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This tabletop Warhammer game is actually 100% CGI

Senior videogame level artist Sergei Panin explains how he turned his custom Warhammer Horus Heresy collection into an amazing CGI cinematic.

Warhammer 40k Adeptus Custodes tabletop minis rendered in CGI by Sergei Panin

If you ever need to explain to a non-Warhammer fan just why you’re so excited by a game which, to an outsider, looks like two adults shuffling toy soldiers around a model train layout and getting frustrated by dice, show them ‘Next Turn’. This CGI animation by professional videogame level artist Sergei Panin brings tabletop Warhammer games to life in a way you’ve never seen before.

Panin is a senior level and environment artist at Housemarque, part of Sony Playstation Studios, who has been working professionally in the business for seven years. He came across the Warhammer 40k universe via the classic RTS game Dawn of War in the early ‘00s, but only really got into the lore when he discovered the Horus Heresy books – you can see from the animation, below, that it’s really got its claws into him:

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He’s amassed a collection of Warhammer 40k factions, starting with the launch of the eighth edition 40k starter set: “Right now I have Adeptus Custodes, Death Guard, Adeptus Mechanicus, Necrons”, plus his Chaos Knights, “which I am designing as hardcore as I can”.

His work customizing his Knights actually laid the groundwork for this animation project – you’ll find much of the process documented on his Artstation account, which taught him many techniques he used when creating the cinematic.

He began by making a home 3D scanning setup and used it to import a basic 3D model of a Cerastus Knight Lancer to his computer. He then used this rough model as a dolly, around which he could design custom Chaos-warped armor plates in the 3D modelling tool ZBrush. Finally he used a 3D printer to bring them back into the real world, adding them to the base model to create his uniquely customised Chaos Knight.

Warhammer 40k tabletop custom Chaos Cerasus Knight Lancer, photographs by Sergei Panin

But he wasn’t done there. With the model fully printed and painted, he realised he could go much further with his digital scanning technique. He used a technique called ‘photogrammetry’, in which hundreds of 2D photographs are compiled into a 3D model, to construct a digital model of his finished Chaos Lancer, along with other models from his collection.

The result was the 3D rendered diorama below. “This is all scanned in Unreal Engine and not a photo”, Panin says, but “people think it is”. He adds: “For me it was a huge win, so I decided to push the idea further and do a cinematic”.

Warhammer 40k tabletop scene featuring a CGI version of a Cerastus Knight Lancer

Creating a diorama “is close to my work tasks, but editing it for a cinematic like this is not”, Panin says. As a level artist Panin normally takes the “blockout” version of a level map created and tested by level designers, and turns it into the cool-looking 3D environment players actually perceive.

Depending on the studio, level artists might have responsibility for the whole level, including “art design, 3D models, lighting, effects”, or just a small slice of the pie – quite a broad skill set.

A Warhammer 40k tabletop scene containing a Chaos Cerastus Knight Lancer, rendered in CGI, with various levels of rendering exposed

The imported models needed relatively little treatment to get them ready to load in the Unreal engine. Photogrammetry scans typically produce models with lots of polygons, but “you can have pretty dense geometry in the engine without a problem”, Panin says.

Surface colors also came from the photogrammetry scans – Panin emphasizes that it’s essential for your scanning process to use cross-polarization to prevent the scan subject’s color being “ruined by reflections”.

Warhammer 40k photogrammetry sheet showing multiple shots of a painted Chaos Knight torso

Once scanned, Panin needed to alter the “roughness material attribute to get proper reflections from the models”; add back the reflectiveness to metallic areas lost in scanning; ensure colors were correct; and add a healthy layer of dust.

While he had initially planned just to make a battle report, Panin says “I decided to challenge myself to do something more cinematic”. Choosing good shots proved to be the most challenging part of the process. Even so, it took just one month to complete – though he emphasises that this project relied on his previous work scanning the Chaos Knight and the techniques he learn there.

Warhammer 40k tabletop scene featuring Adeptus Custodes fighting Iron Warriors Siege Tyrant terminators, rendered in CGI by Sergei Panin

He adds that making a cinematic “is not hard if you are a good artist, but it requires an insane amount of time to do good looking models” if you’re not in a position to scan them.

As for what’s next, “with the latest update of Unreal I could add animations to the minis – it will be fun to try”. He likes the idea of making “something like a Small Soldiers movie, but in Warhammer 40k”.

He also reckons that with some help from game programmers to handle logic, he could turn this video into a shippable Warhammer 40k game. “If Games Workshop wants something like that, well, they know my contacts”. But he adds “I would prefer not to promise anything and then do something cool, than promise something and abandon it”.

Warhammer 40k MTG card Ash Barrens illustrated by Sergei Panin, a strange city in a desert

Panin has one Warhammer 40k design credit to his name, a card illustration from the MTG Warhammer 40k commander decks, and he’s made some seriously cool 40k illustrations as practise. But he’s not going whole hog on Warhammer 40k just now. “I do a lot of personal art, not only related to Warhammer… I want to have this as fun for myself”.

Whatever is next for Panin, we’re eager to see it! Despite Games Workshop publishing rules against fan animations in 2021, we’ve since seen the Astra Militarum machinima Scorch. Wargamer has also written about two other sci-fi film projects, A Thousand Suns and Project Morningstar, which Warhammer 40k fans should absolutely check out.