Cover Story: Disney+'s <I>WandaVision</I>
Karen Moltenbrey
Issue: March/April 2021

Cover Story: Disney+'s WandaVision

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) — the highest-grossing franchise in history, with 23 releases to date and numerous in development — has dominated the box office and in a short time extended its reach into the broadcast realm. Now, it is conquering the streaming market with WandaVision, on Disney+. 

The limited streaming series centers on Wanda Maximoff (the Scarlet Witch) and Vision, a synthezoid, who began a relationship in the feature Avengers: Infinity War (2018), prior to Vision’s death. If you think WandaVision is simply a continuation of that film, or like any other previous MCU offering, you obviously have not seen the series. WandaVision, in fact, is perfectly styled for TV. 

“It’s a mash-up of classic sitcoms and large-scale Marvel action,” says Matt Shakman, who directed all nine episodes of the series. 

And true to MCU form, WandaVision contains amazing visual effects — some big and bold, some subtle, and some charming and harkening back to a different time…several, in fact.

WandaVision picks up soon after the events of Avengers: Endgame, with Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and the now-alive Vision (Paul Bettany) having just been married and living a sitcom life. Vision has amazing processing speed and the ability to change densities, while Wanda is still capable of telekinesis and warping/altering reality. Soon, little clues indicate something is not quite right in this drama/mystery/romance/sitcom/superhero series. 

In the town of Westview, NJ, where Wanda and Vision live, Wanda and Vision’s relationship progresses in classic television show styles, starting with 1950s black-and-white, then moving through the decades, with the sets, clothing, attitudes, technology and even the effects reflective of each particular period. 
“It was really important to us that we weren’t parodying sitcoms,” says Shakman. “We studied tone and style from era to era (from the 1950s through the 2000s). We wanted to make sure what we were creating was absolutely faithful to the original touchstone shows.” 

And that includes the visual effects. 

“We tried to stay faithful to what could have been achieved in each decade,” adds Tara DeMarco, visual effects supervisor.

Through The Years

For maximum authenticity, the first two episodes of the fictional WandaVision show were presented in black-and-white using a 4:3 aspect ratio, with significant lens falloff on the edges of the frame, capturing the style of ’50s and ’60s sitcoms. The first episode was even filmed in front of a live studio audience, while Episode 3 has the flair — and color — of the 1970s.

Filming for WandaVision initially started at Pinewood Studios in Atlanta, but finished in Los Angeles (after a several-month hiatus due to COVID), using period-appropriate camera lenses, lighting and live special effects. Cinematographer Jess Hall, ASC, BSC, used 47 different camera lenses for the seven time periods covered in WandaVision — many of which were modern lenses modified to achieve the desired period lens characteristics.  

As DeMarco explains, the black-and-white episodes were made using period-specific sets and then graded (not filmed) in black-and-white. Likewise, for the 1970s, with the team leaning heavily toward a particular palette during finishing. For the 1980s, the crew introduced a purposefully flaked red color bleed, which occurred with film-to-video transfer during this time and was a popular look for ’80s sitcoms.

The first three episodes featured film cuts and rewind effects, along with practical effects. For Episodes 1 and 3, the VFX crew did a lot of wire work, as special effects and props teams worked together with puppeteers to fly items in and out of the kitchen as Wanda prepared for unexpected dinner guests. Contemporary VFX were used to paint/remove the wires, smooth the cuts, and, occasionally, create wire gags not filmed practically.

Effects were kept at a minimum up until Episode 6, which jumps to the 2000s, when television effects were more prevalent. 

“Once we hit this period, we figured, OK, it’s fair game,” DeMarco notes. 

Cut To Present Day

With each subsequent episode, the number of effects increases, as do their complexity. These were handled by 20-plus VFX vendors, with the major contributors including Digital Domain, Industrial Light & Magic, Monsters Aliens Robots Zombies (MARZ), Rodeo FX and Screen Scene. 

In Episode 6 we see the disintegration of Vision as he breaks through the Hex, the boundary enveloping and containing the town of Westview, using its real residents as cast members in Wanda’s make-believe family sitcom. While viewers have experienced the disintegration of characters in Infinity War and Endgame, in WandaVision, the VFX team took a new approach. Rodeo took the reins and worked with DeMarco’s group on the Hex aesthetic as it pulled pieces from his body. 

Rodeo first matchmoved Vision’s movement so the CG asset would move accordingly to Bettany’s performance. They then built a skeleton that was used as an anchor and revealed by the destruction. Vision’s whole body was layered cables and wires that had been procedurally generated in SideFX’s Houdini by Rodeo. 

To achieve the visual complexity of the shot, Rodeo started to cut Vision’s skin into pieces. One of the biggest challenges was the layer of pixel sorting that’s emitted from the pieces. Rodeo translated a well-known 2D technique into the 3D world to get proper perspective and interaction with Vision. They also added a layer of fine dust to link everything together.

Finally, on top of that, they created a smearing effect to integrate Vision to the Hex. This was enhanced by a particle simulation engulfing Vision. Those particles were later converted into a distortion map that was used in compositing to smear and displace the resulting pixels toward the Hex. 

In addition to Houdini, the artists used Autodesk’s Maya for modeling, Foundry’s Mari for texturing, and Katana (Foundry) and Arnold (Autodesk) for shading and rendering. 

As for the Hex, it becomes increasingly visible as the season progresses, turning more ominous and turbulent. 

“We leaned into the language of television. So, it’s made up of cathodic lines and chromatic aberration, and those glitchy textures that we borrowed from reference of old and broken TVs,” says DeMarco.
Creating Vision

In WandaVision, Vision is the same character from the film world, and the same process was used to bring him to life for the series. 

“We put some prosthetics on him and painted his skin using a specific tracking pattern so we can track all the CG onto him,” DeMarco explains. “A lot of vendor work on Vision was about reworking the CG rig so the stoic Vision could have the necessary range of expression that he would have as a fully emoting sitcom character.”

The vendors who handled those effects in various episodes include MARZ, Lola, Rodeo, Digital Domain and Screen Scene. 

At the very end of Episode 8 and throughout the Episode 9 finale, audiences meet the so-called White Vision — SWORD’s sinister, colorless replica — a CG asset crafted by Digital Domain. 

Bettany acted both parts during a battle scene against a stunt double dressed as the opposite Vision. The animation in the Vision vs. Vision sequence is meant to reflect that White Vision is a true robot, a creature sent on a killing mission, while the Red Vision has a soul and doesn’t want to fight. Similarly, digital doubles of Wanda and the witch Agatha were also created by Digital Domain for the sequence.

Building A Home

Prior to that Vision showdown in the series finale, audiences discover that Wanda is not the only witch in town, as her neighbor, Agnes, is actually the powerful witch Agatha Harkness, who wants to know how Wanda is controlling the entire town. To this end, she takes Wanda back in time, as we learn this Avenger’s backstory, her power source, her relationship with Vision, and how she became obsessed with American sitcoms. 

In the episode, we see a CG Vision in a state of dismantlement at SWORD. Then, a distraught Wanda drives to Westview and uses her powers to construct a home piece-by-piece, as well as Vision, and transforms Westview from 2023 to the 1950s. Everything in the sequence, except for Wanda and the initial footprint of the house, was created digitally by ILM.

“Initially, we plotted out the timing of the house being built as well as the composition of the magic in each shot,” DeMarco explains. “This meant starting early on in the extraction of the greenscreen photography of Wanda so as to place her in each shot with the blocked-out house geometry and a torus for where the magic would be at that point.” 

The assets team modeled Wanda’s house in 3D using Lidar and on-set photography as reference, then built both the internal and external structure, including the framework, plasterboards, pipe work and brickwork. The internal components of the house were built using the 1950s set as reference. Each piece of geometry was separate so it could be used in effects. 

One of the important aspects of the house-building sequence is that Wanda’s magic had to feel powerful and filled with grief. 

“Using Houdini, we started with a shockwave that pulses out from Wanda to set the outer wall of the explosion. We then built a particle system inside the dome that pushes out with incredible force and clumps together to form tendrils,” DeMarco explains. “To sustain the energy flowing out of Wanda, we were constantly emitting particles from her chest and hands, and pulling this through curves towards the edges of the FX dome area.”

In Houdini, the house was split into separate sections — structure, plasterboard, windows and so on — so that parts could form independently. Separate setups were used for parts of the house flying in and for parts of the house being “born”. The “flying in” setup followed a similar trajectory to the vortex force field around Wanda. Here, curves were also used to set the basic shape and direction the magic would flow. The curves start at Wanda’s hands and flow into a circle that represents the size and position of the vortex. By setting the activation along these guide curves, the artists would control where and when the magic would appear.

The house model was fractured into cubes that were heavily inspired by House of M’s comic artwork, whereby the building blocks appear as tetris/jigsaw 3D blocks. To realize this, the artists pre-fractured the entire house into blocks and used a growth solver to spread the activation of each of those blocks within a point cloud. As soon as the pieces became active, they started moving toward their final size and position. The active house pieces were then used as a source for Wanda’s red magic.

The house was rendered in Foundry’s Katana, and the illusion of the external structure in color and the internal components of the house in black-and-white (for the 1950s era) were crafted in comp using AOVs passed from lighting. To create Blondie Street, surrounding Wanda’s house, ILM used a mixture of 3D and 2.5D projections, again created using Lidar and on-set photography. The shrubbery was created with SpeedTree.
Saying ‘Good-bye’

In a compelling finale scene by ILM, Vision begins to slowly disappear, this time in a sheath of yellow light and filament. The camera rotates around the couple as Vision disintegrates, requiring three different plates to be stitched together: one for the travel toward the house on the edge of the Hex wall as it closed in on Wanda and Vision, and two of the actors inside the house. All three takes need to flow seamlessly as one. So, they were camera-tracked, as were the actors, with their body positions matched up as closely as possible in 3D space across the section where the transition from one plate to the other occurs. 
Subsequent 2D warping and patching was also required. Meanwhile, the group captured Vision’s body head, and facial movements to generate his head in 3D. 

“Vision’s internal structure is revealed as a glowing net of wires and particles, not quite organic, not quite machine,” says DeMarco. 

Again, using Houdini, ILM created multiple particle, mist and filament layers. To tie the effect with the TV signal distortion and artifacts theme, some of the layers moved on a 2.5D space. The particles were created in the correct 3D world space, but their motions were constrained to the plane of the camera. This allowed the team to generate scanline and block artifacts that interacted with the three-dimensional world. During this reveal, the team removed the actor and replaced him with these varying effects elements, which were animated to swirl and dissipated away. 

In terms of the house, four differently-styled interiors were modeled to represent different decades, and the artists glitched and wiped between those decades using 2D techniques. Towards the end of the shot, the final environment was broken up into particles and wispy creation magic by the effects department. 

One of the most challenging aspects, according to DeMarco, was retaining a photographic feel while keeping the overall effect simple-looking. Processing all the glows and light interactions through detailed mist renders provided texture and breakup. All of this was then composited together using Foundry’s Nuke, with additional 2D chromatic glitching added over the environment and Vision to keep in line with the glitching treatment applied across the whole show. 

Stay Tuned

Since 2008, fans have moved through three phases of the MCU. WandaVision was the first offering in Phase Four, which will encompass additional series and films over the next few years, including The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, which began airing in mid-March, picking up after the events of Endgame.

Despite the release of so many MCU projects over the past dozen years, Marvel Studios managed something extremely unique with WandaVision, while delivering on the high expectations of audiences — including high-quality visual effects. 

“We all knew the show had to have the same quality of visual effects, just over a longer period of time in terms of airing,” says DeMarco. 

WandaVision tapped out at 3,010 VFX shots. 

“It took a while to wrap our minds around the shot count and the turnaround time,” says DeMarco, “and trying to preserve the quality from the feature films and get it onto the small screen. The whole big picture was a challenge, and while difficult, it felt achievable. I think we’ve created something great.”

Indeed they have. Audiences think so, too. Viewers crashed Disney+ twice — when Episode 7 went live and when the series finale dropped.