Bismarck: Cinematics and VFX Pipeline at Wargaming

Bismarck: Cinematics and VFX Pipeline at Wargaming

Alexey Kozyrev, Lighting Artist at Wargaming, discussed how their team worked on the video clip for the song Bismarck by a Swedish heavy metal band Sabaton.

Introduction

Hi, my name is Alexey Kozyrev.

I was very far from CGI before 2002. It all started when my brother gave me a compact disc with a trial version of 3ds Max. He said something like: “Check it out, dude!”. In those days, we were big fans of heavy metal, and it's no wonder that the first model that came to our mind was a logo of our favorite Metallica. When we finished, I said: “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life!”.

I studied at the Belarusian State University of Informatics and Radioelectronics but I soon realized that programming was not my thing. I got a degree but haven't worked a day as a programmer. Yet, some knowledge happened to be useful. 

I began my career in architectural and interior visualization later moving to a large Belorusian advertising agency. There, I designed exhibitions and interiors, prepared stands for all large Belorusian companies. Then one day, my Behance profile was found by the HRs from Wargaming and I joined their team.

I learned the basics of 3D alone, by watching tutorials on YouTube and reading books. Later, I took a few courses, including one from CG Masters Academy.

Looking back, I would have advised myself to get the right education. It helps to lay down the foundation, plus without it, at some point, you will see that the information available on the internet is not enough. They say that our personality is fully developed by the age of 27. If only we could postpone the university until this age, we'd be able to choose the specialization more consciously instead of enrolling in whatever institution that's available or advised by parents. 

Now, I combine full-time work and online studying. The most important thing in education (whether online or full-time) is feedback from your mentor. Watching tutorials gives you certain progress but nobody can give you proper advice or point out the mistakes you are too inexperienced to notice. 

Wargaming gives me an opportunity to share my experience at various tradeshows and events. When preparing my speech, I systematize my knowledge which is very useful for self-education, too.

Career

I joined Wargaming in 2014, as a Stand Designer. My first exhibition was IgroMir where I won an internal tender among designers. Since then, I took part in IgroMir 2015, Tokyo Game Show (twice), WG Fest (3 times), Gamescom (4 times). The recent projects include the video for Sabaton - Bismarck and World of Tanks: The Great Race. In design, I primarily focus on visualization and concept animation. The presentation has a strong influence on the clients, so I do my best to make the visualization realistic and beautiful. 

After a while, I got into the CG department that worked on cinematics and VFX. I’ve always dreamed of it! In design, CG is just one of the instruments for the idea visualization. Video production is an entirely different thing, and I had to learn a lot. Besides, I’ve always dreamed of making films! Finally, that dream came true. 

Bismarck: Idea Development

The idea of a video is always developed by directors and screenwriters. After that, we prepare a visual concept. On Bismarck, I was responsible for look development. The director provided me with the storyline of the video, plus I borrowed a book to read about the battle and get a complete picture and eventually visualize it. I also watched all the movies the director suggested for reference, but the book was more important - it contains way more details such as weather, for example.

It’s funny that I made the logo of Metallica in the past and now I have Sabaton’s video and logo in my portfolio. The only thing left to close the circle is to create a video for Metallica.

Concept renders:

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Bismarck: Pipeline

The main software I use is Houdini and Mantra for rendering. Our modelers work in 3ds Max, Modo, and ZBrush. The pipeline is quite strict. Since everyone in the department is working on different parts of the project almost simultaneously, it is very important to give the files clear names. Besides, we use ACEScg which also implies a certain approach to the textures and HDRI maps. 

Most of the models were taken from World of Warships which saved us a lot of time. However, game models aren’t suitable for videos as they don’t have enough polygons and details for close-ups. That is why some objects were remodeled specifically for the close-up shots.

When the models are ready, they are handed over to the animators. After that, I do lighting and rendering. The final stage is compositing and final polishing. The rendered result must be close to ideal while during compositing, guys “lower" the quality to make it look more realistic. 

All the scenes involving battleships were completely recreated in CG. Some of the background footage was also changed either partly or fully (for example, in the shots with a pilot). 

Explosions

The explosions were simulated and rendered in Houdini.

First, we prepared the explosion assets with a wide range of settings for the appearance, detalization, variation. When those assets were passed over to me, my task was to arrange the explosions in the scene, add variety in the angles and positions. Simulations with low detalization must be placed as far as possible. At the same time, highly detailed explosions are very resource-intensive: we keep their number down to the minimum and put in the foreground. Before that, each asset goes through the look-dev stage: our VFX artist prepares simulation caches, then we set up shading and test lighting. Finally, the assets are converted into one HDA (Houdini Digital Asset). 

Lighting

For lighting, we used a high-quality HDR Map. From it, we extruded the sun according to its coordinates and placed it at the best possible spot for the specific shot. We also added fog, lots of fog! After that, it's a matter of rotating the lighting system until you find the best angle to emphasize the volume and beauty of the sea and the battleship. Finally, for a greater effect, some details in each shot are additionally illuminated or darkened.

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Challenges

The biggest challenge was the frame rendering time. Our water and explosion simulations were quite heavy, so we had to use some tricks. Besides, Mantra is a quite slow render on its own. To reduce the rendering time, we had to fake some things, lower the quality for rendering and then improve it again during compositing, divide some large scenes into smaller parts and render them one by one to later put together like a sandwich. These roundabouts are difficult but they are much quicker than to play fair so to say.

Advice

The best advice I can give to the beginners is to study. If I were to prioritize the possible options, the first place would go to the university, then online courses and finally self-education. I did just the opposite and I advise you not to repeat the same mistake. The practice is crucial but with a good foundation, you'll get to the same result quicker. Art education is a must!

Alexey Kozyrev, Lighting Artist

Interview conducted by Ellie Harisova

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    Bismarck: Cinematics and VFX Pipeline at Wargaming