions, sky replacements and everything else they had to deal with."
Huxley had a shortlist of the most talented artists in the world who were capable of creating such prosthetics. He finally scored big time after hiring Rogier Samuels from UNREAL, widely recognized for his spectacular work on Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings franchise.
"I wanted to try and get as much in-camera as possible, and augment and extend the world in CGI," Huxley explains. This became his mantra that followed through to the real world fortress location, the armor and weapons fabricated for the shoot, as well as the hiring of stunt coordinator Nick McKinleass and his UK team to provide the real fighting Orc horde.
"Nick was always my first choice – his action choreography is brutal and violent, which I love," Huxley says. "It was Nick who then introduced me to Ashley Beck, who plays Tailon. Ash is a phenomenal stunt performer who came to the audition with his own Katana and a full fight sequence he'd rehearsed in his hotel room that morning. It was like watching Tailon incarnate. It was unreal. He moved like him and looked like him. This allowed me to shoot the fight sequence seamlessly, without the need to cut to a stunt double."
“We needed the commercial to look as good as any big budget feature,” he continues. “A bar had already been set by the LOTR franchise, and this quite simply had to look just as good as that. Thanks to the whole team bringing their A-game, the finished work definitely holds up against any cinematic experience. This is what we set out to do, and this is what we accomplished.”
Although the campaign is Huxley’s first job of this scale as a director, his extensive background in post production and love of gaming helped immensely in creating the best work possible for Warner Bros.
“My post knowledge and gaming background allowed us to prep and create something truly unique," Huxley asserts. "It just created efficiency on many levels that enabled us to fully realize the potential of a live-action trailer, one that sells the promise of a great game. I always knew I could direct a huge project of this scope and scale, I just needed a shot, and now here is the proof."
Robert Herman, founder and EP of Ruffian talks about the project and the signing of Huxley. "I've known Neil for a while, and have been waiting for the right opportunity to enable us to work together," Herman explains. "With some serendipitous timing, we've made that happen. I was delighted he agreed to join Ruffian. Shadow of War was a huge undertaking, but I had absolutely no doubt about Neil's ability to deliver. He is a perfect mix of good old fashioned storyteller, and geek wizard, who is able to work in the most modern and inspiring way."
Huxley adds: "I've been a fan of Robert's for a long time, since the Stink days. He's a bit of a legend. When I heard about Ruffian I knew I had to be part of it and it feels very much like a family already. And straight out of the gate Robert gets me this cracking opportunity and we book the biggest job of my career, an absolute dream project. I'm so excited what the future holds for us."
Huxley wraps, looking back on an extensive shoot in eastern Europe. "It was a brutal but very exciting shoot for me," he says. “When you're standing out there freezing your bollocks off you have to keep the whole crew motivated. Most of the time I couldn't stop smiling to be honest. Not many people can say they directed something this massive, work that plays in the Lord of the Rings sandbox. I made sure everybody knew it was a real joy seeing everything come together, and the team told me they fed off of that energy."
Huxley’s experience in post and VFX led him to art direct Zach Snyder's Watchmen title sequence before working alongside James Cameron for 18 months on the blockbuster Avatar. He then directed FX-driven projects that include the launch trailer for Transformers Fall of Cybertron, Mad Max, the live-action/CG launch for Assassin’s Creed Unity as well as several live action fight promo films for Ultimate Fighting Championship.