Shang-Chi: Dragon, Beast, and Demons
Karen Moltenbrey
November 9, 2021

Shang-Chi: Dragon, Beast, and Demons

Although Trixter was responsible for most of the film’s creatures, it was Weta that created the Great Protector, a wingless water dragon which represented peace and tranquility, and the Dweller in Darkness, a soul-sucking winged, tentacled, and eyeless abomination that represented evil — both based on creatures from Chinese mythology.
Marvel presented Weta with a good deal of artwork for the Great Protector, which they combined with reference of albino lizards, snakes, and crocodiles for her scales, giving them a translucent quality. “You can see the blood under the scales, which gives them, and her, a sense of life,” says Weta’s Sean Walker, VFX supervisor. “There’s also a lot of cool, subtle things you might not notice at first glance. “And, she has this iridescence over her scales, with a bit of a paua shell feel to it, so when the light hits it just right, you get a hint of color here and there.”

One person pretty much handled her entire sculpt. According to Walker, the group decided the best way to approach her rig was to use individual scales so they moved and passed over one another. So, the person hand-placed all of the scales — all 8,000 — so they matched his sculpt. Otherwise, her model contained a reasonably simple muscle rig so her skin and muscles flexed in the right way as she moved around.

For her hair, which is fully dynamic, the artists also studied the flowing motion of hair underwater, even when she’s in the air. “We didn’t want it to droop. We wanted it to constantly flow and feel like it had a bit of a magical quality,” Walker adds.

“The dragon went through a few revisions. We wanted to find the right balance of mass. Also, she had to look beautiful yet sort of terrifying, although kind when she’s looking at Shang-Chi and his family — but still strong,” Walker describes. In fact, Weta forged a familiar connection between the dragon and Shang-Chi and his sister by basing the creature’s eyes on that of the actress playing their mother.

The dragon is 130 meters long, and even though she is “ginormous,” she is majestic and moves gracefully through the air using a swimming-like motion, with Weta referencing the movement of sea snakes and underwater iguanas. Weta created her spline rig using Koru, its proprietary puppet rigging tool. Because she is wingless, the dragon leads with her head as she moves, with the group applying path-based animation, but every now and they broke that path at the body (with the head still following the path) to make it feel as though she was pushing herself through the air.

On the other end of scale was the Dweller-in-Darkness, which is creepy and terrifying, thanks to its massive jaw and large tongue that it uses to locate its prey. It is even larger than the dragon at 250 meters when it spans its nine tentacles (plus its four arms and two legs). For reference, bats were the obvious choice. Weta also referenced obsidian, a black rock, for its sharp teeth, and the thick hides of rhinos, elephants, and crocodiles for the general skin quality. They even used raw meat for the skin and gums surround the beast’s teeth. “We wanted a sore, worn-down quality to the skin,” says Walker.

“Whereas with the Great Protector, the artists had certain limitations in the design; for instance, she had to look beautiful. Whereas with the Dweller, we could go to town and were told to make it as scary and freaky as possible. There was very little in the way of limitations,” Walker recalls. At 128 million polygons, Walker believes it is the heaviest creature ever made at Weta.

The Dweller contains a simple muscle rig for the arms, legs, and torso, but its wings and the membrane between the wings are fully dynamic, as is the neck and the scales that slide atop one another that protect the neck. A dynamic rig was also used to allow the neck to expand and engorge as the beast sucked the souls from his prey.

“The dragon had a full skeletal structure in it, so when its soul was being sucked up by the beast, you could see its internals as the soul was rising up through the body,” says Walker. “The beast itself has a full skeletal, muscular, and vascular system built into it so that we could portray that visual power-up through emissive veins. The veins inside were glowing, and while that occurred, the rest of the musculature and skeletal system would shadow it, so you could feel its internals and organs while the rest of the veins were glowing inside its body.”

Because of its size, the artists used a traditional Maya puppet system and treated each part of the body as a different “costume,” enabling them to animate the torso to get bulk motion, and then add a costume — for instance, the arms — and work those separately. The same goes for the tentacles, although they had to be keyframed by hand because of their size. “It was literally a beast of a thing to animate,” adds Walker.

For creating the dragon and beast, the artists mainly used a mixture of Autodesk’s Mudbox and Maya for modeling; Foundry’s Mari for texturing; and Manuka, Weta’s proprietary tool for shading and rendering. As Walker point out, Manuka is a path tracer and designed to handle extreme amounts of polygons, so while the two creatures were tricky to model and animate, they weren’t a problem for the renderer.

While the Dweller was massive, Weta also generated the hordes of demons that escape from the cave, too, which were similar to the Dweller but on a much smaller scale.