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The Fiery Magic of Wētā FX Helps ‘Black Adam’ Keep It Real

In an extensive Q&A, VFX Supervisor Sheldon Stopsack talks about the studio’s multifaceted contributions to the Warner Bros. DCEU action-adventure, starring Dwayne Johnson in the titular role, now screening in theaters and available on Blu-ray + DVD.

In ancient Kahndaq, the slave Teth Adam was gifted the almighty powers of the gods. But he used those powers for vengeance and was imprisoned. Now, 5,000 years later, he is freed and once again brings his dark sense of justice into the world. Refusing to surrender, Teth Adam is challenged by a team of modern-day heroes known as the Justice Society - Hawkman, Doctor Fate, Atom Smasher and Cyclone - who seek to return him to eternal captivity. With Dwayne Johnson in the role of Teth/Black Adam, and a stellar cast that includes Aldis Hodge, Pierce Brosnan, Sarah Shahi, Quintessa Swindell, Marwan Kenzari, and Henry Winkler, the first-ever feature film to explore the story of the DC antihero comes to the big screen under the direction of Jaume Collet-Serra (Jungle Cruise).

While the quality of the cast and the director are arguably all one could hope for, someone also had to be responsible for the verisimilitude of the fire effects, the volumetric simulations that define the often invisible character of Cyclone, and, of course, Hawkman’s feathers. All of this, and much more, was handled by the redoubtable New Zealand-based studio Wētā FX, who have become renowned for both their aptitude for large-scale battle scenes and their realization of evocative facial expression.

Leading the charge for Wētā on Black Adam was Sheldon Stopsack, who, as visual effects supervisor, oversaw the whole process within the studio, as well as working closely with director Collet-Serra to bring his vision to fruition. We spoke with Stopsack about Wētā’s many design and technical contributions, including how they managed to rip apart the villain while maintaining a PG-13 rating.

AWN: What as the extent of your work on Black Adam?

Sheldon Stopsack: The bulk of the work that we were asked to do for Black Adam was targeted on the third act, the final battle. We did other sequences as well throughout the movie, including the sunken street fight, which is where the Justice Society arrives in Khandaq and confronts Black Adam for the first time. We also did a few fly-by shots in the earlier parts where Ishmael is capturing the boy, and some other bits and pieces.

AWN: Wētā FX does a lot of massive third act battle scenes. It seems to be your specialty.

SS: It’s a bit of a thing that we often get asked to handle the biggest stuff towards the end of the movie, which is fun.

AWN: What did you start with? Did you have previs? What types of assets and designs were you presented with?

SS: Let me start with the asset side of things because Wētā FX was the lead vendor for the character development. We not only built the characters, but we assisted with the design and the conceptualization, especially for [the demonic villain] Sabbac. There were pieces of artwork that were done around a lot of these characters, but our department was actively engaged and we basically took the lead for all the character work – which was great because it allowed us to have some creative imprint and involvement early on and hopefully drive the filmmakers' vision at that level. Those characters were later shared with all the other vendors, including Digital Domain and Scanline, who incorporated the assets into their workflow.

As for the body of work, the sunken street fight was really where we started. It was actually an interesting process because, if I recall correctly, we were engaging at that point with the production designer Tom Meyer, who had done a lot of beautiful artwork. We really did a bit of a deep dive and tried to pick his brain about his vision of that location. We knew it was a Middle Eastern setting, a hot, dry, humid environment. The look and feel at that point was almost monochromatic, with dramatic back lighting. We took a lot of the clues that we got from Tom and engaged in this design phase to figure out how to build the architecture. What are the architectural features? There's a lot of filigree and one of the recurring themes that stuck in my brain was “the Middle East meets Hong Kong.” We wanted it to be a Middle Eastern city, but with the scope and scale of Hong Kong, with tall buildings and a lot of chaotic wiring and cables running everywhere.

It wasn't particularly pristine, but it needed to be a hybrid of those two aspects, and that took a lot of our time to really get right – to really digest it and figure out how to build this efficiently to create the variety and the richness, but stay in tune with Tom’s vision. For the body of work, a lot of previs was done in the show, which was great. [Digital compositor] Davee Ramos-San Diego and I worked with the filmmakers and [production visual effects supervisor] Bill Westenhofer to produce a lot of beautiful previs, which gave us a great starting point for a number of our scenes and sequences and shots.

We were fortunate enough to engage on that level, particularly when it then came time for the third act, where we had the creative license and liberty to do our own previs efforts for certain animation beats or certain portions of the work there. And that's always a beautiful thing, not only because it gave us an early involvement, but it also allowed our animation team to groove on Jaume's ideas, propose new ideas, and come up with concepts that may not have been discovered. It was a great close collaboration with Jaume to find the action beats and the story that he wanted to tell.

AWN: Is it easier for you to finish sequences that you have prevised or developed directly with the filmmakers, rather than trying to work from previs that could change substantially once you actually start to animate it?

SS: I would say it can go either way, but for Black Adam, it certainly turned out that it was easier for us to get through the work for the shots where we were engaged earlier and did the previsualization. Those shots were typically the ones that were a little bit more locked and more solid in terms of how the previs compared to the final product.

But that's not to say that everything that was prevised elsewhere completely unraveled. To Jaume's credit, he’s a very dynamic filmmaker and it was a very fluid process. It was like you didn't want to miss out on new ideas. And Jaume was very active in editing and coming up with new ideas, and we had to be very open and adaptive to that workflow, and to be able to say, "We have a previs, but it's really just a framework. Where can we take it from here? What is it that we tweak?"

AWN: Walk me through the main sequences that you worked on, and what was interesting and challenging about them.

SS: The main body of work that stands out to me, where we were engaged early in previsualization processes and really taking on story bots and coming up with ideas, was the opening of the third act, as Dr. Fate decided to change the path of future events by locking out the Justice Society and engaging with Sabbac directly. That was whipped up in our previous efforts with the animation teams, where we designed beautiful shots, and it's a nice little comprehensive beat that opens up the third act, and it almost became entirely digital. in fact, it was 95% digital and it set the tone for the third act. I'm making it sound easy, but it was challenging because it was coming up with this whole comprehensive beat and telling this emotional story. It was also challenging because of the sheer scope, where you're looking at not just two, three, or four characters, but 25 or 30 Dr. Fates and you have to orchestrate all of that.

You need to give them something to do. They can't just hover around idle. You want to have intricate engagements and animations, and it all was combined with the fact that we had to create the supervillain Sabbac and all of this other stuff. Sabbac himself was a challenge because he was played by Marwan Kenzari, but we knew for the third-act battle he was an all-digital character that needed to carry emotion and deliver lines. He needed to be on par with Marwan, but he also needed to be this raging machine of a supervillain who can take on dozens of sparring partners.

So, it was a big scope, big scale of animation, but it was also incredibly loaded with a variety of effects. If you just think about the number of spells that were thrown around and shackles that needed to be created. You have a huge spectrum of different effects while Sabbac is throwing around fire, and you always had a new component that you needed to tackle, which again emphasizes the volume of work we had to deal with.

It's worth pointing out again that Jaume had a great appetite to create dynamic environments, and we found ourselves with a lot of dynamic re-speeds where you have shots going into a slow-mo moment and then they speed ramping up. That’s a beautiful tool for filmmakers, but it's also incredibly difficult from a visual effects point of view because it's something that you have to keep track of, and you have all of your physics to deal with, for muzzle simulation, or other physical simulations, and fire – all of those are not easy to do when you have the dynamic environments of variable re-speeds and shots. It's something that in general is just difficult because your physics want to run at a certain time, at a certain speed, and it's difficult to reign them in and stay within the physicality of a plausible pipeline and apply that to a more dynamic environment and setting.

AWN: After the opening and the multiple Dr. Fates, were there other specific challenges you faced in the third act?

SS: It just kept on going from there. Because as soon as we were finished with Dr. Fate, it just led into what was really the grand finale where Black Adam was fighting Sabbac. Things got challenging in a different way in that now we had to deal with cinematography that was mostly done on big bluescreen environments, which is always connecting the dots. How do you fit this all in? How do we create this dynamic environment?

It's difficult to single out any one thing, it was more that it accumulated, it just kept on going and it just got bigger and bigger and bigger, up to the point where we needed to rip Sabbac in half, which is not necessarily an easy task, especially if you're trying to stay within the limits of PG-13. We always had this idea of fire and lava, based on Sabbac’s devil-like appearance. We leaned into this idea – what if we fill him with lava and make that part of our third-act finale, where he's basically defeated through an integrational part of him.

AWN: It's funny you say that because in talking with Guy Williams about several projects, including Peacemaker, we discussed how you guys can create any visual so aesthetically and emotionally apt. What's appropriate when you have something that's potentially bloody or visceral? How do you dial that in? I imagine that's not easy.

SS: No, it isn't. Yes, you are in the luxurious position that you have full control with computer graphics, so we were confident that we could do it. But in the third act, where ideas often come in late and you're compressing a little bit, it can be tricky. We knew that we could do it, but we wanted to reassure not only the filmmakers, but also the ratings people, basically saying, "It's going to be fine, you don't have to worry about. It's not going to exceed the PG-13." We try to give that answer as fast as we possibly can so that people can have peace of mind.

AWN: Did you have to rewrite or overhaul any of your pipeline or specific tools, or was it relatively straightforward from that standpoint?

SS: It's never straightforward, because every time you have a different set of issues and different problems. For Black Adam, there were a lot of things that we've done before and for which we’re known, such as high-quality facial work. We knew that there was a strong background in our technology departments that could support these efforts. But doing a fully digital character like Sabbac is always challenging because it's always a labor of love, to a degree, to really find the character within. Technology is one aspect, but it's also making sure that we're staying on character, that we retain the likeness that Marwan presented. Apart from that, though, we came across numerous other technical and creative challenges.

Feathers have always been difficult, and Hawkman is no different. You have this elaborate big feather costume and these large-scale wings, and I want to say that the creatures department really outdid the previs work in terms of keeping these feather simulations plausible, but allowing us still to be flexible and fast with turnaround times. We probably had more creative challenges than specifically technical ones, and one that’s worth pointing out is Cyclone. Cyclone was such an interesting character because the conceptual idea of her being a windfall by herself was a difficult one to describe, and Jaume decided that she not even be physically seen at times. She is a disguised character, an appearance of herself.

That's how we ended up with a lot of shots where she was just this tornado appearance made up of a lot of beautiful and fluid volumetric simulations. But then you're crossing the bridge because you want to show the actress – Quintessa Swindell, who did a beautiful job – and go into her universe. How do you dive into that and connect the dots, while retaining the elegance? That took us a long time to find the right balance of what the beauty wanted to be. How does she go in and out of her physical appearance – which arguably is technically just as challenging because you are at the mercy of your effects team and animation team – and find the right rhythm, the right amount of animation, in terms of her swirling and the draping cloth?

How fast is she? Is it just a streak of motion blur? Do we need to slow her down? It was a lot of questions and it took us a long time to really boil it down to the sweet spot of, "Okay, this works and this gives us the visual quality that we're after." Technically there were definitely a few things that we leveraged from recent development here at the company, certain bits and pieces that we obviously could adapt from the huge technological effort that is always going on at Wētā.

AWN: Any final thoughts?

SS: On a personal note, I think the team that I had here at Wētā was absolutely mind-blowing and amazing. We had an absolute rockstar team of compositing supervisors, CT supervisor, effects supervisors, and I’m totally grateful for these guys. Even though I’m the one that’s giving the interview to you, I couldn't have done it without this team. Other than that, I must say that I wasn't initially a superhero fanboy, but this one definitely got me more hooked than I would've expected. And that is, again, just more kudos to the filmmakers, who engaged with us to a degree where it was just a pure joy to dive into this universe.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.