The Spot: War’s Endgame

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

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.