The leading visual effects studio delivers 450 shots, including key Time Variance Authority, Gobi Desert and The Expanse sequences requiring digital characters, CG set extensions and live-action plate integration, on Marvel Studios and Disney+’s raucous new MCU outing.
In Loki, Marvel Studios’ new episodic adventure now streaming on Disney+, the God of Mischief, in various incarnations and timelines, wreaks his honed sense of havoc on the mysterious Time Variance Authority... aka the TVA. Directed by Kate Herron, the show stars Tom Hiddleston as the famed Asgardian, along with Owen Wilson, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Sophia Di Martino, Wunmi Mosaku and Richard E. Grant.
One of the key VFX studios bringing Loki’s special brand of mayhem to life was Method Studios. Method’s team, led by VFX supervisor Seth Hill and head of studio / VFX producer Sabrina Gagnon, delivered 450 shots on the project, including:
- CG elements and plate compositing on the TVA environment
- the Timekeeper chamber and battle, including building the space itself and the CG characters – Timekeepers and digital doubles such as Loki and Sylvie - and compositing to bring the elements together
- compositing on the Bridge Platform scenes
- creation of CG characters like Loki and Sylvie along with their integration into CG and live-action elements
With a team of roughly 200 artists that scaled to 300 when additional hands were needed, Method supervised the project from their Montreal studio. “The pandemic was in full force and that actually made it simpler for us to work as a global studio,” Hill notes.” Work was almost entirely handled by home-based artists, animators, compositors, producers, etc., and we incorporated people who under more ‘normal’ circumstances work at many of Method's other locations, including Vancouver, Los Angeles and New York.”
Method worked on five of the series' six episodes in some capacity, though the bulk of their work was on the opening sequence set in the Gobi Desert, where Loki falls through a wormhole; The Expanse environment, particularly the cafeteria, which involved an extensive amount of creative development to produce the sense of a city that goes on for infinity; the Timekeeper Chamber involving three all-CG lizard-like Timekeeper characters; the Clothes Disintegrator Robot; Pompeii and the volcano eruption; and a short section in the first episode involving a D.B. Cooper character bailing out of a commercial airliner.
Guided by artwork Marvel provided, Method, as the sole VFX vendor on the Timekeepers and the Expanse sequences, “helped develop those from that artwork to what you see onscreen.”
The Time Variance Authority Expanse, headquarters of the organization that polices everything that happens in every possible timeline, presented an interesting visual challenge. “Since there would be an infinite number of these possible timelines, the entire workforce, working space, living space, office buildings, ports for tiny cars we had floating around -- everything -- would need to go on to infinity,” Hill explains. “So, this is an infinite expanse of continually repeating and expanding structures going off forever, completely removed from time and space. It couldn't have the equivalent of our Sun. It would be this infinite construct with completely artificial lighting.”
Marvel's direction was that the space should have a Mid-Century Modern feel, pulling from architects such as William Pereia and Oscar Niemeyer. Method would receive plates of the action shot against a window or balcony and bluescreen. “Then we built everything beyond primarily in 3D,” Hill says. “This really wasn't something that would support a DMP [digital matte painting] approach because depth itself is so much of the illusion.”
He continues, “We modelled quite a bit of this location in Maya and then constructed and replicated it primarily in Houdini. We rendered everything out in Katana RenderMan. We've found Katana to be excellent for handling massive scenes.”
Method’s largest and most complicated work involved a fight among several characters overseen by the Timekeepers, three lizard-like creatures, within the Timekeeper Chamber.
“Live-action plates included the main bridge the characters stood on, and the back elevator doors,” Hill describes. “While the set extended up to the wall behind the Timekeepers, this was nearly all replaced from midway up the stairs so we could integrate the fog, the bright logo on the wall, and the Timekeepers themselves. Beyond that section of set everything else became CG extension.”
“One of the major challenges on the sequence is that everything we're seeing is bluescreen lighting, which adds additional difficulty when we're adding CG elements,” he continues. “It's hard to make anything look real, even the real people on the plates look CG-like because of the super-deep-green lighting.”
The red lighting, which was referred to as "Electric Salmon," was from the original production design. “We made changes to the actual logo, but the idea of a large bright logo was from the original creative brief,” Hill adds. “We then tried to take advantage of it to introduce some additional color contrast to the scene.”
Hill decided to add a “reddish neon kind of sign” on the wall behind everyone to give them some colors, so “we would have some of that bleed into the live-action and CG characters to set them off from this entirely blue-green world.”
He also notes the additional challenge that the whole scene is covered with fog. Not a dry ice fog, or lingering atmospheric, but a thick kind of fog that involved “doing some pretty heavy simulation work to drape all of this geometry with fog that the actors would walk through and kick around as they do.” The distinctive thick fog effect was all CG.
Another large piece of Method work was the Gobi Desert sequence, the introductory beat of the show, which connects the story directly into the events at the conclusion of Avengers: Endgame. “One of the major challenges was that the live-action plates were shot on a small outdoor stage surrounded by bluescreen,” Hill explains. “It's a small space that we then modified to feel like a large and vast open desert.”
Hill points out that you can actually find scan data of whole parts of the world at places like the online US Geological Survey, sharing, “It would never make a final shot, but it's a very good starting point to capture the look and structure of a lot of the landscape, such as how do sand dunes flow over a large surface. And so that's where we started to try finding something as real as possible to create the basis of the scene.”
Using a lot of that information as starter pieces for inspiration, Hill’s team designed and built a model of the entire environment in Maya. According to the VFX supervisor, “We rendered all the 3D spaces in Katana. We also built a lot of the space further back with DMPs because it was the best way to kind of customize each shot for what it needed to be. Obviously, the whole sky and everything was a total replacement because otherwise you have bluescreen all around. And once you get into replacing the sky and totally swapping it out, you need to start blending into the horizon, and you need to find ways to start pulling that forward. You have the feeling that the sky is in the distance coming forward towards the end of the CG and DMP. That was really the best approach for the turnaround and versatility required.”
Reflecting on their latest foray into the MCU, Hill concludes, “It's always thrilling to work with Marvel Studios. So much thought and creativity go into the MCU and everything they do, and Loki was certainly no exception.”
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.