Audiences take a stunning visual tour of artwork across the ages, including Egyptian hieroglyphics, Aboriginal cave paintings, Middle Age tapestries, and Indonesian shadow puppets, in Oscar-winner Chloé Zhao and Marvel Studios’ superhero adventure.
Eternals, currently streaming on Disney+, focuses on the eponymous supernatural beings who have been secretly observing and sometimes influencing human development throughout history. Creative Directors John Likens and Wesley Ebelhar, along with VFX Supervisor Ivan Guerrero of Method Studios in New York, were charged with creating a closing title sequence that was both entertaining and reflected the themes expressed in the film. Working closely with director Chloé Zhao (multiple Oscar- winner for her film Nomadland), Likens and Ebelhar developed the concept that would take the viewer on a tour of important artworks throughout the ages, from ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics to Renaissance paintings, Aboriginal cave paintings to Indonesian shadow puppets. The surface of these works was traced with golden "energy" suggesting that they were inspired by, or imbued with, the energy of the Eternals.
Take a look at Method's work on the film:
Likens and Ebelhar started out by watching an early cut of the film, before much of the VFX work was completed, "to get a sense," says Likens, "of the scale of the story and what direction Chloé wanted to take with the characters. We wanted everyone on our team involved in the project to be familiar with the story and how it was being told. We also did a lot of research into the Eternals comics."
The sequence would involve a substantial collaboration within Method's different departments and studios as well as an amalgam of different skillsets and artists working together, with designers, animators and compositors bringing all the elements together. The work would be spread across locations including New York, Los Angeles, and Vancouver, with complicated coordination efforts and logistics overseen by Senior Design Producer Emily Schaeberle.
Likens and Ebelhar went to the director to share ideas about the specifics of what an all-CG art "gallery" would contain and how it would be presented. "We collaborated more closely with Chloé than we have with any director for any title sequence we've ever worked on," Likens recalls. “What was interesting is that at the same time we were doing our weekly video review sessions with her, presenting our work and going back and forth with references to Ancient Aliens, Chloé was also being celebrated with all the highest awards a filmmaker could earn, including the Best Director and Best Picture Oscars for Nomadland. It was amazing to watch everything happen for her in real-time."
"She loved the concept of the sequence showing a variety of time- and culture- specific artwork," he notes. "The viewer is looking at an artifact from ancient Mesopotamia, then at a wall from ancient Egypt and then a prehistoric cave drawing unearthed at a dig site in the Outback. The cultural specificity of each work was something that Chloé really wanted to get across. She loved the idea that some of the kids who would go to this movie would see these end titles and think, 'Wow! I didn't realize things like that exist in the world.' For each of these artworks, there is a whole culture behind it."
Likens and Ebelhar fleshed out the concept in close collaboration with Zhao to nail down what the artifacts would be, how the shots would be composed and all the details necessary to start realizing the all-CG sequence. "We wanted to make sure that we retain audience engagement and keep the sequence fresh along the way," Likens explains, "because it's pretty easy once you start creating sculptures to want to do another sculpture that looks cool, but we wanted to make sure there was variety. So we made sure to find other kinds of artworks: A tapestry, a cave painting, scrolls, ancient figurines."
Some of the works in the sequence were based on real artifacts. "The Persian reliefs," Likens says, "are based on actual reliefs that we found in our research. Using photography for reference, Brian Dinoto, our CG supervisor, carved them from scratch in Zbrush, cracks and all." CG artist, Claire Chang then painted them in Substance Painter.
Several of the pieces required that the Eternals be represented in the style of specific works of art. That is where Ivan Girard, Method’s Associate Creative Director came in. "He is a great painter and concept artist," Likens says "Ivan painted the entire Renaissance ceiling fresco from scratch. We did extensive research into frescos from the period to find out how they represented the human form," Likens explains. "We needed to know - what did the perspective look like in these frescos? What were the brush strokes like? Ivan successfully created these original artworks from that research."
Girard also illustrated the French tapestry, in the style of the famous Bayeux Tapestry, which consists of delicately woven scenes from the then-contemporary Battle of Hastings. "We gave Ivan reference scenes from the film, and he did custom illustrations for the whole tapestry to show the medieval Eternals battling Deviant dragons," says Likens. Guerrero then took the illustration into Houdini and created a tool to procedurally weave it with 3D threads to match a physical tapestry. "It's incredibly detailed. It looks like it could be hanging in a museum," Likens adds.
The shot of the Aztec statue provided another opportunity for procedural modeling in Houdini. "We had a statue we loved" says Ebelhar, “but Chloé was hoping for more color in the scene. After researching more Aztec art, Sr. VFX Artist, Jeongyeon Son created a procedural mosaic for the statue in Houdini made of turquoise tiles."
Once the artwork was created it was handed off to FX Supervisor Tomas Slancik and VFX Artist David Derwin. Using Houdini, they had the important task of creating the "energy glyphs" that flowed across the surface of the artifacts. “The film’s Visual Effects Supervisor, Stephane Ceretti, has a great eye for detail," says Ebelhar. "It was extremely important that we get the look of the energy just right. It seems like every Marvel superhero has their own visual language, so it was really exciting to get to explore the powers of the Eternals in detail."
The lighting and rendering were handled by Method’s Design team, led by Senior Designer Keri Moller. The environments around the artworks were built in Cinema4D, and the shaders and lighting were done using Octane. "Octane was really great for the project’s quick turnaround,” Ebelhar explained. “It let us really dial in the lighting and shading on the fly. It was the biggest project we’ve ever done using Octane. In fact, David Teopfer, Sr. Director of Technology, Stephen Mackenzie, Pipeline Supervisor, and their team had to build a new renderfarm to handle it."
The final challenge of the project came during compositing. According to Likens, "We were exploring so many different settings and art styles, but it was really important to have a consistent look for the sequence. Method’s Compositing Supervisors Gerard and Kyle Andal, as well as Ana Sofia De Almeida Pereira and Frank Fieser, dialed in the comps on every shot to get it across the finish line."
It would have to be a daunting task to recreate and reinterpret some of humanity’s greatest works of art, but it also provided an excellent opportunity for the entire team to shine. "This was one of the most rewarding and fun projects I've been involved with," Likens sums up, "and all the artists at Method Studios felt the same."