Leading VFX studio creates the mythical Great Protector dragon, demonic Dweller-in-Darkness, and an army of little demons for Marvel Studios’ first film to feature an Asian super hero.
Nominated alongside Marvel Studios VFX supervisor Christopher Townsend for Outstanding Visual Effects for a Photoreal Feature at the 2022 VES Awards, Weta FX VFX supervisor Sean Walker and his team of artists delivered a variety of innovative visual effects shots on Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, including complex water simulations for Ta Lo Lake, the mythical dragon known as the Great Protector, demonic Dweller-in-Darkness, supernatural Wenwu Rings, and turning Australia into Ta Lo.
Assisting Walker in producing 305 visual effects shots were 350 artists; they commenced work just before COVID-19 lockdown, continuing for a total of 18 months as the film’s theatrical release date was pushed a couple times and additional editorial and creative changes were required.
Weta FX handled the third act battle from when the demons appear until the first of the end credit scenes. “We had armies battling each other, so lots of crowd simulation work, two complex big beasts [Great Protector and Dweller-in-Darkness], and an army of little demons,” explains Walker. “At one point, we had something like 16,000 of them flying around, which was deemed too much and insurmountable for the villages to overcome. We scaled them back and made the individual demon more threatening. The water effects themselves were crazy, and then there were the Wenwu Ring effects. It was really the full gambit of visual effects work.”
According to Walker, the creatures themselves were extremely complex. The art department at Marvel Studios provided basic ZBrush models of the Great Protector and Dweller-in-Darkness, while the Foo Dogs and little demons were created by Weta FX from scratch. “Aside from the dragon, each one [of the demons] has multiple tentacles, so the animation rigs were extraordinarily heavy,” he says. “This is our first Eastern style dragon, so we found unique challenges in its animation.”
As is common on such complex and expansive VFX-driven film projects, assets and shots were shared among vendors. “There's so much work for every single one of these movies,” notes Walker. “Rising Sun Pictures created the Ta Lo village, whereas Weta FX created the Mountain of Souls. We had to swap and interchange each other's scenes to make sure that we were consistent between the two of us. Even Trixter had a few shots in that final battle.”
Noting asset sharing is anything but routine, or easy, Walker explains, “Each vendor has their own proprietary software, which they can't share with anyone else. So, they generally bake everything down to the highest level of detail. It becomes a bit of an unwieldy process to bring that in and mold it in a way that fits your own pipeline.”
The film took a unique approach to choreographing fight scenes. “We were sent something that we're now referring to as ‘toyvis,’” Walker reveals. “There was an action figure of Stan Lee to represent Wenwu and an action figure of Captain America to represent Shang-Chi. They would choreograph that whole fight with just these toys. Then it went to stuntvis and finally previs [created by The Third Floor]. If there are any new sections and beats that they wanted to insert into the sequence, or alter, we generated our own previs and postvis.”
Weta FX’s work required development of new technology, including the use of machine learning for facial replacements. “For the Dweller-in-Darkness, being such a heavy rig, we created custom rigs which allowed us to animate a specific piece without worrying about the tentacles, arms and wings; that was done with a traditional Maya puppet,” remarks Walker. “The Great Protector used a spline rig; it was animated along a path that was broken here and there, to make sure you can really feel it pushing through the air. They wanted to give the Great Protector directionality and purpose, leading with the head, but the tail and the body had to break that path, to really push itself.” A machine learning model was created between Tony Leung and his digital double. “It gave us the ability to do facial performances on our digital double with a simplified rig and the AI would take care of the rest,” Walker continues. “Even though our smile on the digital double wouldn't a hundred percent match what Tony Leung would normally smile like, the AI model knew what his smile would look like. It added a little bit of extra detail, and a tiny more likeness to his facial performance.”
Looking back on his team’s work, Walker notes the two main challenges were the dense animation work and complex water effects. “Our animation supervisor Karl Rapley had a bit of a freak out when he saw the plates coming in and there are just dozens of actors and actresses in the background swinging at nothing,” he recalls. “Just knowing that you had to put a complicated animated creature in all these places, reacting to all these extras just wailing away at the air, was tough. The creature work was probably some of the more complex stuff that we've done.”
Much of Weta FX’s research and development is designed to make things react in a natural way. In Shang-Chi, however, the water is anything but natural. “The water effects were insane,” Walker exclaims. “We had to break away from our pipeline to be able to cater to this new way of dealing with water. The water itself needed to be a character. It moved like tentacles. Everything else attached to it needed to still feel real. Effects were able to take exactly what animation had done and simulate from that. The good thing about that was we were able to create blocking simulation that animation could then use in their presentations. This gave us a high approval rate for our water renders because Marvel already knew exactly what the water in motion would look like.”
“I've been a fan of Marvel since I was a kid,” Walker concludes. “30 years later I still collect comics monthly and I’m almost 40 years old! It's always a huge honor to be able to work on these kinds of shows. A lot of the team are very much in the same boat. They're all fans and it took no persuasion on my part to get people onto the show. Everyone saw this initial artwork and were just desperate to get on. Casting for the Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was probably some of the easiest I've ever had to do. It was just a super cool show that consisted of every single thing that a CG artist really wanted to work on, from massive creature and water effects to Kung Fu fighting.”