We were asked to create some pitchable content that highlighted the fantastic work Axis created for the Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War III announcement trailer – a beautifully dark yet fast-paced strategy computer game.
We sat down with Abed Abonamous director at Axis Animation to find out more about the challenges Axis faced around Warhammer fan expectations and how to deliver a cinematic trailer that would do justice to the universe and its lore. The story was soon picked up and covered by comics, TV and film site Bleeding Cool.
Axis Animation first stepped into the ominous nightmare world of Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War III in early 2016. Relic Entertainment – the creator of the tabletop RTS – called on the studio and director Abed Abonamous to create an announcement trailer that would challenge the expectations of the Warhammer franchise, revealing a darker take on the universe and its characters.
The result was a haunting journey through visuals inspired by the forbidding work of painters like Zdzisław Beksiński and H.R. Giger – mysterious stone structures tower behind plumes of dust; behemoths clash across corpse-strewn battlefields; and lonesome soldiers face their ultimate end with a wry smile.
Axis and Abonamous were then invited back into the world of Dawn of War III to further expand the darker atmosphere throughout the in-game cinematics, imbuing them with the same tone and atmosphere as the trailer.
The team worked to create 14 minutes of compelling 2.5D “motion-painting” cut scenes, each exhibiting the scope and fury of Dawn of War III’s violent clashes with the same oppressive atmosphere that pervades the initial trailer.
Axis collaborated closely with Relic to ensure the cut scenes hit the right notes from pre-production on wards, with Abonamous once again diving into the universe headfirst.
“Relic had a clear idea of the story-line; they gave us detailed scripts that covered all of the cut scenes’ narrative beats,” explains Abonamous. “They also gave presentations revealing how the scripts tied into the game’s narrative context, revealing what would happen between one cut scene and another. That was a kind of ‘narrative glue’, which we used to think of the cut scenes as part of a larger tapestry.”
“We approached this very much in the vein of classical painters, who guide the viewer’s eye through use of composition and lighting.”
To create that tapestry, the team chose to implement the cut scenes as a series of “deep paintings”. Each frame revealed an atmospheric diorama or character and environment, shrouded in the sinister atmosphere that permeates Dawn of War III.
“We broke down the scripts provided by Relic into storyboard sketches, and iteratively finessed them while discussing each with the developers,” Abonamous explains. “Relic’s scripts and briefings rarely mandated any specific compositions for each cut scene. We had a lot of flexibility in approach for the deep paintings we wanted to create, and could decide on compositions that allowed the camera to tell a story.”
Indeed, the similarity between storyboard sketches and final output can be witnessed in lead storyboard artist Paul Coulthard’s comparison reel, detailing the initial sketches alongside Dawn of War III’s final results.
Using Relic’s directions for the cutscenes’ narrative elements, Axis worked collaboratively with the studio to define the look, feel and approach of each short composition.
“We approached this very much in the vein of classical painters, who guide the viewer’s eye through use of composition and lighting,” explains Abonamous.
“Relic provided high-level designs for locations and characters, as we had to make sure that the cut scenes corresponded visually to the players’ in-game experiences.”