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The Rather Beastly VFX of ‘Shazam! Fury of the Gods’

Co-Visual Effects Supervisor Raymond Chen, working with DNEG, Pixomondo, Stereo D, and BOT VFX, delivers dragons and unicorns, as well as forcefields, capes – yes, capes – and various magical effects, on Warner Bros. and David Sandberg’s ‘Shazam!’ sequel.

For Raymond Chen, a Co-VFX Supervisor on Shazam! Fury of the Gods who oversaw the contributions of DNEG, Pixomondo, Stereo D, and BOT VFX, working on feature film franchises is old hat. “A lot of films are sequels!” laughs Chen. “I’ve worked on at least 10 different number twos!  In some ways it makes things easier in that some things you don’t have to discover.  For example, in Shazam! there are a lot of super speed effects, they move from one place to another quickly.  That was something there was already a language for from the first film. Of course, it’s not locked but at least you have a starting place.  The same thing with the look of the lightning.  David Sandberg, the director, would sometimes say, ‘In the first film this is how we did it.’”

On the film, Sandberg created his own storyboards that assisted with the framing and positions of cameras. “David doesn’t do previs per se, but for one sequence in the third act he did like a stop-motion thing with little figurines of superheroes to plan out the camera angles that way,” Chen notes. “His drawings were a little bit cartoony, but you can definitely work out how he wanted the framing and camera.  In a couple of cases when we were working through previs, he would take the sequences that were done and do a YouTube reaction video.  It was a unique way to get feedback.  Some of that was due to scheduling and where people were.” 

Chen went through the entire film during pre-production with Co-Visual Effects Supervisor Bruce Jones, comparing notes on all shots, not just those they themselves were responsible for. “Regardless of who was going to eventually be doing the supervising of the shot, we’d ask each other, ‘What would be your methodology?’  When we got into principal photography, I covered a lot of the main unit and Bruce Jones did most of the second unit.  It wasn’t necessarily that the sequence Bruce or I supervised onset we would be responsible in post-production.  It was more of a main and second unit breakdown.  We did a fair amount of collaboration.”

Additional photography was needed for the end fight between Hespera and Shazam. “It was originally planned to be mostly in camera stunt heavy wirework sequences with what they thought would be minimal visual effects, but our visual effects team didn’t believe that would necessarily be true, which turned out to be the case,” remarks Chen.  “You can’t have capes because we have wires there. You have stunt doubles who are trying to hide their face but occasionally you can see them.  You have head replacements.  Of course, the sequence became much larger than expected.” 

Speaking of capes, two types were used. “We had the full cape, but we also had something called the half cape that ended at the shoulder blades,” Chen shares. “It at least allowed you to have something over the front of the costume that you could connect into the CG version. Depending on the type of shot and what kind of motion or stunt rigging was involved, we had to make a decision as to which one.  CG capes are a lot easier to get movement out of.  If you have real capes, it’s hard to get enough wind on them to move.”  Complicating matters was the LED appliance built into the chest lightning bolts to provide interactive lighting which had to be integrated into the costumes.  “In the darker scenes it helped quite a bit because there was a lot of visible light coming from the chest appliance,” Chen describes. “In some of the cases where there was a lot more ambient light it was quite subtle, so it felt like there was a lot of work for a little bit of detail.  It wasn’t quite successful as we hoped for, but we made it work.”

A mechanical buck was constructed for the unicorn riding scenes. According to Chen, “[Special Effects Supervisor] J.D Schwalm and his team created something based off of heavier horses like Clydesdales for the motion reference in regard to how they would run.  They custom made the riding rig to simulate the gallop and motion. It could be tweaked for timing so you could go faster or slower. I actually tried riding it with one of the motion control-camera passes that they needed people to lineup.  They turned it up to 100!  For the group riding scenes, we had a remote-control base that was on wheels, which could go in any direction so you could have the horses move ahead or drift apart from each other in addition to the galloping that they had.” 

“You would think that making a dragon out of a flammable material such as wood would be rather hazardous for the creature especially when its fire-breathing,” Chen continues. “If it’s all CG then it doesn’t really matter!  The design of it was intended to be as if it was somehow related to the Tree of Life. In terms of textures the wings had a lot of leaves textures like the veins and shredding on the edges and pulls that poke through. The skin itself was like bark or entwined branches. Then there were vines and moss added into the crevasses that you see in closeups.  It was a quite a highly detailed asset.”

Forcefields are commonplace in fantasy. “It’s hard to do a forcefield that is completely new; it’s difficult because it’s something you need to see that’s there but can’t obscure what’s behind it,” notes Chen. “What we ended doing for the forcefield that the daughters of Atlas create around the city was to have the refraction only happened with contact, such as when Shazam flies up and smashes or punches it.” 

Depicting magic visually is quite subjective. “The first half of the process is getting everybody onboard, like, ‘Are these the right ingredients?’” says Chen. “And then you decide upon how much of each ingredient to use.”  The character of Anthea has the ability to manipulate and move objects around. “In some cases, David talked about effects by referring to other moves. For the Power of Axis for Anthea, he said, ‘It’s kind of like Inception and Doctor Strange but not so.’  Obviously, it’s a similar effect so we took a look at the Doctor Strange effect which is a lot more kaleidoscope and geometric. Anthea’s effect has some geometric basis to it but a lot more organic.” 

Describing how the dragon has a fear effect that is supposed to induce panic, Chen says, “That uses a lot of distortion in addition to the lighting effect from inside of the dragon’s mouth.” 

One area expanded upon from the original movie was the Room of Doors. “It was a difficult build in terms of a lot of art direction moving doors around and changing the design of the doors and the shape of the cavern,” states Chen. “The whole city of Philadelphia and its surroundings were built because there were a lot of high-flying shots. We did use some of the assets from the first film, but it was a big process of sending out a team to Philadelphia. The helicopter shoots, and a lot of photography helped both with the stadium which is its own thing and the city as well.  We had a lot of scenes in Atlanta that were replaced with Philadelphia backgrounds.”  Hardly any real footage was shot of the stadium. “There might be one shot at street level but everything else is 99% CG,” Chen adds. “We sent a LiDAR and photography team with the intent of capturing all of it.  Because the stadium needs to be destroyed, you’re not just building the seats and concrete but the sublayers and interior structures; that was a massive build and was something that was used quite a bit which is good.”   


The look of lightning went through numerous iterations.  “Lightning isn’t just an effect,” observes Chen. “It’s not until you get it through the comp that you can understand how it’s going to look and give proper feedback.  We tried in the animation stage to lockdown where the lightning goes and generally the size and shape of it changes in effects. We tried to get the director or editor to focus in on those kinds of questions earlier on but it’s hard to look at animation and think, ‘That lightning looks good.’  Because you need to add in all the additional stuff like the glow, and lens artifacts before you can say, ‘That’s the right lightning.’” 

The Power of Axis shots were the most complex because everything is moving around.  “There was one shot with Anthea using her Power of Axis to get away from lightning being shot by Kalypso; she changes the entire city around her and moves herself into a location outside of a building at street level,” says Chen. “That was something where we did shoot elements for it with a light rig that had moving lights, but we eventually had to replace it with a CG version in order to get better integration and also to get hair movement because that’s something which wasn’t enough in the original element.  David wanted to have a dolly zoom vertical effect as she gets pulled away. There is a lens size change in addition to the buildings moving around and geometry transforming.  That was a lot of elements to keep up in the air and moving, readable, and looking nice.  It was a tricky shot and had a lot of iterations.” 

Some of the most difficult visual effects work would not be obvious to the viewer.  “We used LED screens on the school rooftop but had to replace a large number of them for various reasons,” reveals Chen.  “A lot of the times the perspective didn’t match up because we were shooting with multiple cameras onset so you couldn’t get two cameras to have the right perspective, and the color and look of the sky weren’t necessarily right.  We did extensive sky replacement on stuff shot on LED screens.  There is a lot of fine work in terms of roto and hair and integration.”

For Chen, the finale between Shazam and Kalypso was a satisfying ending.  “The destruction is fun but it’s also visually quite striking in the nighttime setting and using the lightning to illuminate things,” he concludes. “Show the story without being illuminated. It’s quite a dark scene but dramatic.  That’s one that I’m excited for people to see.” Chen adds, “The more spectacular stuff is more fun to watch but it’s nice to have a combination of work.  There are a lot of different set pieces with various problems to solve within each one.  It’s satisfying that you get to do visual effects work that isn’t meant to be splashy, and it fixes the problem and makes the film better.”

Trevor Hogg's picture

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer best known for composing in-depth filmmaker and movie profiles for VFX Voice, Animation Magazine, and British Cinematographer.