Elder Scroll MARI

Tue 2nd Apr 2013, by Paul Hellard | Productfocus

CGSociety :: Production Focus

2 April 2013, by Brian Westhall

Burly warriors, snarling undead beasts, blasts of destructive magic and massive fantasy battles are all staples of the venerable Elder Scrolls game franchise. Blur Studio's buzz-building cinematic teaser for the popular gaming series' upcoming Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) debut, The Elder Scrolls Online, weaves these familiar elements together with stunning prowess while making masterful use of MARI in its VFX pipeline.

Blur's involvement in creating one whopper of a compelling promo trailer for the fan-favorite series' transition to the online gaming realm is no fluke. Recent blockbuster movie credits that include title sequence for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and several VFX sequences in Avatar and The Amazing Spider-Man round out an impressive film resume, but the studio is equally notable for its trailer and cinematic work for triple-A video games like BioShock Infinite, Halo 4, Batman: Arkham City, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and Resident Evil: Raccoon City.


The diversity of content and collaboration afforded by working on video games makes them particularly appealing projects to tackle, explains Dave Wilson, Blur Studio TESO Project Director. "One month you could be working on hard hitting sci-fi like The Old Republic, the next you're working on immersive fantasy like the Elder Scrolls, and that's not even mentioning the more stylised body of work we do too," he says.

Having worked with Bethesda Softworks in the past, Blur was tapped by the reputable game developer in early 2012 to create an epic teaser for its next big project: The Elder Scrolls Online. “It was an amazing opportunity for us,” says Executive Producer Al Shier, “not to mention the sheer number of Elder Scrolls fans we have in the studio.”

Blur eagerly dove right in.

"We wanted to make an impactful piece that was truly memorable," says Wilson, who adds they had a lot of story to squeeze into just under six minutes. "From the outset we knew once we got moving it was going to be non-stop action." Set amidst a raging war, the intense trailer showcases three groups of heavily-armed warriors battling towards a common cause. Each alliance's vignette plays to its strengths and abilities before culminating in a final standoff, and the absorbing conflict keeps up a pulse-pounding pace throughout most of it's duration.

The team aimed to make the piece as photo-realistic as possible, and this presented a prime opportunity to let Blur's artists stretch their wings with MARI and bring The Foundry into the virtual fray.


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Getting to know MARI

Being a newer addition to Blur's VFX pipeline, MARI was only used for the Wood Elf warriors that play a secondary role to the main heroes in the Elder Scrolls Online cinematic. This gave the team's character modelers the opportunity to get comfortable using MARI so they can eventually train the rest of the studio, explains CG Supervisor Jerome Denjean. Blur is planning on expanding the program's use in other areas of its pipeline too, including environmental modeling and shot finishing.

Those on the team who are already trained up really love using MARI, adds Character Modeler James Ku. "The most appealing thing about MARI is, of course, the ability to paint and texture a character while seeing the exact results in 3D," he says. "It's way better than having to work on a flat UV layout, save your texture, reload on your model and then render to see the results. MARI's projection tool set is very powerful."

He continues: "At Blur we tend to make a lot of realistic and semi-realistic characters. This means our textures are often photo sourced. MARI's ability to quickly project and then manipulate those projections makes it the weapon of choice for Blur's character artists."

Rich with features

As the modeler who worked on the Wood Elf warriors for the Elder Scrolls cinematic trailer, Ku says MARI's slerp and spline warper tools were among other key features that proved really helpful when working on the character. They made creating tribal paint streaks on the character's body and bone helmet a breeze, for example.

"The way I did these was I found images of paint strokes and made black and white masks from them," says Ku. "I would then project them on the character and slerp them into exactly the position and shape I wanted. I then used this layer (channel) as a mask for the paint color, as part of the bump map, and as part of my reflection/gloss map."



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Being able to project through a piece of geometry to simultaneously work on both the front and back sides of the warrior was perfect for detailing straps, belts, and armor plates too. Additionally, MARI's tiled texture shader module also allowed him to accurately add detailed textures like leather grain and cloth threads, then replicate the exact tiling and blending amount in his V-Ray shaders.

"In terms of visualising all the texture work that was done for this character there was one thing that really stood out," says Ku. "MARI is the only application that I've used that can show an entire character with all its shaders and textures on screen at the same time."

This floored him, as the character had more than 60 pieces of geometry in it. Each piece sported 4k to 8k textures, and each texture had more than 15 channel layers -- layers that included tiled textures with different blend modes, bump maps, and reflection maps. Simply put: that’s a lot going on all at once. "The MARI view port [showed me] everything accurately [and allowed me to] pan and rotate and work at a decent frame rate," he says. "I thought this was pretty badass, and I have not used any other application that could do this."

Looking ahead

With several exciting feature film VFX projects currently in development, the team is pushing forward with its vision and keeping an eye to the future. Other offerings from The Foundry, including NUKE and KATANA, are on the studio's radar too says CG Supervisor Jerome Denjean: "The Foundry has clearly been a leader in innovation for the past few years, so we're always interested in seeing what they'll come up with next."

Blur Studio is committed to improving its pipeline for greater efficiency without sacrificing intuitive artistry, adds Shier. "As audiences become more sophisticated and visually perceptive our focus will expand to align with the rising level of expected quality," he says.



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