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Visualizing the Fantastic Worlds of ‘Doctor Strange’

The Third Floor’s previs and postvis supervisor Faraz Hameed describes the challenges of more than two years of work on Marvel’s hit supernatural superhero adventure.

Doctor Strange introduces audiences not only to the supernatural narrative slice of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but to a uniquely stunning world of perception-bending visuals that practically explode across the screen. The latest Marvel hit boasts an international box office take of just over $660 million as well as a host of craft award nominations including best visual effects at the upcoming Oscars. Leading the effort to visualize Doctor Strange’s mind-altering realms, as well as how the film’s visual effects would literally unfold was The Third Floor.

Previs and postvis supervisor Faraz Hameed, himself nominated for a VES Award in virtual cinematography, fronted a team of 35 artists, working in London and Los Angeles, that produced more than three hours-worth of material, including the film’s noteworthy Mirror Dimension, Magical Mystery Tour, Sanctum Attack, London Alley, Church Transformation and Hong Kong Attack sequences.

Hameed and his team came onto the project at the very beginning of production, starting with six months of previs in Los Angeles, followed by 10 months of work in London before finishing with another six months of postvis in L.A.  As Hameed describes, “When we started, production was just beginning to develop a visual palette for the film. Director Scott Derrickson and visual effects supervisor Stephane Ceretti were looking into using fractals as one of the options. It was exciting to be researching and exploring ways to use fractals in storytelling and action, and then presenting them to Marvel’s Kevin Feige and the executive team.”

Ceretti and visual effects producer Susan Pickett encouraged Hameed’s team to work closely with other colleagues in production to ensure the previs effort took into account the needs and input of key department leads. Notes Hameed, “Stephane and Susan were really supportive and encouraged us to work together with other departments to make sure what we were developing collectively worked to tell the story and served the director.  We also worked closely to ensure the designs were shootable and realistic to shoot on the schedule. That open door allowed us to work quickly and react rapidly to challenges as they came up.”


Hameed goes on to explain the extent of that collaboration, remarking, “From visualizing story action and visual effects to mapping out complex imagery via techvis using Escher-like diagrams, we had the opportunity to work with virtually every department.  This included collaborating with the production designer on sets and with the props department on set decoration for action scenes.  We worked with the stunt team designing complex, gravity defying combat scenes as well as with vehicles to determine what the cars would be doing.  We interfaced with special effects to help coordinate equipment and rigs and collaborated closely with VFX to make sure the imagery was shootable and aesthetically pleasing to the DP.  We worked closely with editorial to use previs and postvis as scenes were designed.”

Marvel is known for their extensive use of visualization, relying upon previs, techvis and postvis to encourage creative pitching, look development and brainstorming that helps filmmakers explore, conceptualize, design, plan and ultimately assemble their films. The Third Floor’s work on Doctor Strange touched almost every part of the film. “R&D-ing ideas was important from the get-go and Marvel encouraged us to pitch ideas for all the sequences to help explore story points and develop the look of the film’s complex and unique visuals,” notes Hameed. “We ran right up to the end of post-production. It was amazing to work on most every scene in the film, including dialogue scenes.  Marvel has truly embraced previs as a powerful way to explore, design and conceptualize a movie. I was very impressed by this process. It really felt like getting the visual tone and story right in previs was important before shooting the film.”

The previs process started with early conceptual look development and design. “From the start, we worked with the art department to brainstorm ideas in a ‘sand box.’ It was great to be given time to explore and help develop the visual landscape for the film. Charlie Wood's art department team really did some amazing work exploring the look of film,” Hameed says. Previs artists worked with the director on many aspects of the film’s early development, integrating mathematics, Escher designs and fractals to help crystallize the storytelling flow, technical approaches, points of action and inspiration. He continues, “Scott provided a lot of visual reference from art, films and mathematics. It was a very exciting period, as getting the visual tone for Doctor Strange's story was so important. The R&D process allowed us to approach story ideas in the previs with the various visual palettes we had absorbed. The overall brief was to do something no one in cinema had seen before. The designs themselves had Escher as a starting point and from there it was a matter of how to push the boundaries of visual storytelling. A phrase we used a lot was how to 'plus it,' how to not just tell the story but to give the viewer goosebumps when seeing it on the big screen.”

The previs team would receive briefs from the director, who outlined plot points and events he and the producers wanted to see in the film. Hameed recounts, “Scott was incredibly collaborative and open to ideas and he quickly realized that previs was a tool for him to explore and research as well as conceptualize shots quickly. The more we progressed, the more he felt confident with our work. Charlie's team really, really helped create some great visuals.” However, he also describes the inherent challenge translating the art department’s 2D visuals into 3D previs animation. “It was a challenge to represent them in 3D, because not everything translates easily from 2D to 3D. Many of us in previs had our brains stretched trying to get some of those ideas working. It was a real challenge, but a fun challenge. Once we had the concepts visualized in previs, it was very exciting to see everyone's reaction. In particular, the ‘Escher Street,’ when Strange enters New York and sees the streets defying perspective, always got a good response.”

One of the team’s ongoing technical challenges was to produce a large, consistent volume of prevised fractal-based visuals, which when initially done in Maya, presented some particular problems. Says Hameed, “We started off trying to get fractals working in Maya, which is no easy task. When we did, we realized it was too slow and heavy using that method. We are always working towards outputting as many shots as we can each day. Fractals are often unpredictable in what they produce, which is difficult when you want to art-direct behavior. So, what did we do? We hand animated geometry to mimic the behavior of fractals! This worked really well and got a great response. So from that point, every shot was hand crafted.”

In addition to the heavy use of previs, the show required an equally extensive amount of techvis. The Third Floor team techvised the entire show, literally thousands of shots, because the film’s complexity necessitated an inordinate amount of planning to integrate the visual design with live-action shooting and complicated visual effects. Hameed explains, “After production reviews for previs, we’d sometimes hold another meeting just to get our heads around the more complex shots, like the Jigsaw Puzzle City at the end of the New York Chase. A lot of discussions and planning went into how to shoot the folding building shots. Should a crane be used or should it be a motion control rig? Is it first unit or second unit? Would it be shot in New York or on stage? Is it upside down or shot reverse?”

The techvis artists would create detailed schematics of shots that provided top, side and front elevations with camera and distance data. According to Hameed, “The Hong Kong scenes, which were shot at night in cold weather, required very clear and effective techvis plans to help inform the setups.  It was hard because not only were we producing many techvis shots, but each of them had to be right. Obviously, that's the way it should be, but when you are prevising, pichvising, techvising, postvising and being on-set and with editorial, all at the same time, it can be a challenge to manage. But we did it in the end!”

Visualizing some of Doctor Strange's transformations was a particularly significant challenge. Says Hameed, “For scenes like the Magical Mystery Tour, his body had to be distorted, torn apart, reassembled, duplicated and so on even while interacting with the environments. This required a pretty deep dive into R&D. We experimented with deformers, particles, cheat cards, simulations and dynamics with resources shared between The Third Floor’s LA and London crews. That sequence took six months to visualize, making sure the shots being developed were even shootable!  We worked closely with co-visual effects supervisor Chris Shaw, providing camera data that he would test out.”

He continues, “The Hong Kong scenes were also unique. VFX had done some exciting tests of a forwards-working fight interacting with reversing elements and we used that knowledge to visualize shooting and techvis plans. On shooting days, we went on-set to help with realization of the plans. It was like shooting two films at the same time -- one in reverse and one forwards.  The crew did an amazing job with that challenge.”

The Third Floor has a well-designed and refined postvis workflow, which was used with great success on the film. According to Hameed, “The process begins with ingesting plates from the shoot, tracking them, assembling the previs into them, doing rotoscoping and comping and then delivering the postvis to editorial as quickly as possible. Sometimes it involves combining several plates into one or taking the best bits of one plate and putting them into another. For us, a postvis shot takes about a day or two, which is very fast in the visual effects world. We’re able to do this thanks to having personnel who are jacks-of-all-trades with animation, effects, tracking, roto, and compositing.”

Hameed’s team would review all worked-up postvis shots with VFX, editorial, the director and executives on the film. He notes, “What was different with this for me - and seems to be the model for future films - is that the bar has been raised for higher-quality postvis. Our roto had to be near perfect. Our colors needed to be near perfect. Even some animation had to be close to final. Composing supervisor Theresa Rygiel was super helpful making sure our color pipeline was as accurate as possible to deliver on postvis and our 2D-only postvis shots.”

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.