Shang-Chi: Skyscraper Fight in Macau
Karen Moltenbrey
November 12, 2021

Shang-Chi: Skyscraper Fight in Macau

In the film Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, after the Ten Rings successfully steal Shang-Chi’s pendant following a harrowing attack on a city bus careening out-of-control through the streets of San Francisco, he and his friend Katy fly to Macau, where he is lured to a gambling den inside an unfinished skyscraper. There, Shang-Chi unwittingly enters into a fight — with his estranged sister, Xialing, who owns the Golden Dagger Nightclub, essentially a fight club. 
According to Christopher Townsend, production visual effects supervisor, the filmmakers wanted the scenes to be flashy and a bit different from the naturalistic world of some of the other scenes.

One full wall of the inside set was mirrored, with a lot of the action taking place in the reflection. With camera crews and stunt doubles to remove, along with destruction and a fight performance that needed enhancing, Method Melbourne built most of the set mirrored along the Z axis. Digital-double animation replaced sections of the performance, along with various effects work including window destruction and mirror smashing.

Eventually the brother-sister battle moves to the outside wall of the building, along bamboo scaffolding attached to the outside of the mirrored glass building, before Shang-Chi and Xialing join forces against the Ten Rings gang. The majority of scaffolding, as well as the realistic neon-lit city, was built in CG by Rodeo after COVID struck down plans for shooting background footage in Macau. The digital city, based on the actual Macau albeit with tweaks for creative storytelling, contains thousands of lights, pedestrians, and cars, procedurally crafted to feel like a bustling city, says Townsend. It also offered creative freedom in designing and art-directing shots.

“It’s quite a large set, and the whole thing was built on a hinge so it could be titled 45 degrees, which allowed us to do some complex stunt work,” says Townsend of the battle on the side of the skyscraper. “We were shooting against bluescreen and then compositing and building our entire world around it, including extending a three-story structure to 56 stories, and adding all the lights and atmospherics to make it feel real.” (The fight itself occurs across 36 digital floors, from the start to end of the scene.)

During a 17-month period, Rodeo worked on 155 shots for the sequence. For the digital Macau, Matthew Rouleau, environment supervisor at Rodeo, started out with Google maps and Open-Street-Map (OSM) data, using photogrammetry tools to extract a rough geometry of every building in the city, and populated the empty canvas with them. The group then extracted topography/elevation data and used it to accurately displace the ground plane, which gave them the most accurate starting point to build the city.

The CG artists then constructed buildings for the skyscrapers near the hero building containing the club, followed by the mid-resolution structures in the main section of downtown. They then created various types of architecture and procedurally scattered them on the accurate ground plane. They also designed all the building interiors (offices, apartments, and so on) using HDR images via an OSL shader that procedurally mapped those interiors onto low-res geometry.

The environment team used a combination of Maya, Mari, Blender, Substance Painter, Isotropix’s Clarisse, and Adobe Photoshop for the matte paintings. Additionally, Golaem was used for the crowd sims, Houdini for the effects and sims, Katana for the look-dev and lighting, and Autodesk’s Arnold for rendering.

According to Ara Khanikian, Rodeo VFX supervisor, the size and photorealism of the CG Macau presented the biggest challenges, as did the reflection of the entire city in the skyscraper window. Rodeo graded all the shots so they matched in continuity, and created a sequence LUT that gave the whole scene a better, more realistic night look.

In addition to building a CG Macau, Rodeo also constructed the skyscraper and the scaffolding. “We built the skyscraper in a very modular way to give it all the control we needed across the sequence,” says Khanikian. “Knowing that the height and width of the building would potentially be modified to suit the needs of specific shots, we separated the building of the inner concrete structure and the outside mirrored glass panels and mullions to easily duplicate and modify certain portions.”

The window mullions needed to contain a notch where all the vertical bamboo in the scaffoldings attached to the building. The scaffoldings themselves were built in a modular fashion, as well. The team built individual high-res bamboo sticks matching the ones built on set, and proceeded with assembling sectional groups of scaffoldings and scattered them across the four sides of the building. Straps of cloth were created and distributed across all the connection points of the sticks.

“The glass windows on the skyscraper were an extreme hero element in every single shot, so we spent a fair amount of time on them to develop the reflective shaders and how they affected the coloring and luminosity of the reflected renders as well as the dirt and smudge textures on them,” explains Khanikian. “We knew from the start that dialing in a tinted color to the reflections was going to be a pivotal aspect of the look and one that ensured the audience would always be able to quickly differentiate between looking at a reflection and looking directly at Macau from shot to shot.”

For additional detail and continuity, the studio built wooden planks onto which people could walk and run, and distributed them on all the scaffolding sections. Various props like that were positioned in a logical way in the master digital set with added controls to easily modify and override their positions and visibility on a per-shot basis.

As Khanikian notes, one of the complex aspects of the hero skyscraper build was assembling the various subsets together, allowing for maximum flexibility for in-shot modifications, continuity, and the introduction of variants (broken windows, for instance) during the fight. This was achieved through early analysis of the fight sequence and a mockup of the entire scene with every shot tagged to a specific locale on the skyscraper. “This helped identify from which window they come out at the very start of the scene, at what location and height every shot takes place, which window needs to explode, which sections of scaffolding need to have damage, where the scene ends, and so forth,” Khanikian says, adding it also enabled the group to determine over how many stories the action takes place.

Once every shot was camera-matchmoved, the layout team could easily place every camera from all the shots into a master layout scene with the entire skyscraper and manage the continuity of all the elements, from the first shot to the last. “This step was instrumental in ensuring the asset evolved over time with different story points through time across the sequence,” notes Khanikian.

In addition, Rodeo created numerous digi-doubles to enhance some of the action, even though many of the actors were doing some of their own stunt work; the artists also adding CG versions of the Ten Rings soldiers falling to their deaths.