In 2016, Stephane Ceretti had explained to us the visual effects work on Doctor Strange. He then worked on Ant-Man and the Wasp and Avengers: Endgame (as visual effects supervisor for the additional second unit). He was then a visual effects consultant on Nomadland.
What were your choices to join this Marvel movie?
After GOTG3 got pushed in 2018 for which I was supposed to come back working with James Gunn, Marvel announced that they were putting Eternals in production with Chloé Zhao directing it. I was curious and watched The Rider immediately, loved it and lucky enough I got invited to meet with Chloe on Halloween Day 2018! She had such a fresh and personal approach to the material. I remember in our meeting room she had that very long fresco of the history of civilizations. I am an history and geography lover myself and I was so excited to work on this new chapter of the MCU.
It’s the first film full of visual effects for director Chloé Zhao. How did you help her about that?
From the beginning Chloe was very interested in the possibilities that visual effects could offer her. She had not experienced much of it on her previous films (there are a few VFX shots in Nomadland that I helped her with too but this happened later while in post production on Eternals). Me and my producer Susan Pickett showed her some material from previous movies we had done together to explain to Chloe how we shoot certain things like CG characters etc. and also what the previz process is.
What were her expectations about the visual effects?
Chloe is a very visual director. She likes shooting in naturalistic environments and at very specific times of day. Also her shooting style is very much based on her experience on smaller movies. She shoots with a very little team around her and most of the time one camera mounted on a ronin rig. Also she loves wide lenses and very long shots. At the beginning of pre production she showed us movies like The Tree of Life, The Revenant and The New World which were her inspiration for the style of the movie. She doesn’t like action sequence with shaky cameras and usual action movie tricks. She wants the camera to witness the action and the action within frame to drive the emotion. We discussed also the look of the deviants (which the vizdev department at marvel developed with her) and the Celestials as well as the powers the Eternals all have.
You’ve worked with VFX Producer Susan Pickett many times before. How was this new collaboration?
Ah it’s been almost 10 years now that we have been working together. We’re like an old couple ! But this movie was very special because we had to do the entire post production in Covid times from home and I missed spending time with her and our entire team at Marvel in the office. It was really rough not to be all in the same room to discuss things together, especially on a very complex movie like this.
The Eternals have many powers. Can you explain their design and creation?
It was a huge part of the work we had to do on the film, bring all these characters and their powers to life. We wanted to reference the comics of Jack Kirby and especially his very specific graphic style. Lots of the designs we did for the film were based on fundamental geometric shape like circles, triangles and arcs combined together. All the eternals are filled with Cosmic Energy when they are created and all their powers have the same energy source. We had to define a coherent look for these powers that all originate from the same source. Chloe wanted cosmic energy to be more physical than just light, and she wanted it to be made of gold. I did a bit of research and found some beautiful work done by a company in the UK called Future Deluxe. We commissioned a concept phase with them for Sprite’s illusions. They did amazing. Based on this and other ideas we starting playing with these themes for each and every eternals and their specific powers. One of them was Makkari the speedster. We definitely didn’t want to do the same thing as previous speedster who always end up being shown in slow motion when the world around them is frozen. We took the opposite approach to it. Scanline did a fully animated test for us and we all liked very much. Other vendors like ILM and Weta had to feature Makkari as well and they elaborated on the early test. Also in Makkari’s vizdev design we had that cosmic energy cage around her and we though that she should also have a trail of cosmic energy behind her with the turbulence design echoing this ancient/fundamental and Kirby designs in motion. We also looked a lot of manga animation. Chloe and I are a big fan of manga ! You can imagine we really had fun looking into all this incredible material for Kingo and Gilgamesh !
How did you help the actors visualize and mimic their powers?
We had done enough previzualisation before shooting to be able to show them what would happen when they use their powers. I was there all the time on set to assist Chloe and the actors in what they had to do to express their powers.
Can you elaborates about the Thena weapons?
Angelina wanted her fights to be extremely balletic. We worked with the art department and the armourer to design her swords and spear, and with Eunice HurtHart the stunt and fight coordinator to help Angelina with the weapons. She was holding a mixture of various prop with integrated lighting to give us the interaction from the cosmic energy on set. Lots of her fights happen in darkness so it was necessary to have those as a light source. ILM and Weta helped design the intricate details of the weapons, they did an incredible job on this. We ended up mixing and matching many more styles and adding more shapes like a shields, axes, blades, knifes. We could really play around in each scene to make sure it would never get boring or redundant.
Which power was the most complicates to create?
They all had their own little things that were complicated. Sersi’s transmutation was always a challenge, she’s a very special Eternal ! But all in all it was just the sheer amount of powers we had to develop that was complicated. We had seen some of these powers in other films from the MCU or other superhero franchises but we wanted a fresh and cohesive approach to them which made it even trickier to realize.
How did you work with the SFX and stunt teams for the action sequences?
We tried to mix CG and practical as much as we could. It was really hard on location sometimes to bring all the equipment we needed but they did a fantastic job. Explosions, cabins breaking apart under the weight of a deviant, smoke and steam in the middle of a lava field or water explosion in the forest of the amazon. We tried to get all we could in camera and complement it later with CG.
The movie is taking place in various locations. Can you elaborates about their creation?
We tried to shoot on location as much as we can. To capture the light and scale Chloe wanted for the movie. Obviously places like Balylon were mostly CG with some part of the set built, or the city of Tenochtitlan for example. But we also had a lot of cosmic locations like the Void and the World Forge created by Scanline. For the World Forge we had very little in term of designs, I came up with the idea of the place being dome shaped and made of an array of the same spaceship the eternals used to get to Earth. It would suggest the idea that there are many many more of these roaming the universe and all coming from this initial place of creation. Scanline did an incredible job putting this on the screen. They also created the full sequence of the creation of the universe by Arishem which was a big undertaking. They also did the destruction of the Earth seen from space by Tiamut. Weta was in charge of the scene on Centuri 6 where we see deviants killing apex predators across the universe.
Where was filmed these various places?
We shot at Pinewood studios in London for the interiors of the Domo and other interior spaces, but most of the film was shot in location around London (central London, Camden, Black Park forest for the aztec town, a forest north west of London for the amazon, and the Canary Islands for Babylon and the finale of the film on the beach, Lanzarote for the lava fields). We also did tile photography on a lake in Germany. We relied on stock footage for some sequences as the pandemic didn’t allow us to go film some of the plates we needed during post.
Let’s talk about the Deviants. Can you explain in detail about their design and creation?
Initially we talked about monsters that looked a lot like chimera from ancient myths and legend. But Chloe wanted to make them look quintessentially alien and not your usual monster made with scale or hair and flesh. The vizdev department did a lot of work trying to define all those ideas. We ended up with a family of monsters that looked somewhat familiar to what you could see on earth in terms of overall shape but very different in their materials and internal features. Here again we had a lot of influence from both alien films and manga or anime like Princess Mononoke. Chloe wanted the deviants to be very colorful too, so we came to this very slick and iridescent material they’re made of, feeling both metallic and organic. It’s pretty odd and unusual and created a lot of challenges in terms of integration in the very naturalistic plates we had shot on location. It was a very bold artistic choice from Chloe to try something quite different and unexpected but it served the story. We can see that these alien are definitely not earth like, but as the evolve on earth they are initially very big dinosaur like creatures and as time goes they become more nimble and agile, the same way animals evolved on earth, just in a much shorted timeline. ILM was in charge of building most of our deviants including their leader Kro, which they shared with Weta who did the final phase of Kro at the end of the amazon battle and in the final battle after its transformation by ILM. Also Weta took over the ice cave transformation scene where all the deviants evolve to become more powerful after the death of Ajak.
What was the main challenges with the Deviants animations?
Our biggest battle scene with the deviants was in the amazon forrest. Chloe wanted it to be very dramatic with a lot of interactions between the deviants and the Eternals. We had so many different types of deviants, some that could fly, some bipeds, some quadruped, one with a long tail etc etc. so they all had their very specific way of fighting. Chloe referenced to us a lot of animal video but also wanted the deviants to be very snappy and terrifying. Specifically in the amazon forest we had some very complicated oner shots where ikaris is fighting the deviant in close combat. The “revenant” shot as we called it was a combination of 2 or 3 takes, mixing real ikaris to digital double multiple times, ikaris being crushed by the deviant and fighting back with his rays but not being able to point at the deviant holding his head on the ground. This was an extremely long and complicated shot made by ILM.
One of the Deviant can evolve and change his shape. Can you tell us more about this change?
ILM was in charge of the transformation sequence happening in the forest, and Weta did the transformation in the ice cave. The idea was that this deviant leader, Kro, could absorb cosmic energy from the deviant he use killed and evolve his shape and powers using this cosmic energy. Every time it happens you can see more and more golden features appearing in their design. He goes from a quadruped to a simian like monster to a full talking biped by the end of the movie.
Can you elaborates about the face animation of this Deviant?
Bill Skarsgård was on set with us to shoot all the scenes in the cave with Angelina. We did live facial motion capture for these moments.
Can you explain in detail about the design and the creation of Arishem?
For the celestials it was all about SCALE ! They had to feel big. Scanline was in charge of their creation after we got some concepts from vizdev. Arishem is the prime celestial. Talking with Scanline we really worked a lot of trying to put as many visual scale clues we could. We knew Arishem’s eyes would be featured quite a lot and close up in the movie, so we designed them based on pictures from aerial open air mines in Russia. Also another idea was to have an asteroid belt around them so we could play with the scale of the asteroids.
Chloe’s approach to the look of technology in the film was very much based on the idea that ultimate technology is nature ! You can’t do anything more advanced that nature itself. The celestials, the domo, the word forge all have a very naturalistic texture to them even though they are the most technologically advance thing in nature.
Arishem is absolutely huge. How did you manage the challenge of this size?
Camera angles are a big thing when you shoot something so big !!
How does his massive size affects your work?
It makes all the simulations much more difficult. Not just for Arishem but also for Tiamut coming out of the earth as seen from space or from the island at the end of the movie.
Which sequence or shot was the most challenging?
Definitely the final battle. The scale and diversity of the effects was pretty challenging. Weta was in charge of balancing action at a personal scale and bring it all the way to the size of a celestial coming out of the earth and keeping all this in balance with the very naturalistic feel Chloe wanted for the film. It was really really difficult task and making sure that we would be true to the original cinematography and keep the excitement of seeing all these events unfold was very demanding.
How did you choose the various vendors?
We try to find the best artists for the movie and what they have to do in it. With ILM, Weta, Scanline, Luma and RISE we found the right balance and people to execute Chloe’s vision. We all got on a much longer and harder ride than we expected with the pandemic hitting us right at the start of post production. I am glad we had all these solid vendors and supervisors we knew well to weather the complexity of working in this environment and with such a high concept movie. It was really a journey !
How did you split the work amongst the vendors?
ILM : Mesopotamia, Babylon, Amazon Forest and lots of deviant and powers to figure out. Daniele Bigi was the supervisor.
Weta : Aztec, Ice cave, Century 6, Final battle. Matt Aitken supervisor
Scanline : London, Gupta, Celestials, Void, Big Bang and World Forge. Jelmer Boksma supervisor
Luma : Domo interiors, Phastos Holograms, Hiroshima. Olivier Dumont Supervisor
Also RISE, Future Deluxe and our in-house compositing team.
How was the collaboration with their VFX Supervisors?
Always a treat. We tried to get them to interact with Chloe as much as we could when necessary. I love those guys we have been through a lot together ! I know they had so many challenges on the film and as we were all trying to find the visual language of it we went through a lot of iterations and new ideas. But they all responded very enthusiastically and were real partners all along the post production period.
Is there something specific that gives you some really short nights?
What is your favorite shot or sequence?
Hard to tell. It’s like choosing amongst your kids. You all love them for different reasons 🙂
What is your best memory on this show?
All the travels to all those amazing locations. It’s quite unique to be able to go to those places for work !!!
How long have you worked on this show?
2.5 years !
What’s the VFX shots count?
1960 shots I think.
What was the size of your team?
At Marvel just about 10 people, we had two units shooting on the show during production so it was a bit bigger at this point.
Also big shoutout to my additional supervisor Marten Larson who is the nicest and most talented guy around ! He’s been essential especially at the end of the project when I had to juggle with two movies at the same time !
What is your next project?
Guardians 3 ! Back with my old friend James Gunn and the guardians gang ! Going to be a blast !!
A big thanks for your time.
© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2021