The Spot: War’s Endgame

The Xbox franchise that changed everything tweaks the formula for its third and final trailer

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GENESIS: The Xbox third-person shooter Gears of War, from Epic Games, reinvented video-game advertising. While most war-game ads put hard-driving music over cutscene montages, the trailers for the first two Gears games were single, coherent, 60-second narratives, ultraviolent but much more mournful in tone. By silencing the sounds of battle and laying spare, elegiac songs on top—Gary Jules's version of "Mad World" in the first spot, DeVotchKa's "How It Ends" in the second—the ads evoked a world of loss and destroyed beauty. For the third and final trailer in the trilogy, the creatives at twofifteenmccann had to hew closely to the instantly recognizable (and widely imitated) style they invented, but not repeat themselves. "You want to run away from what you've done before," says chief creative officer Scott Duchon. "But the right thing for Epic was to celebrate the end of this franchise as it always lived." They found a balance by making the new spot grittier and more frenetic, with fresh visual tricks and camera angles, while still choosing a supremely melancholy song—Mazzy Star's 1993 track "Into Dust."

COPYWRITING: The writers scripted the 60 seconds as a journey through all three games. The main protagonists, Marcus Fenix and Dominic Santiago, fight their way through key scenes from the first two games, like Emergence Day and the Flooding of Jacinto, then step into battlescapes from the third game, with new weapons and enemies. An on-screen tagline appears: "Brothers to the end." The first two words fade out, and the line reads simply, "The end."

ART DIRECTION: Gears of War trailers look like the gameplay—the previous two were built in the same software, Epic's Unreal Engine. This time, Digital Domain was brought in to add effects not native to the game. Chief among them is a time lapse that makes much of the scenery appear to crumble and decay, even as the soldiers fight in real time. This gives the sense of time passing through the franchise's epic story arc. "Everything moving is live action. Everything static and dead is time lapse," says director Adam Berg. (A monster can be both—attacking in real time when alive, then quickly decomposing when killed.) The lighting is gloomy and oppressive, with flashes from firearms and ordnance. The camera is jumpy and close to the action, where in the earlier spots it was more removed, with the frames more composed.

FILMING: Production spanned two months this summer. Tron: Legacy's Joseph Kosinski had directed the earlier spots. Berg brought a fresh eye to this one. He recorded the virtual camera movements by manipulating an actual handheld monitor in a motion-capture studio. "You can see the animatic in the monitor, and move around in that world, seeing all the houses and streets and burned-out cars. It's amazing," he says. A handful of actors were also filmed in motion capture to portray the characters' body movements, jumps and falls.

SOUND: "We knew the question from Epic and Xbox would be: What's our next 'Mad World?'" says associate creative director Mat Bunnell. Somber, reflective, and lyrically perfect, Mazzy Star's "Into Dust" was an ideal choice. "There was some hesitation to have the same kind of mood as before. But we needed something slow to calm down the visuals," says Berg. "And it's a beautiful song." Silencing the battle sounds lends its own peculiar power. Duchon points to the scene in Saving Private Ryan in which Tom Hanks [as Capt. Miller] loses his hearing after an explosion. "There couldn't be a more visceral reaction to that scene," Duchon says. "In these first- and third-person shooters, there's so much noise. Sometimes it's the quiet that cuts through." The agency did a whole version of the trailer with full sound design, and may put it on YouTube as a gift to fans. 

MEDIA: National broadcast and cable, as well as online, where view counts are already well into the millions.

THE SPOTS: See all three trailers below, with the newest one first. The credits at the bottom apply only to the most recent trailer.

CREDITS (Gears of War 3 trailer only):

Client: Xbox

Game: Gears of War 3

Spot: "Dust to Dust"

Agency: twofifteenmccann

Chief Creative Officer: Scott Duchon

Associate Creative Directors: Mat Bunnell, Steve Couture

Art Director: Jeremy Diessner

Copywriter: Nicole Clainos

Director of Integrated Production: Tom Wright

Agency Producers: Chris Weldon, Eric Rasco

Account Director: Peter Goldstein

Account Management Supervisor: Luke Lamson

Account Executive: Stephanie Scott

Production, Animation, Mocap, Editorial & Visual Effects: Digital Domain

President, Commercial Division; Executive Vice President: Ed Ulbrich

Executive Producer: Tanya Cohen

Visual Effects Supervisor: Vernon Wilbert, Jr

Senior Producer: Melanie La Rue

Producer: Chris Fieldhouse

CG Supervisor: Richard Morton

Coordinator: William Lemmon

Editor: Todd Miller

Matte Painter: Zach Christian

Motion Graphics Artist: Cody Williams

Previs Artist: Niles Heckman

Technical Director: Derek Crosby

Technical Director; Rigger: Adrian Dimond

Digital Artist: Ryan Apuy

Digital Artist: Lee Carlton

Digital Artist: Daisuke Nagae

Digital Artist: Dave Carlson

Digital Artist: David Liu

Digital Artist: Desiree Lundsferd

Lead Animator: Rick Glenn

Animator: Kevin Culhane

Animator: Scott Kravtiz

Lead FX Artist: Jason Mortimer

FX Artist: Ken Jones

FX Artist: Adrian Graham

Lead Nuke Compositor: Rafael F. Colón

Nuke Compositor: Aruna Inversin

Nuke Compositor: Soyoun Lee

Flame Artist: Jeff Heusser

Virtual Production Supervisor: Gary Roberts

Mocap Production Supervisor: Gaby Rios

Sr. Mocap Pipeline Engineer: Damon Shelton

Lab Supervisor: April Warren

Mocap Artist: Alia Dong-Stewart

Mocap Artist: Ronaldo Benaraw

Mocap Artist: Ryan Beagan

Manager, Systems Admin: Steve Madonna

Production Assistant: Jenn Grundstad

Production: Smuggler

Director: Adam Berg

Executive Producers: Lisa Rich, Patrick Milling Smith, Brian Carmody

Music: Mazzy Star, "Into Dust"

Sound Design: Skywalker Sound

Supervising Sound Designer: Randy Thom

Re-recording Mixers: Randy Thom, Leff Lefferts

Supervising Sound Editor: Mac Smith

Sound Effects Editor: Steve Boeddeker

Foley Artists: Sean England, Ronni Brown

Foley Mixer: Tony Eckert

Foley Recordist: Corey Tyler

Mix: Joel Waters, Lime Studios

@nudd Tim Nudd is a former creative editor of Adweek.