The Marvel juggernaut continues to steamroll its way over the box office competition as the studio releases yet another offering from its Marvel Cinematic Universe — Thor: Ragnarok. The Thor franchise’s two prior successes: 2011’s Thor and 2013’s Thor: The Dark World, collectively earned over $1.1 billion worldwide. The newest film,
Thor: Ragnarok, surprisingly directed by indie filmmaker Taika Waititi, follows the God of Thunder (Chris Hemsworth) as he escapes from imprisonment on the other side of the universe. The adventure continues as he races to get back to Asgard to stop Ragnarok — the destruction of his homeworld and the end of Asgardian civilization — at the hands of an all-powerful and ruthless Hela, who also happens to be his sister. But with a pit stop along the way, in which he is captured yet again, he is forced into a deadly gladiator-style contest against his former ally and fellow Avenger — the Incredible Hulk!
In front of the camera, Hemsworth is joined by stars Tom Hiddleston (The Night Manager, Kong: Skull Island), Cate Blanchet (
Blue Jasmine, Carol), Idris Elba
Luther, Pacific Rim), Jeff Goldblum (
Jurassic Park, The Grand Budapest Hotel), Tessa Thompson (
Creed, Selma), Mark Ruffalo (
Spotlight, The Kids Are All Right) and Anthony Hopkins (
The Silence of the Lambs, Nixon).
Behind the lens, the Oscar-nominated Waititi (Flight of the Conchords, Eagle vs Shark) assembled a talented team that includes cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, ASC (
Secretos del corazón, The Others); film editor Joel Negron (
The Nice Guys, Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon), composer Mark Mothersbaugh (
21 Jump Street, The Lego Movie) and VFX supervisor Jake Morrison, who also completed visual effects for
Thor: The Dark World, as well as
Just weeks prior to the film’s opening, as he was still putting the finishing touches on several scenes, Morrison spoke with Post at length about the film’s visual effects.
Morrison explains that the third installment “is a very different picture. For starters, we’re going back to the comic source a lot more, sourcing a lot more of the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby stuff and really getting into some of that initial artwork. We had Taika, who’s an amazing secret weapon as well. An artist in his own right. It was incredibly exciting to sort of let him loose and see some of the stuff that he was putting together for these worlds.
“The fact that the whole thing is this intergalactic road trip really gave us the ability to put a fresh coat of paint on everything, Asgard included,” he offers. “Not reinvent the wheel 100 percent, as there are landmarks that people will recognize from Asgard. But it’ll look different.”
While Morrison’s film credits also include Mission: Impossible II, The Deep Blue Sea and Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, the UK native explains that he has unknowingly become a bit of a Thor authority.
“I ended up working on all three Thor films, which was never a plan, but it just sort of happened. There was a moment when we were in prep on 'Thor 3' and we were in this board room, where these huge production meetings happen, and there’s costume, special effects, stunt coordinators and I suddenly realized that people kept looking at me with all these questions about how Thor worked, how his powers worked, and I realized, ‘Oh jeez, I have become an expert on Thor (laughs). That was never part of the plan, I promise you that, but it comes in handy.”
GOING DOWN UNDER
Shooting for Thor: Ragnarok began in July 2016, after months of planning, and filmed mostly in Australia’s Gold Coast, in the state of Queensland on Arri Alexa 65 cameras. The production was headquartered at Village Roadshow Studios in Queensland. Additional filming took place on more than three-dozen sets at the studio (in several of its nine sound stages, as well as on its back lot), and on-location in downtown Brisbane. Second unit photography also took place on Australia’s Dirk Hartog Island and at several sites on New Zealand’s South Island.
Prior to the release of the film, Morrison explained that even with all of the sets and location shoots, “I think that every frame of the film will, at some point or in some small way, go through the VFX department.”
A COSMIC ROAD TRIP
Coming in at around 2,700 VFX shots, it looks like Morrison had predicted correctly. He told Post that the film is about “97 or 98 percent VFX.” He says there’s “not a rock unturned here. There are huge set pieces with fully-animated characters all the way down to motion-capture characters delivering lines. We visit multiple worlds, intersteller travel, space ships, huge-scale destruction. I think at the moment, it’s clocking in as Marvel’s biggest picture yet, in terms of just shot count. I think we’re past Age of Ultron. It’s a huge, behemoth of a picture and it’s basically like a cosmic road trip, which means you never really go back to the same place more than once or twice. You just keep moving forward. It’s a dream job for us because we get to turn the creative tap on and just let all the juices flow.”
Morrison did point out that his one mandate from director Waititi was, “'Don’t let all this technical crap get in the way of the fact that I like to shoot actors’ performances, shoot long takes, shoot series and throw lines out and ad lib stuff and get the actors to impov.'” Morrison elaborates, “That’s really the only thing he said to us is make it transparent and just make it so he never thinks about it.”
To pull off the VFX, the long-time Marvel veteran brought quite the impressive team of studios along for the ride, with more than 18 houses in total contributing their talents, including Industrial Light and Magic, Framestore, Method, Rising Sun Pictures, Digital Domain, Double Negative, Legend3D and Iloura.
“We went to Industrial Light and Magic to leverage all of the Hulk work, of course. It would have been nuts not to. And then for our final battles, I went to Framestore in London. I’ve been trying to work with the studio for a long time — it’s a really strong character house. It does everything from Guardians of the Galaxy to Paddington, which I think Paddington is an amazing film. Some of the character work in that is so amazing, and that’s not to mention all of the Harry Potter films. Our third act is absolutely jam packed with character animation. Rising Sun in Adelaide did some early work for us on Hela, Cate Blanchet’s character that was just so cool we had to bring them in. Method in Vancouver has been standout — the studio has done some really stunning work, everything with Cate. We wanted to maintain as much of Cate’s performance as possible, even though her suit is digital. And through much of the fight sequences she often turns into a digital character, so Method did some incredible work there.
“Digital Domain did a whole section of Aragorn planet Sakaar — what is effectively a space ship chase, Luma Pictures really helped develop Korg in the scene where Thor meets Korg — they really found the character for us and helped us find that performance. Iloura contributed quite a lot. They do great work. In a lot of the Jeff Goldblum sequences, they did a lot of really standout (digital matte paintings), literally stuff that was 100 percent visual effects.”
The Third Floor completed the previs work on the film, led by the studio’s Shannon Justison as visualization supervisor. “Because it’s a Thor film, you can do anything,” says Morrison. “You basically have final battles where you have two Gods battling against each other. It means you don’t limit yourself to physics or sensibilities, so Shannon has really helped us. She has an immensely cinematic eye and when you’re looking at fully-digital sequences, you’re looking at storyboards, but that goes so far and then you go into visualization. What [The Third Floor] did on the film is absolutely killer.”
In what seems like a bottomless toolbox, Morrison says, “Every tool on the planet was used for this one. We used Maya and Nuke; Arnold and V-Ray for rendering; Houdini for physics. Literally, I don’t think anybody left any of the tools back in the box. Plus, a lot of the studios made their own proprietary software for the film as well. There’s a lot of stuff that goes on that we work really hard to make sure that the audience never stops and questions how we do it.”
Director Waititi, who is well-known for casting himself in his own movies, has appeared in all four previous New Zealand-based feature films that he wrote and directed. “When we were writing the story, I asked myself, ‘Who do I want to play?’” Waititi says. “What kind of character have I not done yet? What would be interesting to me? What would be fun? I like playing characters who sort of provide a little texture and make it a bit more interesting to watch. I knew I had never played a guy who was made of rocks.”
Korg was one of the film’s bigger challenges, says Morrison. “Korg was really fun. He's a character that grew organically during the filming. We had this creature drawn in the lineup and as we were getting into pre-production in Australia, and the scripts are always an evolving thing, the Korg character started appearing in more and more storyboards. I started noticing it and asked, ‘What’s going on here?’ I knew Taika likes to do cameos, I knew he was going to be something in the movie, but I wasn’t quite sure what it was, and it became clear that he was interested in the whole motion-capture thing.
“As the script continued to evolve, Korg’s part got bigger and bigger. So, we ended up having the director in full motion-capture gear with the headmounted cameras and all the dots and all the rest of it, calling ‘cut,’ and turning around and giving the direction to the lighters and the grips and the actors, and then literally jumping back into the scene. I think it’s a first (laugh). If you think finalizing the shots where the director is an actor in the movie is a challenge, try and finish shots where the director is actually a visual effect in the movie!”
Another first for Morrison was how they did the motion capture for the Korg scenes. “Typically, when they do motion capture, they do it in a volume, they’ll take a corner of a stage with this grey floor with grey and black walls, they’ll build around 15 or 30 different cameras that are all pointing back in a central area and those actors perform in there — and it works. We thought with this one we would work with the art department to take these motion-capture cameras off the technical stage and bring them onto the actual stages where the actors would be performing. That meant that we would have, in the prison scene where we first see Korg, the whole thing built into the walls and segments, so you could actually pop sections of the wall out and the motion-capture cameras were behind them. So, if we’re doing a scene with Korg, you could pop them out and you’d shoot the scene with the motion-capture cameras in-camera, or if there was a scene that took place where two characters were talking, like Thor and Loki, we would just leave the sections in the wall and film as much as possible in-camera.”
According to Morrison, the team used the exact same approach for other scenes involving the Hulk and Thor. Hemsworth and Ruffalo were able to do their improv, and the team actually had an array of cameras around the top of the massive sets that Dan Hennah built. “That way, you got a real set that you could shoot with a standard motion-picture camera, but because all the technology was in place, there was this amazing ability for the team to overlay the CG characters. We had the virtual production team, literally around the back of the set and there were like 30 incredibly-smart [folks] there with keyboards and on the screens they would have a live version of whatever Mark Ruffalo was doing but overlaid as the Hulk. They would pipe that back into the viewfinder on the camera, so when the camera operator actually looked through the camera, they didn’t just see Chris and Mark, they literally saw an overlay, so they could see Chris talking to Mark who was eight-foot-six and green. That’s how the camera operator knew to tilt the camera up. We had the same approach across the entire production.”
According to Morrison, “The final piece of the Korg puzzle, which it literally was like a jigsaw puzzle, because he was made of rocks, we would run into this specific problem where, imagine a situation where you sort of twisted the waist or bend over and raise your knee, if any of the stretching we do as humans and if you map that to a creature that’s made of rocks, the first thing that looks like, it looks like it’s latex because those rocks, instead of just staying the same size and moving around each other, the first thing the computer wants to do is make sure they squash and stretch, to maintain that overall volume. To a modern audience, that looks immediately like we’ve gone back to the '80s and put somebody in a latex suit. People are far more sophisticated now. My nieces and nephews would tell me it looked fake, so we couldn’t do that. So the two teams we had at Luma Pictures and Framestore built basically the most complicated moving jigsaw puzzle I think you can get anywhere, where we built three layers and as those movements happened, each rock moved against each other as if they were sort of tectonic plates. That’s easy when they’re stretching out, you can make spaces, but if there are holes in there, it looks like he has weird gangrene appearing all of a sudden because he has these dark sections. So, there’s another layer of subcutaneous rock, if you will, that’s in there that covers it up. The other challenge is, if you lean back again and the rocks start meeting each other, how do you have them not compress and move over each other? That’s a challenge enough for the body but for the facial stuff, it was an amazing feat. There was literally a moment where you’ll see Taika deliver a line, but you see Korg the entire time and the only thing moving is his face, mostly just his mouth. The fact that you can see all of these rocks in the face, the facial structure is moving around against each other and not actually smashing into each other or stretching — I think Luma deserves some sort of an award for that one! I think it’s the most complicated piece of understated character animation that has been done.”
THOR VS. HULK
While both Korg and the fire demon Surtur (a complete CG creation) were brought to life by Morrison’s digital team, the fight between Hulk and Thor was technically impossible to stage as a real fight because of the physical discrepancy between Thor and Hulk. “Hulk’s eight-foot-six,” explains Morrison. “He’s also about one and a half times the width of a normal human, even someone as muscular as Chris.
“So early on in pre-production, even as the script was being written, we needed to address how to stage this epic battle and make it feel realistic and not like it’s over-animated,” Morrison adds. “Make you feel like every punch really lands and all the reactions are appropriate and genuine. To do that, we cast a much shorter stunt double, who’s actually four-foot-two, to mocap the role of Thor for the fight sequence.
“Because you can’t get somebody who’s eight-foot-six, we found a way to have a Hulk double who’s about six-foot-six (superimposed) with the other shorter stunt double,” Morrison continues. “We were able to stage the entire fight using two people who have the correct height dimension relationship between them. We shot the entire fight from a mocap point-of-view, not using our normal Alexa digital movie cameras. The plan then was to have Chris learn the Thor part of the fight. We shot Chris on the arena blue-screen set behaving as if Hulk were there. We already had the motion-capture data from the fight that we did in miniature, as it were, on the motion-capture volume. We re-targeted that and put Hulk on-screen. And those two elements then dovetail. Now we have a realistic fight that couldn’t have been staged in the real world but still happens on this gargantuan scale.”