Courtesy of M2 Animation & Games Workshop

Shock and Ork: How M2 brought a Warhammer: Kill Team battle to life

Welcome to Warhammer 40,000: a tabletop game set in the grim darkness of the far future, where mighty armies clash on countless war-torn worlds. Humanity stands alone, beset on all sides by the threats of the heretic, the mutant, and the alien. Will humanity be able to stop the Ork invasion? 

That question served as the basis for a novel CG cinematic that puts viewers into the heart of a Warhammer 40,000 Kill Team battle. Why novel? Because unlike most other cinematics, M2 Animation’s trailer wasn’t connected to the release of a video game. Instead, it was commissioned by tabletop game legend, Games Workshop, for the long-awaited reimagining of Warhammer 40,000 Kill Team created especially for fans of special ops and skirmishes. 

A spin-off of the classic Warhammer 40,000 miniatures wargame, Kill Team rebuilds the extensive rules of Warhammer from the ground up so that the gameplay is more accessible and streamlined than ever before. Completing a round of Kill Team can take as little as 45 minutes, and also only requires a few figures and scenery to get started.

“Games Workshop wanted Kill Team to break new ground as a game from the start, and that extended to the way it had to be introduced to fans,” begins Filip Stanfeld, Director at M2. “Making a high-end cinematic for the release of a board game is pretty unexpected. Our brief was to completely reinvent what a board game trailer could be while using the characters and mechanics from the Kill Team game rules. The end product needed to be a high-speed, adrenaline-fuelled dramatization of a match that could actually play out on someone's gaming table at home.”

The battle to the finish line

Taking Warhammer’s characters from board to screen, however, was always going to be a challenge. The much-loved tabletop game, which is played using physical miniatures on a model battlefield, has been one of the world’s most popular titles since the late ‘80s. Generations have spent countless hours painting character models, conjuring up scenes together, and using their imaginations to bring the game to life.
Courtesy of M2 Animation & Games Workshop
“The Warhammer 40,000 worlds are so richly detailed. Games Workshop even published books and artwork, as well as extensive rulebooks on the mechanics that tie the story together,” Stanfeld continues. “On one hand, that was a blessing: It meant we had an abundance of documentation and art to build on. On the other hand, however, it puts extra pressure on us to make sure everything we created fits into the universe so many people have imagined.”

To add to the pressure, a global GPU shortage kicked in just as the team began working on the cinematic, which meant that scaling up their render farm would be next to impossible. “We knew we had to find an alternative solution,” reveals Chris Bardoux, CG Supervisor at M2. “For a long time, we’d been impressed by Unreal Engine’s real-time rendering capabilities, and early tests convinced us that it was the right tool for this job. It far exceeded our expectations when it came to both speed and quality of the final renders.”

From tabletop to screen

The first step was to use Maya to create all the props, environments, and character animations required for the cinematic’s epic battle scenes. Since all the characters had a tiny plastic miniature counterpart, M2’s art team worked closely with Games Workshop to ensure the Orks and Krieg soldiers resemble the figurines from the Kill Team box set.
Once the assets and animations were complete, Bardoux then wrote a Python integration for transferring everything from Maya to Unreal Engine. “We used Unreal Engine to light and render almost every shot,” he explains. “We found this particularly useful for real-time lighting and shot development. It was not uncommon on this production to change the set or camera lenses at the same time as we were finalizing lighting. All of these things combined are essential for a shot to work, and to have the creative freedom to do all of them at the same time was amazing.”
Courtesy of M2 Animation & Games Workshop
By the time M2 delivered the cinematic, 23 out of 28 scenes were rendered directly from Unreal Engine. Houdini was then used to create the more challenging cinematic’s effects, including flamethrower weapons and explosions, before being composited onto the Unreal Engine plates then graded in DaVinci Resolve to complete.

“Using Unreal Engine was out of our comfort zone as we’d never used it before,” says Bardoux. “Having that direct feedback of what the movie was going to look like in the viewport, however, turned out to be priceless. Our render times were reduced to close to nothing, which meant we could quickly iterate versions and spend more time improving the quality of the look. After this experience, we’ll be including Unreal Engine at all stages of our production, and are excited to sink our teeth into Unreal Engine 5. They say you must choose two between fast, good and efficient, but with the help of Unreal Engine, we’re able to offer our clients all three.”

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