VFX supervisor Pete Dionne and his team create the innovative black and white Moon of Shame sequence on Taika Waititi and Marvel Studios’ fourth entry in the hammer-wielding god’s film franchise.
Before the company was fully integrated following it’s acquisition by Framestore, Method Studios, through its facilities in Vancouver and Montreal, produced visual effects for Taika Waititi and Marvel Studios’ Thor: Love and Thunder, the fourth entry in the blonde Norse god franchise. Method’s work included the innovative Moon of Shame sequence, their biggest creative challenge on the film. Collaborating with Marvel’s VFX Supervisor Jake Morrison (Ant-Man) was Method Studios VFX Supervisor Pete Dionne; despite this being Dionne’s first MCU project, he’s quite familiar with the fantasy genre, having contributed to A Wrinkle in Time and Pokémon: Detective Pikachu.
In a scenario the complete opposite of The Wizard of Oz, the color was removed from the Moon of Shame sequence, giving way to a black and white lunar environment with occasional colored sparks from clashing weapon as The Mighty Thor (Natalie Portman) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) battle Gorr the God Butcher (Christian Bale). “The moon does a complete orbit in less than 20 seconds because its so tiny and twirling quickly,” states Dionne. “Normally we would wheel a light as fast as we can around the set but there was a concern that we would be locked into the speed and direction. If we’re cutting shots together there could be a disparity between the lighting. We also hadn’t quite figured out what was right speed for the moon orbiting and the sun flying in the background.”
Morrison devised a shooting and lighting methodology for a full set that resembled a LightStage setup. “Jake synced six static key lights to flash at 1/600 of a second in sequence while being shot by a Phantom Onyx camera at the same speed,” explains Dionne. “Because the lights were flashing so fast, it wasn’t disorienting for the actors and crew. But once you slowed down and played back at 1/600 a second, each frame had one of the six light positions in sequence. We shuffled all of those out into six sets of plate photography that have the identical action, but each have a separate light position.”
Software modification was critical for the work. “Some tools were written to take the blends we did, which worked as curves in Nuke, that could be dropped into a CG light rig, that would then match the light positions and the speeds of the blends and the contributions of the light in a 3D scene replicating what was onset,” Dionne shares. “We would then get that 3D version of the light that we art directed in 2D blending between plates. We would see how that looked in an early quick turnaround out of Maya. If we were satisfied with that, it would be presented to Jake and the filmmakers to get their feedback. Once we were all happy, that became our light rig for the shot. It was a great setup because it allowed us to do a lot of creative art direction quickly onstage at the beginning.”
Characters were separated from the bluescreen set and dropped into a CG environment. According to Dionne, “We would start animating our CG sun whipping around the environment. We were able to do that with a lot of logic and intent in the animation of the light. We worked it up as a story beat and ultimately as a full sequence. We made rules about which way the light rolled and what was the right speed, meaning for fast action shots, it would be faster, or for slower dramatic shots, we would sometimes slow it down. Almost all the time its backlit because the backlit shots looked so cool. Once we were happy with our CG lighting, we would take our six set of plates, match our CG lighting, and blend them together.
The Moon of Shame sequence was rather forgiving when it came to conveying a sense of direction. “We didn’t want to go left to right and then the next shot right to left, [in order] to maintain some screen direction logic,” states Dionne. “There were moments where a natural break would occur, and we would cut to a wide shot or to the next sequence and change the screen direction of the light.” All the shadows on the ground and atmosphere ended up being CG. “One critical aspect of this was we were able to blend between the plates,” he continues. “Once we stuck the characters into an environment with long raking shadows, we filled it up with a lot of atmospherics. You would see their CG shadows both on the ground and in the dust and atmosphere; that would be animating around. The shadows made it feel like a moving light on the characters rather than a straight dissolve.”
Another aspect was low gravity, which became a subtle feature. “When the moon explodes, cracks, and shoots all this debris up in the air, and then that debris appears suspended, floating in the air, giving us a sense of depth and parallax, it also made for interesting shadow play,” he adds.
Conveying movement and parallax was one of the biggest challenges. “Version one of the sequence had the camera locked to the moon surface while the starfield in the background was flying by in a completely disparate way, but it was disorienting and made it feel like all of the camera tracks were slipping,” reveals Dionne. “We had to manufacture as much movement as possible into our environment to tie in with the flow of the movement of the starfield and the sun in the background. That’s where the dust came in handy because we introduced drifting volumetric dust on the ground, blowing dust in the atmosphere, floating ash smoke blowing in the wind. We introduced a real drift to it that would always move in every shot in the same stream direction as the starfield. For the starfield, we split the stars into six or seven different layers, and they would all be moving in the same flow but at different levels of depth moving faster or slower.”
Despite the entire sequence taking place in black and white with flashes of color, Method Studios developed all its composites and lights in full color to remain flexible and to give the eye as much information as possible. “Our strategy was to develop everything in color and use a black and white LUT,” Dionne notes. “It wasn’t as simple as just putting a black and white LUT on. We wanted it to be as simple as switching between two LUTs and being able to evaluate those. We did a complex DI matte setup for everything that was incorporated into our compositing workflow from the beginning so we could isolate, for example, the blue Stormbreaker electricity. It evolved how we were introducing color and how much secondary color we would have.”
Thor: Love and Thunder is now playing in theaters.