On April 13th during "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon," the teaser broke for the Microsoft Xbox 360 title Gears of War 3, the latest installment of the blockbuster franchise from Epic Games, which releases April 2011. The trailer, "Ashes to Ashes," was directed by Vernon Wilbert of Mothership for agencytwofifteen (formerly T.A.G.). Joseph Kosinski of Anonymous Content was the creative director and Digital Domain was the digital studio. The somber, cinematic :75 teaser was created within the game engine using a production pipeline Digital Domain developed on previous "Gears of War" efforts.
"Ashes to Ashes" picks up the Gears storyline in the days after The Hammer of Dawn has wiped out an entire city. Set to the haunting track "Heron Blue" by Sun Kil Moon, the trailer focuses on the character Dom, with cinematic images and camera angles evoking his heartbreaking back-story. Ash falls like snow, blanketing a street lined with the charred corpses of those caught in the nuclear attack. Scouting away from his squadron, Dom engages a small platoon of enemy soldiers before running directly into the blast's ground zero. Gravely injured, Dom accepts death. The appearance of his Delta Squad spurs an epiphanic moment and he joins his brethren in the good fight. A massive tentacle monster rises from the ground and crab-like creatures surround the Delta Squad and together they fire at the enemy hoard until the spot closes with the title graphic "Brothers To The End."
Wilbert collaborated closely with the Microsoft Xbox, Epic Games and agencytwofifteen teams to craft the story behind "Ashes to Ashes," which hints at new personal struggles for the game's lead characters and introduces new faces, weapons and enemies. To enable him to direct digital action in the game engine as he would in a live-action performance, Wilbert and Digital Domain used their experience on several previous in-engine productions to turn the Unreal Engine 3 environment into a cinematic pipeline.
"Directing within a game engine is like tricking your children into eating spinach when they want ice cream," said Wilbert. "The game engine is built to make games. It doesn't want to make movies. There's a poignant emotional core to 'Ashes to Ashes,' so my goal was to make sure we captured certain key moments in our story, but to maintain a level of patience and sense of humor throughout the creative process. We figured out how to hot-wire the game engine it so that it becomes more artist-friendly and tells the story we want it to tell."
Wilbert and his crew began the production process with storyboarding, then cut a board-o-matic to music. From there the team did previs before staging a motion capture shoot that involved suiting-up real-life Special Forces who had served in Iraq. Digital Domain's animation team then refined and polished the mocap data before exporting it into the game engine along with assets, models and textures. Lighting and rendering followed, along with a frame dump to generate a frame sequence that Digital Domain color-graded like a film negative. All in all, "Ashes to Ashes" had a turnaround of 11 weeks and involved a large Digital Domain team of 35.
"Ashes to Ashes" is the fourth Gears of War spot that Wilbert and Digital Domain have done with the Xbox 360 ad agency team (which has evolved from McCann-Erickson into T.A.G. and is now agencytwofifteen). When the team first came together on "Mad World" the agency reached out to a then little-known director named Joseph Kosinski. Fast forward three years and Digital Domain is collaborating with Kosinski on his feature debut "TRON: Legacy," while agencytwofifteen has entrusted Wilbert to direct the latest effort for "Gears of War 3."