Interview

Director Neil Huxley on Bringing Middle-Earth to Life

neil huxley good pic

Today, gamers got their first look at ‘Friend or Foe’, the new live-action interactive trailer for Middle Earth: Shadow of War. Production on the new piece of advertising was led by director Neil Huxley, making him the first person since Peter Jackson to officially adapt J. R. R. Tolkien’s world in cinematic form.

With previous background in VFX design and art direction, Huxley worked on James Cameron’s Avatar and Zack Snyder’s Watchmen before moving on to direct several celebrated, well-received game trailers and commercials, including the viral trailer for Activision’s Transformers: Fall of Cybertron. Huxley’s other directing credits include the announcement trailers for Mad Max, Dead Space 3, Shadow of Mordor, and the ‘Make History’ trailer for the Assassin’s Creed series.

OnlySP had the pleasure of sitting down and talking to Huxley about the process of directing ‘Friend or Foe’, the challenges he and his crew faced on location in Ukraine, and how he felt to be able to put his mark on a franchise beloved by so many. “It’s an incredible honor,” he quipped. “And it was one that I was not going to mess up!”

Huxley’s mindset is easily understood. After all, fans have expectations, particularly in regard to cinematic works, and when those films depict the fantasy of Lord of the Rings, fan expectation rises even further. Peter Jackson’s movies have set the bar awfully high, but Huxley’s passion and dedication to the project meant that bar was not beyond his reach: “I said to my team, this cannot look like anything less than what’s already been done. We either have to equal that, or go further.”

From the outset, the intention was to gather together some of the best crew members in the industry to create the prosthetics, armor, and weapons needed for the trailer.

“The last thing it needed to be was a cute cosplay video,” Huxley said. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but when you’re creating work on such a huge scale for a major studio, you really have no choice but to knock it out of the park. I had to make sure everyone eon location did an amazing job, as I couldn’t have done this without them.”

With a chuckle in his voice, Huxley reflected on his memories of a pre-production meeting the night before filming began. “I remember saying I should be worried about what we were going to do, but I honestly wasn’t. I was really excited, just like a kid in a candy store. I spent a great deal of time during production walking around with a smile on my face. One member of the team said that every time he spotted me I had a grin on my face. I told him, ‘hey, what’s not to love about this job!'”

shadow of war battlefield

Indeed, working on ‘Friend or Foe’ was a dream come true for the director, who spent his youth in South London sitting on the couch with his brother watching American movies. “1985 to 1995 became very informative years for me,” Huxley explained. “It was from eight until 15 years of age, I’d watch American films. This was the age of pre-CGI effect, so there were many prosthetics effects that were captured in camera. I remember watching The Terminator at the age of 12, and it completely blew my mind. That’s when I knew I wanted to do something similar when I grew up.”

Though the Middle-Earth shoot was a fantasy realized, Huxley and his crew still faced their share of challenges while filming. Winter in Ukraine brings frigid temperatures and a lot of snow, which could in some cases prove quite troublesome to the filming process. Some crew members were worried the amount of snow present might interfere with filming, and so members of the Ukrainian army were dispatched to remove ice. Though some might find the combination of biting cold, snow, ice, and dark skies worrisome, these things did not trouble Huxley.

Instead, his greatest nemesis during the shoot became the sun. “I wanted bad weather,” he said. “It needed to be dark. [The trailer] goes from dusk light into darkness, into night time, and the last thing I desired was a brilliant blue sky with bright sunshine.”

“We went down to rehearse the day before the shoot,” he recalled. “We were going through various fight sequences and blocking moves with the stunt team. And the weather was perfect. There was a little bit of mist in the air, cloudy skies, diffused light. It really felt as if you were standing right there in Mordor. You’d look out across the Black Sea, and it was frozen over. We even drove ATVs out on the ice. It was insane. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was ice as far as the eye could see.”

“I wasn’t worried about the snow,” he continued. “I know visual effects can patch it out in post. What really worried me was the sunshine. And lo and behold, on the first day on location in Belgorod, the sun came out. And it was out for three days.”

With only seven days to film the trailer and its multiple endings, the crew was unable to risk waiting out the bright sunlight while hoping for the return of overcast skies. “You have to roll with the punches,” Huxley said.

Seeking ways to circumvent the sunlight, he consulted with his cinematographer, Fabian Wagner. “He is an amazing DP, and also a good friend. He shot one of the most amazing episodes of television ever created, which was ‘Battle of the Bastards’ for Game of Thrones.”

Luckily, Wagner had also experienced his own set of weather issues on various shoots, including Game of Thrones. “When he lensed ‘Battle of the Bastards’, Fabian shot through every conceivable type of weather situation in the space of three or four days. There was rain, harsh sunlight, thick fog… just about every kind of lighting scenario possible. But when you watch the final result he balances everything out, so you never get the impression that his material is shot in so many different lighting scenarios.”

In addition to utilizing Wagner’s vast experience, Huxley decided to defeat the sun’s bounty of rays by using its own power against it, shooting in the deep shadows cast by the towering stone fortress. “When the sun was its lowest in the sky, we had reasonably long shadows on that side of the fortress wall,” he said. “We kept the actors in shadow and shot around the most impressive side of the fortress.”

Despite the many tricks up Huxley’s sleeves (and the occasional cooperation of the sun), still moments existed where he and his crew had to stop filming to wait for the light to dissipate or shift directions. “It’s incredibly difficult to fix unwanted highlights on your actors in post. It really never looks right. You’ve got to paint all those numerous highlights out of a moving image, frame by frame, and it’s an absolute nightmare.”

shadow of war fortress

Minimizing downtime meant looking two, three, or even four steps ahead, determining if the sun might be shining in frame when they needed to roll. Huxley chose various scenes which could be filmed in the mornings when the sun was low in the sky, and long shadows could provide the illusion of night. Still, some post-effect editing of unwanted light was necessary.

“The work that MPC [Moving Picture Company] completed was truly incredible,” said Huxley. “The visual effects came together exceptionally well, with amazing work on sky replacements as well as ground planes that were added back in, plus set extensions on the real fortress. In the end, there is absolutely no way that you can tell we shot this in sunlight.”

Despite the importance of a dark atmosphere, Huxley and his crew still needed some daylight to work, particularly for the trailer’s opening shot. “We pan up off the bodies on the ground, and you see the wide vista of Mordor with the fortress in the foreground, as we’re behind Talion. That was the last shot of day two, we were behind schedule with the sun setting, and about to lose the fortress in darkness. We shot that scene rapidly to get it in the can. We had no choice, we were so remote out there that it was impossible to bring in big lights to shoot at night.”

The crew was able to set up a few tents along the beach, but was otherwise limited in the size and amount of equipment that could be brought in. “There’s no way you’re getting a Technocrane on set, or hanging any big lights off those walls. As a result the light of dusk became very important to me, and in this instance we only had an hour to get that shot.”

Another important aspect of creating ‘Friend or Foe’ was casting Talion—the ranger of Gondor who serves as Shadow of War‘s protagonist. Huxley’s search for a man who could do his own stunts as well as deliver dialogue led him to stuntman Ashley Beck, who showed up for his audition with a delightful surprise.

“The beautiful thing about Ash is he’s a real life ninja,” Huxley said. “I’ve never seen anybody move like that wearing that much armor. He’s a full-on martial artist, and he’s been that way since he was a kid. He even came to the audition with his own katana.”

“Ash told me that he’d bought [Shadow of Mordor], a few weeks earlier. And he’d rehearsed a sequence for us, arriving at the audition with his sword. He proceeded to kill imaginary Orcs with such precision, dexterity, and brute force, that he just looked like Talion. It was mind blowing.”

Beck’s resemblance to the man of Gondor proved fortuitous, as it allowed Huxley to film him performing stunts without the need for wide angle shots or close-ups to hide use of a body double. “You can see it’s Talion performing these moves,” he remarked. “By the end of the fight sequence I’m right there on his face with the camera, and there’s no need to cut away from him because he adds so much power to the film.”

Ashley Beck As Talion

“He feels so authentic and genuine,” Huxley said of Beck’s performance. “He’s doing all the moves, delivering his lines with perfect precision. This was part of my master plan, to find someone of this caliber to film. There are not many actors like that in the world. I think Ash was the only one who could play this part. I found a couple of stunt performers for the Talion role, but none of them looked the part like him.”

“And he’s such a lovely guy. Such an amazing person to work with, and some of the stunt work he performed was just incredible. He would nail the most complex of moves by the second take.”

Not only did Huxley and his crew need to film the ‘Friend or Foe’ spot, they also had to film the six extensions that make it an interactive trailer. With only seven days to gather the needed footage, Huxley was hard-pressed for time. “You just have to move incredibly quickly,” he stated. “I’m not someone who does twenty, thirty, or forty takes if I can help it. I usually get what I need after take five or six. If I don’t, then something is wrong and I need to adjust accordingly.”

“There was just so much to shoot,” Huxley added, pointing out that each individual ‘Slay Your Nemesis’ and ‘Save Your Ally’ segment was just as lengthy as the ‘Friend or Foe’ spot. “It was like shooting another commercial for each segment. There is more dialogue in these extensions driving the narrative along, so the plan was to shoot on an indoor stage where we could control all the elements.”

Maintaining the illusion of a rain-soaked battlefield while filming indoors came with a unique set of challenges. “I kept the big doors open of the studio,” Huxley explained. “It was ‒20°C in Kiev. So you’d see exhaled breath in cold air that matched the footage we’d already shot outdoors. I also had rain towers indoors, as it was a drainable set. We built a three-walled set to match the real world fortress walls. We also had to be a bit smart about how to cheat that fourth wall.”

Shooting an interactive trailer for a game is far more complicated than a traditional project, Huxley noted. “It was a challenge to capture those extensions purely because of the nature of the set. There was more dialogue and more story beats to hit as a result. We didn’t have much time, but we made the best of it.”

Despite the difficulty inherent in the filming process, Huxley persevered, and in the end was pleased with the final result. “I’ve never seen an interactive film that looks quite like this before,” he said, pointing out that while other interactive video game trailers exist, none have the cinematic quality inherent in ‘Friend or Foe’ and its extensions. “It still maintains a great cinematic language.”

“I think we’ve done a really nice job here with the interactive side,” he continued, expressing his excitement and anticipation ahead of fan reactions. “The fact that you’ve got six different endings gives you this great re-watch feel. I’m sure there’s going to be people out there who will play through it again and again to see them all.”

Enjoying the interview so far? Click on the link to part two below to discover more about the creation of ‘Friend or Foe’ and its extensions, Huxley’s experience trying Shadow of War at E3, and his thoughts on the game’s Nemesis system.

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