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Fun Where They Run: Creating Zaun in a CG
A look at how we created Zaun in Warwick’s Champion Teaser
When we invited people to playtest Warwick’s rework, we’d ask what the most compelling part of the experience was. Turns out, it’s pretty terrifying to hear the gong of doom that indicates you’re likely to become his next snack. We decided to play off (and push) this fear in his release trailer. Instead of relying heavily on voice-over to tell the story, we created a moment where players could experience being hunted by Warwick in his natural habitat: the depths of Zaun.
Depicting a specific region of Runeterra in a highly-detailed animation was uncharted territory, and it took some trial and error before the setting actually felt like Zaun. In other words, we made a whole lot of of what Zaun isn’t before landing on what Zaun is. But by learning from each misstep, we were able to portray the architecture, lighting, and technology of Zaun in a way that hadn’t been done before.
Setting the Scene
Sometimes, Zaun is still seen as a place where mad scientists and augmented people run wild, but actually, most of Zaun is inhabited by normal people living ordinary lives. It’s a vibrant city, filled with innovation and people trying to earn a living.
But this is just one part of Zaun. As you travel down, past the reaches of the Gray-filtered light, the environment turns grim. Zaun’s deepest region is known as the Sump, where chem-fumes thread the alleys between crowded industrial buildings. It’s not all bad, though, and the people here are still proud of their city—but some areas are truly dangerous. The shadiest transactions and interactions occur in the Sump, where space is limited and the environment can be treacherous.
This was the most likely place for Warwick to roam… and the most frightening.
Distinguishing this precise location in the trailer was tricky because we couldn’t rely on the typical establishing shot, or faraway overview of the environment, because everything was portrayed from the Fleg’s perspective. Csaba Vicze, assistant director at Digic Pictures—the company Riot collaborated with to create this animation—says, “We felt like we needed something more, otherwise we’re just running in a hallway until the end in the gondola. We needed some kind of open space to serve as the establishing shot.”
To solve this, we added a moment where Fleg looks up to the rest of the city, but it took several iterations before this scene felt right. In early concept art, Zaun continued downward, below the gondola station, falsely indicating that the setting was somewhere in the center of the city. Furthermore, the smog was evenly distributed throughout the chasm, but these plumes needed originate in the Sump and disperse as they drifted upward. Armed with this feedback from the publishing and Worldbuilding teams at Riot, Digic modified the concept art so it remained true to the city of Zaun.
Below the Gray
Before Digic could start working on the CG, we shared our visions of Zaun through stories, artwork, and conversations. We answered fundamental questions about the city, like: What do the buildings look like? Who lives there? What’s the technology like? How do people get around? What’s the economy like? What’s the city’s history? Some of it may seem frivolous, but cities are defined by their details, and this context helped our partners at Digic better understand Zaun.
However, to complicate things, the setting wasn’t just Zaun—it was a very particular place in Zaun. It was tough to communicate the ways the Sump differed from, yet mirrored, the rest of the city, both to Digic and in the trailer itself. “Most people have one view of what Zaun is, because of Universe or the Ekko trailer,” creative lead Anton “RiotManton” Kolyukh says. “But we did the Sump, and a lot of people haven’t really seen that yet.”
Expressing the subtle ways the Sump resembles Zaun, but in a dingy, industrialized way, was a balance that took until the final edits to find. In early set designs, the pipes and hallways were arranged at right-angles, as if carefully planned. The gondola’s interior looked cozy, complete with a seat and plenty of space; even the gondola station looked like a rather pleasant place.
Publishing lead Brandon “Riot cottonfxn” Miao says, “We brought the early concepts to a meeting at Riot, and the Worldbuilding team said, ‘This isn’t Zaun.’ We all had the idea in our heads of what it should be, even though we’d never created it in great detail.”
In reality, the Sump isn’t an orderly place. It has been built and rebuilt, and almost everything there now serves the chem-tech industry (or its workers) in some way. The early renditions were missing the dingy disorder of a city that was built on top of itself and upwards—multiple times. RiotManton says, “We explained this to our partners at Digic, and they said, ‘Oh, so you guys want us to mess up the environment? Got it.”
Moving away from perfection, the landscape began resembling a decaying, dangerous mine shaft rather than an abandoned tunnel. Add in some familiar Zaunite features, like repeating metal bars and lots of glass, and it began to feel like the actual Sumps of Zaun. Bela Brozsek, Digic’s studio art director, says, “It was a challenge to tone it down and still keep the tone of the city, but we feel like we eventually hit that balance.”
Lighting the Depths
One of the most recognizable aspects of Zaun its green hue. It clings to every surface, emanates from windows, and colors the creeping Gray. Warwick’s signature color is also green, but tracking a glowing green werewolf in a dimly-lit, green landscape seemed like it’d be pretty difficult. It would be visually messy, and using too much green in the environment would detract from Warwick. And, ultimately, he’s the star—it’s his trailer, after all.
Furthermore, the lighting needed to convey a horror-esque atmosphere. Blue is often used for lighting in films and games in this genre, but it felt too generic and sci-fi for the Sumps of Zaun. We needed a color scheme that communicated the sickly environment that also felt spooky, while avoiding too much blue and green.
Ultimately, we landed on a desaturated, green hue as the dim light, which is the light that softly illuminates the whole environment; this connected the area to Zaun without detracting too much from Warwick. Then, to amplify the fear factor, we implemented a mustard-yellow glow from the artificial lights. Riot cottonfxn says, “We were worried for a while if we made the right decision, because the lighting really isn’t green. It wasn’t until players commented that the setting felt like Zaun that we thought of it as a success.”
In the final version, there’s a clear distinction between Warwick’s coloring and the environment’s lighting.
Guns and Phones
Technology in Zaun (and Piltover) is pretty advanced compared to the rest of Runeterra, but still, guns are an oddity. The tech exists, but it’s so rare and costly that only some wealthy people can afford it. It’s kind of like automobiles a hundred years ago—they existed, but they weren’t crowding the streets.
In early versions of the story, Boggin (the big guy) and Fleg (the POV guy) each carried guns. However, giving guns to such low-ranking characters seemed to imply that guns were pretty common in Zaun, or at least, in the Sump. Riot cottonfxn says, “If both of the main characters have guns, what does that say about the world at large?”
Giving both Fleg and Boggin guns had implications for all of Runeterra: If guns were so common in Zaun and Piltover, why don’t they just take over everything? People in Demacia and Noxus are running around with swords and shields, and they wouldn’t stand a chance against gun warfare. In reality, the technology just wasn’t that prevalent.
And thus, Fleg lost his gun privileges.
Boggin’s gun was integral to the story, so his character had to be completely rewritten to justify his gun possession. Boggin was once all brawn and no brains, but narrative writer Phillip “KneecapPhilly” Vargas says, “We had to make him smarter, tougher, and a leader to warrant him having the weapon.” Once upon a time, Boggin and Fleg were buddies, but then Boggin was modified to be Fleg’s superior—a lieutenant thug.
Beyond the Streets of Zaun
It took a whole lot of teamwork between Digic and Riot’s publishing and Worldbuilding teams to create Warwick’s reveal trailer, and we’re excited about the final result. Through many rounds of feedback and iterations, we were able to portray Zaun in an authentic way. Using Warwick’s home turf as the setting made the experience feel more organic, as if we’re catching a glimpse his life outside the Rift, and it allowed us to share and develop the region in a new and dynamic way.
Plus, stories like this show that Runeterra—and its inhabitants—exist beyond the champions in League: Even if we don’t see it, things are always happening across Runeterra.