Back in 2019, Christopher Townsend explained in detail the visual effects work for Captain Marvel. Today he returns to tell us about his work on the new Marvel Studios film, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
How did you get involved on this movie?
I was fortunate enough to be invited to a meeting with Destin, the Director, very early on in the process, and was soon after offered the job as the main visual effects supervisor.
That was the first big VFX feature for Director Destin Daniel Cretton. How did you help him about this aspect?
From our initial conversations, Destin was quite clear about what he was after, in terms of the visual effects. He was passionate about making a character driven film that honored the traditional martial arts in as authentic a way possible, using long takes with no quick cuts or shaky camera work to hide things, and wanted it to be clear that it was our actors that were performing the various complex moves throughout the film. He also expressed his desire that the film start off in as naturalistic way as possible and slowly develop into a more fantastical story as the film went on. This offered us many opportunities for a variety of approaches to the work in the film.
This being one of the first films where Destin had used visual effects to any great extent, I went through all the different aspects of what we do, from pre-visualization, layout, match move, character building and development, animation tests, look development, rendering, all the way through to compositing. I told him what my role onset would be and how he could lean on me for certain things during the pre-production and shooting process. I also warned him that we were a very large and, being honest, rather slow department at times, as they were so many different moving parts and so many people involved in the very complex machinations that constitute visual effects. He was very keen and enthusiastic about learning this new part of filmmaking, and time would show that he was a very quick student!
What was his approach and expectations about the visual effects?
As story was paramount to him, the visual effects always had to serve that; he had some very clear ideas about what he wanted things to look like, but was always open to other ideas and was a fantastic collaborator. He pays great attention to the minutest of details, whether it be performance, set design, costume, lighting or editing, and that same eye was constantly on visual effects.
How did you organize the work with your VFX Producer and with VFX Supervisor Joe Farrell?
Damien Carr, the visual effects producer on the film, and I have worked together for several years; he comes to each project not only from the producer side, but also as a creative partner to me. Likewise, even though my main mandate is the creative look of the work, I am also very aware of the resources and costs associated. We discussed at great length how to best split the work up, both in terms of the various visual effects companies who would be doing the work, but also how we would supervise them from the production side.
Joe Farrell, our second unit/additional VFX Supervisor, has a lot of onset experience, and has worked in various visual effects companies as an artist. The second unit visual effects team was an autonomous group; obviously Damian and I were very involved in the original preplanning but ultimately, when it came to the day-to-day shooting, Joe and Louise McNicholl, the second unit production manager, ran things. In post, everything ultimately goes through me; I’m always very involved with the design and look of all shots, but often it’s good to break some of the tasks up.
There was one specific sequence, which we knew would require a lot of time and energy in the detailed pre planning, which was the bus fight sequence, particularly organizing how we would shoot the arrays in San Francisco, and we felt that it would be good to ask Joe to oversee that sequence, for which Luma did the VFX. Later, as we were looking to give Joe more work, we felt that the scaffolding fight sequence, which Rodeo did, was also something he could take on.
Ultimately, I oversaw all the work, and was creatively involved throughout, but Joe handled the day to day supervision, and I’m thrilled with what he did.
How did you choose the various vendors?
Picking the right vendors for the specific work is a key component to Damian and my job. Having read early drafts of the script, we immediately sit down and go through who we think could be a good fit. It’s always good to play to companies strengths, but it’s also sometimes very effective to stretch companies, asking them to work a little outside of their comfort zone, and allow them to step up to the plate, and do new work, bringing to the table a different level of excitement and enthusiasm.
Can you tell us how you split the work amongst the vendors?
There are over 1750 visual effects shots in the film, and splitting the work up becomes a very complex task.
Based on previous work that we had seen, we asked Method Melbourne, to do the epic opening battle shots where we are first introduced to WenWu and the rings.
Realizing that the bamboo forest sequences, both in a beautiful Tai Chi inspired martial arts fight between WenWu and Li, and the car chasing shots within the jungle, would require an aesthetic attention to detail and some incredibly complex and heavy simulation work, we turned to Scanline.
Digital Domain built the mountain top compound where WenWu lives, and did all the work within that compound, including a dramatic car chase in an underground parking lot.
Fin Design took on a handful of shots in a beautifully executed frozen water moment.
There were several creatures that we needed to create, and breathing life in to them required some beautiful animation. Trixter once again stepped up to the plate, creating some memorable characters and moments, including Morris, a headless, winged, furry, feathered, six legged creature, and Abomination. They also built the beautiful fully digital, photorealistic world the fantastical creatures inhabit, on the way to TaLo.
Based on previous world building on other shows that we’d seen, we asked Rising Sun Pictures to create the stunning location of TaLo; it was a massive environment, the asset of which was ultimately shared with Trixter and Weta as so much of the film took place there.
Weta took on a lot of the final battle with the fight between demons and dragons. Huge fully digital shots incorporating some amazingly complex water simulations, fighting FooDogs and an epic Father vs Son ring fight were some highlights of their varied work. They were an amazing partner who were able to take on the shifting needs of the film.
Where was filmed the various exteriors of the movie?
The film was mainly shot in Sydney, Australia; some huge set pieces were built by the Art Department, including a multi house village set outside; the harsh sunlight caused us many problems as it was supposed to be a stormy dramatic sky. Adding in an even more fantastical feel, we even had the occasional kangaroo on set! We also shot in San Francisco.
The first two action scenes have a lot of impossible shots. How did you prepare the shooting and the creation of these shots?
We spent a long time doing very accurate Previs and StuntVis to figure out not only the fight action and how to cut the shots together, but also how to shoot them with very dynamic cameras. We took those individual shots into editorial, constantly making changes back-and-forth with new Previs and StuntVis, honing the sequence.
How did you transform Sydney into San Francisco for the bus sequence?
We sent a small unit to San Francisco to shoot both a full set of eight camera array plates, and a few days of shooting of real buses driving through the streets of San Francisco crashing into real cars, scooters, and street furniture. The special effects team did a tremendous job in creating a really dynamic dramatic crash sequence which really helps bring the sequence alive. Based on texture photography taken in the city, Luma also created various parts of downtown for some all CG environments.
The bamboo scaffolding fight is really beautiful with its approach with lights and reflections. How does that affects your work?
Yes, I’m really pleased with the way that the scaffolding fight turned out. We really wanted it to be a high concept moment within the film, using the bright neon lights, flashing billboards, and the mirrored glass to give it a very modern, and slick feel. Creating a fully digital nighttime city, and making it feel photographic, is very challenging, but I think Rodeo pulled it off. We decided to shoot the sequence in a blue volume, against a three story high mirrored wall set, which gave us all the reflections, even though it also reflected all the cameras, rigging etc; that meant that there was a tremendous amount of rotoscoping and cleanup to do, but it gave us the photographic elements to make it feel real.
How did you work with the SFX and stunts teams for the various fights?
On a film like this we had to work very closely with the stunt team especially; the amount of stunt work in this film was far greater than any other I have been a part of, and it required some very close collaboration to make sure that we all knew what we were doing and what was expected of each department.
Which fight or stunt was the most complicated to enhance?
All of the stunt sequences required a significant number of face replacements, which was very challenging considering the long takes. Each sequence had it’s own specific challenges on top of that, whether it be trying to create the poetic, lyrical feel within the bamboo forest fight, working within the confines of the bus, creating face replacements for the actors and their reflections in the scaffolding fight, and working with many different characters for the opening and closing battle scenes. One of the most challenging sequences, was the brother versus sister fight, created by Method Melbourne, as there are so many up close and personal shots of our actors.
This first big creature that we met is Abomination. Can you elaborates about him?
We wanted to create a version of Abomination which was closer to the original comic book art than we had seen in it his previous version in the original Incredible Hulk movie. We asked Trixter to rebuild him from the ground up, and redesign certain aspects of him to mimic the comics closer, adding more scarification and the infamous ears. Even though he only appears in the film for a handful of shots, it was very important to get his look right, and to imbue him with the right sense of weight, power, and speed for his animation.
The movie is going then full fantasy with lots of magic. Can you explain in detail about the water FX work showing the path to Ta-Lo?
We wanted to reveal the map showing the way to TaLo in an unusual manner, one that felt fitting to the world that we were about to enter. Water plays a key part in the design of TaLo, it being a lakeside village, and where the Great Protector, the dragon, uses water as a magical power. It was a really fun and creative challenge, and I’m pleased with the way the sequence turned out. Fin Design, in Sydney, did a great job with beautiful attention to detail, using photogrammetry to create an accurate CG version of the finely crafted practical set, from which water droplets explode. They then freeze in beautiful shapes and the actors interact with them before they collapse to the floor, form a version of the bamboo forest, and then reveal a map within.
Can you elaborates about the design and creation of the beautiful environment of Ta-Lo?
Originally we wanted to shoot location photography in south east Asia, but Covid and travel bans forced us into a full CG world. Rising Sun Pictures, in Adelaide, created a huge, highly detailed world, based on reference photographs of various parts of Thailand, Vietnam, and southern China as inspiration. Creating a totally photorealistic world like TaLo, is one thing, but building it in such a way that it can be shared with two other vendors, is quite another. RSP shared the world with both Trixter and Weta, as so much of the second half of the film takes place there, and there were so many shots in that environment.
The environment is full of beautiful and strange creatures. Can you elaborates about them?
Trixter created the creatures in the opening scene as we first enter the mystical world, and the fully digital world they inhabit. We wanted the creatures to feel familiar and real, but each animal was based very closely on Chinese mythological characters. Bringing them to life was really fun, and I think really helps to sell that we are in a fantastical world once we have gone through the water portal.
Let’s talk about the big creatures in the final battle and especially the beautiful dragon. Can you elaborates about their design and creation?
Creating a Chinese inspired dragon, rather than a western one with wings and breathing fire, was a really fun challenge. We wanted to bring to life what has been depicted over the centuries in Chinese mythology. We based the movement on sea snakes and eels, always trying to keep her animation very fluid and poetic. Weta did a tremendous job adding an immense amount of detail to the whole structure and particularly the scales and moss covering them, but also paying particular attention to the physiology of the dragon with its skeletal structure and simulated muscles and skin. We referenced reptiles and birds, always keeping in mind the vastness of the creature. In terms of animation, we didn’t want to make everything just slow motion to imply size, so had to very carefully craft performances that still felt huge whilst also feeling nimble, agile and very fast.
The beast, The Dweller in Darkness, created similar challenges in terms of scale, but it was important to give it quite a different feel. Huge flapping wings, multiple tentacles, a gaping maw, and removing it’s eyes gave it a really scary, ominous look.
Let’s not forget, the famous Ten Rings. What was the main challenges with them?
We worked for many months on the look of the rings and their powers. Method Melbourne took the lead in the original design and came up with some very interesting looks. We wanted to find a way to make the rings always feel special, and incredibly powerful, without the FX taking over. We played around with many different ways of making the individual rings have different powers, but ultimately decided on simplifying them and treating the 10 rings as a whole rather than separate entities.
These rings are playing a big part in the final fight between Shang-Chi and his father. How did you work with the stunts team and the actors?
There are several fights in the film where the rings play a key part, and the father versus son fight really shows off the different powers. These scenes were very carefully Previs and StuntVised, and we worked very closely with each department to figure out what should be fully digital, face replacements, and enhanced wire work. The rings were always digital, we chose not to use any interactive light on set, as we were still designing the ultimate look, and we based what we did on the stunning fight choreography. We wanted to make the rings always feel like physical things in the world, and the powers themselves were based on elemental forces, fire, lightning, solar flares, aurora borealis etc., to try and make them feel as real as possible, while still embracing the fantastical element.
What is your best memory on this show?
Working with Destin, and the incredible team for so long, was a fantastic collaboration. We always felt that what we were making was quite special, and the fact that Covid happened right in the middle of principal photography, added to that feeling of teamwork.
How long have you worked on this show?
Over two years.
What’s the VFX shots count?
What is your next project?
A big thanks for your time.
// Overall VFX Supervisor Christopher Townsend talking about the Ten Rings
WANT TO KNOW MORE?
Digital Domain: Dedicated page about Shang-Chi on Digital Domain website.
Fin Design + Effects: Dedicated page about Shang-Chi on Fin Design + Effects website.
Rodeo FX: Dedicated page about Shang-Chi on Rodeo FX website.
Trixter: Dedicated page about Shang-Chi on Trixter website.
Weta Digital: Dedicated page about Shang-Chi on Weta Digital website.
© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2021