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Why Building a CG, Dystopian Gladiator Arena for Riot Games Was Like Being Given the Keys to a Ferrari



We Are Royale creative director Eric Del Greco on producing a visceral, CG combat arena for Riot Games' LCQ Valorant tournament package - inspired by Mad Max and set to an equally intense MGK soundtrack, writes Ben Conway

Why Building a CG, Dystopian Gladiator Arena for Riot Games Was Like Being Given the Keys to a Ferrari

For fans of the video game - and growing esport - Valorant, the North American Last Chance Qualifiers (LCQ) was the last opportunity for passionate supporters to get behind their favourite team before the end-of-year World Championships. Tasked with generating even more hype and momentum, the team at We Are Royale (WAR) produced a CG-filled package that embodies the intensity and desire to make the final qualification spot. With Machine Gun Kelly's 'Daywalker' blasting throughout a deranged, sci-fi-esque battle arena and a lightshow that would put any rockstar to shame, a whirlwind of hundreds of faceless bodies tear at and brutalise each other to reach a mask and earn qualification. 

The WAR team worked closely with Riot Games and its "thoughtfully constructed brief" during the seven intense weeks of production to forge over 100 CG shots, using Cinema 4D and Redshift. The result is a visceral battle with a heavy atmosphere of pressure and desperation that will have you running through a brick wall for a team you may not have known existed. 

The creative director at WAR for the project, Eric Del Greco, spoke with LBB's Ben Conway about grounding CG spaces and characters in "tactile grit", using lighting and editing to create intensity and why the "wild, super-fun" experience of working with Riot is like being told to drive their Ferrari as fast as possible.

LBB> Where did the initial spark for the package come from? Did Riot Games have a brief or were you given free rein over the creative? 

Eric> The team at Riot showed up with a banger of a brief (as they always do) and lots of what powered the final piece was present from the very beginning of the project. They had developed a strong POV on what the LCQ tournament would accomplish for players and teams, how it fit within the larger Valorant competitive scene, plus, the larger visual landscape we were to explore. Their reference points included Mad Max, Twisted Metal, and Fight Club along with a mountain of post-apocalyptic sci-fi madness. Taken together, we immediately understood the tonal qualities of what LCQ was going to feel like and jumped into concept design.

LBB> How was the creative idea developed? How did you end up at a dystopian arena with people battling it out for the final mask? 

Eric> The project team at WAR was so hyped on this - I recall our initial kick-off was eight people just talking over each other, taking over screenshares, building references on references and generally behaving like a pack of dystopian banshees ready to grab the wheel. It was rad. We spent a week developing three different conceptual directions – all aligned across the tonal spectrum shared in the brief but expressed very differently. The arena was built twice, actually. Its initial design was more geologically inspired - a deep subterranean cave, carved out by hand to create a deranged battlespace. As our work progressed, it was clear both teams were gravitating towards a battlespace in which a 'last-man-standing-battle-royale' could take place and allow for a more robust narrative.  

LBB> Where did you draw inspiration from, in terms of the creative process - from character design to the arena and the on-screen graphics? 

Eric> We wanted to transmit the grimy, dystopian DIY vibes found across many sci-fi landscapes – including the Mad Max franchise – favouring the handbuilt over the digital, wherever possible. That meant character designs should feel grounded in earthen textures and tactile grit. The arena, while more designed and structural in its final form, was stripped of any ornamentation and tagged with graffiti and wrapped with razor wire. One aspect of the arena that leaned heavily on real-world inspiration was the lighting rig in the arena. We looked at a lot of stage and lighting setups from touring musicians to better understand what felt real-world and how we could get the most bang for our buck as we ramped up the intensity in the spot.

LBB> At what point did the song choice get solidified? How did the song inspire or affect the animation or editing? 

Eric> The track was part of the original brief from Riot. We listened to it as a group and could instantly feel why Riot was drawn to it. It’s chaotic, creepy, distorted - just wild. The animation team picked up on how violent the cut was going to be (based on the track) and started working out how to match that feeling via camera and lighting approaches. Our editor diced up the track to further amplify the frenetic energy across the piece.

LBB> Where and why did you use live-action footage in the spot? How did you incorporate it with the CG? 

Eric> As citizens of all things CG/digital, we are hyper-aware of how slick CG can present. This world needed to be balanced between a vicious imagined CG hellscape and a near-future, real-world apocalypse. The live-action helped ground the environment and offered true IRL texture necessary to create that balance. We merged these two sources via typical approaches, such as the colour grade and digi-distortions, but also kept an eye on opportunities to create match cuts between CG and live-action to blur the line between real and created.

LBB> The film is very CG heavy and only shows the smallest fraction of Valorant gameplay  - was this a decision made by Riot or by WAR? 

Eric> Yes, the Valorant brand touch is lighter because the intended audience is existing Valorant Champions Tour fans, whom we wanted to get hyped for this event. And LCQ being this last do-or-die type of moment, we wanted to establish a really strong vibe and narrative concept. This meant we had a lot of latitude on how gameplay was to be used... or not used. Once the narrative, characters, and environment were in suitable shape, both teams were eager to go all-in on those aspects of the piece and the need for gameplay took a back seat.

LBB> How did you incorporate aspects from Valorant and its branding into the film? And how did you so effectively create this esports stadium atmosphere without showing footage of the game or a live-action crowd? 

Eric> The brand elements operate as small details - whether that’s a logomark spray-painted onto an interior wall or briefly seen within a graphic transition - we kept them intentionally low-key to focus our viewer’s attention on the chaos inside the arena. Two things made the arena atmosphere work: the light rig was built to mimic explosive light programming found in over-the-top arena rock environments. We also wanted to bring forward a handheld camera approach to many of the shots, bringing our viewer closer to the action. Both of these aspects set the table for our animation team to treat the arena like a live-action shoot, capturing dramatic angles throughout the space.

LBB> How long did the process take in total? 

Eric> We spent approximately two to three weeks in design before we moved into production, which was a quick four weeks. We also designed and delivered the LCQ logo toolkit, plus a wide array of materials for the broadcast package, in parallel with production.

LBB> Could you walk us through the process of creating the 100 CG shots using Cinema 4D and Redshift? What were some interesting creative or production choices and techniques? 

Eric> Based on the speed of the project and what we were trying to accomplish from a CG perspective, the team had to be clever in our production approaches. The C4D + Redshift combo offered speedy design and animation development plus an unusual opportunity inspired by the tone of the piece that we took full advantage of. Knowing we wanted to give the CG a dusty, grainy feel, we decided to render lower-res for speed, then use Topaz Labs’ software to up-rez the entire spot — any digital artifacts would be most welcome (though, there weren’t any to speak of). The software worked quite well for our needs. Additionally, our animation team exported motion tests in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio to further cut down on render times and bring extra cinematic spice to the piece. This allowed us to work even faster, producing approximately 8-10 shots per day that we could audition directly in the cut and enabling us to examine the narrative in nearly real-time. 

LBB> The spot is crazily intense and gets you hyped for the LCQ tournament - how did you create this feeling of intensity? 

Eric> One big part of that intensity is the way the light rig was programmed. It’s a constant pulse of manic energy within the spot, and it helped guide the frenzied nature of the cut. We also weren’t too precious with the CG shots - we gave our editor free rein to blast open our renders to best fit the wave of the narrative. Plus the massive pile of writhing bodies, the heroes viciously clawing their way to the top, the Gladiator-inspired 'throne-room VIP booth'- it all added different levers for us to pull on and tweak until we had dialed the madness just right.

LBB> What is an important aspect of the production process that is vital to creating the visceral ambience, but gets overlooked or goes under the radar? 

Eric> Creating room for artistic exploration inside a usually rigid production process is difficult to do. A multitude of challenges exist to thwart those efforts, and it’s often the case that each day along a project timeline is dedicated to building a certain element of the overall piece. That really squeezes the time for freewheeling thinking, which is unfortunate, since many thoughtful, clever creative solutions come from those experiments.

LBB> What is something memorable about this process - is there a lesson or anecdote that stands out? 

Eric> I don’t think it can be overstated how crucial a thoughtfully constructed brief is to any creative project. That upfront work set the stage for the proper transmission of Riot’s intentions for LCQ. There was no time wasted and we were able to dive deep into the mechanics of the brand design, characters, world design and overall narrative. From a production standpoint, working in lower resolution out of 3D led us to a lot of interesting shot discoveries and allowed the team extra time to explore the arena space and character action. This approach is not usually a fit for most projects - it’ll be interesting to see if we can utilise a similar post-production workflow for more jobs in the future.

LBB> What was the most challenging thing you encountered on this project, and how did you overcome it? 

Eric> From the beginning, our team was motivated by the large-scale ambition of the original brief and set out to challenge each other to deliver a piece that met those aspirations. Working to hit the sky-high expectations we set for ourselves meant that we had to build and stoke the creative fire throughout the project, even when we hit roadblocks. Happily, our crew and Riot embraced this challenge, daring each other to push the creative expression of LCQ. Every morning in our dailies, we poured gas on the good shots and ideas, creating an ambitious environment that kept the team on the lookout for even more insane opportunities to bring into the spot. 

LBB> Which aspect are you most proud of, or most pleased with how it turned out? 

Eric> I think we were able to maintain a high level of inspiration and enthusiasm with both our team and the Riot team, which gave us even more confidence in the outlandish work we were creating together. That is a very pleasing place to work within.

LBB> Do you have anything else to add about this project? 

Eric> The creative working relationship with Riot is kinda like this: the team at Riot pulls up in a Ferrari, asks us to get in, scooches over into the passenger seat, hands us the keys, and asks that we drive as fast as possible. What a wild, super-fun ride it was. Big ups to the entire We Are Royale family and Rel, Hartman, Matt and the whole team at Valorant NA

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We Are Royale, Tue, 23 Nov 2021 14:12:00 GMT