Shang-Chi VFX Supervisor Chats Dragons, Ten Rings, and More – ComicBook.com

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Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings just won the box office for the third week straight, giving some studios a sense of confidence in releasing their films in a timely manner. As you might now expect from any feature films from Marvel Studios, Shang-Chi was another massive entry in Hollywood’s largest franchise, introducing fans to a corner of the cinematic universe previously undiscovered. This came through the introduction of a set of dragons and dozens of mythological characters, accurate to ancient Chinese tales.

One of the main visual effects houses that worked on the film’s final moments was Weta Digital. The New Zealand-based VFX firm worked directly on both the Great Protector and Dweller-in-Darkness, plus many of the mythological creatures introduced. Led by Sean Walker, Weta’s team of 350 artists worked on most things in the film’s third act.

We recently caught up with Walker to chat all things Shang-Chi, and you see read through our discussion below.

Dragons and Dwellers

ComicBook.com: As you can see, I have my Iron Fist shrine behind me and throughout two seasons of the Netflix show, all I wanted was Shou-Lao the Undying, right? I just wanted a dragon. And then Shang-Chi comes out and it comes with two dragons. You guys made it, so that makes my day. By the time you guys start doing your work on both the Protector and the Dweller in Darkness, but did Marvel’s visual development guys have a good idea of what both dragons were going to look like? Did you guys have any help in developing those looks and feels?

Sean Walker: No. Well, I mean, we had a lot of developments in the feels of both dragons, but only in regards to the materials that they were made up of and their shading. But for the most part, the designs of the dragons were supplied to us by Marvel themselves. And they’ve been really happy with them. It’s not usual for… Marvel is a bit of an organic process. When you do receive some artwork, there’s a bit of leeway there, but they were so happy with the design sets that they sent to us that we stuck really close to the original artwork. So things changed throughout production. The dragon at one point was glowing with power. And you would go through the process of seeing what that looks like in shots and then taking it all out. But no, yeah. Again, from the beginning, we received pretty, very, very nice artwork that they were happy with and we just kind of stuck to it.

You say some things change. Let’s touch on this real quick. Dweller in Darkness is actually a Doctor Strange villain. Obviously, they change it from the comic source material. Did you ever see any art where it looked more like the bipedal Doctor Strange comic-accurate version? Or was it always the dragon?

The Cthulhu-looking guy? No, it was always exactly kind of what it was. We did embellish. The good thing about something like the Dweller in Darkness is it’s basically just the stuff of nightmares, so we can go a little ham with it. We looked into all kinds of crazy materials, like raw meat for the skin that surrounds the teeth and the mouth, and lots of obviously lizard reference for scales and bats for wings and that kind of thing. But yeah, it’s for the most part, exactly. Again, is exactly as it came in and we saw the designs and we went with it and then we just made it as freaky and as gross as possible.

No offense, but it looked pretty gross.

Oh, that’s a compliment, absolutely.

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Pre-Viz

Obviously, there’s the bidding process relatively early on and stuff, but when did you guys start work? Are you doing some pre-viz work? Are you building these dragons before they even start principal photography?

Yeah, we absolutely did. So, Third Floor is usually the company that digs into the previews for Marvel, but at a certain point, they have to let go and let us take over. Because of the editorial changes throughout production, we ended up doing a little bit of our own pre-viz here and there. But this particular show needed a little bit more work at the head because they were riding the dragon. We needed to actually complete our dragon model before they even went into shooting. Once we’d done the model we had, we separated it and created fragmented sets that the on-set team literally carved out an exact replica, life-sized replica, of the top of the dragon head, a good chunk of the dragon’s back and all the stunt work. And even the main actors Simu [Liu] and Meng’er [Zhang] were just dangling off it with wires for a good chunk of the film.

Did you ever get to dangle off it?

Normally I would get to go on set, but the pandemic hit right at that point. So it was early 2020 that they started to ramp up and start to shoot things. So, yeah, it was the whole shooting was delayed just for a couple of weeks. Right at the very beginning, because Destin was sick and he just wanted to make sure he didn’t pass anything on to his family, so they just delayed shooting by a couple of weeks. But for the most part, they got the whole thing done, shot during the midst of the lockdown.

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Soul-Sucking and Cinemas

We have the, I don’t know what their names are, the soul suckers, the mini dragons, the mini gross things. When they’re sucking the soul, there’s this effect that some have noticed is similar to maybe some Dormammu or Dark Dimension-type stuff. Was that a reference point at all or is that just a point of coincidence? Did you reference any specific MCU portion for the sucking of the soul?

None in particular. We did look at, believe it or not, but there’s soul-sucking in a lot of films. And the main thing was we didn’t reference it to see what was good, but we wanted to reference it to see what hadn’t been done before for the most part. So there’s no real connection to any kind of book design or anything like that. We just, we just wanted to create something that kind of looks cool.

Between you and your team at Weta, how many people made up your team on Shang-Chi?

I think our team was, although I saw the credits last night, and it felt a lot more. Yesterday was the first day that it was released in New Zealand so I went to the cinema and I’ve seen a couple of video cuts of it, but that was the first time I got to see it in all its glory at a cinema. And it felt a little bit more than 350 people. But I think about 350 people made up our team on this one.

I mean, you walk into the cinema for the first time, what’s your initial reaction to some of these scenes? Surely you’ve seen these shots countless times before ad nauseam, but what’s your thoughts on seeing it on the silver screen?

It’s amazing. Yeah, it was so cool. Yeah. The good thing about working with Christopher Townsend, he was Marvel’s visual effects supervisor on this one. Every week, we would get a full cut with their latest sound and their latest grading. And so for our portion of the film, it all looked pretty familiar. But seeing everything else, all the other work that all of the vendors had done was amazing. It was very cool to see on the big screen. Yeah.

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Ten Rings

When it comes to the Ten Rings, obviously they’re blue throughout the movie, but then when Shang-Chi gets control of them, they start turning orange. Were you pulling out your hair on determining what Shang-Chi’s color was going to be? Was it as simple as saying,”Well, here’s a color wheel. We know orange is opposite of blue,” or how did you determine the blue versus orange when it comes to the Ten Rings?

Yeah, that’s a good question. The Ten Rings actually went through a range of color changes. So at one point each individual effect and each individual styled use of the Rings. For example, when Wenwu is creating a bustle out of them or a whip or projectiles. They actually had their own unique color scheme, they were all in a similar color palette. So for Wenwu was more the blues and the purples and that kind of thing and Shang-Chi would have a little bit more oranges and reds and greens. But in order to really clearly define this is Wenwu and this is Shang-Chi, we stuck to a much narrower color palette. So Shang-Chi’s colors actually mimic his mum’s color palette. So we looked to her for her greens and for yellows and greens. Especially in the initial fight between his parents. And that was a bit of a theme throughout. We kept looking at Shang’s mother for reference for almost everything. Even the Dragon’s eyes were initially based off by Fala Chen’s eyes, the actress who played Shang’s mom.

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Water Woes

Every single visual effects person I talk to kind of stresses out over water. It seems like a recurring theme. When you read the script or when you saw what you had to do with this village that’s on water, and all these people diving in and out of water. What’d you think to yourself?

Yeah, it wasn’t quite as mad as when I first saw it when it came in. Yes, water is tricky. It’s probably one of the most, one of the hardest sort of effects that you can do. It’s always particularly difficult to simulate. And again, it’s extraordinarily expensive to render. Water is the ultimate and transmissive and translucent material so we all kind of use path tracers these days for our rendering tools. And so the amount of time it takes to calculate what light does when it enters into a water surface and bounces around and escapes is pretty phenomenal. At one point, I think just one shot, we hit like 5.5 Million core hours or threaded hours for one shot. Which would have taken your home computer, maybe 25 years to render, so it’s an expensive process.

And originally, yeah, the water was a big thing. It was always kind of going to be a big thing, but it really kind of blew up at a certain point. We wanted to make it a spectacle. We had some insane effects artists who somehow managed to produce these beautiful spirals out of my ridiculous napkin drawings. And yeah, no, it was complicated, but it ended up being not quite the worry that it initially was going to be, or the worry that it could have been considering the ramp up in complexity throughout the production.

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Dragon Scales

This might be a little elementary, but the dragons have scales. Was there one person responsible for creating each scale? Is it as simple as copy and paste, or how do you do the texture on something like that?

It almost killed them, but yes, we did have one hand place, 8,000 scales on the dragon. He actually created the initial sculpt and so he wanted to look after it as a whole. And yeah, so we had one modeler that did the entire dragon pretty much. And he hand modeled every single one of those scales.

We shouldn’t even need to get him like the Funko Pop of the Great Protector or at least a plushie or something, right? I mean it’s his dragon.

Yeah, exactly, exactly.

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References

Did [director] Destin [Destin Cretton] ever say, “Hey, watch this,” or were are you watching this Kung Fu or were you referencing this ancient Chinese story?

I wouldn’t be able to give a number to it, but yes, we have a database, a general Weta database of film that we generally reference. But even pretty sure we have just a massive list of all these different clips that we bet anyone who’s part of the team thinks would be helpful. We just submit these clips to this database. So there’ll be hours of footage there, I think.

And yeah, so we looked at a lot of Tony, some of his old films. I never actually watched the full things, but we had tons of clips from him, his performances. We wanted to stay true to his performance, especially if we were ever going to do head or face replacements, that kind of thing. A lot of stunt work in here, obviously, and Tony wasn’t able to perform all of them. Even Simu wasn’t able to perform all of them. Credit to them both though, every single shot that involved a stunt, both Simu and Wenwu would at least attempt to perform it, even if it was half speed, just to make sure that we had perfect facial performance and perfect lighting reference for them.

But yeah, as far as other films go, it’s mostly for us just sticking to the Marvel Universe. The thing we want to avoid, which is kind of funny because we’re working on so many Marvel movies at one time, is to even just go next door and make sure that we’re not doing exactly the same thing that they’re doing. Yeah.

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Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings is directed by Destin Daniel Cretton and produced by Kevin Feige and Jonathan Schwartz, with Louis D’Esposito, Victoria Alonso, and Charles Newirth serving as executive producers. David Callaham & Destin Daniel Cretton & Andrew Lanham wrote the screenplay for the film, which is now in theaters.

What did you think of Shang-Chi’s MCU debut? Let us know your thoughts either in the comments section or by hitting our writer @AdamBarnhardt up on Twitter to chat all things MCU!

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