About ten years ago, Sean Andrew Faden explained the visual effects work done by Method Studios on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. He then worked on a lot of shows such as Furious 6, Game of Thrones, Power Rangers and Mulan.
How did you get involved on this series?
My friend and VFX producer on Mulan, Di Giorgiutti, introduced me to her Marvel friends…
How was the collaboration with the producers and the directors?
Marvel fosters an extremely collaborative process for sure, and our directors (Mohamed Diab and Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead) and our Marvel Producer Grant Curtis worked with us on all levels. There was a lot of early planning between myself and Grant in general approaches to some of the big sequences. Once previs got started we would have regular reviews to go over concepts and action but there was a lot of freedom to explore ideas before the directors had even started and they were very encouraging and excited to pick up the conversation. Previs was a new concept for both directors, and they took advantage of the tech to really think thru the bigger sequences early enough to let us prepare and shoot them with confidence. I remember Mohamed really getting it when we were shooting the Museum Jackal attack – as he realized that the work put in to the jackal attack Previs gave him the space on set to play a bit, knowing that the critical shots and angles were accounted for. On set there was a lot of reliance on the VFX team for guidance on character placement and action as well as walking thru the multitude of complicated set extensions.
What was their approach and expectations about the visual effects?
The directors had expectations that varied with their episodes for sure. While Mohamed was very concerned with having an accurate representation of Cairo first and foremost, Justin and Aaron wanted to make sure the VFX in their episodes (2 and 4) were scary and leaning more towards horror. In post, we spent a lot of time presenting, trying new things, and working with the filmmakers and Marvel’s President of Physical and Post Production, Victoria Alonzo, whose focus was on story and making sure that the VFX always supported the story and not VFX for the sake of exposition. Marvel expected a quality finish that was akin to any of their movies, and our Marvel producer Grant Curtis was a rock throughout the process. We couldn’t have done the work we did in the time we had without his support and guidance.
How did you organize the work with your VFX Producer?
Whitney Gearin and I spent a lot of time strategizing on how to get thru so much work with 13 vendors in a condensed post schedule. He managed the 10000 foot view and we worked closely with our associate producer Tamar Shaham who managed our production team and the turnover process. Whitney spent most of his time putting out fires, but we definitely had some fun creative brainstorming sessions together, he is a very talented guy that can wear many hats. I spent most of my time working with the two biggest vendors (Framestore and Weta FX) and working thru all of the other work with my two additional supervisors Dan Akers and John Haley- who each managed 5-6 of the smaller workload vendors.
How did you choose the various vendors?
I wanted to work with vendors I had worked with in the past- so that always plays a role- but in todays crazy demand market – not all of them were available. I was very happy to be able to work with Framestore, Weta FX, Image Engine, Crafty Apes, and Method again- having some experience working with a company is just one less thing to worry about in the chaos of post-production. We rounded out the vendors with highly recommended teams at Soho, Mammal, Fotokem, Cinesite, Marz, Base, Zoic, and Union– and it’s nice to now have even more to come back to next time.
Can you tell us how you split the work amongst the vendors?
Framestore and Weta FX handled the majority of character work, with Framestore taking on the major London rooftop sequences, the jackal work and the Duat Egyptian underworld sequences. Weta FX primarily handled the nighttime Cairo world, the Chamber of the Gods look development, the Ammit and Scarlet Scarab characters, and Ammit and Khonshu battles as well as the million night skies sequence from Episode 3.
Image Engine developed the daytime Cairo set extensions and picked up a potpourri of street battle shots in episode 6, including developing the look of the soul fx. Union and Zoic built out the Alps sequences, and Marz most notably handled the Moon Knight/Mr Knight fight at Mogart’s mansion in episode 3. Crafty Apes did the Nile river Felucca boat ride – mixing Egyptian riverside landmarks with array plates from Budapest’s Danube river and most of the car comps, with Mammal also contributing several driving sequences.
We aimed to split things up based on episode and similar shots, trying to make sure that the work was spread out enough so as to not have unbalanced pressure on any vendor each week that an episode was due. In order to stay flexible, we shared a lot of assets as well, with Base, Cinesite, and Image Engine, all using Weta FX assets to support and expand our ability to deal with unexpected growth in several sequences.
How was the collaboration with their VFX Supervisors?
I’m a big fan of giving the supervisors and their teams enough artwork, reference, and guidance so that they can bring new ideas to the table- our best work is a blend of efforts always- and playing in cineSync with the supervisors was always a highlight for me.
Can you elaborates about the car chase sequence?
The Alps chase sequence was masterfully previs’d by Framestore Pre-Production Services (FPS) based on Marvel storyboards from Marc Vena. We had a sequence that was then broken down into 2nd unit stunts shot on location in the Slovenian alps and main unit shots with Oscar on a green screen gimbled van in a parking lot of the Budapest studio. We worked out angles with our DP Greg Middleton scouting our best angles of the actual van to show the action, and then in Slovenia we filmed multiple chases down the road using an 8 way miniLF rig from Brownian Motion. Green screen footage of Oscar in the van was then augmented with backgrounds from the array that had CG cliffs, mountains, a logging truck, and in some cases additional cars added to complete the shot. Even in the 2nd unit stunt work, Union did a lot of adding cliff walls and shear drops to what were relatively safe roads with trees on either side.
How did you handle the various impossible and long shots?
The most complicated shots benefited greatly from extensive previs, and then eventually techvis. The long shots in the bathroom with infinite mirrors was carefully previs’d by Framestore (FPS) and we actually did a full dry run test to shoot all of the necessary Marc versus Steven passes with Mohamed to help him understand the challenges and constraints of the shot. Mohamed and Justin and Aaron were keen to shoot longer shots, and we were able to accommodate and help find clever ways to break them into manageable pieces. We also worked closely with DP’s Greg Middleton and Andrew Palermo to make shot connections and transitions work.
The suit of Moon Knight is really cool. Can you elaborates about his design and creation?
We worked closely with Costume Designer Meghan Kasperlik who built the physical suits with FBFX in the UK. It was planned from early on that CG would create the cape in most shots and enhance the face mask and the eye region for both Moon Knight and Mr. Knight. We did some early tests to find the right eye glow and skin texture around the eyes using the camera test material and Framestore, who developed the CG versions of the Moon Knight and Mr. Knight suits. Collaborating with Meaghan, we discussed having the bandages of Moon Knight’s suit be based in a subtle gauze structure, which applied to both the Moon Knight and Mr. Knight transformation animation, as we see the materials organically “grow” from the basic building structure of the gauze.
How did you create the animation when the suit appears?
Framestore spent several months developing the approach to the suit transformation- which leaned heavily on cloth sim and procedural animation in Houdini. The thinking behind the transformation was that the bandages would form first as a threadlike gauze layer and then fill in with material as they wrapped and settled on the body. The softer elements such as the cape and cowl were always intended to rely heavily on a cloth simulation, so that the material would appear to unfurl or settle into place as it was forming, rather than form in a static pose. The face mask formation was very specific and followed the pattern dictated by the costume design.
What was the main challenges with the suits?
The main challenge of the Moon Knight suit was finding a real animation for the cape, something that felt dynamic but not too magical, it needed to help ground the movement of the performer. The Mr. Knight suit was most challenging in the London streets fight with the jackal, where it got so dirty a few takes in that it needed to be replaced in virtually every shot.
How did you enhanced the various fights with Moon Knight?
We enhanced the fights by adjusting hand positions on punches, adding dynamic capes that sometimes took comic book keyframe shapes, adding dust and debris, and of course the CG face mask and eye enhancements. In episode 6, we often did full CG takeovers of both Moon Knight and Mr. Knight as he flew through the air.
Can you explain in detail about the creation of the Egyptian god Khonshu?
Khonshu was based on Marvel visdev artwork and Meaghan Kasperlik’s real costume design. We would shoot with Karim (our onset performer) who would either stand on a 2.5’ tall box or wear a lightweight eyeline pole to reach the desired 9’ height. It provided invaluable lighting and animation reference for the team creating Khonshu at Framestore. Khonshu also has some subtle secondary fx work that adds to his character – the flyaway spider webs at the base of his skull and the constantly flowing robes required many iterations before we found the right balance.
In an episode, Khonshu manipulates the sky and stars. How did you create this impressive and beautiful sequence?
This was previs’d by Framestore (FPS) and worked thru multiple times with Mohamed- but we started by actually working with Weta FX and discussing the mechanics of what the sky could look like as it rolls back in time. They had a simulator that could show movement over a Day, a month, a year, or a thousand years, and were developing a prettier version of it in house. We asked Weta FX to render an over length animation of the sky that could be chopped up and used in the sky of the previs. While shooting, we worked with our DP Greg Middleton to have animated LED panels above the performers for interactive light and fed animation from Weta FX. The small hill of sand on our soundstage was extended using a CG desert based on reference photography from Jordan’s Wadi Rum desert shot at dusk. For the final look of the sky, I was really inspired by the long exposure “light painting” that artists were doing with drones making light circles over landscapes – and Weta FX did a fantastic job of bringing this all to life.
Can you elaborates about the creatures work?
Despite having a fairly compressed schedule compared to the feature projects I have worked on, we were able to maintain a feature length schedule for our character development thankfully. Marvel’s Visual Development team had created some amazing concepts for the jackal, Khonshu, Taweret, and Ammit. We took these concepts along with fantastic real-world costume design from Meaghan Kasperlik and built our creatures with Framestore and Weta FX. With Framestore creating the jackal, Khonshu and Taweret, and Weta FX bringing Ammit to life. Also, Weta FX took the Khonshu and Ammit characters and developed them both for their 300ft tall versions. From early on, we worked with our Marvel producer Grant Curtis to plan a shooting strategy for the creatures, and it was important to me to have real performers in real costumes on the day. We used a combination of witness cameras (for Khonshu and Taweret) and marker-less MoCap (for Ammit). The jackal movement was fully animated, with only a grey-suited stunt performer occasionally in shot for framing or actor interaction purposes. In addition to Meaghan’s fantastic detailed costumes, we also had a full scale (3 foot long) Khonshu skull on a stick as well as a Taweret head and headdress, an Ammit and a jackal head and claw for lighting reference.
What was your approach about the environments work?
Mohamed’s number one concern was that he wanted our creation of Cairo and the pyramids to be a more accurate representation than what we are used to seeing in Hollywood movies and TV. To this end, it was important to show that Cairo was a modern city, and that when we see the pyramids, they are not in the middle of a desert, miles away from the city (when in reality they are right up against the Giza neighborhood). Our approach was to maintain authenticity by working closely with production designer Stefania Cella. She had spent some time on early scouts to Cairo, and her team, which included Egyptian art directors, did amazing research, leading to beautiful sets that both served to ground the shots as well as give invaluable reference scans and photography for set extension work.
Aside from the Cairo worlds built in CG, the London roof chase also required a lot of effort to create a world around the rooftop sets that would feel authentic to London (although we did take a few liberties in the overall geography for sure).
Can you tell us more about the pyramid environments?
Because production was not able to send the typical data acquisition team to Cairo, we started with photographs from our additional Supervisor Dan Aker’s 5 day tech scout to Cairo. While extremely helpful, they were a fraction of the data we would have had given a proper LIDAR and texture shoot. Thankfully, thru the Disney family tree we got our hands on photogrammetry drone passes as well as partial LIDAR of the pyramids from the FOX production of Death on the Nile. Weta FX built on this to create a convincing Giza Plateau and Pyramids, adding a massive amount of additional detail in the stones and plateau as well as adding work lights and accent lights for the pyramid that would give us the most interesting mood for the battle between Khonshu and Ammit. Weta FX also purchased a DEM (Digital Elevation Model) of Cairo- which although was fairly low res- gave a solid guide for building placement and city layout for their modeling team to work from.
Which location was the most complicate to create and why?
The Cairo set extensions proved to be the most complicated, as they spanned multiple episodes, locations within Cairo, and lighting scenarios. All without being able to properly document Cairo with a LIDAR/texure photography shoot. Instead, our LIDAR team from Clear Angle captured 9 Cairo Colonial style buildings in Budapest handpicked by our production designer Stefania Cella and traveled to a few cities in Jordan as well to capture over 40 buildings (rooftops and facades) and alleys/streets. This material was shared between Image Engine and Weta FX to create the densely detailed set extensions and full CG Cairo environments seen throughout the series. We also took advantage of the intricate detail in the Stefania’s Cairo sets created in Budapest and used this to extend detail into the backgrounds as well.
Did you want to reveal to us any other invisible effects?
When Steven wakes up in the grass in the Alps, we had a small grassy knoll set in our Budapest studio parking lot for him to stand in, but the full 360 degree views to the castle, village and mountains was created in CG.
There were also a lot of shots extending Cairo in the background – especially in the daytime sequences running across roofs or in the marketplaces. Remember, we shot Oscar Isaac in Budapest and in the desert of Wadi Rum, but if you see him on the rooftops, in the marketplaces or city streets of Cairo, that was sets extended in VFX with CG Cairo.
Which sequence or shot was the most challenging?
Finding the right tone and look in the Duat was fairly challenging – starting from a beautiful Egyptian barge setpiece from our production designer Stefania Cella and then extending it based on detailed concept design was step one. Beyond that was figuring out how much the sand would move under the boat, how colorful and active the sky would be, and how to enhance camera movement from the plates while still preserving the story and threat of the underworld for Marc and Steven. Framestore and their supervisor Stuart Penn were great partners in finding this balance with the filmmakers.
Is there something specific that gives you some really short nights?
Recreating Cairo was challenging – so much detail that even on a quick shot you pick up on and if something isn’t right you tweak and tweak to make it perfect. Image Engine did a fantastic job of bringing together countless scans and photos of Jordan and Budapest Cairo-esque buildings to create a cohesive environment.
What is your favorite shot or sequence?
It’s a toss up between seeing for the first time the wide establishing POV of the inside of the Chamber of the Gods, our first introduction of Taweret in the Hospital, and the first creepy smile we get from Ammit when she is first unbound.
What is your best memory on this show?
There are many, but hearing our director yell out with excitement the first time we showed him a cool looking Cairo environment- it felt great to pass the ultimate test of an Egyptian with such strong opinions about what Cairo he wanted to see.
Also if I had one more it would be throwing a rubber gun out the window of our pursuit vehicle at our closely following stunt vehicle at 40mph during the filming of the Alps Chase.
How long have you worked on this show?
I started in July of 2020 and finished in April of 2022! So nearly two years.
What’s the VFX shots count?
2336 shots in total.
What is your next project?
Hoping to help out on another Marvel show and ride this rollercoaster again.
A big thanks for your time.
WANT TO KNOW MORE?
Framestore: Dedicated page about Moon Knight on Framestore website.
Image Engine: Dedicated page about Moon Knight on Image Engine website.
Weta FX: Dedicated page about Moon Knight on Weta FX website.
© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2022