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."
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 cut scenes' 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. This wasn't a one-way street, however, as the cut-scenes required higher resolution assets, which meant that sometimes we would design details on characters or locations, and then send them back to Relic for signoff."
Once the rich, tactile designs were ready, each conveying the painterly style the Warhammer 40K franchise is known for, Axis worked to give the images subtle motions and a delicate seasoning of effects, then meticulously planned the camera movements through each diorama.
"Using the animated storyboards we had prepared as reference, we translated the nuance of the camera movements to the final images," says Abonamous. "Relic gave us high-level feedback, giving us an idea of the important narrative beats. But otherwise we had a lot of creative freedom to explore visual and compositional options on our end."
Axis' animated paintings were ultimately delivered as eight separate sequences, comprising 14-minutes of beautifully brutal narrative. Concept to delivery took six months, with Axis engaging in much technical and creative thinking along the way.
"The biggest challenge we faced was how to add a sense of depth to these paintings," Abonamous recalls. "Our tech gurus came up with an approach that allowed us to use a 'thick' atmosphere of smoke, fog, and haze inside 2.5D compositions.
"We also had a lot of content to render, which always poses a challenge on projects of this scope," he adds. "We streamlined the pipeline to a point where we saved time by rendering assets just once for an entire shot, regardless of the moving camera. That saved huge amounts of time and enabled us to focus on getting each sequence feeling right creatively and rhythmically."
Beyond the technical innovations, the final animated sequences represent a deep pool of artistic talent: the sweeping panoramas glide past in amber and copper chiaroscuro, fetid Orks and bulwarked Space Marines held in moments of frozen bloodshed. It's static poetry – taking the viewer through fragments of captured time.
"The Axis team on Dawn of War III are fans first and foremost, so they really put their all into this," concludes Abonamous.
You can watch the making of Dawn of War III's announcement trailer below.
And the full announcement trailer is below, for the sake of comparison.