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MARI and NUKE deliver chilling atmosphere for The Witcher's third outing

Medieval fantasy is often punctuated with tales of marauding monsters and tempestuous conflicts between warring nations, but The Witcher series puts a decidedly darker, more mature spin on these familiar themes. With the next entry in CD Projekt's gritty action RPG gaming franchise headed to next-gen consoles in 2014, Polish VFX studio Platige Image recently used NUKE and MARI to pull out all of the stops in crafting a real killer of a teaser trailer.

A broad range of commercials, animated shorts, and other VFX projects are all staples of Platige's repertoire, though gaming-focused cinematics are also a strong component of the studio's work. The team received its first VES nomination back in 2007 for its film work for the first game in The Witcher series. Platige's "Killing Monsters" trailer for the upcoming launch of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is the sixth cinematic the studio has produced for the franchise, and it's easily one of the most impactful yet. 

In the "Killing Monsters" teaser, the series' grizzled protagonist Geralt of Rivia stumbles upon a young girl being brutalized by a gang of imperial thugs who plan to hang her from a nearby tree. The brigands pay Geralt for a slain monster bounty he turns in, and he continues on his way. Hearing the girl's cries for help in the background, however, Geralt's conscience kicks in and he springs into action, leaving the thugs in a pile of broken bodies. Though no less brutal, the trailer showcases a considerable change in style from Platige's previous Witcher pieces. 

"It is more grim and realistic. The cinematic for Witcher 2 was action oriented with a 'period' touch. This time we wanted to show complexity of the Witcher as a character and set the film in grim realistic scenery," explains, Maciek Jackiewicz Art Director and Compositing Artist on the project. "We highlighted the brutality and despair filling the world of the game hero. That’s why we chose a cloudy, grey world and scenery of a field sometime at the verge of winter – a seemingly unattractive place to live in."

© Witcher 3: Wild Hunt trailer. All rights reserved. Image courtesy of Platige Image

"In NUKE, I could smoothly work with all of the shots in a single script -- then switch instantly from one shot to another, quickly update numerous render versions, try out different looks, apply them to all of the shots, and give feedback to lighting artists."

Power in the pipeline 

The somber tone and turbulent subject matter is intensified by the photorealistic level of polish afforded to the short film sequence. With a core team of around 15 people that ballooned upwards at times to about 50 in total, the trailer took about two months of preproduction and four months of production to complete. NUKE and MARI were key pieces of the production pipeline throughout the project.

“NUKE was used for compositing and as a support tool for the rendering team,” says Jackiewicz. “Our workflow was focused on lighting and rendering to get the best quality renders. We also tried to avoid countless render passes therefore, compositing was rather uncomplicated.”

Adding in subtle color grading, atmosphere, and mattepainted backgrounds in NUKE’s 3D space, Jackiewicz prefers to start composting early-on in a production so that it becomes part of the look development process.

“In NUKE, I could smoothly work with all of the shots in a single script -- then switch instantly from one shot to another, quickly update numerous render versions, try out different looks, apply them to all of the shots, and give feedback to lighting artists,” he explains. “All that started while rendering was still in the early phase and continued until the last day of the production. It would be much more troublesome without the efficiency NUKE provides.”

Out of the hundred or so projects the studio tackles in a given year, Platige only takes on a limited number of cinematic projects of this nature in order to make sure each one is honed to perfection. "We want them to look stunning and that requires attention," notes Jackiewicz. 

This attention to detail the studio pours into each cinematic project shines through in the phenomenal amount of realism found in the finished piece. In this case, working in MARI allowed the design team to really dig into the meticulous level of texture fine-tuning that it needed to make each scene a visual masterpiece.

Face time with MARI 

Getting up close and personal with Geralt and the other characters in the "Killing Monsters" teaser made the importance of making every nuance of their faces just right all the more critical. The team started with face textures made from scans of the actors. Building off of this foundation, the team exchanged different formats for mapping and displacement between MARI and ZBrush, which worked well together, says Platige's Lead Shading Artist Wojtek Idzi. 

"We had a few close-ups on the characters’ faces and we wanted to achieve a realistic outcome, so all the materials had to be prepared in really high resolution," he says. "It also required multiple layers per element. We had SSS, several kinds of bump, reflections and masks per element – there were really a massive amount of layers." 

With six characters to craft in close-up situations, the cinematic called for using tons of high resolution elements. Things went smoothly, thanks in-part to the cohesiveness of the tools at the team's disposal. While Platige has worked other 3D painting programs like Deep Paint, Body Paint, ZBrush, Mudbox, and others over the years, MARI is the team's texturing tool of choice. 

"For the last few years, MARI became our base and the only tool for texturing," Idzi explains, adding it's the best fit for the team's current work needs. "The layer based philosophy is very similar to what we got used to in Photoshop, and they are managed in the same way as in rendering software. It is enriched with a number of small but very helpful elements like UDIM and UV offset system, which is compatible with Maya and Arnold."

"For the heavy-duty high resolution demands of the Witcher 3 trailer project, MARI's ability to store all texturing materials in a single file that can be parametrically exported using predefined patterns was pretty key."

The benefits of MARI 

One important thing Idzi appreciates about MARI is that it's accessible and easily learned by artists who aren't texturing. Platige's rendering team picked up how to use MARI quickly, and after a few hours they were able to use the software for last-moment render tweaks.

This turned out to be extremely helpful, he says, adding he also likes the fact MARI feels like it's been developed by people who are actually using software in standard workflow environments. The package draws from familiar useful features found elsewhere while also building on out on them in important ways, he notes: "It all makes MARI very easy to implement into the pipeline." 

For the heavy-duty high resolution demands of the Witcher 3 trailer project, MARI's ability to store all texturing materials in a single file that can be parametrically exported using predefined patterns was pretty key, he says.

"Thanks to MARI, we can forget about the limitations of textures resolution," Idzi adds. "While producing, we can use big resolution materials and later if we need we can export textures in a variety of resolutions. Using such big resolutions must cause temporary stability problems, which happened during Witcher 3 teaser production, but it’s normal when you work on such a big format. Still, the comfort of work was really great."

Other small but useful features also made the work flow more smoothly and a lot faster, he says. For example, the way Edge Mask lets artists paint over the areas they need to without fear of covering up unwanted parts of the an object or its edges is very helpful. The Tiling Procedural Layer feature is another that's used often, as it enables digital control over texture tiling and can be used to make masks or additional layers of detail. "We can decide very late in the process whether we need a dense pattern, without collapsing it, rotating it, or mixing it," says Idzi.

Film on the horizon

Game cinematics, commercials, and other unique projects are on the horizon for Platige, though the studio is soon expanding into new territory that will also make good use of The Foundry's products. With the recent creation of it's daughter company, Platige Films, the studio will soon be branching out into film with its debut feature-length project, Another Day of Life -- a fascinating hybrid animation-documentary film. 

Production of Another Day of Life will begin shortly, and it's anticipated that MARI and NUKE will also be used in the pipeline for the film, says Platige Marketing Manager Agnieszka Piechnik. "Yes, it seems that we are more and more relying on NUKE and MARI -- definitely for bigger projects," she says. "We [also] use MODO from time to time.”

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