The MCU’s first Asian superhero finally shines in Marvel Studios Shang-Chi and the legend of the ten rings, which tells the story of the criminal organization that captured Tony Stark in the original Iron Man, while also revealing the true identity of his real brain known as The Manchurian – previously played by an engaged and stupid actor – in Iron man 3. Destiny Daniel Cretton (Short term 12) produced with the support of VFX supervisor Christopher Townsend (Captain America: The First Avenger).
TRIXTER has worked on numerous Townsend supervised projects since Ninja Assassin. “We know what to expect from each other and how to work together to get the best possible result,” says Dominik Zimmerle, VFX Supervisor at TRIXTER. “It’s great to work with him.” Asset development began in the fall of 2019, with post-production extended by the forced end of principal photography due to the pandemic. “Chris and Damien Carr [Marvel Studios’ VFX producer] were great in getting us work that had already been shot so that we could get through these difficult times. We had a few extra tasks because in the second stage of filming there were restrictions on crowd shots in the arena where the fighting takes place. They weren’t allowed to put as many people on stage as before. We had quite a few shots which required stitching. There was a clean plate and the crowds were put together in several layers to achieve the size of the original crowd.
The initial concepts were provided by Marvel Studios, with previs and postvisits for most of the footage by The Third Floor. “It’s fantastic what Marvel Studios is doing before they start the visual effects work,” Zimmerle notes. “Almost all of our footage was based on photography, especially Abomination. They did a whole ring, had a guy on stilts, and there were rays of God and volume. It helped us a lot to see what kind of vibe was expected. A small village was physically built for Ta Lo with green screens in the background, but a building here and there was replaced in CG and the whole surrounding environment was made in CG. The only exception was the ancestral route. Although it was photographed in Australia, we opted for an all CG environment as it had to look magical and lush. The only practical element was the jeep.
Using a wombat as the primary point of reference, TRIXTER had to conceptualize the details of Morris, the faceless four-winged sidekick known as Dijiang. “We had to determine the configuration of its legs, the biomechanics and the type of feathers,” says Zimmerle. “We started sculpting all the details with our concept department in ZBrush in the form of 3D sculptures. The same was done for the nine-tailed fox [known as a Huli Jing] and the Qilin [unicorn]. We have looked at many references of horses and foxes to get the correct anatomy and ground them in reality. ”
Zimmerle concedes that it was difficult to respect the cultural significance of the Chinese mythological creatures in the film, noting, “We found where these creatures are depicted, but it was difficult for us to understand their context in Chinese mythology. I hope we understood correctly! Then you get into the purpose they have in the movie. Morris was a sidekick of the main party. Foxes and Qilin were meant to show off the otherworldly beauty of the environment. We’ve tried to stay true to the original depictions of Chinese mythology, but you need to go from a 2D painting or sculpture to something that works in a shooting context.
A plush was used to frame Morris as well as to get the right interaction with the cast. “Chris asked us at the start of the shoot what we wanted,” Zimmerle describes. “We went ahead with Morris’s model and gave him the exact measurements of the green plush, but we made him a little bit smaller so that the hands always crossed with the fur. We could also give the exact position of the legs and stumps for the wings. The actors had a good point of reference where they could deal with Morris. It also provided us with a good scale reference. Morris had to be able to move despite the lack of traditional facial features. According to Zimmerle, “There’s an area we think of as the face that’s a little flat in the front. One of the great accomplishments of the animation department has been to make sure Morris blunts naturally rather than looking like a cartoon. To make sure the audience understands Morris talking, we have wing tremors and he leans toward whoever he’s talking to.
Returning to the MCU after a 13-year absence is the Abomination, which first appeared in The Incredible Hulk. “We received the original 2008 model as well as all the Hulk models created for the MCU, so we had a benchmark for the proportions,” Zimmerle reveals. “The height of the Hulk has changed a lot during this time. There were also some initial concepts provided by Marvel Studios. But basically we had to start from scratch and reference material to figure out what the skin, hand, and scales might look like. Abomination has a completely different anatomy than the Hulk. “Abomination is about 11 feet tall. For some shots, we made it bigger and smaller to make sure the proportions looked right and reflected how heavy, strong and massive it was. For the fights there was a liner on stilts, which helped show how close he had to be from Benedict Wong. Since Abomination is a CG creature, we were able to help stage performances work better with combat. In the shot where Benedict Wong crosses the legs, there was a green pad to indicate the diameter between the legs. We had a point of contact that helped us understand where the legs needed to be and organize our animation accordingly.
The Foo Dogs were developed by Weta and shared with TRIXTER. “The main challenge was to maintain the spikes that the Foo Dogs create on their manes throughout the performance,” Zimmerle notes. “It’s a graphic element and can quickly look like a cartoon. The simulation should be correct, with a little wind to show that the tips are a natural part of the fur and move realistically. The tips were so close to the deformable areas of the skin that they sometimes tended to move too much. So their movement had to be restricted, but there had to be enough leeway for them to appear naturalistic. The other challenge was to create a creature that looks like a believable massive statue. ”
Not everything was creature-based in the two sequences involving the Ta Lo environment. “The first is the ancestral road that leads to Ta Lo, which was completely built by TRIXTER,” Zimmerle shares. “Ta Lo itself was created by Rising Sun Pictures and shared with us as a point cloud. We all have their assets such as trees. We ingested the point cloud and distributed the trees to the points and returned it for shots at Ta Lo. Ta Lo was built like a village in Australia with a green screen around it. The ground was not as green and lush as it should be. Most of the plans involved making good caches for whatever you needed to put things behind. This was done in part with greenfield and detailed rotoscoping techniques. The next big challenge was to get the right lighting because we wanted to create a beautiful reality. RSP has done an amazing job creating a magical, believable world and that’s what we’ve tried to match. We had to adjust the environment as our stages had partially different lighting and setups.
Ta Lo appears in full sun and is seen later at sunset. “Adapting to these changes in daylight and maintaining the same spirit and feeling about the environment was the biggest challenge,” says Zimmerle. “The split between the plans created by TRIXTER and RSP added to the complexity. Usually for RSP plans we have provided the Foo Dogs. The lighting of the plan has been created with precision and the magical aspects have been integrated into the surroundings. “We worked a lot with an atmosphere like the scattering of sunlight on a lake in the background, beautiful clouds hanging between the mountains that we could use to show the direction of the light creating a nice clear pattern and dark, ”he adds. “We worked with saturation to make the green sometimes a little greener and compensating in other areas to keep it naturalistic. When had beautiful shadows changes more colorful in blue to neutral shadows in warmer sunlight. It was done with delicacy, otherwise it quickly becomes too magical.
Several software and workflow adjustments were made to create the many creatures, “especially the tracking caches because we were using a number of different software,” Zimmerle says. “For Morris’s furry simulation, we stayed at Yeti. Sometimes, for interaction, the fur was brought to Houdini. The feathers always came from Houdini. To assemble all these caches, we have introduced several new techniques. A pen tool that could be purchased from SideFX was used but modified heavily enough to allow for an automated first pass of de-intersection and to prepare the pipeline for the flexibility needed for the show.
“We provided Morris renderings and compositions for Weta Digital, Digital Domain and Scanline VFX,” he continues. “There was a lot of cross-interactions between all of the vendors, which was demanding because each has a different pipeline. On the other hand, it was great to be able to see their great work. In addition, the client created a personal point of contact, which allowed us to speak at any time with Weta Digital, Digital Domain, Scanline and Rising Sun Pictures.
Zimmerle concludes by noting: “It was a real pleasure to see the public reaction to Morris. It was nice to see people marveling and laughing at Morris; these scenes were a great experience.
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer best known for composing in-depth filmmakers and film profiles for VFX voice, Animation review, and british filmmaker.