The VFX studio delivers 237 shots, including the adorable, faceless, and furry four-winged Dijiang sidekick, in Marvel Studios’ first Asian super hero film.
The MCU’s first Asian superhero finally gets to shine in Marvel Studios’ Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which tells the story of the criminal organization that captured Tony Stark in the original Iron Man, while revealing the true identity of its real mastermind known as The Manchurian - previously portrayed by a witless, hired actor - in Iron Man 3. Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12) directs with support from VFX supervisor Christopher Townsend (Captain America: The First Avenger), who brought on TRIXTER to do 237 shots that feature the adorable creature Morris, Welcome to Ta Lo environment and magical creatures, Foo Dog, early battle shots of Ta Lo, and the Abomination fight.
TRIXTER has worked on numerous projects supervised by Townsend going back to Ninja Assassin. “We know what to expect from each other, and how to collaborate to achieve the best possible result” states TRIXTER VFX supervisor Dominik Zimmerle. “It is great to work with him.” Asset development started in Fall 2019, with post-production prolonged by the forced principal photography shutdown due to the pandemic. “Chris and Damien Carr [Marvel Studios’ VFX producer] were great in getting us some work that had already been shot so we could get through those hard times. We had a few additional tasks because in the second stage of the shooting there were some restrictions for crowd shots in the arena where the fighting takes place. They weren’t allowed to put as many people onstage as before. We had quite a few shots that required stitching. There was a clean plate, and crowds were assembled in several layers in order to get the original crowd size.”
Initial concepts were provided by Marvel Studios, with previs and postvis done for most sequences by The Third Floor. “It’s fantastic what Marvel Studios does before starting the visual effects work,” notes Zimmerle. “Almost all our sequences were based on photography, especially Abomination. They did an entire ring, had a guy on stilts, and there were God and volume rays. This helped us a lot to see what kind of mood was intended. A small village was physically built for Ta Lo that had greenscreens in the background, but a building here and there were replaced in CG and the entire surrounding environment was done in CG. The one exception was the Ancestral Road. Though it was photographed in Australia, we went for a full CG environment because it had to look magical and lush. The only practical element was the jeep.”
Using a wombat as the main point of reference, TRIXTER had to conceptualized details for Morris, the four-winged, faceless sidekick known as a Dijiang. “We had to figure out the configuration of its legs, the biomechanics, and kind of feathers,” Zimmerle explains. “We went into carving out all of the details with our concept department in ZBrush in the form of 3D sculptures. The same thing was done for the nine tailed fox [known as a Huli Jing] and the Qilin [unicorn]. We looked at a lot of horse and fox references to get the anatomy right and to ground them in reality.”
Zimmerle concedes that respecting the cultural importance of the film’s Chinese mythological creatures was difficult, noting “We found where these creatures are depicted, but it was hard for us to understand their context in Chinese mythology. I hope that we got it right! Then you go into the purpose that they have in the movie. Morris was a sidekick to the main party. The foxes and Qilin were supposed to display the otherworldly beauty of the environment. We tried to stay true to the original depictions in Chinese mythology, but you have to go from a 2D painting or sculpture into something that works in a shot context.”
A stuffie was used onset to frame for Morris as well as to get the proper interaction with the cast. “Chris asked us early in the shooting what we wanted,” Zimmerle describes. “We were advanced with the model of Morris and gave him the exact measurements of the green stuffie but made it a tiny bit smaller so that the hands were always intersecting with the fur. We could also give the exact position of the legs and the stumps for the wings. The actors had a good reference point where they could handle Morris. It also provided us with a good scale reference.” Morris had to be able to emote despite the lack of traditional facial features. According to Zimmerle, “There is an area that we consider to be the face that is a little bit flat in the front. One of the great achievements of the animation department was how they made sure that Morris naturally emotes rather than looking cartoony. To make sure that the audience understands that Morris is talking we have jittering of the wings going on and him leaning towards the person he is talking to.”
Making a return to the MCU after a 13-year absence is the Abomination, which first appeared in The Incredible Hulk. “We received the original model from 2008 as well as all the Hulk models that were created for the MCU, so we had a reference for proportions,” Zimmerle reveals. “The height of the Hulk has changed a lot over that period of time. There were also some initial concepts provided by Marvel Studios. But essentially, we had to start from scratch and referenced material for how the skin, hand and scales could look like.” Abomination has a completely different anatomy than the Hulk. “Abomination is around 11 feet tall. For some shots we scaled him up and down to make sure that the proportions looked correct and conveyed how heavy, strong, and massive he is. For the fighting, there was a stunt double on stilts, which helped to show how far he needed to be from Benedict Wong. Since Abomination is a CG creature, we were able to help stage performances to work better with the fighting. In the shot where Benedict Wong is going through the legs, there was a green cushion to indicate the diameter between the legs. We had a contact point helping us to understand where the legs needed to be and staged our animation accordingly.”
The Foo Dogs were developed by Weta and shared with TRIXTER. “The main challenge was to maintain throughout the performance the spikes the Foo Dogs create on their manes,” notes Zimmerle. “It is a graphical element and can quickly look cartoony. The simulation needs to be right, with a bit of wind in there to show that the spikes are a natural part of the fur and are moving in a realistic way. The spikes were so close to deformable areas of the skin that sometimes they had a tendency to move around too much. So, their movement had to be restricted but there had to be enough wiggle room for them to look naturalistic. The other challenge was making a creature that looks like a believable massive statue.”
Not everything with the two sequences involving the Ta Lo environment was creature based. “The first is the Ancestral Road that leads to Ta Lo, which was done entirely by TRIXTER,” Zimmerle shares. “Ta Lo itself was created by Rising Sun Pictures and shared with us as a point cloud. We got all their assets such as the trees. We ingested the point cloud and distributed the trees to the points and rendered it out for shots in Ta Lo. Ta Lo was built as a village in Australia with greenscreen around it. The ground was not as green and lush as it should be. Most of the shots involved creating good mattes for everything where you had to put things behind it. This was done partially with greenscreen and detailed rotoscoping techniques. The next big challenge was getting the lighting right because we wanted to create a beautiful reality. RSP did an amazing job of establishing a magical believable world and this is what we tried to match. We had to adjust the environment because our scenes had partially different lighting and setups.”
Ta Lo appears in harsh sunlight and is later seen at sunset. “Adjusting to these daylight changes and maintaining the same spirit and feeling to the environment was the biggest challenge,” states Zimmerle. “Adding to the complexity was the cutting between shots created by TRIXTER and RSP. Usually for the RSP shots we provided the Foo Dogs.” The shot lighting was accurately created, and the magical aspects were dialed into the environment. “We worked a lot with atmosphere like sunlight scattering on a lake in the background, nice clouds hanging in between the mountains that we could use to show light direction creating a nice light and dark pattern,” he adds. “We worked with saturation to make the green occasionally a bit greener and compensating in other areas to keep it naturalistic. When had nice shifts from more colourful shadows in blue to neutral ones to the warmer sunlight. This was done delicately, otherwise it quickly becomes too magical.”
Several software and workflow adjustments were made to create the numerous creatures, “especially tracking caches because we were using several different softwares,” states Zimmerle. “For Morris’ fur simulation, we stayed in Yeti. Sometimes for interaction the fur was brought into Houdini. The feathers were always coming from Houdini. To assemble all these caches, we introduced several new techniques. A feather tool purchasable from SideFX was used but modified quite heavily to allow for a first automated de-intersection pass, and to make it pipeline ready for the flexibility that was needed for the show.”
“We provided Morris renders and comps for Weta Digital, Digital Domain and Scanline VFX,” he continues. “There was a lot of cross interaction between all the vendors, which was demanding because each one has a different pipeline. On the other hand, it was great to be able see their beautiful work. Plus, the client created personal contacts point, so at any time we could talk with Weta Digital, Digital Domain, Scanline and Rising Sun Pictures.”
Zimmerle concludes by noting, “It was a real pleasure seeing the public reaction to Morris. It was nice to see people awing and laughing about Morris; those scenes were a great experience.”