Oscar-winning VFX studio puts on a masterclass in destruction as they build, and then demolish, the enormous airborne training fortress, with heroes and villains all dodging flaming wreckage as they plummet to earth, in the finale of Marvel Studios’ latest MCU thriller.
Now playing in theaters and streaming as a premier purchase on Disney+, Marvel Studios’ long awaited action adventure Black Widow, provides some energetic and welcome backstory to one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s favorite characters as she confronts the demons of her past in a spectacular – and explosive – fashion. After discovering a flying fortress hidden in the clouds, the Avenger puts on a master class in destruction, leading to an airborne battle with heroes and villains dodging flaming wreckage as they approach terminal velocity. It’s one of the most visually complex and technically demanding scenes from any Marvel film, made possible by longtime collaborator and Oscar-winning studio, Digital Domain. Be warned, there are some 3rd act spoilers ahead.
The Red Room Rises
Since Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff, aka the Black Widow, was introduced to the MCU more than a decade ago, her background has only been hinted at through the occasional one-liner or dream-like flashback. In Black Widow, Romanoff’s history takes center stage, including her time spent in the brutal “Red Room,” a training ground for world-class assassins that she thought was destroyed. After discovering it still active – and airborne – the Red Room makes a spectacular and visually stunning debut in Black Widow.
Working with Marvel Studios and their visual development group, Digital Domain created the flying Red Room and the surrounding environments entirely in CG. The structure was designed to appear both intimidating and functional, with Marvel artists choosing a style echoing Soviet-era architecture. The massive base features airstrips, walkways, a central tower, and several engines keeping the structure aloft, all of which needed to be created digitally.
To bring the Red Room and the surrounding environment to life, including individual clouds and the countryside below, Digital Domain’s artists used a suite of post-production tools that integrated both Maya animation and Houdini effects pipelines into every shot. Artists then added movement to the flying fortress, giving it a realistic and consistent look that doesn’t feel out of place in a world of superheroes.
Then, Digital Domain went about destroying it.
With hallways shattering around her and gravity turning deadly, the explosive collapse of the Red Room frames a frantic escape by Black Widow and her allies. As characters flee the doomed structure via jet, parachute and in some cases freefall, they are joined on their descent by both enemy soldiers and flaming debris ranging in size from small scrap to large sections of buildings. Each shot features dozens of pieces of wreckage at any time, all leading to one of the most intense skydive sequences ever seen on film.
To create the live-action portion of the skydiving scene, the filmmakers used a combination of practical techniques to capture the principals, including shooting talent on wires and mechanical arms against bluescreens, recording performers held aloft in an indoor vertical wind tunnel and filming trained stunt people through multiple skydives. Digital Domain artists then created a layout that tracked where the characters and the major pieces of debris were at any given time.
With the general layout set, the Digital Domain team determined how the scene would evolve under different lighting and environmental conditions, as well as how the characters’ interactions would affect the falling debris. That included altering the rotation of a jet in freefall as Black Widow flies through, and a memorable scene where the Taskmaster slows their momentum by dragging a sword across a piece of a falling building. Clouds were also added and removed to reflect momentum, while the lighting was constantly changed to reflect the setting sun and wreckage shattered as pieces slammed together, giving the entire scene a frenetic feel.
Artists then went through the sequences shot-by-shot to maintain continuity, digitally altering each key asset and environment by hand. It was a monumental and time-consuming task requiring several iterations. To create the destruction and hard surfaces – while also rendering the scene quickly enough to allow for changes – the team used GPU rendering, along with Maxon’s GPU-accelerated renderer, Redshift.
“Rendering one cloud is easy, but rendering 100 clouds – along with dozens of pieces of big and small debris – is very complex, to say the least,” said Dave Hodgins, Digital Domain VFX supervisor. “GPU rendering allowed us to do more in a shorter period of time, and create something that we’re not only proud of, but opens up a new world of possibilities.”
GPU rendering took on the bulk of the wreckage and debris work, while traditional CPU rendering was reserved for digital characters and volumetrics. Although relatively new for achieving photorealistic effects on a large scale – due in part to the hardware demands – Digital Domain successfully tested the technique with Marvel Studios’ Captain Marvel. To create the climactic and explosive shootout inside the hangar of the hidden Skrull ship during the third act of the film, GPU rendering was employed to create several digital explosions, each leading to multiple, smaller explosions that created a sea of debris. The work done on Black Widow builds on that experience, but elevates it to a much higher level.
Reaching the Ground
Once the primary characters make it safely to the ground, the action continues as Black Widow faces off against the Taskmaster while a storm of metal rains down around them. The filmmakers used a combination of practical effects – including physical props dropped on the stage – along with bluescreens to introduce some of the larger wreckage. Artists at Digital Domain tracked the falling debris and altered it to reflect the damage caused by the impact, changing each piece as needed.
While the characters face off, the Red Room got one final send off, as the remains of the fiery, smoke-covered structure crashed into a nearby forest. The main characters then stand amid a field of real and CG debris as they head off to their various fates.
“Digital Domain has a long and proud history of creating amazing destruction on screen, from iconic ocean liners to entire cities, but the work we did in Black Widow is on another level,” said John Fragomeni, global VFX president at Digital Domain. “Marvel Studios’ latest blockbuster challenged us to look at the debris as if it were a moving, fluid environment in its own right. That allowed us to rethink how we approach CG destruction in films, and it will help us go even further in the future.”
In total, Digital Domain completed around 320 shots for the film, with work spread between its Los Angeles, Vancouver, and Montreal offices. The award-winning studio’s work on Black Widow marks more than a decade of collaboration with Marvel Studios, including multiple feature films and television series. Digital Domain recently completed work on Loki, and is currently working on Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Spider-Man: No Way Home, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and others.
Source: Digital Domain