Dave Hodgins has been working in visual effects for over 17 years. He started his career at Digital Domain and has worked on films like THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR, TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON, ENDER’S GAME and POWER RANGERS.
What is your background?
I started out in the industry as an animator and rigger.
How did you and Digital Domain get involved on this show?
We were in the final weeks of another show when we got the call about helping out on THOR: RAGNAROK. Digital Domain has done a significant amount of work on previous Marvel shows and it’s always great to have them come back to us.
What was their approaches and expectations about the visual effects?
I think it was a delicate balance of having some physical grounding with basic effects and motion but also having the visual frenzy on screen. Most of the time there is so much happening at once that we’re working on trying to focus the eye on the story point while dialing back extraneous explosions and visual noise.
What are the sequences made at Digital Domain?
Our main body of work was the Sakaar City Chase to the Magnetar wormhole, also known as “The Devil’s Anus.” In addition to that, we helped out with the Thor-Loki elevator ride sequence and other city establishing shots used in other sequences.
How did you organize the work at Digital Domain?
We had two teams working side by side in Los Angeles and Vancouver. Every department had people in both locations and it took everyone’s efforts to make this film happen. I was based in Vancouver and in LA we had DFX Supervisor Hanzhi Tang and CG Supervisor Asuka Tohda taking care of 3D and show setup. In Vancouver, our Lighting Lead Ryan Duhaime helped manage the assets and lighting team. Our Compositing Supervisor Eric Beaver and leads Vinh Nguyen, Viv Jim and Paul Chapman managed a group of 40 compositors while our tracking and match move teams were lead by Emmanuel De Lange. Heather Ryan handled our rotopaint team.
We discover a new planet in the movie, Sakaar. Can you tell us more about its design?
We started with artwork from the folks at Marvel. Sakaar is meant to be a galactic dumping ground. The sky is filled with wormholes that connect to everywhere in the galaxy and all their trash comes flying down the tubes and rains down on Sakaar. The city is entirely constructed out of recycled trash or ruins of spaceships from many civilizations.
What references and indications did you receive for Sakaar?
We received some base models, previs and some 2D artwork. We drew a lot of our inspiration for colour from both the 2D concept art and what had worked in the initial previs.
Can you explain in details about its creation?
This sequence had started in bits and pieces at other studios, but the scope of the overall movie had grown so much that the production needed us to join the show and focus solely on this city. We were handed everything that had been done up to that point including the pre-vis assets and it was a long process of sifting through what was usable and what could be fixed and what needed to be redone completely. Our modeling lead Nelson Sousa and texture lead Nick Cosmi had the enormous task of wading through all these models, conforming and finishing them. Then it went on to our layout team lead by Scott Inkster to populate every shot. Finishing touches to the buildings and sky backgrounds were then added in environments lead by Daniel Fernandez. The spaceships were the most straightforward with some variation work. But the city buildings gave us the most to worry about with regard to building design, procedural color variation system, roads, city block layouts and flying city traffic. Outside the city, we fly over islands of garbage surrounded by water with constantly raining debris from the sky.
Can you tell us more about the Grandmaster Palace?
As you would expect, the character played by Jeff Goldblum deserves to have the biggest and most over the top monument to himself that towers over everything else in the city. It’s an opulent candelabra of a building which at one point was to have the Grandmaster’s gold-leafed face jutting out of the side like an insane Mt. Rushmore with an enormous laser cannon on its forehead. Perhaps that was pushing the envelope too far and the final palace settled on having the faces of each of the Grandmaster’s champions but still retaining the outsized scale and grandeur of the building.
How did you populate the city?
I’ve worked on a number of city builds in my time from THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW and 2012 and they’re difficult enough even with the real thing for reference. With Sakaar it was a considerable challenge to wonder what the city even looked like at the same time as building out the assets and making sure we had a reliable render solution. With the city we tried both procedural and traditional hand placed layouts and with the wastelands we were able to use fully procedural methods in Houdini. One of our layout artists Tobias Ott hand placed many, many buildings for some of the wide angle shots to get just the right mix of building heights and road placements.
There is a huge chase sequence through Sakaar. Can you tell us more about the previs work?
The sequence was very fleshed out in pre-vis by the time we started working on the sequence, save for a few edit changes through the process. This helped us map out what we needed to build and at what level of detail. Even having access to the pre-vis scenes helped us get off the starting line faster and our layout team used some of those scenes to have a starting place for where we were in the city. Our animation team supervised by Mark Della Rossa and animation lead Elizabeth Bernard took it from there and added extra drama and finesse to make each one a finished shot. They also added new shots as the edit changed.
Can you explain in detail about the creation of the various spaceships?
The spaceships were mostly complete when they were handed to us. We did additional color variations of them. The Grandmaster’s ship, the Commodore, was the one asset that was still being redesigned and we had several rounds of development to keep ours matched with Framestore’s Commodore shots. Our rigging lead Nick Niculescu created all new rigs for each ship. We ended up also enhancing all the Commodore interior shots with extra chrome and marble.
How did you create the digital doubles for this sequence?
The digi double scans were provided to us with textures to do our own lookdev. Since they were only in a handful of shots it was immensely helpful not to have to do them from scratch and take resources away from making the city. Our CFX lead Erik Ojong provided us with simulated cloth for flying capes which the actors didn’t always wear.
Lots of FX and destruction happen during the chase. How did you create these elements?
Our FX Supervisor Jeremy Hampton lead a team of 15 artists in both locations in doing all the destruction, fireballs and the wormhole in our Houdini pipeline. In the wastelands we also used procedural scatter in Houdini to create the mounds of trash from a library of component pieces and procedural ocean surface and white water as the ships skim the surface.
What is your favorite shot or sequence?
That would be the wide angle establishing shot of Sakaar when we fly in with Valkyrie’s ship, the Warsong. It’s one of those few moments in our body of work that you get a chance to look at everything before the camera-work gets crazy in the chase.
What was the main challenge on this show and how did you achieve it?
I think the main challenge on this show was creating enough city layout for ships to be flying at 500 mph and making sure there was enough detail and texture on the closest buildings without seeing repeats.
What is your best memory on this show?
I think that was when we got our first city shot approval because it marked the end of design experimentation and the beginning of pushing shots forward. The path to the finish line suddenly became clearer.
How long have you worked on this show?
We started in May and we finished around mid-September.
What’s the VFX shots count?
What was the size of your team?
More than 150 across our Los Angeles and Vancouver studios.
A big thanks for your time.
// WANT TO KNOW MORE?
Digital Domain: Dedicated page about THOR: RAGNAROK on Digital Domain website.
© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2017