Director's Chair: Taika Waititi - <i>Thor: Ragnarok</i>
Issue: November 1, 2017

Director's Chair: Taika Waititi - Thor: Ragnarok

The “God of Thunder” is back, although you may not recognize him at first without his trademark long locks and hammer. But then, a lot has changed since his last outing, the 2013 global blockbuster, Thor: The Dark World, which made nearly $644 million at the box office.

This time, in Marvel Studios’ Thor: Ragnarok, Thor is imprisoned on the other side of the universe without his mighty hammer and finds himself in a race against time 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 new threat, the ruthless Hela. But first he must survive a deadly gladiatorial contest that pits him against his former ally and fellow Avenger — the Incredible Hulk.

With an all-star cast that includes Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba, Anthony Hopkins, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jeff Goldblum and Sam Neill joining Chris Hemsworth and Mark Ruffalo reprising their roles as Thor and the Hulk, anticipation is high for the third installment of the mega-franchise. This is especially true since the reins of the rebooted series were handed over to a relative unknown, New Zealand writer/director Taika Waititi. An unlikely choice to helm the big-budget production, given his background in small indie comedies (Flight of the Conchords, Hunt for the Wilderpeople), Waititi has shaken up the status quo and brought a fresh perspective and impish humor to the usually dead-serious, ponderous world of angst-ridden superheroes. 

Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, Waititi talks about making the film, his love of post and CG, and the latest advances in VFX.

This was a very ambitious project. What sort of film did you set out to make? 

“A film with a lot of life and fun in it. I think there’s a very popular approach to the superhero movie now where it’s all very dark and moody, but as much as I really love all those movies, it’s just not really my style or sensibility, so I wanted to stay more in touch with what I’m known for — movies with more fun and a bit of irreverence. And I wanted to stay true to the fun of comic books and inject that into the visuals.”

Ragnarok isn’t your traditional Thor film. The signature long hair and hammer are gone, and the tone is 
far lighter. How much freedom did Marvel give you?

“A lot. Throughout the whole process they’d constantly check in on all the stuff I was doing, and I was actually surprised at how much they let me get away with, mainly in terms of humor and all the character stuff. I put a lot of my own style into the tone — and it’s a style that’s not very common in these kinds of movies, I think. I was very impressed with how much faith they had in me and my approach.” 

What were the main technical challenges of pulling all this together?

“The really big one was getting our heads around all the complex VFX stuff while we were shooting, because there was a lot of blue screen and you’re working with just half the set. You know you’ll extend them later, so you’re trying to carve out all that and you know it’ll all change in post anyway. So you’re kind of guessing, but trying to make as much of a plan as possible about how it’s all going to look six months.later. The other big challenge with these huge productions with a million moving parts is maintaining control over the constantly-changing and evolving story, and it’s always in flux. The only constant is the tone and the sense of fun and adventure, and that feeling of life that I had right at the start.”

How tough was the shoot?

“It was 85 days, by far the longest shoot I’ve ever done, but it wasn’t grueling. We shot in Australia and it was more about maintaining the energy for that long, and keeping your brain creative and loose and open, and it was quite taxing on the mind and body. But we had a lot of fun, and I love being on-set and all the camaraderie with the crew and actors. We didn’t shoot 3D — we converted it in post, but as we knew it was a 3D release, we designed a lot of shots just for that, like in the fight scenes.”

Did you do a lot of previs?

“I don’t usually use previs on my films, but we had to do a lot on this one. It was all done by The Third Floor (and Day For Nite). We used it as a suggestion and rough guide rather than slavishly following it frame by frame. Some people do, but I wanted to keep it loose and use it more as a skeleton as we’d often change a lot of the elements on the day, and I like to improvise a lot.”

All the visual effects were obviously crucial. How early on did you integrate post and VFX with the production?

“We began right away in pre-production as we knew this was going to be a very VFX-heavy film, especially as you have all these different worlds, and we knew we had a lot of work to do just to create them. We wanted to spend enough time developing the look with a lot of layers, so it wasn’t just cool buildings. We wanted to give a sense of how it all worked, and then we had the wormholes and we had a lot of fun dealing with those and how they’d work, but it took a lot of work figuring it all out. And I think the result shows all that. It feels thought-through, not rushed and just thrown together, and it really helped that we ended up having a very long post process to really pull all that together.” 

How long was post?

“We finished shooting in November last year, so it’s been pretty much a full year 
of post — very long.”

Where did you do the post? 

“It was all done in LA on the Disney lot, which is where all the Marvel films are posted. It’s a great set up as all the departments are right there and you can just walk from one to another, which makes it very convenient.”

The film was edited by Joel Negron and Zene Baker. Tell us about that relationship and how it worked with 
two editors.

“Joel was down in Australia with us and did a rough assembly while we shot, and did some work on a few scenes. But I was so busy with the shoot that I didn’t really have time to sit down with him till we got back to LA. Then Zene joined the team back in LA and he’s got a great background in comedy, just like Joel, who’s also done all these huge films like Transformers with Michael Bay and 21 Jump Street. So they were a great team and a good mix, and good at keeping the scale and spectacle as well as the loose, comic tone I wanted.”

What were the main editing challenges?

“For me, finding the right tone is always the hardest thing in the edit. It’s far easier to fix all the other usual problems — like, there’s too much exposition here, not enough there, this scene goes on too long, this one’s too short. You can work all that out, as it’s more about logistics. You can carefully place one line of dialogue in the right place and it can take care of a lot of other problems. But in all my films, finding the right tone and balance between humor and drama was the most challenging aspect, especially as I like to mix comedy and drama. You don’t want it to get too funny, to the point of being ridiculous, and making the characters look stupid, but you don’t want it to get too heavy either, and too somber where people are not having a good time. So this was very tricky in that sense, but I think we go the balance just right.”

How many visual effects shots are there in the film and who did them?

“In the end we had well over 2,000 shots I think, and I had a great VFX supervisor — Jake Morrison (see page 14), who did Marvel’s last Thor: The Dark World and Ant-Man. There was so much work involved that we used a lot of different vendors — something like 16 or 18, from all over the world, including ILM, who did all the Hulk stuff. Then studios like Double Negative, Framestore, Method, Rising Sun, Luma, Digital Domain and Clear Angle shared all the different worlds and looks, and some took care of CG characters. So there was a lot of time spent talking with them on the phone, and for me it was such a special part of all the post, seeing these shots coming in and finally seeing stuff that looked photo-real, with all the textures and lighting. For a year it’d just been someone sitting on a chair in front of a blue screen, and suddenly you’re looking at all this amazing stuff, which just blew me away. Visual effects have advanced so much in recent years. I grew up with films where you could still see the pixilated matte lines — almost like watching the weatherman on TV with those maps. Now it’s so integrated and seamless, and after eight, nine months of post, looking at all the same old footage, it really bolsters you when all the VFX start coming together and looking so spectacular, and you go, ‘Wow! The film’s going to look amazing!’ Scenes suddenly start looking like you’d originally pictured them. I loved that. And I loved working with all the mo-cap stuff — especially in post. If I wanted to change anything, I could look at different mocap takes and it was far easier to change stuff than if I’d used live actors.”

Coming from an indie background, were you initially a bit wary of all the CG elements?

“I was, but I’ve become fully converted and convinced! If you do it right and with the right people, you can create these amazing CG characters that audiences are fully invested in emotionally, so it’s a big deal.”

Talk about the importance of the sound and music.

“I love that part of post because they elevate your film to this whole other level. And on this, we were editing for so long and looking at the same images that it was hard to see how it could improve. But we did some re-shoots and pick-up shots, and then started on the sound and added Mark Mothersbaugh’s score, and it just improved dramatically. Along with getting all the VFX shots in, this is where it all comes together for me in post.”

Did it turn out the way you hoped?

“It did. It feels like a film I’d make, and it’s full of color and humor along with all the spectacle. There’s a lot of [Thor co-creator] Jack Kirby influence, a lot of that vivid comic book look, which I grew up with and love.”