Every year, one of the highlights of the League of Legends World Championship is the opening ceremonies. It’s been a regular chance for developer Riot to create a real-world spectacle ahead of the big game. In the past that’s meant everything from holographic musical performances to an appearance from an augmented reality K-pop group. In 2021, though, things went in a different direction.
Without an audience in attendance due to COVID-19 restrictions, Riot instead went with a pre-produced series of music videos that featured gigantic real-world sets spliced with moments from the upcoming Arcane animated series. It may not have been a live performance, but it was still impressive. “This is really what feature films do, what Marvel does,” says Matt Kauth, head of production at London Alley Entertainment, which worked with Riot on the piece.
What premiered before Worlds’ championship match was essentially a 13-minute-long short film that combined animation, music videos, and physical sets. It featured a handful of performances from the likes of Imagine Dragons and Bea Miller, interspersed with animated vignettes from Arcane, which debuts on Netflix this evening. The idea of mixing live-action and CG isn’t exactly new, but part of what makes the Worlds event work so well is the sprawling real-world sets designed to look like Zaun and Piltover, two iconic cities from League (which are featured prominently in the Netflix show).
“These are the biggest sets that we’ve ever done, and it’s probably not even close,” says Kauth, whose studio has worked on music videos for the likes of Lil Nas X and The Weeknd. “We shot this whole piece over three days in Los Angeles and three days in Birmingham, UK. It is also the busiest it has ever been in the production landscape right now. Both because we’re coming out of the other side of covid, but also because all of the streaming that’s happening. It’s never been busier, and crews are very hard to come by. The LA shoot, we were literally taking construction members rolling off of TV shows. And adding new crew members every single day in order to meet this time frame.”
Music videos were always part of the plan. But initially Riot had hoped to incorporate a live element as well. That changed when the company was forced to move the event from Shenzhen, China to Reykjavík, Iceland due to covid concerns. “We actually always intended for there to be this integration of music videos and more cinematic performances,” says Nick Troop, executive producer of the event for Riot. “Even when Worlds was still situated in Shenzhen, we were going to shoot these videos this way. This was the general plan. And part of the magic of the stadium show was going to be to build this interplay between the live show and the stuff that was pre-recorded, and use that to elevate what was happening in-stadium.”
The focus on physical sets is a contrast to past Worlds, where new technologies like mixed reality were on full display. Part of the reason for the choice was practical. With a short timeline to finish the production, the physical sets would put less strain on the various VFX teams that worked on it. If the videos had been shot with a green screen, for instance, it would’ve taken much longer to finish because artists would’ve had to design the backdrops virtually from scratch. “Our goal was to make sure that we were capturing as much in-camera as possible, so that when we handed the baton off to the VFX departments, they had enough to work with,” explains Kauth. (Even still, five different studios and 230 people worked on wrapping the post-production effects.)
But the IRL sets were also chosen because Riot thought it would help differentiate the opening ceremonies from the many other virtual performances that have been happening of late, particularly during the pandemic. Plus, it just looked cool. “You can feel when it’s real,” says Troop. “You live in a rendered world for the most part when you interact with League of Legends. Here is one of a handful of opportunities to bring it to life.”
It’s typical for large-scale movie productions, like those from Marvel, to utilize both large sets and multiple effects studio partners. But Kauth says it’s rare for shorter form projects like this. Not only did it help make the opening ceremonies look impressive, he says, but having so many people working on it also helped make it a more sustainable production where teams were able to largely avoid crunch. “It’s a film and TV approach to hit the deadline and not burn a single company into the ground,” he explains.
As impressive as the 2021 ceremony was, there is definitely something missing without an in-person audience. It’s hard for the team to know if viewers are into it without the roar of a crowd inside of a stadium. In lieu of that this year, they’ll be looking elsewhere for that initial rush of feedback. “I’ll be curious for sure,” says Troop. “I’ll be keeping an eye on Twitter and Twitch chat.”