Apex Legends | Behind The Project

Work February 8, 2019

Pick your character. Round up your squad. Show everyone what legends are made of.

The Mill collaborated with Respawn Entertainment on the launch of their new game: #ApexLegends™. Set in the Titanfall™ universe, Apex Legends shakes up the battle royale genre with a cast of unique characters, squad-based gameplay, innovative mechanics and more.

The Mill Los Angeles Directors Lisha Tan and David Lawson had the pleasure of teaming up with Respawn Entertainment to deliver the action-packed visuals for the reveal trailer and opening cinematic. The team utilized motion capture and innovative Creative Technology texturing techniques to bring the legendary Apex Legends to life.
We had a chance to catch up with some of the project’s lead artists to learn all about how the intricate work came together. Scroll to read all about it!

How did you and the team kick off the project?

Lisha Tan, Mill Director
We started off by setting the “Moving Concept Art” look with a huge deck of references and close collaboration with Respawn on their archive gaming concepts and existing universe. We ultimately knew that we’d be showing off the iconic characters within a number of specific environments. Teaming up two directors from different disciplines, me with a background in illustration and design and Dave with his CG perspective, proved to be a great partnership with our unique perspectives key to crafting a distinctive hand-painted aesthetic.
David Lawson, Mill Director
The constant communication with Respawn on the dialogue and tone of the script ensured we honored the complex personalities of the game’s characters. We added another layer of authenticity with the opportunity to have a multi-day shoot with performances by Roger Craig Smith and Shantel VanSanten, the actors who bring Mirage and Wraith to life in the game. Every scene was worked through using motion-capture technology including stunt work such as rope work and zip lining. Then, throughout the project, we were constantly iterating and interrogating each shot, to ensure we found the middle ground between the look being too cartoony or too realistic.
Ed Laag, VFX Art Director
Five visually-rich environments exist as backdrops for the lead characters. Inspired by archive gaming concepts provided by Respawn, and the existing Titanfall universe, these were created through a mix of highly-detailed matte paintings and textured 3D models which were elevated by the addition of elemental CG FX

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced?

Peter Claes, 3D FX Supervisor
We were provided with approximately a million (although we didn’t count them!) independent elements. We were trying to craft a 2D look but dealing with 3D objects, which posed a creative challenge. There were a lot of diverse FX tasks for us to carry out. Elements included structures, landscape, vegetation, and water, and effects such as fire, bullet impact, water splash, ripples, muzzle flashes and portal effects. We took the unique approach of partnering with our Creative Technology department to use algorithmic plug-ins, in order to filter realistic looking CG into the paint-brushed look.
Timothy Crabtree, 2D Lead Artist
Due to the style of the trailer, traditional photographic 2D methods for integration and depth creation had to be approached in a different way. Texture was added to anything that would typically become soft and out of focus to retain the feeling of painted brush strokes. The edges of characters were enhanced and made more visible to give them a cel shaded / cartoon aesthetic.
Tom Graham, 3D Lead Artist

Certain dynamic elements, such as the cloud of toxic green gas, were semi transparent in nature. They were especially tricky in terms of finding the right balance between being illustrative in look but still recognizable.

Chris Bayol, 3D Lead Artist / Lighting Supervisor

As a studio we are so used to adding detail to everything, and this was almost the reverse, where we needed to strip out detail and focus on patterns and brush strokes. Losing visual noise ensured the characters and environments worked together to achieve our Moving Concept Art style. Some of the optical effects such as motion blur, lens flare, depth of field are aspects we typically use to make renders look as photoreal as possible. In this case that would interfere with achieving the Moving Concept Art Look so we had to rediscover what lent itself to the style and what didn’t. We avoided motion blur and even animated on twos and sometimes fours to help the style. Depth of field was challenge because our directors wanted to use it for storytelling but the traditional optical nature of it took away from the stylized look. Our R&D team developed a tool for Nuke which was z-depth aware that allowed artists to dial in a stylized out of focus look to replace the traditional bokeh.

Can you share some key achievements of the work?


Chris Bayol, 3D Lead Artist / Lighting Supervisor
Finding a way to make the iconic characters look painted but not feel flat. We brought them to life through a fine balance of texture, interactive lighting / shading and contouring.
Ed Laag, VFX Art Director
This was a very unique project that required the matte-painting and FX department to work in tandem to create each scene, and to ensure that both the background and foreground blended together to create a believable and aesthetically pleasing environment.
Michael Comly, 3D Lead Artist (Cinematic)
In the opening cinematic, we based the western-style dive bar on an existing game locations. The smoky atmosphere and single light source enhanced the moody look and feel. Eagle eyed fans will note numerous nods to the previous Respawn games; such as the fact that every patron in the bar is a character from an existing game and the graphics and brands featured are taken from elsewhere in the universe.
Ben Smith, 2D Lead Artist (Cinematic)
As part of the motion-capture shoot, a complex facial-rigging solution was established to capture the expressive characters. It was my first time working with this type of footage. The opening shot of the cinematic, when the camera enters the bar, features a close up shot of the face to a high level of detail. The challenge was accurately matching the idiosyncrasies of the actors.
Tawfeeq Martin, Technical Innovations Manager
David and Lisha invited our creative technology team to collaborate on a fun challenge here — the brief called for mammoth amounts of independent elements including structures, landscape, vegetation, and water to be treated with hand painted look. Our objective was to leverage machine intelligence and state of the art stylization algorithms offering laborsaving execution without compromising artistry.
We looked to convolutional neural networks to compliment earliest look exploration. Fueled by Nvidia’s latest AI enhanced RTX boards we fed the network its weight in mood paintings, style references and game assets to produce artistic images of high perceptual quality – all within minutes! Synthesized texture maps that respected edge boundaries was a novel way of addressing temporal incoherence over image sequences. In the end this method was invaluable for character and overall style inspiration.
Once we met creative approval we reproduced the look into an anisotropic kuwahara filter for even more coherent abstraction. Derivative’s Touchdesigner was used as a prototyping platform and real-time sequence review tool before finally porting the algorithm into distributed Nuke instances that offered artists more familiar creative control.
A great collaborative effort by artists and technologists trading high doses of curiosity!

What was your favorite part of the job?

Chris Bayol, 3D Lead Artist / Lighting Supervisor
One of the funniest parts of the project for me was visiting the team at Respawn, learning about their game and then getting to play it with a group of Mill colleagues 5/6 months before its release.  Most of us had no clue what we were doing, but I somehow stayed alive the longest!
Tom Graham, 3D Lead Artist
The best part of this job was creating the look of the characters and environment. Since the style is so conceptual, I enjoyed the challenge of developing a painterly look to our assets.
Matt Osbourne, Colourist
It was a really collaborative effort. It was great that the team was able to come into the suite regularly, as it allowed them to see the work on the monitor and make adjustments in real-time. We used the grade as an opportunity to enhance all of the marvelous work achieved by all of the Mill artists and a real pleasure to work on.


Learn more about Apex Legends trailer and opening cinematic.