As with any member of a film crew, the core responsibility of a visual effects supervisor is to facilitate and improve the cinematic vision of the director. The daily journey to achieve this goal varies depending on whether it is pre-production, principal photography or post-production.
“I liken the whole thing to a triathlon more than anything else in the sense that you have three distinct sections of the movie and each one is completely different,” notes Marvel Studios VFX Supervisor Jake Morrison (Thor: Ragnarok) while in pre-production for Thor: Love and Thunder, which reunites him with the God of Thunder (Chris Hemsworth) and filmmaker Taika Waititi (Jojo Rabbit). “The thing that is probably most misunderstood is that in pre-production you don’t end up talking to any other visual effects people because there aren’t any. There’s only me and my producer.
“Pre-production is the blue sky period where no idea is a bad one and everything could be the best thing that has ever been done,” states Morrison. “You do a mental post mortem of every movie that you’ve ever worked or seen. The interesting thing about the visual effects supervisor’s job at this stage of design is you’re focused more on building set pieces and the cool moments. A lot of it is visually driven but not all of it. You’re thinking, ‘If we did this in the first act and set it up visually then we can pay it off in the second act battle because the audience will be educated enough to get the next level of the gag.’ You can effectively build an ‘aha moment’ into it.” During pre-production and principal photography, a close relationship is developed with the production designer and cinematographer to establish a visual language for the project. “It becomes an open discussion. ‘What are we actually going to have there, what is it going to look like ultimately, and what tools do we need to bring to play to be able to create the best and most cost-effective way to do the film.’”
Jake Morrison, VFX Supervisor, Marvel Studios
“I make sure that there is a clear flow of information that comes from the production designer that heads into previs. I’ll also do a previs version of the costume designs. I will start building the lighting model so when the DP gets onboard everybody can see the sort of scene that we are aiming for. You begin to build up these mini-sequences and the cool action beats that you’ve been designing. You start to see the movie actually work.”
—Jake Morrison, Visual Effects Supervisor, Marvel Studios
Morrison with director Taika Waititi and crew while shooting a scene for Thor: Ragnarok (Photo: Jasin Boland. Copyright © 2016 Marvel Studios)
Generally, Morrison spends two years on a project. “You build a family and develop a shorthand, especially if you work with the same people again. You have to build a trust level because the production designer needs to know that I understand what the vision is for the world or environment that we’re going to build. They can only construct so much as a set or backlot piece. The virtual cinematography for most of the environment that the audience is going to see falls on my shoulders. Then in post things change and we’re relying on our visual effects vendors to do a lot of the design and conceptualizing, but the trouble with that is it rarely dovetails as neatly as you want with the original vision of the production designer. Every production designer has a signature look regardless of the medium or time period. You have to be able to glean that and carry it over the finish line, much like if I’m directing second unit for Taika, then I will make sure that I’m using his signature camera moves.
“The nice thing about art departments now is that they tend to be working in 3D software much more and will do paint overs,” states Morrison. “You’d get a lot of 3D architecture in Maya or Cinema 4D taken up to a certain level and then we would flesh the whole thing out with lighting and textures. I make sure that there is a clear flow of information that comes from the production designer that heads into previs. I’ll also do a previs version of the costume designs. I will start building the lighting model so when the DP gets onboard everybody can see the sort of scene that we are aiming for. You begin to build up these mini-sequences and the cool action beats that you’ve been designing. You start to see the movie actually work. At some point in the pre-production phase the first AD comes on board. The previs is an immensely powerful tool for them, as they can slice it into pieces to work out how long it will take to shoot the stuff, look at the availability of the actors, and put together a proper shooting schedule.”
Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) battles Surtur (voiced by Clancy Brown) in Thor: Ragnarok. (Image copyright © 2017 Marvel Studios)
A signature action sequence in Thor: Ragnarok is a gladiator battle between Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Thor. (Image copyright © 2017 Marvel Studios)
Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) spend some quality time together in Thor: Ragnarok. (Image copyright © 2017 Marvel Studios)
Skurge (Karl Urban) travels across the Bifröst to conquer Asgard in Thor: Ragnarok. (Image copyright © 2017 Marvel Studios)
Heimdall (Idris Elba) stands before a spaceship used by the Dark Elves known as The Harrow in Thor: The Dark World. (Image copyright © 2013 Marvel Studios)
Eir (Alice Krige) attempts to identify what has affflicted Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) in Thor: The Dark World. (Image copyright © 2013 Marvel Studios)
From left: Kurse (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) attempt to conquer the Nine Realms in Thor: The Dark World. (Image copyright © 2013 Marvel Studios)
A critical partnership is the one between the visual effects supervisor and visual effects producer. “My producer needs to know that I’m going to be responsible,” remarks Morrison. “I’m not going to ask for a large number of expensive things that have no payoff. Likewise, I have to believe that my producer trusts me enough that when I am asking for something expensive it’s something that I need. The budget is the only budget. You look at how much you can afford to do and then make sure that you do the best version of each of those.” The second unit visual effects supervisor is brought in later on in pre-production. “You want them to have enough time to understand the flavor of the film. Performance is everything. You have to put on your future goggles, look at the scene as the finished thing with the CG character and ask, ‘Do I believe the actor’s performance against this thing that isn’t there?’”
Once principal photography takes place, the majority of the time is spent away from the production office in Los Angeles. “You live on set,” remarks Morrison. “We get a trailer for conference calls or cineSync sessions with vendors. I’m there from call to wrap.” A mobile office is set up in the video village with a laptop connected to the Internet. “There are monitors that show you the feed from each of the cameras. It’s a matter of keeping an eye on everything, and making sure that things are being shot in the way you want them to be. If there’s something questionable I’ll politely knock on the door of the DIT [digital intermediate technician].” During production, bluescreen is favored over greenscreen. “If you get a little bit of blue spill and you’re shooting an exterior it’s actually forgiving because the sky component is in the blue register. But there are times when I will go white. The lighting is more important than the edges because you can never recover from bad lighting. Often what I will do on a large bluescreen sequence is go through and do a neutralizing pass, which takes the essence of what I know the director of photography wanted.
“If you know your cast upfront, and that there are going to be well-presented digital doubles that hold up for relative closeups, you try as hard as you can to get LightStage and Medusa captures in pre-production,” notes Morrison. “As of right now the only place you can get LightStage scans is in Los Angeles, so at some point you’re going to have to get the actors out to you. The male actors need to be clean shaven for that, otherwise the data is useless. The LightStage captures all of the reflective values of the skin, which allows us to get a good quality render of the actor in any lighting environment. But then the facial performances, like actual acting, and the physical detail of the face are captured with a rig called the Medusa that creates high resolution 3D meshes. For the overall scanning of the body and costumes, we hire a company that will be there for the entire principal photography. The same company will scan every single prop doing before and afters. We also LiDAR scan every set build and then do a full neutral texture pass so we can reconstruct any of them in post.
An aerial shot of Asgard from Thor: Ragnarok. (Image copyright © 2017 Marvel Studios)
Asgard as it appears in Thor: Dark World. (Image copyright © 2013 Marvel Studios)
As actors are cast for roles, so are visual effects vendors according to their specialties. “When you’re in the design phase, the single most important thing is making sure that you’re thinking of the right vendors for the right type of work because the skillsets are not across the board,” states Morrison. “You’re looking at Weta Digital, ILM and Digital Domain for digital human work. At the same time. there are hundreds of other vendors out there who are great. I used Fin Design + Effects in Sydney on Thor: Ragnorak for the ‘Willy Wonka’ sequence where we shot Chris Hemsworth in a wheelchair that didn’t move on a bluescreen set, with a guy holding a little fan. Fin sketched out this whole two-minute sequence out of absolutely nothing. The bigger houses won’t necessarily be able to afford to do something that is so bespoke and not pipeline. You go to the big houses because they can take the final battle, which can easily be 400 or 500 shots. You need to know that the machine has been created in order to be able to create the characters, environments, lighting and effects, and be able to work in parallel with 1,000 artists.”
Shots are constantly rebid as the photography and edit evolve. “You build this shot list for what you think the movie will be [based on storyboards and the script],” explains Morrison. “For each of the big sequences or any world or creatures, I will do a two-page synopsis with some concept art to explain, ‘This is what the creature does and how it moves. This is what it is made of, and these are its powers. This is what production is going to build, this is what we’re going to get, and this what you can expect to happen.’ I will send that over to the vendors, and it answers a lot of the questions before we even get on the phone. But then you do the shoot. Some of it happens and some of it doesn’t. If it’s Taika, we’re doing a lot of improv and the entire script can change. The editor gets two weeks followed by 10 weeks of director’s cut. The studio is going to have a look at it and send some notes. We’re doing postvis, filling in the bluescreen and putting in CG characters. It’s a whole other round of the previs into postvis. Only at that stage do you really know what the movie is going to be.
“When you’re shooting, you’ll often refer to the ‘circle take,’” remarks Morrison. “The script supervisor notes that and it goes to the edit suite. It’s the quickest way for the editor to know what the director thought was the best take. And the further you get through principal photography, there are more and more requests for specific shots or coverage from the editor. It’s quite intuitive. I prefer for the editor to cut the previs because there is a certain amount of ownership to that. Some editors are very cutty while others are much more relaxed and the shots are longer.” The visual effects editor acts as an intermediate between visual effects and editorial. “They’re usually part of our crew. For a director’s cut, they’ll get rid of bluescreens and put in temporary backgrounds alongside the postvis crew. When I’m doing presentations at the end of the process and showing stuff for final to the director and studio, I’ll show it in context. You never show character animation as a single shot. I’ll show a six or 10 shot run, especially if it’s a funny scene you’ve got to have the context to see if it plays. The visual effects editor is driving that stuff in the back of the visual effects screening room. That relationship doesn’t tend to kick in until just before the shoot.”
It’s like a marathon at the end of post-production. “We had 2,700 visual effects shots on Thor: Ragnorak and finaled 2,500 of them in the last month. In the end there were 18 vendors on Thor: Ragnorak. We would start our day in L.A. with a cineSync and a Polycom. I have a big projection screen hooked up to a Mac, plus a Wacom tablet with a pen. There’s a row for my reviews – my producer is sitting across the room – and then I have a row of coordinators with each one looking after three visual effects vendors. I would start off with Munich followed by London, New York City, Montreal, Vancouver, Los Angeles, Wellington, Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. In the beginning I would have reviews with the key vendors on a Tuesday and Thursday, and closer to final delivery I will have reviews with each of the vendors every day.
“Marvel has built tools to enable me to quickly and easily review shots offline,” Morrison continues. “This means I can leave at a reasonable hour, go home, get some exercise in, have dinner with my wife and then send further notes out. If, for example, I’m working with Weta Digital, which is five hours back from tomorrow, they might send a delivery at the end of the Los Angeles day, but still afternoon in New Zealand. If I can get notes out in a timely manner, an artist can implement them and set off an overnight render thus saving us a day. I’m either on the phone directly so people can hear me, ask questions and get clarification, or I write the notes with annotated stills because it is important to convey the proper tone.”
In post-production the key relationship is with the editorial department, with some editors wanting the visual effects shots to exactly replicate the postvis while others embrace the potential of a different take. “While I’m sending all of the notes to the vendors and telling them where to make improvements, on the other side it is important to try get the work that the vendors are delivering, even though it’s not complete, into the cut,” states Morrison. “There’s a great tendency to leave the postvis in there until the shot is done, but you’ve missed a thousand opportunities as you’re not working with the vendors’ animation and rendering. I’ll actively ask the vendors, especially if it’s an animated sequence, to send an alternative version. I will also be suggesting sound design ideas because so much of visual effects is about sound. When I’m putting together edits for previs I will layer on sound effects to make sure it feels like an emotive piece.”
When it comes to deliverables, Morrison works in a special format that falls between 2K and 4K. “I found that to be an immensely fair way of doing it because you’re not asking the vendors to do work that 95% of people will never see. You can also make a nice IMAX print from that as well, as I have already made it a higher resolution. We are always finishing with EDR [Extended Dynamic Range] in the back of our minds. The 2K DCP is graded SDR followed by a trim pass where you do a refit for the levels that can be put on the screen, and finally an aesthetic pass. We will also do a home video grade.”
The value of contributing in the creative and shooting process can never be underestimated, attests Morrison. “Putting the dots in the right order and making the pictures look good are crucial, but you’re there to help with ideas, promote creativity and suggest things that people aren’t thinking of. The visual effects supervisor works for the movie, first and foremost, and we’re the ones who have to carry that final product over the finish line, look the director in the eye and proudly say, ‘This is absolutely the best version of the movie we could have possibly done.’”
The Harrow on a collision course with Greenwich, England in Thor: The Dark World. (Image copyright © 2013 Marvel Studios)
The Harrow on a collision course with Greenwich, England in Thor: The Dark World. (Image copyright © 2013 Marvel Studios)
Microphotography of Yellowjacket/Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) in Ant-Man. (Image copyright © 2015 Marvel Studios)
Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) attempts to defeat and capture Hela in Thor: Ragnarok. (Image copyright © 2017 Marvel Studios)
Ant-Man/Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) riding Antony, with the flying insect given a more appealing aesthetic for Ant-Man. (Image copyright © 2015 Marvel Studio)
By TREVOR HOGG