Visual Effects Supervisor Bruce Jones, working with DNEG, Pixomondo, RISE, Scanline VFX, and Wētā FX, delivers a slew of mythical monsters, including dragons, cyclops, manticores, minotaurs, and harpies, on Warner Bros. and David Sandberg’s ‘Shazam!’ sequel.
Having worked for Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema for over a decade, Visual Effects Supervisor Bruce Jones was offered the opportunity to work on the DC Universe sequel Shazam! Fury of the Gods, where superhero empowered Billy Bathgate and his teenage friends try to save humanity - and Philadelphia - from the wrath of the daughters of Atlas, who were released when the magic staff of the Wizard was broken at the end of the original movie. Mythological monsters associated with the Tree of Life run rampant and threaten the lives of the urban inhabitants… which meant a ton of creature shots.
“My Co-Visual Effects Supervisor Raymond Chen handled primarily the dragon stuff which was mainly DNEG,” explains Jones. “Then we brought in Pixomondo to help supplement a 100 shots of dragon work. I handled Wētā FX, which did a lot of the monsters like the cyclops, manticores, minotaurs, and harpies.” Initial creature designs were produced in ZBrush by filmmaker David Sandberg, such as the manticore, which is part lion, part scorpion, and part winged creature.
To get the proper interaction and eyelines on-set, everything from tennis balls to gimbals were utilized. According to Jones, “Our special effects team [led by J.D. Schwalm] built big mechanical bucks for when our heroes ride on the unicorns to chase the bad monsters away. For the manticore or cyclops we would use our stunt people. Let’s say if a cyclops is 7’6’ tall, we had an actor who was actually 6’10” and put a bicycle helmet on his head with a little pole that goes up a bit higher with another tennis ball on top of that; that’s the eyeline.”
A major set build was the Gods’ Realm. “Imagine a radius in the middle of a set with 20 columns around that are supposed to be 20-foot-high columns that hold up this Greek looking structure but the columns themselves were only four feet high,” states Jones. “Everything had to be LiDAR and extended with CG that had to match the lighting and set precisely.” The Library of Eternity set build has a Harry Potter feel courtesy of RISE. “Flocks of books fly around,” Jones notes. “We learn about the history of the daughters of Atlas and why they’re angry from a little digital animated character called Pete the Pen who is like an Old World version of Siri. You can ask him any question and he will write it down on a piece of parchment paper for you from the multitude of books that he has pulled his knowledge from.”
In a studio parking lot, a section of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge was constructed surrounded by bluescreen that was digitally augmented by Scanline VFX. “An accident happens causing the Benjamin Franklin Bridge to collapse, and our heroes transform and race off to catch falling cars and rescuing people,” remarks Jones. “They rescue everybody and say, ‘We saved this bridge.’ The next cut is on the nightly news which announces, ‘The Philly Fiasco caused the bridge to collapse.’ The bridge has completely collapsed. The director, David Sandberg has a good timing for humor.”
For other scenes, the Acropolis Museum in Athens was recreated. “Two daughters of Atlas, Helen Mirren is Hespera and Lucy Liu is Kalypso, enter this museum and break the protective glass around this staff from Greek mythology,” Jones shares. “Guards come out and Hespera and Kalypso release this magic power that causes the statues to crumble to dust which swirls around and fills the room. When the dust clears, all the guards and people trying to escape have turned into these stone statues.”
Virtual production was a small part of the methodology. “There was a school rooftop scene that had one of the biggest LED popups ever done that Lux Machina Consulting did for us, and all of that needed to be extended,” Jones reveals. “We had built the matte painting and placed it on the screen. It primarily gave us lighting but that ultimately had to be extended with trees that have moving leaves which you can’t do on a LED screen.”
One key plot device and environment build was the Tree of Life. “Imagine a 300-foot-tall tree with roots that emanate out, rip through the stadium and cover the whole city,” Jones exclaims. “The creatures come out of the seed pods.” Noting proxies were placed onset for the roots, he continues, “It’s a flexible conduit that you can use to put air conditioning into sets that is 28 inches high in diameter. A lot of people could jump and climb over things. One of the biggest challenges was having people react to things onset that then later got replaced with actual tree roots or a cyclops grabbing a person and throwing them into a building.”
Since the monsters originate from the Tree of Life, a unique spin was devised for when they die. “Our young heroes herd up the cyclops, manticores, minotaurs, and harpies, which turned into leaves that float down to the ground. It’s a cool idea. At the end of that Shazam has sacrificed himself and is buried in the Gods’ Realm, and Wonder Woman shows up and says, ‘There’s only one way to bring back a god and that’s from another god.’ She takes the staff pitches it to the ground. It sparks life and our hero climbs out of the ground, and everybody has these big hugs; that scene is very stylized. It’s beautiful and has this combination of pink and purple leaves and this magic hour scene and that’s the good Tree of Life rather than the evil one seen throughout the rest of the movie.”
One of the hardest scenes to execute features evil unicorns. “Darla has learned that they love the nectar of the gods, which she interprets as Skittles,” explains Jones. “The unicorns allow our heroes to sit on their backs to chase the creatures down the street and into this park where they are ultimately turned into leaves. They’re riding bucks against bluescreens and that has to be translated into an actual plate we shot driving down the street. Then we had to take those mechanical bucks that our characters are riding on and make it look like they’re galloping unicorns; their feet have to contact the ground properly with our performers reacting correctly but in reality, that isn’t how their motion would work based on a horse’s running speed, especially given the fact that we’re now in the post and the director asks, ‘Can we have them run a little bit faster or slower?’ That becomes challenging on how to make that look to the audience completely believable. That for me was the most challenging sequence.”