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Filmmaker breaks down why Warhammer 40k Astartes rules so hard

Cinematographer Kai Zammit goes blow for blow through Warhammer 40k animation Astartes, explaining the techniques that make it rock as hard as it does.

Screenshot from Warhammer 40k Astartes animation by Syama Pedersen - closeup of a Space Marine in MkVII Imperialis armor, bullet craters across their plastron, their scowling helmet looking down at the viewer

If you’ve seen the Warhammer 40k Astartes animation series, you’ll know that it goes harder than almost any other piece of Warhammer 40k media. If you want to know why it slaps so hard, then check out the latest YouTube video by filmmaker Kai Zammit, as he gives an in-depth analysis of the film-making techniques that give Astartes its distinctive style.

Zammit is a cinematographer, so while most fans will just say “COOL!” when they see their favorite Warhammer 40k faction star in an animation, he can deconstruct how lightning, shot construction, sound, and editing contribute to tell the narrative. Make no mistake, he is still really impressed: “I feel that was one of the best short films I have ever seen, and I can’t believe that one person made that”.

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He highlights how the Space Marines are introduced to the viewer in the first episode with overhead lighting: “it was highlighting them under every step, it was almost like a product reveal”. He points out that afterwards the Space Marines are almost always shot from below, a technique that emphasises their power and authority by making them loom in the shot.

Zammit identifies out that when the Marines first board the rebel vessel, the camera is stabilised, but “as the mission [goes] on, the camera [becomes] more shaky”. The camera itself mimics the mission gradually slipping out of control.

He also points out simple good craftsmanship. The second episode of Astartes uses a single uninterrupted camera shot of an assault ram closing to board a rebel void ship. Single shots help communicate a journey, but Zammit says they need to introduce something new every seven seconds or risk the viewers eyes becoming bored.

This is where the two servitor drones that accompany the assault ram come in. They have their own trajectories, bobbing around in the shot and then accelerating into the distance. This keeps the viewer’s eye active until the sequence’s awesome pay off with the assault ram boring into the rebel craft.

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Astartes is the work of Syama Pedersen, and was originally published on YouTube as a fan animation. When Games Workshop launched Warhammer 40k streaming service Warhammer TV it effectively banned fan animations. It hired Pedersen to create a sequel to Astartes, and now hosts the original on Warhammer+ for free.

Astartes is a high water mark for Warhammer 40k animation, which hasn’t always been in a good place: Games Workshop would rather forget the legendarily bad Ultramarines animation. For many years the cinematics for the 40k Dawn of War RTS games were the only way to get a fix of animated 40k.