The talented people of Axis Studios are no strangers to Magic: The Gathering, having already worked on three prior trailers for expansion packs, but the game’s 84th expansion release, Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths, brought with it some special challenges.
We spoke with two of Axis Studios’ project leaders, CG Supervisor Georg-Sebastian Dressler and Head of Rigging & Creature FX Will Pryor, to learn about the approach they took, the challenges they faced in bringing the behemoths to life, and how they overcame them with the help of Maya.
The first and maybe biggest challenge comes from bringing characters and creatures to life that already exist in static art form, and have become embedded in the imaginations of Magic fans worldwide. Intuitively, you might think it’s easier to work from existing artwork since you’re not creating a creature from scratch, but the opposite turns out to be true: fans have certain expectations about how their beloved characters and monsters will look and behave, and your work will be judged against those expectations.
Will Pryor put it this way: “It’s difficult to make sure we’re really staying true to the card art. There are millions of people around the world playing this game, and while some of them play it for the immersive aspect or the competitiveness, there’s a huge selection of people that play it and collect the expansions because they love the art on the cards. They’re going to be very critical of how these characters evolve. With every new deck released, there’s an evolution to the character stories: they break down what has been happening, and why this character is now on this new plane of existence.”
Practically speaking, that means there isn’t even just one version of each character; there are many. And that meant they couldn’t draw from only one-character iteration but had to create composites from the many versions already in existence.
Take Vivien Reid, for example, the butt-kicking heroine of the trailer. She’s a “planeswalker,” someone capable of traveling between realities in a burst of green light and summoning ethereal creatures to fight for her in battle, and she’s existed in the Magic universe for more than two years, under varying appearances. As Georg told us, creating her composite involved a lot of research and hard work: “We had to bring several card arts together to create our main character, Vivien. She has different iterations throughout the whole Magic: The Gathering timeline, and with help from Wizards of the Coast streamlined her appearance moving forward. We studied the model, experimented with different design iterations, and then built a Vivien that represents all the Viviens that came before her.”
The creatures themselves posed a big problem, particularly when it came to scaling. “We had huge monsters and tiny characters,” Georg told us, “so the camera work was quite significant. We had to figure out, very early on, the heights and scales, how big everything is, and how they’d fit into the environment.” It was a challenge the artists of Axis Studios were eager to take on, according to Will: “There was a lot of hype about the project within the company because it’s one of the few we get to work on involving imaginative creatures. It’s almost like the conversation you have with your mates about what a shark crossed with a gorilla or a tiger might look like – that was pretty much exactly the type of conversations we were having with this project.”
But bringing those fun and creative elements from the imaginative world to the digital one involved a lot of hard work, and – it turned out – a new approach. “We have a very strong creature and character pipeline that we use for our rigging, but it’s built around a lot of assumptions: that the creature will be a quadruped, for example,” noted Will. “All of a sudden, when you’re met with the challenge of a tiger that’s got wings or a giant centipede with a toothy maw, you need to start looking at things outside the box.”
On top of that, they were working on a tight schedule – and during the COVID lockdown, no less. “We have such a short amount of downtime between projects,” Will told us, “so we don’t always have the time to test new tools and new software releases.”
That’s where the versatility of Maya came in handy. Axis Studios, Will shared with us, is already “tightly ingrained into Maya. All of our tools are written in Maya for rigging and the same in animation. All of our animation tools and our animation pipeline and our rigging pipeline is the fabric of Maya. Maya is and will be, for the foreseeable future, an integral part of that pipeline.” But their artists tend to work with a variety of different creative software. “We have artists who prefer to work in ZBrush, or in Mudbox, but the great thing about Maya is that it’s so versatile: we can easily pick up an asset that somebody has done in ZBrush or Mudbox or any other software, and we can seamlessly bring it into Maya and integrate it into our pipeline, and then build our rigs based on our output.”
Maya was also helpful in meeting the scale challenge. When you design a scene with assets of such different sizes, the setup is extremely important: you have to be able to block the asset movements in a way that’s realistic to their environment. “Maya actually helped us get the setup done correctly,” Georg told us. “We did all the shot-specific setups in Maya and then shared that with our layout and animation teams, so they could see what we saw later in lighting. Then we transferred it over from there with our position values, so the team could see it in lighting as well. Finding the best composition for each shot – that was actually done in Maya, as part of our assembly and shot-based pipeline.”
All of that hard work paid off for Axis Studios, as they were given the opportunity to watch the Wizards of the Coast live stream of the trailer release on Twitch. Rarely do artists get to see, in real-time, the enthusiastic appreciation of their work. “Just sitting and watching this live stream and seeing these people’s comments was so rewarding,” Will told us. “Everyone worked hard on the project, and watching these positive comments flooding in was a shot of fresh energy and motivation.”
Taking in the impressive artwork and design showcased in the Ikoria: Lair of the Behemoth trailer, we’re looking forward to what Axis Studios and Wizards of the Coast pull off for their next collaboration.
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