Back in 2019, Dan DeLeeuw gave us a detailed explanation of the visual effects in Avengers: Endgame. He’s back today to talk about his work on the series, Loki.
How did you get involved on Loki?
I joined Loki at the start of post production. I came on to establish and refine looks for the over 2500 shots created for the series. I remember the first time I saw each of the episodes, even though they were early in the editing process, I knew that the show would be special.
How was the collaboration with Director Kate Herron?
Kate had an amazing vision for Loki – high concept set pieces surrounding a “grounded » relationship between two gods. Not only did Kate tell a great story, but her world building skills were second to none. From an Alligator Loki, to the Time Variance Authority, and an epic battle of the end of time…. each episode presented new worlds and characters that we needed to develop. When I started, Kate was great about downloading all these ideas and inviting me into the world of Loki.
Did the episodic aspect of the show affect your work?
We were fortunate to work with the many of same VFX houses that we work with on the features. The creative shorthand and pipeline had already been established which let us hit the ground running. The biggest change was the staggered delivery dates. With the features, you had one big push and then you were done. With Loki there was a push every two weeks. To help with that, we hired three additional in-house supervisors to manage the workload. Brad Parker, Sandra Balej, and David Allen each took on a different VFX house. By working with each house’s supervisors and teams, they would carry the shots on to completion.
How did you choose the various vendors and how did you split the work?
When we choose VFX houses, we think of it in terms of casting. Just like an actor, a VFX house has a range and a type of work in which they excel. We were lucky with Loki because each or our creative partners had a huge range. Many of the houses created effects, characters, and environment work – all of which were needed to complete such a complex show.
Allison Paul, our VFX Producer, split the work based on episodes and delivery dates. For example, ILM took on all of episode five. But with Method Studios and Luma Pictures – they were given smaller amounts of work an a single episode, but their total shot count was close to ILM’s because they worked on multiple episodes.
Can you elaborate about the creation of Lamentis and The Void?
The journey to Shuroo was photographed on the backlot. The set consisted of sand and blue screens. Every vehicle, structure, and hillside was created by Digital Domain. Unfortunately, much of the environment had to be replaced because of the blue screen shadows on the ground. The plates were shot day for night and the team had to adjust each sequence to give the feeling of the passage of time as the sun set over Lamentis.
Once the heroes reach Shuroo, they embark on one of the longest continuous shot any of us have ever worked on. It consisted of multiple stitches buried in quick pans and wipes. Production built the ground floors on all the buildings, and DD created set extensions for the upper floors. The destruction was achieved with complex effects simulations of the planet breaking apart, meteorites streaking down, and buildings breaking apart. The sequence culminates in the last escape shuttle being hit by a large piece of the planet and exploding – dashing Loki and Sylvie’s chance for escape.
Lamentis is actually a moon whose planet has been over mined. As a result of the mining, the planet is breaking up and is crashing down onto the moon. Digital Domain created the meteor strikes, and large chunks of the planet. During Loki and Sylvie’s conversation in the quarry, Kate was very specific about the location and timing of the meteor strikes. They needed to add a feeling of jeopardy but they also couldn’t detract from the conversation. It turned out to be a very delicate balance. To realize the final destruction of Lamentis, RISE created a giant meteorite that slams into the moon and sends up a tidal wave of explosions, rocks and dirt.
// The Void
The plates for the Void were shot on stage with a single ground layout covered with grass. ILM created a digital version of our scanned set. No matter what scene we shot, it was the same ground terrain. As a result, when ILM built their set extensions, each extension contained that same scanned ground terrain.
To reach the Void, a character or object needed to be pruned. FuseFX developed the look of the pruning outside the Void and ILM created the resulting portal that opens inside the Void.
One of the bigger set pieces was the arrival of the USS Eldridge into the Void. ILM studied photographs of the original ship to create their digital version. The Third Floor created the pre-vis for the sequence. The art department headed by production designer Kasra Farahani built a portion of the top deck with deck guns. ILM extended the deck to the back of the ship and built the conning tower. When Alioth feeds, he distorts time and rapidly ages objects and creatures. It’s as if he feeds on their lifespans. ILM created two looks for the ship. The first was the original look of the ship and the second was a rusted out hull. For the sailors, they created digital doubles that would rapidly deteriorate until only dust and the skeleton remained.
In addition to Alioth, the Void was populated with what we called Void Turkeys. They were small flightless bird-like creatures with four legs. Each creature was composed of metallic looking feathers and a reflective ball for a head. The animators did a great jobs making the birds expressive even thought they didn’t have a face.
The series is full of creatures. Can you tell us more about Alioth and Alligator Loki?
Alioth is a character based on the comics. We wrote out a character she that defined his powers. He would derive energy by rapidly aging living things and inanimate objects. After he consumed his food, anything that was made from metal was left as a rusted shape. Anything living was left behind as decomposing bones. For the finale, Alioth returned to his den. It is here that you can see the remains of Leviathans littered on the valley floor.
Alioth was composed of two distinct styles of clouds. The main body resembled a pyroclastic cloud that was surrounded by more wispy tendrils. It was important for the main body to have no discernible sides i.e. which was his back and which was his front. The only sense of his shape would come when Alioth would manifest his head. To sell the shapeless feeling of the cloud when Alioth turned, his head would always disappear inside his body and reappear in the direction of his travel.
To accomplish this, there was a volume that roughly defined Alitoth’s shape in addition to geometry for his skull and fore legs. Particles would be emitted from random sources inside the body. But for the head, particles would be emitted directly from the skull shape. This gave Alioth a more demonic feeling of smoke billowing from his face. This evil presence was buoyed by the addition of lightning and interactive light.
The finale culminates with Classic Loki raising an illusion of Asgard within the Blight. We reused the Asgard model from the Thor movies. We needed to adjust some of the building locations to conform to our uneven terrain; as well as, make the city a bit smaller to fit the action.
// Alligator Loki
For Alligator Loki, we gathered as much reference as we could. We went through several iterations of looks. The first passes resulted in an alligator that was too large and bit more sinister looking. We went in and adjusted the overall size and resculpted the head to make him more appealing. ILM used their skin and muscle tools to keep the skin feeling thick but soft enough to move over the joints.
Texturing Alligator Loki took sever iterations. Under normal light the first pass looked great. The color had a nice greenish yellow look with clear patterns along his sides and stomach. But the color correction of the sequence was predominately blue with cancelled out the yellow coloring. When lit into the environment, he looked black and the markings effectively disappeared. So we had to pre-grade the alligators textures to account for color changes in the DI.
In addition to the textures and sculpt, we iterated on the animation to find Alligator Loki’s character. Initial tests had his animation being more broad – a bit more like a dog – and his awareness of other characters being more acute. This performance undermined the comedic potential of the character. Once we animated Alligator Loki to just be an alligator, we knew we had hit the mark.
The crowning moment for finishing the character was the addition of Loki’s helmet. Kate wanted the audience to always question whether Alligator Loki was actually an alligator. His helmet was sculpted and textured as if it was a true Asgardian creation. But the strap that help it on was just a cheap piece of leather. In addition, we gave the Alligator blue eyes to match Tom’s.
Can you elaborate about the design and creation of Miss Minutes?
Miss Minutes was designed by the art department. Kate wanted Miss Minutes to be inspired by the 1960’s design aesthetic of the TVA. Kate mentioned that she loved the look of the Felix the Cat cartoons. Felix was first appeared in 1919, and fortunately for us was animated into the 1960’s. We studied the later cartoons for line style and movement and incorporated that into Miss Minutes. Luma created her as a 3D asset that was then rendered to look 2D. We were inspired by Who Framed Roger Rabbit and added Tones and Shadows to give her 2D form a 3D feel. A 2D flicker affect was added over the render in compositing.
Which sequence or shot was the most challenging?
The biggest challenge turned out to be Episode 5. The show was basically one long sequence with 527 shots. Episode 5 had more shots than any other episode. It starts off with a long shot passing through the TVA and into the Time Keepers Chamber and then dissolving into the Void where we pass the Lighthouse of Alexandria and fly over a ruined Manhatten before landing in Central Park with Alitoth roaring in the background. Method created the Time Keepers and the Time Keepers chamber. Production built the bridge on which Loki and Sylvie fought. Method created a set extension to fill out the cavernous chamber, and added all the environmental fog. We chose to not shoot the fog on set to make the blue screen pulls easier in post. ILM created the Lighthouse and reused the model of New York City from the first Avengers movie as a starting place for the destroyed version.
What is your favorite shot or sequence?
I loved working with Trixter on the Power of 10 at the beginning of episode 6. We came up with an entire back story about why the Citadel was placed at the end of the universe. Because it was the furthest most point from the Big Bang, anyone viewing from that location could see the entire creation of the universe. The double black holes focused the light into the ring that represented the sacred timeline. I know it was a bunch of imaginary science, but it was fun to come up with.
What is your best memory on this show?
I think my best memory of the show was coming up with the Easter eggs in episode 5. I have checked online – the fans have found most of them but there are still a few that they haven’t found. Some just require a more careful look, but some would require knowledge about early drafts of Iron Man 3.
What’s the VFX shots count?
A big thanks for your time.
WANT TO KNOW MORE?
ILM: Dedicated page about Loki on ILM website.
RISE: Dedicated page about Loki on RISE website
Disney+: You can now watch Loki on Disney+.
© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2021