They start "jamming out" quick sketches, basic ideas of how the scenes will look. From that point they start the basic modeling. The base shapes, things like that. From there they start on the base details using a displacement map. If you've ever used a map editor from some game, you'll have the basic idea of what that is. Raising terrain, lowering terrain. Lifting mountains, lowering canyons. The difference being those canyons are eye sockets, mouths, wrinkles, things like that. They use some base stencils to work in skin textures. The programs they mention using are ZBrush, Mudbox and Maya. They had some great slides throughout the panel, but I managed to find the seat at the perfect angle to have the DirectTV camera man in my field of vision. Huzzah! Sorry, guys.
They move onto the simulations and rigging from there. They make basic puppets, rigging up the points of motion and figuring out where they want the "fleshy bits." Fleshy bits such as the webbing on the frost wyrm's wings, things like that. Bits of fleshy and skin. Then it's a matter of how they'll move, how gravity and motion will affect them. One of the developers mentioned that one of their passes of the 'fleshy bits' ended up not working out right, and it ate over six hours of work.
The next step was getting the army visualized. The terrain, which was conceptualized by the artists (using google image search and shots of Antarctica), rendered in 3D by the modelers, and then painted in, was plotted out to make room for the army. There were so many soldiers on screen during the shot of the Scourge ranks that they needed to use three different levels of detail to render properly. The soldiers furthest away from the camera have far, far fewer pixels than the ones near the front of the camera.
Even with the varying levels of quality on the soldiers, there was a problem of letting all of them render at once. If they let it try to run that way while rendering, their equipment would have melted. They used bounding boxes to seperate each soldier, making sure that each soldier was rendered one by one rather than all at once. They decided to explain what would happen if they let all of the soldiers render at once with a simple slide: A picture of their boss saying, "Your work sucks, you're fired." Pretty good explanation!
The rendering itself works in multiple stages. They start with 'previsualization' and let the scene run through at varying levels of quality. They refine the movements and motions, making sure weight and gravity are properly applied. The dragon in particular was cited as taking a lot of work. They had to properly make it seem as if the dragon was holding its own weight up on its wings, as well as properly visualizing the transfer of weight from its legs to its wings when it dove from the cliff.
They spoke about adding their special effects next, and one of the biggest tools they used was Pixar's RenderMan. The effects team did most of the shinies. Their summary was, "smoke, magic, and awesomeness."
There were a lot of details about lighting and things of the sort- there were actually three individual light sources applied to the Scourge army to make them look right. There was a lot of talk about compositing as well, but my brain fizzled out through the tech jargon. They use a compositor called Nuke.
The Q&A session was brief, and again, more technical than the other panels I saw. We'll gloss over most of them, because a lot of the questions came from students looking to get jobs doing work like this. There were two questions in particular that did catch my attention, though.
Q: How long was the Lich King sitting on his throne before the cinematic?
A: Somewhere around 4-5 years.
Q: In the cinematic, when Arthas rubs the snow between his fingers, is that a nod to the Warcraft III cinematic where Arthas crushes the rose petal between his fingers?
A: Yes, it is. Even though Arthas is no longer human, he's still the type of person that wants to feel what is in his hands. The substance and texture of what's around him.
And that's all, folks!