Directed by David F. Sandberg, Shazam! Fury of the Gods is one of DC’s latest superhero features. Distributed by Warner Bros., the film premiered in the United States on March 17th, with Zachary Levi reprising his role as the lead character, having initially appeared in the 2019 film.
To help bring the story of Billy Batson and his superhero alter-ego to life, the Dneg (https://dneg.com) team created more than 750 shots, serving as the production’s lead VFX partner. Led by production VFX supervisor Raymond Chen, VFX supervisor Russell Bowen and VFX producer Christine Neumann, the Dneg team handled a wide range of work, including hero characters that roamed — and destroyed — the city of Philadelphia.
“In addition to creating some of the most prominent creatures for the project, namely the dragon and the unicorn, Dneg also contributed to some very complex FX and environment work for several sequences,” explains Chen.
For the rooftop sequence in which Atlas’ daughter Anthea uses her Power of Axis to rearrange the city of Philadelphia, the studio needed to building large sections of the city and having them disassemble, contort, and re-form at various levels of detail.
The ending sequence with Shazam and Kalypso, riding on the dragon Ladon and battling in Citizens Bank Park stadium, required an intricate, full-CG build of the stadium and Tree of Life. It also allowed for some elaborate FX work, combining the energy dome trapping them in the stadium, Shazam’s ricocheting lightning strikes, Ladon’s dragon fire, the destruction of the stadium and the Tree of Life, as a result of their fight. The integration of filmed footage of Shazam on flying rigs, Kalypso on the dragon-riding rig, together with their CG digi-doubles within this dynamically-lit environment, helped to highlight the drama and emotion of the showdown.
For the show’s creature animation work, Dneg undertook the development of the dragon Ladon, a complex and intricate creature. Ladon had to realistically interact with actors and dramatically fly across the city. The team used Komodo dragons and felines, such as lions, tigers and panthers, as visual references and to map lifelike movements. To achieve a believable and properly-functioning creature, the team sculpted an écorché first before starting the retopology process, which involved creating good geometry that would be used for sculpting, rigging, animation and simulation. Close collaboration between the sculpting, texture, look development and groom teams was key. The dragon was a complex asset to model, with three layers of wings on each side, over 1,000 spikes, and close to 500 plates in the spine. The full body was made of wood and had to perform various actions, including walking, running and flying, as well as facial expressions.
The show’s unicorn was developed through a similar process of development, with the added need for communication through facial expressions and body language. To create the unicorn, the team used a combination of blendshapes and a high-quality facial rig, allowing the animator to manipulate the movement of the creature’s face. The CFX team improved the unicorn's appearance during performance by incorporating muscle simulations using Ziva software, which closely mimics the movement and behavior of actual muscles.
“Building these complex creatures allowed the team to use their creativity to the fullest extent,” notes Lucas Cuenca, Dneg’s build creature supervisor. “We were encouraged to think about the dragon’s facial expressions, its movement in relation to the other characters, and its role in our story. The creative aspects, along with the technologies we used, made for a very exciting and fulfilling experience.”
To create the high-level animation and effects in this production, the team leveraged a new technique, using the Maya and Houdini integration, along with Dneg’s OTL (Operator Type Library) set-up. This technique was used to enhance the Tree Roots sequence, enabling animators to easily configure and visualize procedurally Houdini-generated geometry in Maya with an animation-friendly rig.
“Using a variety of new techniques - and lots of imagination - we were able to bring these magical creatures and superheroes to life,” adds Ricardo Silva, Dneg animation supervisor. “The designs were very complex, as this story ultimately takes place in the real world, so any fantastical elements needed to fit in with real scenery and actors. The team worked hard on this project, and it’s so exciting to see it be released and excite audiences.”
Shazam! Fury of the Gods also incorporated a rise in the number of superheroes inhabiting the world. When Billy and his siblings transform into their superhero counterparts, the team developed digi-doubles to better showcase the poses and costumes announcing the superheroes. Working with doubles digitally made the need for difficult on-set rigging redundant, and allowed the digi-doubles to fly and fight for the effects needed.
Images courtesy of Dneg © 2023 Warner Bros. Ent. All Rights Reserved.