Marvel Studios’ Thor: Ragnarok may seem obviously jam-packed with colourful, explosive, heroic effects – but there’s more to the movie than meets the eye.
Marvel Studios’ Thor: Ragnarok is also a great example of the ability of post-production VFX artists to bring an element of ‘invisible VFX’ to the film.
Of course, this is no easy task. Especially when you have to replace every single blade of grass in an entire meadow for a meeting between Thor, Loki and their father Odin.
To find out what it’s like to recreate reality, only better, Daily Hive spoke to VFX Supervisor Dave Morley and VFX Compositing Supervisor Shane Davidson at Image Engine in Vancouver.
“It sounds devilishly simple, but it’s not,” said Morley. “It literally felt like a race.”
Morley explained that with only eight weeks to go before release date, his team were asked to change skies, add a cliff, and replace Odin’s eye patch, after a last-minute reshoot.
But he quickly realized they would also have to replace the entire meadow, as well as several styrofoam rocks that had appeared in inconsistent positions during filming.
“They shot on a meadow, in an actual grassy field, which was great,” said Morley. “But … with a crew of 100 people trampling the grass, it had turned from this beautiful pristine meadow into this well-trodden football field.”
Turning that into a Marvel Studios’ movie sequence began with creating a computer- generated version of the entire meadow and cliff, stretching off into “infinity.”
“Then we essentially scattered grass clumps randomly across the whole world,” said Morley.
The team could simulate wind on the grass too, and built a system that allowed them to control the amount of movement that was allowed to occur in each grass clump.
“There was the [version] that was super windy, which was appropriate for the very edge of the cliff, where obviously the wind’s hitting more, but the further you go in, the more calm it gets,” explains Morley.
After that, the model was handed to the look development team, who designed each individual blade of grass, and the lighting team, who matched the lighting shot on set.
“You’re just taking a single piece of grass and you’re making that look nice, and then that would then apply across millions of blades,” said Morley.
Next came the cliffs, which began as a static matte painting, but once integrated into the final moving shot by compositing artists, needing enhancing to bring it to life.
“[Marvel filmmakers] wanted it to feel wet and musty and just give it more realism that way,” said Morley. “So there was a lot of work that was happening … in terms of projecting things like noise and trickles of water.”
On top of that, the Image Engine team also had to add a digital flock of birds and real shots of waves crashing against the virtual cliffs.
Meanwhile, the compositing team were “cleaning up” the shots filmed on set, removing windswept hair, acting markers, and blue and green screens.
The next challenge arrived in the form of Hela, the villain of the movie, who makes a grand entrance into the pristine meadow through a stormy portal of slick black.
The bluebird skies Morley had hoped to simply apply across the entire sequence would not work for a moody, villainous entrance.
“You can’t go from a blue sky to a dark and stormy sky in a shot,” said Morley. “So there was a huge amount of work in terms of sourcing skies.”
Secondly, exactly what Hela’s entrance would actually look like was still evolving, even with only two months to go before release.
“It was supposed to be these blades that ripped through, pierced through, the ground and Hela is supposed to emerge from it,” explained Davidson.
“But it became apparent that there was no real way for her to get out of this thing that came through the ground. It was like this cage and then she was sort of stuck in it.”
Using work already done by Rising Sun in Australia, Morley and his team developed the entrance you see in the movie today.
Faced with Hela, Thor and Loki then transition into their Super Hero outfits, which was another challenge for Morley and Davidson.
“What does a person in real life transitioning from civilian gear to something else look like? asked Morley. “The reality is that’s never going to happen, so to try and make something like that look real it’s really very difficult to do.”
To enable Hela to break Thor’s hammer, the team replaced Cate Blanchett’s hand with a CG version they could animate, to show her actually squeezing the steel.
VFX artists also removed the creases from Blanchett’s costume, animated the blades of grass to reflect the boom of Thor’s hammer, and added smoke and lightning.
Finally, Morley and Davidson had to figure out what Hela would look like when she wiped away her hair to reveal her cowl.
“There were some descriptive terms for that, like no water buffalo, more antelope,” jokes Davidson.
The collaboration with Marvel Studios’ executive team, including director Taika Waititi, was the most exciting part of the job for Morley.
“Taika has got his way of entertaining and he’s constantly trying to make things fun,” said Morley. “It was really fun to be able to actually communicate with them.”
Davidson said this also helped decisions get made quickly in their calls with the executives.
“They were moving pretty fast, decision making. They were cutting it while we were watching over Skype,” he said.
“Getting to that finished product where … you’ve got something that’s cohesive, that’s definitely a challenge. It involves a pretty huge amount of creativity and perseverance.”