It seems that nearly every superhero character who has appeared in the pages of Marvel Comics has been the subject of a film or TV series within the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). From well-known characters such as Iron Man, Spider-Man, and the Hulk, to lesser-known ones such as Black Widow, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Panther and more, Marvel has continued to up the ante in terms of action and story when putting each in the spotlight.
Not long ago, it released Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, its 25th film from Phase Four of the MCU, focusing on this little-known character. For those who may not have been familiar with Shang-Chi prior to the film, surely that is no longer the case.
While box-office numbers for 2021 are wonky due to untraditionally low theater attendance thanks to COVID and simultaneous theater-streaming releases, as of early November, Shang-Chi topped the domestic box office (in second place was another Marvel film, Black Widow).
The action/adventure/fantasy film Shang-Chi is directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, with Christopher Townsend as production visual effects supervisor. It features a mostly Asian cast and Asian-centric themes, delving into Chinese mythological culture and classical martial arts.
In the film, Shaun (Simu Liu) initially comes across as your average guy, working as a parking valet with his close friend Katy (Awkwafina). That is, until they are attacked on a city bus by lethal gang belonging to the Ten Rings. That is when Shaun demonstrates his mastery of weapons-based kung fu, dispatching the baddies but not before they steal a pendant that was given to him many years ago by his now-deceased mother. “Who are you?” asks Katy after witnessing Shaun’s fighting skills. The answer: Shang-Chi, whose powerful father is the leader of the Ten Rings.
Together, Kati and Shang-Chi travel to China to find Shang-Chi’s estranged sister, Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), and to confront his father Xu Wenwu (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung), whose taste for power was only satiated after falling in love and marrying Jiang Li (Fala Chen). After she is killed, he retrieves the powerful 10 bracelet rings (the source of his supernatural powers) he had hidden away, and his brutal appetite returns. Not willing to follow in his father’s footsteps, a teenage Shang-Chi flees the compound, as does his sister sometime later. Now, Shang-Chi must return to confront his past and his father and the Ten Rings organization.
Shang-Chi contains a full gamut of effects and visual styles, from reality to fantasy. In all, a dozen VFX studios worked on the film’s 1,761 VFX shots. Weta Digital was the lead VFX company, responsible for the majority of the third act that includes the epic end battle. Trixter followed, handling the mythical creatures (except for the dragon, beast, army of demons, and building the Foo Dogs), including the companion Morris to the imprisoned Trevor Slattery (Sir Ben Kingsley). Other major vendors include Rising Sun Pictures, which created the mythical land of Ta Lo, home to Li and the CG environment where the third act takes place. Digital Domain built Wenwu’s sprawling compound, Scanline created a bamboo forest where Wenwu and Li first meet. Method Studios in Melbourne opened the film, depicting Wenwu’s rise to power, and helped craft the brother versus sister battle at the gambling den in Macau, while Rodeo FX handled the fight outside that club on the scaffolding lining the outside of a skyscraper. Meanwhile, Luma was charged with the iconic fight on the city bus.
“We started off with the bus fight and later on the scaffolding outside the gambling den, and both of those two sequences are very much reality-based. There’s nothing fantastical about them other than the martial arts performances, but the events occur in reality-based worlds,” says Townsend. “What’s interesting, from a visual effects perspective, was taking things from that naturalistic, grounded place and slowly over the course of the film, getting more into this wild fantasy element. We tried to maintain that level of grounded reality as much as possible and have familiarity even in the fantastical parts of the film so people are not taken out of the story.”
For reference and inspiration, the VFX teams turned to classic kung fu and tai chi styles. “Obviously there’s a nod to the old Hong Kong/Chinese martial arts films,” says Townsend, noting a number of different fighting styles are represented in the film. “Careful attention was paid to making sure those fights looked realistic and the styles accurate.” Townsend also credits the deep understanding by the stunt team concerning the various styles, thanks in large part to the recently deceased stunt coordinator for the film, Brad Allan, a martial arts guru and the first non-Asian member of Jackie Chan’s JC Stunt Team.
“[Allan] employed a large team mainly of Chinese and Asian stunt actors who brought authenticity. For visual effects, that meant a lot of face replacements were required to make it feel as if the actual actor from the film was performing all that stunt work, especially in these very long takes,” adds Townsend.