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Warlords of Draenor cinematics, machinima, and more with Terran Gregory

Anne Stickney
October 27, 2014

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If you've played World of Warcraft since the beginning, you've doubtless witnessed a slow evolution of story development take place in the form of in game cinematics and increasingly complex and beautiful patch trailers. The majority of these trailers can be chalked up to In-game Cinematic Project Director Terran Gregory, who has been toiling away on bringing us the very best of in game machinima since Burning Crusade. In Warlords of Draenor, those in game cinematics take a giant leap forward, featured in nearly every zone of the new expansion -- and with new models galore, they've never looked better.

As the launch of Warlords marches ever closer, we had the opportunity to finally sit down and have a spoiler-free chat with Terran about the cinematics of Warlords -- as well as his beginnings with Blizzard, and the progress of cinematics from mere machinima trailers to in game marvels of technical prowess.

You actually got your start with a machinima called Return -- care to fill us in on that?

That's a long story! In 2005, I was working at Atari as a technical writer, and my friend Ezra and I had been playing World of Warcraft since it had come out -- it was about nine months after WoW had launched -- and he comes to me at work because we were both working there together, and he says, "Hey dude, have you seen what Blizzard is putting on a movie contest at BlizzCon?" And I'm like, what's BlizzCon? (laughs) Like I didn't even know what it was yet. And he says "Dude, it's this contest where you make a machinima!" and I looked at him and I said "What's a machinima?" We actually hadn't made any game movies ever -- we always made more Saturday Night Live sketch comedy troupe stuff, we'd been doing movie production videos, video production, and all kinds of stuff for probably ten years already at that time.

So you guys actually had a background in video besides just the machinima aspect of it.

I'd been making really really dumb movies since I was fifteen, with a VHS camcorder passed down from my grandfather -- my grandfather had a 1982 RCA Newvicon video camera that we inherited and that started us making movies when I was in middle school. So we'd been in a troupe, we made a lot of movies together. So he came to me saying "Hey, why don't we take our characters," because we were kind of roleplayers -- on a PvP server which is a different story -- but we always had our character's stories. We mostly, we didn't roleplay per se all the time, it's just that we had character stories that we wrote. We enjoyed writing stories about our characters.

So we had a pretty elaborate one, that we built up and integrated with World of Warcraft and Stromgarde and all these things and he was like, "Dude! This is going to write itself -- we just have to make our character stories into a movie." At first I was like "Okay, what's the point of doing that dude, I've never heard of machinima, there's going to be guys out there that are going to kick us nine ways till Sunday -- why would we even try to fight against something we have no chance of succeeding at?" And he said "Let's just do it to tell our story." And I could get on board with that.

We spent a few weeks on a bunch of tools -- fortunately our tech support background kind of fueled our ability to innovate some ideas. We had cheats to be able to re-map a dual analog joystick into mouse input into the game, so we were able to control the camera in WoW using analog joysticks, which gave us really smooth camera motion. And we kind of pioneered using techniques like modelviewer/mapviewer to really get shots that had people going "Whoa, how did you do that?" We finished it all up and we put it online and we were like "Well, that was fun, nothing's ever going to come of that."

And it was probably a couple weeks later that we got an email from Paul Della Bitta, who was the Community Manager at the time -- I get an email, and it's saying congratulations, you're one of the winners. Now that's an important distinction to make -- a lot of people say, "Oh you won that movie contest." Well technically there wasn't a first place, there were five winners, and they weren't differentiated from each other. It was us, and it was four other movies including the guys who made Illegal Danish, Myndflame right, the original movie was one of the winners as well.

They said you've won, I think we got like a GeForce 4600 card (laughs) which by today's standards is infinitesimally small -- but at the time it was beefy! You have to remember that when we were making the movie Return, we were video capturing at 800x600 resolution, and really, really straining our computer to be able to maintain the 24fps we needed to be getting that footage up. You can go back and look and see certain shots that are stuttering because the horsepower just wasn't THERE to capture it as smoothly as we liked.

So how did that lead into Blizzard?

We had also won tickets to BlizzCon, so we packed up we went to BlizzCon, we met a whole bunch of people there. We met Chris Metzen, we met Joeyray Hall, we met Shane Dabiri, who was the lead producer of WoW at the time -- and just had a great time. They were really excited to talk to us about this thing, because they really liked the movie and obviously we really liked WoW and so it was just a nerd fest. It was the first BlizzCon, it was the smallest BlizzCon by proxy right, so it really did feel like everywhere you turned, it was like a fifty percent split between Blizzard employees and people who were there. (laughs) It was just being immersed in craziness.

And threads were sewn there, where within a few months, they were like "Well, what else could you guys do?" We were exploring different options for doing more with the machinima stuff, but the high and low of it was, all the options we were considering weren't really going to fly. And so they finally just asked, "I think this is only going to work if you guys come down here and work with us. Would you like to do that?" and obviously we were like "Uhhhh...okay!" So we interviewed in May of 2006, and I got hired in July of 2006, and that's how I got there.

Was this when Wrath of the Lich King was starting up production?

No, it was when Burning Crusade was still in production. The first movie that I really "directed" was the Black Temple trailer. 2.1 -- up until that point I'd done a few other things like editing some segments for the Burning Crusade behind the scenes DVD, and I'd done the patch 1.12 Eastern Plaguelands trailer, that was actually my first official project, where it's flying over the map and the guys are doing the Eastern Plaguelands PvP for patch 1.12. It was nothing special, but it was a lot of that -- I literally came in the door and they said "Make that," and that's all I could figure out to do with the tools we had at that time.

It would be a few months before we started getting up to speed; we started communicating with the game team and let them know, "Hey, we're trying to work with this machinima thing, can you guys help us get maybe a few more cheats to do a bit more with the game engine?" When they started acquiescing and getting us tools that were more familiar to me as far as machinima production, simultaneously, they said "Hey, you know, Black Temple, why don't you just take it Terran and go to town on it?" And Mickey Neilson actually did write the script for that one, and so I received the script, laid it all out, and then we just did all that draenei story over the top of it the best we could, and it definitely made a splash.

You were responsible for making the Wrathgate cinematic -- the first in game cinematic in WoW. How did that come about?

Interesting thing, Wrathgate. It was kind of the pivotal defining moment, as far as it was an experiment right, there were no other in-game cinematics in World of Warcraft. It actually still tied to the Black Temple trailer, as far as Alex Afrasiabi and Chris Metzen had seen what we did with Black Temple, and they were like "That's really cool but you know, we'd like it to actually harness that, to plug more into the game experience instead of having it live as a one-off, off on the web." So out of nowhere we just received -- my boss at the time Joeyray Hall said "Terran, come into my office," and he says, "Alex and Chris want you to make this movie," and he gave me the Wrathgate script. It was very different, obviously Blizzard loves to iterate a lot -- that first script had a lot of stuff that changed over production, but the bones of it were there, we confront the Lich King at the Wrathgate.

I was really, really excited, I think I walked out of that office and I grabbed my friends and I went outside and I'm like, "I don't think they realize what they just did. Because they kind of took ourselves, video production crew, little one off things, they just gave us the first in-game cinematic for World of Warcraft!" (laughs) "Maybe they're going to think we're crazy, so we better move quick!"

So yeah, we started Wrathgate in February of 2008, and it was wrapping up around August, so six months? The whole entire movie, which was about four and half minutes long, had maybe 70 or so shots in it, it was largely produced by two artists. It was me, and Brandon Vanderpool. Throughout production, of course we used other storyboard artists at the beginning, texture artists that would come on, do some stuff, then go back to other projects -- but the only two dedicated individuals on the project were me and Brandon. Which is kind of crazy, I mean we were definitely driving ourselves with a very small crew and very limited tools. We knew we could definitely do something cool and make a splash, and this might be our only chance, right? Like if we falter on this one, they might not want us to make more. If we really, really do something cool, then we might get to keep doing this for a long time, hopefully! (laughs) Fingers crossed.

Obviously it made a splash. So let's fast forward -- a couple of expansions later and we're at Warlords of Draenor, which has more cinematics than ever before. Can you tell us how that came about?

Absolutely! The truth is it all started with patch 5.4, Siege of Orgrimmar, right -- the trailer for that, in production, we'd finally caught up technologically with a lot of stuff that was introduced with Mists of Pandaria. From the beginning of the expansion, you could clearly see that the pandaren had some new stuff going on, as far as how expressive and emotive they were. The facial stuff. Well, our pipeline to make these movies is built upon the base game, and so there's going to be a little bit of drag between when they put something in the game, and when we've fully caught up to implementing what they've put in.

Mists of Pandaria turned out to be that dev cycle, as far as -- it is remarkable to look at Garrosh in the war room Horde intro, and then look at Garrosh in the 5.4 trailer, and realize that happened in the life of one expansion. So it was after the 5.4 trailer, everyone was really digging on whoa, this in-game crew is doing some cool stuff with the in-game models! That was tied to, of course, the artistic work of the World of Warcraft team in bringing all of the models to this new level. And it all came to kind of a consensus of dude, we really need to do some crazy amazing stuff with this, moving into the next expansion.

That's all on the technical side, but I know that you as a fan of the lore as much as I am, (laughs) -- more on the story side, I had actually done a class, an hour long thing about why we're structuring things in Warlords of Draenor the way we are. And we had kind of looked back on Wrathgate and one of the things that just happened to work well is that the Wrathgate's position in Wrath of the Lich King, was four, roughly, zones into the game? And it really changed the tone of what was going to happen for the rest of the expansion. So it felt like a logical act to climax.

It was a nice beat in the middle, to emphasize.

Right, and it was right there in the middle, as far as you're getting into the game and you get to the middle and then boom! All the anticipation building up to finally confronting Arthas, all the anticipation of trying to make a difference in Northrend, boom that happens, and then everything changes, right, the big turn, twist, oh my gosh -- but it definitely set the tone for the rest of the questing. What's funny is, the next two expansions ended up having a lot of the cinematic content at the very beginning as far as the beginning intro zones. Because that felt good, you know, like really spend some coins making the goblins feel awesome, making the worgen feel awesome.

Come Mists of Pandaria, we make sure that the kickoff to Pandaria feels awesome, right -- and that had become kind of a mode of operation for us, and it was easier because the beginning of the experience is sussed out earlier in production. Working on movies which take a little bit of time to produce is easier to do when the content is solid to work on, so gravitating toward the beginning of the leveling experience just made it work well. Then the Jade Forest scene, Battle of Serpent's Heart, that was the first one where we looked and said man, we need to do something like the Wrathgate again, like a big zone climax.

And we did that one and it was awesome, but it created another vacuum where we looked at it in hindsight and said it was such an awesome zone climax that it made it so people in subsequent zones were wanting another one. They were like, "Hey! Where's the big Battle of Serpent's Heart for this zone!"

When Warlords started production, at BlizzCon last year, we were sitting down with a list of all of the ideas we had on the table, and I actually just posed the question to Metzen and Afrasiabi, I said "Hey -- why don't we take a look at the whole story, and we actually try to really space out the cinematics throughout it? Why don't we actually try to have an act one, act two, act three, finale, even an epilogue." It was a simple idea that pretty much was my pitch. And it just took off immediately, they were like, oh, okay! We looked at the list of things, we circled maybe this beat, this beat, this beat, and boom, and those became the six cinematics that were made.

But we had to have that long view, as far as yes, it might be challenging to do an epilogue. We had to do the production on the Nagrand finale very late in the cycle because Nagrand hadn't been built yet right, so we had to wait and wait and wait and then rush to get it together and make it awesome. But it was worth it to be able to have an expansion experience that has these big climax moments and satisfaction spaced out well so you don't feel like you're past the cinematic content very early in the game experience.

Has it gotten any easier, faster to produce these things from start to finish?

It has definitely stayed almost always at the same pace. Which is interesting, because as the fidelity increases, as the animation increases, as the visual effects increases, obviously the necessity for the manpower and talent we need to bring on board to make that happen has increased. My crew that at the time of the Wrathgate was really two people plus borrowing a few other artists when necessary, has become a core crew of I think close to eight now, so we're 400% larger than we were during Wrath of the Lich King, and we're also borrowing additional resources beyond that.

But we've always, I often tell people that the reason why machinima -- if you can call it that in this context as far as being in the game company and working on it, it's still working with the literal game engine, right, so that's why it tends to be, it can be called machinima -- one of the reasons why it has become a thing for Blizzard to create is because there are times where a story will come up that we want to tell very, very, very much, and the timeline to create is just very, very, very, very short. And that just happens to be like, hey, when the options are you know, don't tell the story, or give these machinima guys a shot to tell it, I like to think that we're there and available for them. For if Afrasiabi, or Metzen, or Mickey, or Kosak have a wild hair to tell something cool.

Why reveal the Warlords cinematics the way you did, so far in advance of the expansion itself?

Well Jonathan can correct me because he was actually closer to that reality than I was, but my best inclination is to look back on the example of the Wrathgate -- the Wrathgate went into the beta. It did, because people in testing being able to experience the content is necessary. An interesting thing from that era was people played through the Wrathgate quest experience when the movie was not implemented, and it was like, "Oh it was good, it was all right." Then they put the movie in the beta, and boom! Suddenly people were like, "Oh my gosh, this is the coolest quest in the game!" That's relevant information for them to be able to build up the area around it in order to support it. So it is really important for the gameplay experience to be complete, and if that's going to happen, if it's inevitable that we can't hold off on it until the literal release day, it might be better to have a controlled release of it than a wild release of it. What would you say, Jonathan?

Jonathan: Yeah, I mean, just to add to that I think we very cautiously viewed it as sort of a necessary evil almost. Because we've been burned in the past with datamining and stuff, and so now we're very aware that things like that will happen, we're very in touch with the development team, the producers, to find out when things might potentially be datamined, because we know it's just a reality that it's going to happen in our community. So we felt like as much as we didn't want to spoil things, we felt like the best thing to do, knowing that these cinematics were going to be datamined if we did nothing, was to just put them out ourselves on our official channels, that way we could control the way they were released and properly warn people about what they were, and caution them not to watch if they didn't want spoilers.

We grappled with it for a long time, we were really, we really didn't want to do it because we didn't want to draw more attention to it, which we knew we would by releasing it on our official channels, but we felt like, at least that way we could really, really put warnings everywhere, just like, making sure everyone knows, and that way all the sites that might otherwise datamine them would instead cover our news, and also all of our warnings. So that's kind of why we did it that way.

Terran: And I was really happy with what they did as far as the gating mechanic, right, it made me feel better about sharing this stuff - I wanted to share it with everyone, but still, just awesome that it's like "Hey guys! It's written in the winds here," if you don't want to see it, it's going to make it clear that you don't want to see it.

The Burdens of Shaohao was beautifully done. Now, with Lords of War, we're seeing that same crew working hand in hand with you guys for the Varian and Maraad intros. How did that come about?

My involvement with that particular project -- it was right after BlizzCon last year, we had just wrapped up the Warlords of Draenor reveal trailer, which had Grommash in it running across the countryside and showing off orcs being orcs. Came back from that, and we were spinning up on what would be our next project, and in the midst of that, my supervisor comes to me and says oh by the way, they're working on a new project that's kind of going to be another Shaohao.

Metzen was actually the biggest proponent, saying he really feels like if we're going to tackle this again, it would be great to root it in the game a little bit more. Make sure that it feels like it's really, really attached to the game world. And again Metzen has always been a marvelous proponent and admirer, supporter, number one champion with machinima because to him, we tell more of his stories (laughs) -- he's going to love everyone who can faithfully tell more of his stories! So he goes to bat for us a lot.

The other guys working on Shaohao had already been in the wings on this for a while and talking about all the options - it was him when he got involved and said you know what you guys are really needing to do, you need to get together with Terran's in game crew and you need to figure out a way to frame it. And it was always an idea that there would be two people talking, and so the narrator would be saying this to somebody, and it would go out of the machinima into the 2.5d from the very onset, it wasn't tacked on later.

You got your start with machinima -- do you still keep your eye on the machinima community?

We love watching the machinima community, and in fact, because of my background in machinima, I still know personally and am pretty good friends with a lot of the guys that were doing it back then, and I've met a lot of the guys that are doing it now. It's great to always see what they're up to. I know that it was tapering off there for a while, I think it's just because it, machinima reaches a threshold as far as the number of things that have been done in a ten year old game. It's just like, it's going to slow down a little bit. But I think that Warlords of Draenor is going to kick that up a notch, as far as people wanting to play with the new visual style of the game.

All of a sudden they've got a ton of new models to work with.

It just reinvigorates the idea that -- it's not going to look like the same machinima, right, it almost -- it almost hits the reset button on the whole gamut, as far as people thinking "Well, someone already did that kind of video with machinima so I don't want to do it." But now it's "Oh hey, it won't look like that other piece, right, those won't look as good as the ones I do today," -- so it might push the reset button and launch it all out. As a funny allegory to what we mentioned before, when we were catching up with the technology of 5.0 until 5.4, I believe the machinima community is going to be coping with that right now as well. They just dropped a whole new 6.0 set there, and they're going to have to go navigate, get their processes and development back on line. I think that we won't see necessarily the immediate burst, but I think give it a few months after the Warlords official launch, then you'll start to see people figuring out how to really take advantage of the new environments and the new, even the new toys and the new models, and we'll start to see some crazy stuff, and I'm really looking forward to that.

Any chance of us seeing a Return 2.0?

(laughs) Oh my gosh! I don't know, it's always tricky for me -- there was a time where Return was still in my somewhat recent consciousness and I always felt like the Wrathgate was kind of like, really wanting to finish out the ambition of Return. As far as like, I really wanted to go where that was going, not story wise, but just spiritually, right? Like I want to prove that machinima can do something really, really epic. And so my answer to that is that for me, I'm just one guy. Most of my passion, most of my work, most of my hours of being able to put movies together -- I love working a job where I get to bring all that to bear on WoW. (laughs) So, you know, I just, I like being able to put into the game content.

Well you made a lot of people fall in love with Stromgarde, way back when, and they're gunning for it to come back someday.

(laughs) STROMGARDE!

Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us Terran -- we can't wait to see what you come up with next! For more of Terran's work, check out Blizzards's official World of Warcraft Youtube channel, which features nearly every cinematic released from all ten years worth of World of Warcraft.

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