VFX: <i>Doctor Strange</i>
Issue: November 1, 2016

VFX: Doctor Strange

As one of the most powerful sorcerers in the world, Marvel’s Doctor Strange and his cosmic, reality-bending abilities was one of the greatest challenges presented to production and post teams thus far in figuring out how to bring the character to the big screen for Marvel/Disney Studios. Behind director Scott Derrickson (Deliver Us From Evil, The Exorcism of Emily Rose) was a talented team that included star Benedict Cumberbatch ( The Imitation Game, Star Trek Into Darkness), DP Ben Davis ( Guardians of the Galaxy), editors Wyatt Smith ( Thor: The Dark World) and Sabrina Plisco ( The Smurfs, TV’s Devious Maids) and Oscar-nominated VFX supervisor and Marvel alumnus Stephane Ceretti ( Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The First Avenger and X-Men: First Class)

As the story of the good doctor unfolds, audiences learn about the talented neurosurgeon Doctor Stephen Strange and how, after a tragic car accident destroys his hands, he must learn the secrets of a hidden world of mysticism and alternate dimensions while relying on his skills to juggle the real world and beyond. The film, which was shot in a number of locations, including New York; Kathmandu, Nepal; Hong Kong; and in Pinewood Studios and Longcross Studios in the UK, on Arri Alexa 65 cameras, was largely made possible through the combined mastery of such VFX wizards as ILM, Luma, Method and Framestore (along with Rise, Lola, Crafty Apes, 3D conversion by StereoD and previs from The Third Floor) all under the leadership of Ceretti.

“This film is really quite something,” says Ceretti. “It’s different — it’s a departure from what’s been done before. I can’t wait to see the reaction. We’ve been pushing the envelope and I hope we succeeded.”

While still putting the finishing touches on the film at the Disney lot in Burbank, CA, the VFX super discussed exclusively with Post the colossal undertaking of creating more than 1,450 visual effects shots that spanned the course of two years.

What types of visual effects were required for this film?

“Pretty much everything because we have environments for Kathmandu [Nepal], Hong Kong, New York, which are all pretty intense in terms of environments and effects because we’re doing lots of manipulation of space. Then there’s the magic, where we’re using a ton of effects, lots of CG digi-doubles and some character animation, as well as some complex animated, effects-heavy environments because we’re creating dimensions. It’s very varied because we’re traveling so much, from place to place around the world and through dimensions. It’s a very heavy, visual R&D-driven show.”

What type of direction for the VFX did you get from director Scott Derrickson? 

"We started in September 2014, so two years ago Scott had already gathered a lot of visuals he liked from the Internet and photo books. He really approached it from a visual point of view. The main thing he wanted to do in terms of magic, was to make sure we were using magic in a physical sense. In his mind, he wanted the magic to look as real as possible. But how do you make magic look real when it’s so crazy?

"For him, it was like, ‘I want things to feel like they’re physical, so if I’m using magic on an object for example, I want the object to look real but behave in a different way — in a very specific way. It’s always about getting people to relate to something they know exits but that behaves in a different way.” 

What were some of the key VFX sequences? 

“We shot in Kathmandu, but all the interiors of the temples and rooftops of the temples were shot in London on a stage, so we have a lot of environment work there by Method in Vancouver. Then we have about a two-minute sequence that happens at the end of the first act called 'The Magical Mystery Tour' where the Ancient One teaches a lesson to Doctor Strange and pushes him out of his body and into space and other dimensions just to show him what the world is really like. So, that’s a big conceptual sequence — it’s a big sequence that Method in LA had been working on and that’s a huge conceptual effort from the art department, visual effects and previs. Even editorial worked on it, very early in the project, before we started shooting. That’s a sequence that’s very important for Scott, as it sets up the tone for the film.

“Then we move to New York, where we have a sequence inside the Sanctum Sanctorum [fictional location of Doctor Strange’s refuge]. Framestore worked on that — there’s a big fight within the Sanctum and the deformation of space, some gravitational changes within the building and then we go into the streets of New York, and into a hospital where Strange and Zealot are fighting in the Astral Plane. They go out of their bodies and fight in another plane, flying across the hospital room and then back into the Sanctum. There’s a big chase in New York that ILM completed where all these buildings are kind of tilting and all of New York is changing its shape and becoming a huge gigantic puzzle.

“There’s another big scene that takes place in Hong Kong, which we shot in London, where we did a lot of set extensions. The trick there is, that everything’s going backwards, so the city’s not destroying itself, it’s actually rebuilding itself, but our characters are kind of fighting within that world, moving forward. It’s a very complex, time-manipulation sequence from ILM. There’s another sequence at the end of the film called 'Dark Dimension,' completed by Luma. That’s a huge environment that we created with Luma and it’s a very tricky, colorful, black-light environment, so it’s all based on the comic images from the old comics — the very colorful, black light poster imagery.”

How big a role did previs play in this film? It was completed by The Third Floor?

“Yes. Faraz Hameed, previs super, very brilliant guy. Previs was key to the development of the film. We really worked on the film since September 2014, while the script was still being written. We started working with Charles Wood, the production designer, as well as Scott, the studio and a bunch of storyboard artists working on the film, but we really found out that because of the complexity of the environments and how important they were to the storytelling, we had to go into previs very fast so that we could actually do a more dynamic representation of what the action was. And, on that note, we had our editor Wyatt Smith join us even before we started to shoot so that we could edit the previs and make sure that the previs was edited correctly by an editor, by the guy who would actually do the movie, because the shoot was so complex, we had to be very prepared for the shoot, and the previs was used as the bible as much as possible. Scott was adamant that we prevised as close to what we needed as possible, so we could figure out the best way to shoot the scenes.”

What was your biggest challenge?

“The fact that the crews were distorting reality so much and because we’re trying to invent new worlds, new dimensions, new magic and that we were trying to be as original as we can. It’s also something Marvel has never done before. The biggest challenge really was to conceptualize the entire thing and make sure it all makes sense. You can do whatever images you want but it doesn’t meant it’s relevant to the story. So, it’s about finding the right balance between the storytelling, the visual storytelling and making sure one isn’t preventing the other one from happening.

"It’s finding that right balance between not overwhelming, visually, the story and not taking over the story, and also trying to find the right pace and rhythm and quantity, and the right balance between the visuals and the story. The film is complex from a technical point of view, but also from a storytelling point of view. There are so many ideas in the film, and the great thing [are] the vendors. Everybody has been so excited about the project and adding their own ideas to it. It’s like a dream project, there are so many cool things that you can add to it. We have a lot of voices and it’s difficult trying to find the right balance, but in the end, I think it all makes for a better film.”

What do you consider the most cutting-edge work in the film? 

“I never like hearing that term — you’re always using the same tools but it’s the way you use them that makes the difference. Today, we can pretty much do anything — digi-doubles, full cities that do whatever you want them to do — it’s just how you use it. The cutting edge is in finding the right visual effect for the right story. It’s not about whatever you can do, but how you use it to tell the story. We have very close to camera full digi-doubles and facial animation that looks a lot like our actors — and that’s very difficult to achieve. We all have the same tools in the box, it’s the way we use them that’s the challenge.”