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A day in real-life Azeroth

On-set at the movie, and inside Warcraft's most expensive expansion yet.

Editor's note: To mark the release of the Warcraft movie we're returning to our look behind the scenes of Duncan Jones' epic, first published last year. Our review of the movie will be up on the site shortly.

It's the screaming you hear first. Starting at a low rumble, it gains in pitch until suddenly its source bursts through the wall of smoke. It feels like everything's happening in slow motion; the villagers, their faces twisted in fear as they run through the muddy streets, slipping and falling in the twilight dim. Their pursuers; an army of twisted trolls, storming the Old Town quarter of Stormwind, cackling as they rip through the crowd, bouncing from victim to victim, sparing no-one from their savage attack. There - a troll grabs some poor blacksmith by the neck, and slams him into ground. There - a dressmaker is smashed in the face with a shield, leaving her to crumple like a rag doll. It's a massacre.

And then, the sound of hope - a clarion call sounds, and another army charges through the smoke. They glisten in suits of armour, wielding swords with four-foot blades and impossibly large shields. The leader, whose kit is decorated extensively with ornate lion motifs, raises his sword, and they rush the trolls from behind. The leader's helmet is knocked off as his smashes into the first troll like a quarterback, flattening him. Villagers look stunned - it's King Llane himself, come to rescue them, with the great knight Sir Lothar at his side. The trolls turn in surprise and try to mount a counter-attack - one leaps off the Stormwind battlements at Lothar, who manages to raise his shield above his head just in time - the troll lands squarely on it, then backflips off, ready to charge again, only to feel the ice cold steel of Llane's sword slip between his ribs. Trolls fly in every direction, as Llane's army fights to save Stormwind - and watching over all of them is a dark figure, wearing a cloak made of raven's feathers, glistening like a thousand oily rainbows. He looks to be concentrating, as if painfully pulling up magic from the very earth itself. He raises his arms and then...

"Cut!" Loud bells ring, and suddenly, we're teleported back to Canada in 2014, where a group of very jetlagged and cold journalists are standing in the middle of a vast Vancouver stadium, in which the Old Town quarter of Stormwind has been recreated. The trolls and humans suddenly start laughing and joking with each other, helping each other up while patting each other on the back. Of course, the trolls aren't really trolls - they're stuntmen in motion-capture dot-studded grey pyjamas. But if you look at the monitor three feet to your left, you can see them as the camera sees them - rendered CGI creatures, with all their movements mapped in real-time to the actors. Although right now the trolls are smoking cigarettes and reading the newspaper, which sort of kills the illusion a bit. Over by the well, the magus Medivh is checking his Facebook on his smartphone. A vast clean-up operation is going on, as assistants scatter, rushing to reset the scene for another take. Through the smoke comes a familiar face, fixed with a beatific smile.

"Hi," he says. "I'm Duncan Jones." His introduction is interrupted by his assistant director shouting over the PA system. "Can the dead bodies stay where they are please?" Jones grins. "Welcome to Azeroth!"

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The world of Warcraft has not had a particularly easy transition to screen. By the time the film arrives in June 2016, it will have been a full decade since Blizzard announced the joint project between themselves and Legendary Pictures. Over that time, many have tried to crack the project - the enfant terrible of game adaptation, Uwe Boll, even threw his hat in the ring at one point, only to be told curtly by Legendary: "We will not sell the movie rights, not to you... especially not to you."

In July 2009, Evil Dead creator Sam Raimi was attached to the project. Like every gaming geek in the land, young director Duncan Jones was watching the project carefully, along with his producing partner, Stuart Fenegan. Fresh from the duo's success with acclaimed sci-fi flick Moon, Stuart called Legendary. "I was like 'Hello Legendary, I hear you've got the rights to Warcraft. I know what's happening with Mr Raimi and you know, the film. But if anything ever falls over in that regard do keep us in mind.' And they were like, 'Yeah right! We liked Moon, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.'" But Fenegan and Jones persisted, calling Legendary every six months or so to catch up on the project, while also working on their second feature, Source Code. When Raimi eventually dropped out in 2012, Fenegan called Legendary again: "Only this time, instead of 'Thanks for checking in,' it became, 'Call me in three weeks.'"

According to Fenegan, Jones read the current script and realised why it wasn't working - it was a clichéd, traditional fantasy story that pitched the humans as heroes and the orcs as villains. The duo were invited to pitch their concept to Blizzard. Stuart recalls: "Duncan went in and said, 'You can play as orcs or humans, it's not good versus evil, there are two sides to this story.' [Blizzard's senior vice president of story] Chris Metzen banged his fist on the table and shouted 'Finally, someone gets the horde!'" Jones proposed taking the story right back to the beginning, as the orcs, led by the heroic Durotan, first arrive in Azeroth and clash with the humans led by the equally heroic King Llane. The pair won the pitch, the film was greenlit, and shooting began in January 2014. Which is why we now find ourselves in Vancouver, on a nondescript industrial estate, watching a crew of puffing prop-makers trying to fit a shield the size of a dinner table into the back of a van.

"If you think about it all in one go, you'd go mad." It's May 2014, and it's the final week of shooting for the Warcraft movie. We're currently on a tour of the production facility in the industrial estate, and production designer Gavin Bocquet is currently pondering the vast amount of work that has gone into the film. "I've been working on the film for around 10 months now. The amount of sets we've built is around 110 - and that's a lot of sets." We're currently in the model room, an Aladdin's cave full of incredibly detailed models of sets from the film, with beautiful concept art paintings lining the walls. It's a Warcraft nerd's wet dream - over there, a model of the Karazhan Tower, and to its left a spectacular painting of The Great Forge, which lies at the heart of the Dwarven capital of Ironforge. In the corner of the room, a 3D printer churns out props for the movie, everything from small pendants to full sets of life-sized horse armour. According to Bocquet, this is the room where they show Jones all concept work for the film. "We start off with a few pieces of concept art, and a few models, Duncan makes his choices, 'This is good, take this a bit further' that sort of thing. Duncan's incredibly good, you can show him quite simple sketch ideas and he'll get it."

This is the Warcraft that fans know and love, though there have been concessions, as Bocquet admits. "The game is very colourful and fantastical, but there was always a feeling that this had to be gritty and real, a world with real integrity to it. Sometimes the script required us to change a layout because it didn't work with the demands of the script." There remain small details in there for the fans - on the Stormwind set later that day, I was thrilled to discover a Warcraft-styled post box standing prominently in the street, right next to posters warning townsfolk to beware of Kobalds and advertising the Stranglethorn Fishing Extravaganza. According to Gavin, the film has been having an effect on the game too, "When we were designing the set, Duncan felt the Lion's Pride Inn was a little too cramped, so we added a second floor and a balcony. When Nick and Rob from Blizzard saw it, they liked it so much, they're now thinking of retrofitting the game version to match."

As I walk to our first set, I spot posters everywhere asking people to be quiet while 'Lost in Gas Town' - the codename the project is going under - is being filmed. Eventually, after walking through a maze of wall flats, I emerge onto a gigantic set. The three-story room is a vast and circular - 'stone' walls (actually styrofoam) reach to the ceiling, while giant green screens hug the windows. This, apparently, is the highest room in the Karazahn Tower, where the magus Medivh (played in the film by Ben Foster) has been conjuring up dark forces with his apprentice Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer). The room is in ruin. Giant chunks have been ripped out of the wall, the marble pillars are cracked, and in the centre of the room lies a pile of rubble that was once a giant golum, the end result of a fight that was filmed on the set the day before. It seems that Medivh has been a very naughty boy.

Ben Foster seems like perfect casting for Medivh, the Guardian of Tirisfal - when we meet him later that day, he sizzles with a laidback intensity - so much so that we're afraid to ask if the incredibly nasty looking burn on his arm was caused by yesterday's battle, or if it's just make up.

"Duncan's said he's shooting this like a western or a samurai pic," says Foster, carefully picking his words. "In those terms, Medivh is like an old gunslinger, convinced by his friends to come back and fight one last time." Foster says that he drew extensively on his background in meditation to build up a visual vocabulary for the use of magic in the film, and that the process was often painful for Medivh. His character's strained relationship with his friends King Llane (Dominic Cooper) and Lothar (Travis Fimmel) meant that that Foster felt quite lonely on set at times. "God, it was just like going back to high school, just the weirdo in the corner," laughs Foster. "Only this time they want to film it."

Next we swing by the set for the Violet Hold, Dalaran's prison. The set is vibrating with activity as set builders frantically paint the steps that lead up to the set with a thick, neon-green paint. The air is thick with sawdust and smoke, as noisy machinery and loud reggae music compete for attention. The set itself consists of two giant rings suspended above the ground. The elderly actors who will play the council of mages will have to stand on these tiny walkways, and they're currently being harnessed up with wires, just in case one of them falls off. As we're shown around the costume and prop departments, it's incredible how much work has gone into things that may only ever be seen fleetingly, if at all; one shelf features hundreds of rune-encrusted, leather-bound books, all featuring hand-stitched pages. "I still wake up screaming just thinking about it," says the nearby (and incredibly tired-looking) prop master responsible for them.

The costumes, too, have an incredible level of detail. Medivh's raven feather cloak alone required two rooms just to store the thousands of feathers that were hand-stitched into the costume. There's been effort to make the costumes fit the Warcraft aesthetic, too; swords, for example, are attached to the characters' armour without scabbards, mimicking the floating unsheathed weapons from the game. Of course, some compromises have had to be made. "We couldn't have two giant pauldrons, like you see in the game, as you wouldn't practically be able to draw your sword," says Mayes C. Rubeo, the costume designer. She also worked on Avatar, but said this was on a different scale altogether. "We've had over 650 costumes and over 110 suits of armour from Weta. It was incredible."

With night-time drawing in, we finally arrive at the Stormwind set in the neon-lit stadium to watch the troll raid. This is an early sequence in the film (or possibly a flashback, it's a little unclear) showing King Llane and Sir Lothar at their badass best. We've read so many tales of directors being at their wit's end when films reach this stage of production that we're amazed at how calm Duncan Jones appears to be, given it's the last week of shooting. "I have good people who do the worrying for me," he smiles. It's clearly been a long road for Jones. "We'd been off Source Code for a while, and there were a lot of offers that were coming in which were either another Source Code or 'How about a guy in a space station on his own who finds other guys just like him?' Basically, everyone just wanted me to make the same movie all over again and I didn't want to do that. And some of you may know that I'm a gamer for a long time, and the opportunity to take a true world-building project on this kind of scale and start it from scratch - not do a sequel, but to be there at the beginning - I just wanted to do it, so I did chase it."

Jones' enthusiasm for the source material is evident - when I ask him what his response was to finally getting the Warcraft gig, he pumps his fists in the air and roars loudly, almost causing a nearby extra to drop their soup in surprise. And Jones isn't the only Warcraft player on the set either - Rob Kazinsky, who plays Orgrim, has over 400 days logged in World of Warcraft, and visual effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer has three level 90 characters. "Bill's double Oscar-winning, he's phenomenal and he's a Warcraft player," say Jones. "He's invested in making sure this works. And we've got ILM doing the effects. Every couple of years there is a film which is going to push the boundaries of what the technology is capable of, and in a few years' time it won't be this film, but right now it's this film. We're doing things no one else has done."

When asked if he's put any easter eggs in the film, Jones smiles. "I don't think I should say really, but a long time ago I used to run a guild for Ultima Online, then we all moved to Warcraft. The Guild's still running, so for those guys, there's an easter egg in there for them." And with a final laugh, as if unable to believe that he gets to do this for a living, Jones walks back to the set, where the previously dead bodies are finally being allowed to revive themselves. It's been a long campaign for sure, but from what we've seen, it seems like this could well be the best World of Warcraft expansion yet.

This article is based on a press trip to Vancouver. Blizzard covered the costs of travel and accommodation.