CAPTAIN MARVEL: Christian Kaestner – VFX Supervisor – Framestore

In 2017, Christian Kaestner explained the work of Framestore on KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD. He then worked on GEOSTORM and MARY POPPINS RETURNS.

How did you and Framestore get involved on this show?
Framestore is a regular vendor for Marvel, so it didn’t come as a surprise that they asked us to take on some work on CAPTAIN MARVEL. Additionally, Sophie Caroll had been working with Damien Carr and Chris Townsend previously on GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 from the London office. Chris and Damien visited our Montreal facility at the beginning of 2018 and the timing, schedule and workload seemed a good fit for both sides. Next thing we knew we were somewhere in a quarry in the Californian desert shooting Torfa at night.

How was the collaboration with directors Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck and VFX Supervisor Christopher Townsend?
Ben Magana, our CG supervisor had most exposure to Anna and Ryan during the shoot, Sophie and myself only had the opportunity to attend a short amount of the night shoots in California. With Chris however, we had weekly cineSyncs from the beginning and were able to share our creative proposals regularly, get his feedback from the Directors and the Studio as well as collaborate on challenges.
I’d like to say we had a really good time bringing our sequences to life. The schedule was tight and not without challenges, but throughout the whole project we always had fun during our cineSync sessions. Chris has this great way of breaking really bad news to you, because the edit had or was about to change again, yet we would come out of the call and think it was a good thing.

The VFX industry can be very demanding at times, but Chris always showed great respect for the work we did which had a recursively motivating effect on the team and the artists, who went back to the drawing board so many times until it was right. In the end, we are all very proud of the work we were able to produce with Chris’ guidance.

What was their expectations and approach about the visual effects?
Chris Townsend and Marvel have a lot of experience making VFX movies, hence their expectations and demands could be very high at times. At the same time, due to their year long experience, the demands were challenging, but not unrealistic. Chris knew very well what was doable and what could not be achieved in the remaining time.

The directors on the other hand were great storytellers and really focused on getting the tone and story of the movie right, whilst sharing their vision with Chris from the beginning and the combination of the two gave us some really great material to work with. For example, we ended up shooting the entire Torfa sequence in a quarry in California at night in order to have full control over the lighting. At one point, towards the end of the project, Chris and I were discussing the footage and whether we had been better off shooting everything on a blue screen stage (and avoid the several weeks at night), but we came to the conclusion that we probably got better footage from shooting on location, at night with the feel of an eerie alien planet.

How did you organize the work with your VFX Producer?
CAPTAIN MARVEL was my first full Marvel project. I had previously worked with Chris Townsend on developing some of the looks for IRON MAN 3, but didn’t end up working on the project at the time. Since Sophie Caroll, had previously worked closely with Damien and Chris I heavily relied on her experience on how to approach the schedule for the show. I shared my vision on how we should approach the creative challenges whilst she put all of that back into a working schedule. I like to leave the difficult task of crewing, scheduling and dealing with client requests to my producer, because I believe one should not approach a creative challenge with limitations of any sort in mind. We cannot limit ourselves from the get go – I’d much rather have a fantastic creative solution, idea or approach and figure out later how we are going to do it. There is always a way, somehow.

What are the sequences made by Framestore?
Our biggest sequence was the Torfa planet approach and Torfa surface, Temple approach, just before Vers gets captured by the Skrulls. We also had a one-off full CG establisher as Vers walks up the stairs of the Kree temple in Hala. Lastly we also worked on the suit colour transformations when Vers changes from her Kree colours, black and teal to her Captain Marvel colours, blue, red and gold.

Can you tell us about the process of the previz for the temple sequence?
The previz for the temple sequence was ever changing, it was a challenging story point that needed to be right in order to set the audience up for the remainder of the film. We needed to establish characters, their powers (and weaknesses) and not giveaway too much at the same time. The previz we bid for the show award already seemed outdated by the time it came to principal photography and was yet again different when we started shot work. The sequence was ever evolving throughout, but I think we ended up with a really nice and coherent piece of storytelling.

Can you explain in detail about the creation of the planet, the temple and the various spaceships?
I would break the Torfa planet down into two parts. The space view planet approach and the Torfa planet surface in front of the temple. The space view was based on original concept artwork that we received from Chris. It was your usual, alien yet habitable planet with more than one “sun”. It was important to Christ that we would go more gritty and unpleasant from the get go. It was not supposed to be a pretty, colourful planet. We put a lot of dust and small asteroids in the orbit of Torfa, whilst retaining an awe-spiring moment for the audience as we whip pan onto the planet. We took a traditional 2.5D to 3D approach. We generated a planet surface and clouds with Terragen and lit it with light sources based on the concept. We took that as a matte painting base and combined the 2.5D planet with various full CG foreground elements such as clouds, rocks and lighting.

The Torfa temple was already a bit more solidified when we received the artwork, as the concept was used to do a partial set build of the entrance. When we got involved in the asset build, we had the principal photography, the concept and the lidar scans to build the rest of the temple. It was a full 3D build as we had plenty of angles to cover and needed to get the scale of the large building right. There wasn’t any vegetation on the Torfa surface, which usually helps with scale as it is something the audience can relate to. We only had sand and rocks to work with, which proved to be a bit more challenging, but I think in the end we were able to give the whole area a nice eerie feel with the help of fire lights and a lot of fog.

Can you tell us more about the shaders and textures?
Nothing special I’d like to say. Everything we do is physically based shading and rendering. We use calibrated photographic reference for everything, as all our assets should match reality the best it can.

How did you create the digital doubles for Yon-Rogg and his team?
Framestore was involved in creating the hero assets for Yon-Rogg and his Starforce, except for Vers which was lead by ILM as they had more digital double shots with Vers. These days, digital doubles are almost a standard line item in a VFX movie, they have become as common as stunt doubles. Over the last several years, we managed to develop quite a sophisticated digital double pipeline with pretty photorealistic results. In the end, when the capture and photogrammetry provide you with a solid base for texture and modelling creating highly detailed digital doubles matching their real world counterpart is a pretty common workflow these days.

Can you tell us more about the underwater shot showing Carol Danvers in close-up and in slow-motion?
The underwater slow-motion shot was one of the hardest shots we had to do on the show. It seemed quite hard to begin with, but the more we broke it down and looked under the hood of what we really needed to do, it became evident that with was going to be very tricky to put together.

First of all, the shot was around 500 frames long, it was full CG and went to slow-motion, just when Vers was in camera full frame. There was nowhere to hide. Additionally, we needed continuous simulation of bubbles, mohawk and suits going from real-time to approximately 500x slower. On a shorter shot we would normally just go an simulated and render everything in slow-motion and re-time back to real-time after the fact. In this case it would have meant creating a 250,000 frames long shot, which from a pure simulation time and disk space point of view, wasn’t really an option.

So, we went and pushed our simulation tools to see whether we could simulate in real-time and slow everything down with an animation curve and generate the missing inbetween frames. It took a bit of persuasion from our FX and hair simulation team, but they managed to pull it off.

How did you manage the challenge of the underwater shots?
It may sound simple, but with any big shot or challenge, you break it down bit by bit until you have lots of smaller, more manageable tasks at hand. You do lots of little tests on the simulation side, on the lighting side and on the compositing side, until you have you have identified all the pieces that need to go into your puzzle. All you need to do is put them back together in the right way.

Can you tell us more about the suits animations when the team go out of the water?
The suit animations as Vers and the Starforce come out of the water had two major story points. First, it was to give them a camouflage effect, so the Kree could blend better into the Torfa environment and not stand out.

Secondly, and more importantly, it was to establish the fact that the suit can actually change colour. This was important for the audience to understand, so that later in the film, when Vers changes her suit into red, gold and blue, it doesn’t come as a surprise. This is one of the main reasons the transition effect is made so evident. We joked about it that it is a little bit silly to make a “camouflage” effect extra noticeable, but in the end it was a story point we needed to establish.

The temple is surrounded by fog. How does that affects you work and especially the lighting?
Submerging everything in a foggy, misty environment certainly has its challenges when it comes to lighting and rendering. Luckily we had great looking live action plates as reference, even though for the most part we had to lift the actors off the plates to sit them into the extended environment. Nonetheless, we had a goal post for the look that the DOP and the directors were after. It was one of the huge benefits of shooting on location with all special effects bells and whistles. It may have made the prep-work a little bit harder, but we had an established look for the sequence, which made the RnD and look development much more targeted. We were able to do render and simulation optimisation from the moment we had the plates, this was a huge benefit.

How did you create and animate the various FX such as laser and explosions?
Establishing special powers for superheroes usually has the recurring brief: “something super cool, that we haven’t seen before”. Most of the time, different VFX vendors will take on different look development for usually the effect that they would have to deal with most, which then gets shared with the other vendors in one form or another. Our main development work was focused on the Skrull weapon blasts, the Skrull fighter weapons blasts, Yon-Rogg’s anti-gravity gauntlet, Korath’s sword as well as Bronchar’s gauntlets.

I like to approach these effects with the concept department first to establish basic look and feel as well as a colour palette. Once we have a general direction, we move this into simple FX simulation and a lot of comp work to figure out how things are moving and behaving. Chris had a great formula when briefing us on the creative development of these effects: it needs to look cool, photo realistic and physically plausible – and in that order.

We turn to nature a lot of the time to find something new. Nature is so diverse and if you have watched any sort of documentaries about our planet, you come across the most bizarre real world effects or looks. Microcosm, fungus or odd weather behaviour can provide you with a wealth of bizarre looking, yet realistic phenomena. For example, when you look at time-lapse photography of bacterial growth you get some really beautiful and organic patterns that can be used for transition effects or even the evolution of a weapon blast shape.

Later in the movie Carol Danvers changes her costume to the iconic Captain Marvel suit. How did you create the various suits?
This was really straight forward for us from the get go. We knew we would have to match Vers’ as a digital double, hence we made the decision to completely replace her suit for the entire scene and only retain the head (face and hair) and her hands. We generated accurate body tracks of Vers and made sure our digital black and teal suit matched very closely to the live action suit. Once we had established this match, it was pretty straightforward to change colour to our or the director’s liking.

How did you manage the shaders and lighting work for those suits?
We had plenty of live action footage to match to, hence, with physically accurate rendering and shading, it is actually relatively easy to achieve a match. As for the lighting, we got the regular lidar scans and chrome and grey balls from the principal photography and matching the lighting is a standard exercise these days.

Can you tell us more about the animation that switch between the suits?
The transition effect is something we explored for quite some time. We wanted something that was more than just a simple wipe, yet it should not feel like the suit was physically modifying on the surface. It was merely to change colour. We had to do a little bit of extra UV work to allow for smooth transitions across the entire suit in a coherent and organic way, but once we had that, we could experiment with different growth patterns and combine them with graphic elements like the hexagons.

Which sequence or shot was the most challenging?
Definitely the slow-motion underwater shot was amongst the, if not the most challenging shot of our work. The foggy Torfa surface came close, but I think once we had a recipe and look, it was more about the render power to help us with all the foggy scattering, whereas the underwater shot was challenging to the very end, it could provide a curve ball at any given time.

Is there something specific that gives you some really short nights?
We had a late addition of an establishing shot of Vers entering a Kree temple in the city of Hala. It was a golden shiny building in a sunset environment, that was a tricky one to pull off at the last minute.

What is your favorite shot or sequence?
Definitely the Torfa temple approach sequence as a whole. It was a lot of fun to put together and establish the look of the alien planet as well as having self illuminating projectiles shooting through the fog. We are all very proud of the way it turned out.

What is your best memory on this show?
The team, no doubt about it. The schedule was challenging, but everyone went the extra mile to pull together such a great visual result in the end.

How long have you worked on this show?
I was on the show for about 10 months.

What’s the VFX shots count?
Framestore finished over 130 shots, I believe the final shot count was 136.

What was the size of your team?
We had 160 artists working on the show in total, obviously not everyone worked on it for the entirety of the show duration, but it was a great team to be working with.

What is your next project?
I am currently working on THE AERONAUTS.

A big thanks for your time.

WANT TO KNOW MORE?
Framestore: Dedicated page about CAPTAIN MARVEL on Framestore website.

© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2019

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Vincent Frei

Founder & Editor-in-Chief // VES Member // Former comp artist

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