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Digital Domain Pushes the Limits of Monstrous VFX in ‘Morbius’

To create dynamic vampires and immersive battle scenes, the award-winning FX hub made improvements to the same tech it used to make Thanos in the ‘Avengers’ films.

In Sony Pictures’ Morbius, the depiction of Jared Leto's tortured antihero, Michael Morbius, required a contradictory balance of expressive emotionality and vampiric inhumanity. To capture this look and feel, Sony tapped award-winning VFX studio Digital Domain, whose team used an improved version of the tech that made Thanos from the Avengers films to render the movie’s monstrous faces.

“Our digital human team created technology that makes it possible for visual effects to expand storytelling in ways that just weren’t possible even a few years ago, while also enhancing the performances of the talent on screen,” says John Fragomeni, global president of Digital Domain. “As the primary VFX vendor on Morbius, we’ve been working closely with both the stars and filmmakers, and that has given us the freedom to really iterate on the designs and push the technology.”

Digital Domain began by designing the final look for each character’s vampiric forms -- aiming for photorealistic, monstrous looks, without restricting them through the use of prosthetics, or through excessively time-consuming make-up work. Although some comics gave the team a rough idea of what Morbius should look like, the character’s final appearance still required many tweaks to ensure that his look fit the filmmakers’ vision, from his jagged teeth to the exact pigmentation of his skin. Digital Domain also created an original design for the character of Milo’s vampiric form, who’s played by Matt Smith.

Improvements to Digital Domain’s facial capture software allowed the team to record nearly double the geometry resolution and details used to create Thanos in the Avengers films. With the final look of each vampire determined, the stars performed their scenes live on set wearing facial capture markers. Each performer also recorded a full range of facial expressions and movements, in order to create a complete facial geometry for each subject. After principal photography was completed, several scenes were later re-filmed on a motion capture stage, giving director Daniel Espinosa the ability to adjust and fine-tune the monster performances as needed.

With the facial data secured, Digital Domain then employed its facial capture system Masquerade -- a proprietary tool designed to produce the highest fidelity facial animation possible, without limiting performers’ on-set movements. From there, artists were able to turn the high-resolution face model into a high-resolution, photorealistic digital character. Artists then made the necessary adjustments to ensure that the CG version of the character was an exact match to the original subject’s performance, including all the nuance conveyed by the award-winning cast. The VFX house also altered the CG faces as needed to adjust the proportions. This included digitally removing and replacing the performers’ cheek bones as needed, to highlight the more sunken look.

Along with the core look of the vampiric characters, Digital Domain also created multiple variations of the character Morbius, highlighting his evolution throughout the film. Five separate versions of the character were seen -- from his early appearances in the film, where mere hints of his eventual transformation are present, to his final form, which sees Morbius give into his rage and fully unleash his inner-monstrosity. The filmmakers were also able to introduce another unique story element, known as the “bloom,” where the characters are seen to momentarily morph from their human visage to their vampiric alter ego.

“Masquerade is in a class of its own, and it gives filmmakers the ability to create better CG faces faster, without sacrificing the nuance and subtlety of the actor’s performance,” says Digital Domain's Matthew Butler, who served as production visual effects supervisor on Morbius. “It was already the most advanced tool of its kind when Digital Domain’s Digital Human Group developed it to create Thanos, and the version we used on Morbius is at least a generation more advanced.”

To complement the design of the vampires, Digital Domain developed the look of the superpowered effects throughout the film. This included the film’s speed and fighting sequences, which primarily used animated digi-doubles of the characters, created after a two-week motion capture session featuring the main performers and stunt people. Digital Domain also developed the look of Morbius’ echo-location power.

Each movement at super speed included a wispy, almost smoke-like trail added by Digital Domain’s artists, with colors that changed based on the clothes the character is wearing at a given moment. Specific interactions between characters - like when one hits another, for example - initiated a “shedding” effect that diminished the speed trails. Characters were initially rendered for animation and review in Redshift, while the speed effects went through Houdini/Mantra. The final renders and lighting were then completed in V-Ray.

Despite the fantastic nature of Morbius’ characters and their respective abilities, the film’s VFX work was decidedly grounded in physics. To that end, Digital Domain created a set of tools designed to determine the speed, inertia, and center of gravity of each character. When characters jump at incredible heights, they still follow a set parabola. When a character runs at hyper speed, the VFX team still made considerations for acceleration and deceleration. Characters don’t fly -- they glide, using currents, air pressure, and more. Even a scene involving a CG swarm of bats (created using Houdini) began with research into the flight patterns of bats and birds.

“Although the world of Morbius highlights the incredible powers of the characters, we constantly tried to ensure that everything was grounded in a consistent logic,” says Digital Domain VFX supervisor Joel Behrens. “The vampiric powers on display are meant to make audiences accept the impossible, but there was a firm set of rules we adhered to in order to make the action sequences look and feel like they belonged in that world. The results are both spectacular and immersive, and we’re excited to see how audiences react.”

In addition to its work on Morbius’ vampires, Digital Domain oversaw several action sequences featured throughout the film. Among these scenes were the container ship sequence, which introduces audiences to Morbius’ vampiric nature for the first time; the subway chase that sees Morbius use air pressure to glide through a tunnel ahead of a CG train; Morbius’ escape from prison; and the film’s final battle at a construction site. Each sequence utilized a combination of practical and visual effects, blending real sets with CG extensions and additions.

The construction site, for instance, was nearly 95% CG, leading to a physical set that made up the top floor. For the underground portion of the set, Digital Domain worked closely with the filmmakers to model their designs on existing, real-world underground sites.

To pull off the film’s final sequence, Digital Domain also employed virtual production methods to organize the filmmakers as best as possible, despite the team working remotely. Once the look of the scene was finalized, Digital Domain took the CG assets, including the complete environments, and loaded it into Unreal Engine. Using a custom internal pipeline, the VFX team was then able to grant the filmmakers - including Espinosa - the ability to scout the virtual set in VR. Live sessions were conducted at Digital Domain’s mocap stage in LA, with a performer acting as a stand-in. Their body capture, along with virtual camera data, were then streamed into Unreal Engine, while Espinosa directed remotely. The filmmakers could then examine the scene from multiple views, select camera angles, and block out key moments before shooting -- allowing for several iterations in a short amount of time. From there, the data was passed from Digital Domain’s visualization team to the VFX team, and they became the final shots seen in the movie.

Morbius marks the latest collaboration between Digital Domain and Sony Pictures. Previously, the companies partnered on Spider-Man: No Way Home, which received an Oscar nomination for Best Visual Effects. Digital Domain contributed over 500 VFX shots to Morbius.

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Max Weinstein is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. He is the Editor-at-Large of 'Dread Central' and former Editorial Director of 'MovieMaker.' His work has been featured in 'Cineaste,' 'Fangoria,' 'Playboy,' 'Vice,' and 'The Week.'