‘Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War III’ Trailer: An interview with Axis Animation

The trailer for ‘Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War III’ looks more like a surrealistic painting rather than a classic CG game trailer with epic battles and highly detailed environments. RENDERU.COM spoke to the Scotland-based studio Axis Animation which worked on this art piece. Abed Abonamous, Director, Caleb Bouchard, Producer, and Head of FX Hudson Martins told us about the creative process behind the trailer.

RENDERU.COM Could you tell us about yourself and your background briefly?

Abed Abonamous, Director: I am a freelance director working from Germany. I studied aeronautical engineering and computer sciences, worked as a systems architect for a couple of years before I joined a visual effects company. Then I became a partner and a supervisor and then the director. The Dawn of War trailer was my second project with Axis.

Caleb Bouchard, Producer: I’m originally from Canada and have been with Axis for 4 years. I studied Physics, but my professional background is design, animation and post production. Before Axis, I spent eight years helping grow an animation company from 2 employees to 20, tackling animation, title sequences, game cinematics, while also supervising a bustling post production facility.

Hudson Martins, Head of FX: I was born in Brazil. I’d lived half of my life there and then moved to Sweden where I studied engineering and took a short computer graphics course at Nackademin. That led me to my first job in Milford Studios (Sweden). I worked in key-frame animated projects for Coca-Cola, Nike and other branches. I joined Axis for the first time in the spring of 2015 to do FX for the epic Halo Guardians intro sequence. Since then I have worked with projects for League of Legends, Relic games (Warhammer), Destiny amongst others.

colour_script_options_picks_v5_.jpgSource: Axis Animation

RENDERU.COM: How did you start working on the trailer? How did it feel for you personally to be involved in such a famous project?

Abed Abonamous: Basically, the way it came to us was an open pitch from the client. A really open pitch. ‘Open’ in a sense that it was a blank page and they said, ‘It’s Warhammer. It’s the new Dawn of War. Do something exciting.’ There was barely any information what the game was going to be. We were mostly concerned with capturing the width of the whole thing, the feeling of nostalgia of fans revisiting this fransize but also trying to open new doors in the way that we communicate it.

Caleb Bouchard: It was really exciting. I personally never played Warhammer, but every other artist we spoke to was a secret fan of the universe, or had stories of painting figures when they were younger.

It is always a challenge to work with licensed properties, but to their immense credit, Relic Entertainment (the client) and Games Workshop (the rights holder) let us push the Warhammer characters farther than anyone else before or since.

bone yard.jpg

Abed Abonamous: I was in the same boat as Caleb, I‘ve never played Warhammer. I played Dawn of War before and I knew what it was in a nutshell, but I had to spend like a week just studying and finding references. Of course, when you type ‘Warhammer 40k’ in Google, I think, that gives you the most results in the entire world. I’ve spent a week just getting familiar with everything and finding interesting things. Then we told the client: what if we did not create a trailer in the usual way, the conventional type of trailer with photorealistic CG and lushly rendered environments. What if we instead went for something more atmospheric, moreemotional and went for a different art style as well. Something that feels more painting-like.


deffDred 3.jpgI was looking for that kind of stuff and I found paintings by Zdzisław Beksiński, a Polish artist who died, unfortunately, in 2007. He painted nightmares in oil. You cannot look at pictures by him without feeling freaked out. You cannot stop staring, but you would love to. It felt like a perfect combination: to take the core of Warhammer which is basically thousands of years of pure war. It is right there in the name: it does not say ‘War and Peace Hammer’, it says just ‘Warhammer’. So we combined this with the hallucinate nightmarish paintings by this guy. We took him as a clear reference for the art style that we went for.

dawnofwar_beksinski.jpgPainting by Zdzisław Beksiński

Hudson Martins: Myself together with a great team of FX artists managed to create the particle, FX and simulation work on the Warhammer piece. The part that excited me most was that both Abed (director) and Relic Entertainment (client) were really keen on selling these characters sizes using the simulations and animation. We had to make sure to simulate elements to cover sizes from a small ember to a large scale 200 smoke plume to sell the scale of these characters. That is usually a challenge and can end up in heavy simulations and scenes. It came to prioritize what simulations would be in high resolution and which ones would not. Some of these shots have 30+ simulations going on at the same time.


Caleb Bouchard: We were very excited with how the FX turned out, especially in the epic ‘titans falling’ moment. The particle work was instrumental in selling the massive scale of the titans as they tumbled towards camera, as well as making the whole thing feel ‘other worldly’ as these explosions were somewhat magical in their appearance.

Abed asked the effects team to go crazy, to make everything as wild as possible and then pull back if needed. But I don’t think he has ever asked them to pull back.

Abed Abonamous: We’ve always kept on pushing (or rather I kept on pushing) for more atmospherics. In every scene there is basically one character and then just fog and smoke. It is because the art style dictates it. It makes a scene more abstract, more like a painting. You lose that sense of the usual CG style, which is always very scenic with a large background, when you think, Wow, someone spent a lot of time working on this.’ And it’s fine. Mostly it looks cool, but for this one I wanted to remove it entirely.

You can look at every shot - it is either a painting or a theatre stage with someone standing in a spotlight. Wherever you are sitting in the audience it always gonna be a very flat view.It is just a flat floor and someone standing on it. There is barely any backdrop.

That filling the scenes with fog, atmospherics and volumetrics drove everyone insane. The team had to come up with new tools to be able to get that with a reasonable render and set up time.


wraithKnight colour 2.jpg
RENDERU.COM: There are many highly detailed close ups with collisions. Which one was the most complicated?

Caleb Bouchard: The fight between the Space Marine (or Deff Dread) and Gretchin was the most complicated for the reasons you mentioned – highly detailed close ups with collisions. It’s my favourite scene as it ends with the massive wraithknight smashing EVERYONE and the scale of the scene increasing dramatically.

Abed Abonamous: There were two fights that were specifically complicated. One of them was the one that Caleb has just talked about a moment ago.That was fairly complicated in terms of what happened and also in terms of the effects. The Space Marine was being torn in half so we had to model his spine, intestines and blood and, as usual, a lot of smoke and fog.

However, for the effect artists the biggest effect shot was when the Imperial Knight impales the Wraithknight. There are hundreds of little smoke and fire emitters in that scene, billions of particles and stuff flying around. I think that was the most complex composite of the entire show. The effects artists were mentally insane, they actually went way beyond what I had imagined for this shot: they put little fire emitters on fingertips, you barely see them, only if you look very close. They’ve spent their time doing this, because they wanted to get across the scale of everything, they wanted it to look gigantic, so it had to be a lot of little fires instead of a big one. That made life for everyone hell. I was very nervous about the shot because it took a long time for me to see a nice preview of it. So that sequence with the two giants was probably the most demanding shot in the entire thing in terms of effects.

Caleb Bouchard: That was definitely THE effect shot for the show. We were really happy, that shot went into the company’s showreel straight away.


wraith feedback.jpg
RENDERU.COM: How long did you work on the trailer?

Caleb Bouchard: The project lasted 7 months. About 50 artists in total were involved, though there were never more than 20 artists working simultaneously.

RENDERU.COM: Which software did you use?

Caleb Bouchard: We animate in Maya and use Houdini for FX as well as to light and shade. We render in Mantra.


RENDERU.COM: Would you call this project your favourite?

Caleb Bouchard: It is still one of my favourite projects. After this project was done we did about 15 minutes cutscenes for the game, so we worked on this property for a really long time.

Abed Abonamous: Warhammer in general and Dawn of War specifically are very well defined properties. Whatever you do, every little thing you touch has a meaning, and you have to be careful with that meaning. Some fan may look and this and say, ‘Wait a minute, the fact that he has two bold on his head means he is 200 years old. How can it be so if the world is just 150 years old?’ So you have to be very careful. Still, both Relic Entertainment and Games Workshop let us do our thing. They were willing to go along for what ended up being a wild drive. In terms of the way that team dynamic worked and the way that dynamic with the client worked it is definitely my favourite project of all time.