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Branagh's VFX Journey with 'Thor'

Director Kenneth Branagh talks VFX and 3-D for his first Marvel superhero movie.

Check out the Thor trailer at AWNtv!

For Jotunheim, Digital Domain responded "with tones and color and architecture." Courtesy of Marvel.

You wouldn't know that director Kenneth Branagh is a VFX newbie by the way he ticks off vendor after vendor in his comments about Marvel's mighty Thor (opening today in 3-D from Paramount). He certainly does his homework to prepare for interviews, and he's become a fast learner on what CG and 3-D can do for his storytelling. But, in the end, whether it's Shakespeare (Hamlet, Henry V) or Marvel, it's all about a "flawed hero who must earn the right to be king."

Bill Desowitz: What was the biggest VFX learning curve for you?

Kenneth Branagh:

Well, it was absorbing the process as we went along, given that, even though we started on day one conceptualizing, it was always going to take a long time. The realization of Asgard, for instance, by Whiskytree, was something that went on until, really, the very, very last moment, like a day or two before I showed the film for the first time. But that big oil tanker of a vfx-heavy movie is tough to move and pipelines and deliveries and, particularly with our additional 3-D side of things, meant that the steepest learning curve -- to answer your question -- was how to keep creative freedom for as long as possible whilst still managing the necessary complex logistics of the pipeline.

BD: Did you storyboard, did you previs?

KB: The second week I sat down with a brilliant storyboard artist named Federico D'Alessandro and we produced storyboards and an animatic for the opening sequence of the movie on Earth. And I have to say, by the end of my first month, that animatic was up and running and that stayed pretty constantly all the way through. And when I presented that to my Marvel colleagues for the first time, I could see that visible relief that it looked like we were on the same page. And then we started our first animatic exercise into the world of the prologue, which is the setup that tries to let the audience know a little bit about the backstory of Asgard, the Frost Giants and other things that will appear in the movie. That was on the page then; then it was in; then it was out; then it was a version with enormous scale and spectacle and too great a length and then it was out again. And then it came back in late in the process and was one of the last things to bake and cook, so the teaser, if you like, was an example of something we got upfront and then the prologue was something we wrestled with for the following two years.

"We've got 1,309 visual effects shots in this movie… and it's like they all land on the doormat with about five minutes left to go before the release is due."

Meantime, other things that took 18 months of work were the main and end titles, where we raced through space, where Buf, the French vfx company, tried to give us this visceral 3-D ride, much inspired by Hubbell photography and other images of deep space. That was one where the development was fairly smooth and consistent, but the conceptualizing of Asgard itself -- the textures, the architecture, the color, the way we shot it, the way the camera moved -- took a long time to work out. And that was often a challenge where Victoria Alonso, who's the head of vfx and post at Marvel, would say, "It's all great, it's terrific, we're going to have to make up our minds soon. We're going to have to plump for something in a bit, because, otherwise, however brilliant your ideas, they just won't be ready." And that was sometimes a challenge.

Branagh's learning curve was "how to keep creative freedom for as long as possible whilst still managing the necessary complex logistics of the pipeline."

BD: What about Digital Domain creating Jotunheim?

KB: That was something where we were on the same page fairly early with the world. And then the development of the Frost Giants was something we worked on with Legacy, the makeup and creature design company, as well as with Digital Domain, so there was a lot of interplay between all of them. And I think they did a magnificent job of conveying the sense of this decaying world. And a lot of that, I must say, in terms of the to and fro of where the creative insight came from -- getting back to your earlier question about learning curve -- an understanding that one didn't have to come up with everything. For instance, with Jotunheim, the ice planet, we were always sending Digital Domain pictures we'd found in books, galleries, paintings from classic studies by JMW Turner, a shot of the Arctic with lights above it from some latest internet discovery. And seeing how they responded and came back with tones and color and architecture and way to do snow and ice and quartz/ice/snow substructure to the physical landscape of Jotunheim. And one of the features of my vfx journey through this was to have those great hits of re-energizing and refreshment when you'd go to visit Digital Domain or you'd hear from Buf, which absolutely led you on to another chapter, another field.

And then, of course, what I hadn't been ready for was the firestorm at the end as these shots would pour in. We've got 1,309 visual effects shots in this movie, and, although you've seen versions all the way through, as everybody wants the latest, best, most refined version, it's like they all land on the doormat with about five minutes left to go before the release is due, and you've got to cut them in, you've got to color them, you've got to 3-D them. And all of that was quite the learning curve.

BD: And what was the 3-D experience like?

KB: I was excited [but skeptical] about it. I'll always remember as a kid my mother told me that one of the best evenings she had in the cinema was going to see House of Wax in 3-D in Belfast. My conversation with [Marvel producer] Kevin Feige was: "May we do this? You and I, we sit down and work out how we learn about 3-D so that we can be assured we understand what we are doing, and that we can enhance the story?" And he said, of course. And I have to say, God love them, because they wrote a very, very large check to get this right, because they are fiendishly proud of their visual effects work, so I was thrilled to see that. So we did start working on that: we met with Stereo D, which did the conversion in the end. And they took me through the process and, crucially, without making it bland, the depth script on it, so we didn't give people headaches or blind them or make them dizzy. Expect, on occasion, where we wished to disturb, essentially we tried to craft the way we chose to emphasize layers of depth, whether it was in New Mexico or [the cosmos]. There's a lovely wide shot [of King Odin's Vault set]: it's tilted, it has crossing verticals, it has the steps, and you feel the size and the cavernous nature of this underworld place in Asgard, where 3-D, comic book framing, the costumes, the design and the way it's lit are really, for me, a very satisfying example of how we made 3-D, and the transition from a comic book world into a movie has its own very distinct character.

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.

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