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Digital Domain Creates ‘Electrifying’ VFX for ‘Black Adam’

Visual effects supervisor Nikos Kalaitzidis discusses the studio’s work helping create incredible lightning effects for Dwayne Johnson’s titular Teth-Adam character, along with other powers, such as the zip effect, and an ‘electrocuted baddie,’ in the Warner Bros. DCEU action-adventure.

As the newest antihero to join the DC Universe, Dwayne Johnson finally fulfilled his cinematic ambition to play an ancient Egyptian slave, empowered and imprisoned by a wizard and subsequently released a millennia later to cause havoc in modern times. Black Adam, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, who previously collaborated with Johnson on Jungle Cruise, relied on the expertise of Visual Effects Supervisor Bill Westenhofer (Life of Pi) and the talents of digital artists working for vendors such as Digital Domain.   

One of the film’s most daunting tasks was making Shiruta, capital city of the fictional country of Kahndaq, a reality.  “I remember reading the script and talking to Bill Westenhofer early on about the sheer scale of the environments, where we were shooting something in a city that doesn’t exist,” recalls Digital Domain VFX Supervisor Nikos Kalaitzidis.  “Everything was more or less bluescreen and we had to change it out with this city that is somewhat Middle Eastern. Production designer Tom Meyer helped and educated us on what the streets, cars, and props should look like.” Since pandemic travel restrictions meant limited plate photography, Kalaitzidis notes that “our environment department was able to kitbash and come up with procedural ways to recreate buildings and put props, facades, and windows on in different ways quite quickly.”

Digital Domain helped to establish Black Adam’s powers by asking questions such as does he have any resistance and if so what sort? Is it as easy as flicking somebody and sending them flying?  “It was definitely an exploration in understanding that,” the VFX supervisor explains. “For instance, the zip effect, what does he look like when zipping in real-time or in slow-motion? The zipping was a bit more magical at first, but then we really toned it down. [The sense of speed] had a lot to do with the timing of the beats and editorial cuts.  All of sudden he is here and then there.  We added a few frames in-between for the zip effect.  We had compression of air and refraction of light, plus he had his cape in that chamber.  Whenever he came to a halt the cloak would be in real-time, react with inertia and hit and collide against him. There was also some dust kickup.  All of that combined makes it look somewhat plausible.”  

In handling bullets fired by mercenaries that shred Black Adam’s cloak, Kalaitzidis says, “There was a lot of interactive light onset to mimic the muzzle flashes but of course the cloak is not moving, so we more or less had to replace it [with a CG version]. You can actually see some of the fibers, so not only did we simulate using CFX, effects did a puff of smoke and the shredding part, and then a smaller layer of peach fuzz hair was added so it looks like threads themselves.” 

Revisions had to made in order to secure a PG-13 rating. “There is a nice mini-cut in the chamber sequence in the Rock of Eternity where Black Adam literally throws one of the mercenaries at three guys and is left with his arm,” Kalaitzidis notes. “We had a great idea that when the arm drops, it’s still twitching. But the problem is twitching never made it into the movie because of the MPA.” 

Digital Domain made extensive use of previs done in Unreal Engine, which proved a great tool.  “Unreal was not only used for CG but also going through the previs one by one onset when we were doing the shoot in Atlanta, Georgia,” states Kalaitzidis.  “Digital Domain dabbled in our own share of Unreal Engine because they also had LED walls onset and we had to provide content for our own sequences.  We had to get a small Unreal Engine workflow for this particular show to do that within a four-to-six-week period.”  

The VFX team also had to devise a new workflow for producing the interior of the mine.  “We used a newer lighting workflow, Solaris by SideFX, because of the large data sets, and it was easier to go from effects to Solaris in an efficient and pragmatic way than from our effects pipeline to a Maya pipeline for lighting.” 

In one scene, Black Adam saves Amon Tomaz by catching a bullet, shown in slow motion.  “We did a detail previs before Nikos went onset to shoot it,” states Digital Domain Animation Supervisor Arda Uysal.  “Black Adam is moving at a normal speed while everyone else is in slow motion.  It was complicated but once you began putting them together it starts lining up the way that Bill and Jaume wanted.  We looked at the plates and decided which one is the best to go with and should it be fully or partially CG.”  But how do you catch a bullet?  “Very slowly!” laughs Kalaitzidis.  “They shot a gun onset which had blanks with a Phantom camera so you see how the mechanism of the gun reacts then everything else that goes along with it had to be CG, like the bullet and muzzle flash.”

Slow motion was also utilized for when Black Adam turns nuclear, and electricity comes off his body.  “We looked a lot at slow motion lightning reference Bill had provided us and saw how lightning travels through the sky and how it grounds and reacts,” notes Kalaitzidis.  “As he is exuding these lightning bolts and electricity, there was a lot of closeup shots of his head.  We had to figure out how to get all of this interactive light on his head without going full CG because the performance of him reacting was extraordinary.  What we did was extensive shot modelling with our rig and model asset to try to match his performance.” 

In another scene, Black Adam battles Hawkman within the confines of Adrianna Tomaz’s apartment. “Hawkman was great for us,” remarks Uysal.  “To make him fight within a small apartment was a big challenge.  It involved complex rig time as the shot starts fast and then slows down.  He is using his wings to fight as well.  It’s an amazing animation task.” Some of the plates had to be animated going up and down to simulate Hawkman’s flapping motion. “The props have to react to being hit to make it more believable,” states Kalaitzidis.  “And to make it more believable for the closeup shots we also gave a simulation to the feathers, especially in slow motion, were there is a subtle ripple inside of the feathers themselves.  You see them colliding against each other. Wherever he was flying in effects we gave him a little bit of dust kicking up so it feels like he is inside that environment.”    

The most complex shot was nicknamed “electrocuted baddie,” where Black Adam grabs a mercenary by neck in the Rock of Eternity Chamber sequence. “Black Adam electrocutes the mercenary until his face melts off and turns into nothing but a skeleton, after which he snaps his neck, and the skull rolls down and jaw breaks off,” explains Kalaitzidis. “We started off with the head because we thought this was going to be a short shot until it was turned over to us and the director said, ‘No, this is going to be a nice long shot.’  All the layers of the dermis had to be constructed, like the capillaries and veins as well as the bones and muscles. As he is being electrocuted you get little flashes of the bone, almost like an x-ray feel you see the veins through the skin using subsurface, we animated textures so you can see some bubbling, and on top of that the cloth catches on fire and erodes away with embers flying off which was a cool simulation. There was a lot in there for these few shots.”

Interestingly, the electrified demise of the mercenary was not cut, unlike the twitching arm.  “I’m glad that you asked,” Kalaitzidis says. “We came across the MPAA and they said, ‘You can’t show it. It’s a bit gruesome. We had to hide it with more smoke, which was unfortunate because now it looks like we’re trying to hide an effect that looked really good.  Personally, I’m always into effects on character animation which is more challenging because we all know what a human looks like.  In this case, we had to make him look real going from not electrocuted to his face turning all different colors, bubbling skin and eyes are ready to pop out; that is always more challenging and rewarding in the end.”

Trevor Hogg's picture

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer best known for composing in-depth filmmaker and movie profiles for VFX Voice, Animation Magazine, and British Cinematographer.