Shang-Chi: The Bamboo Forest
Karen Moltenbrey
November 5, 2021

Shang-Chi: The Bamboo Forest

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings introduces audiences to historical context before proceeding into present day. In one of the flashback sequences, we find the villain Wenwu (Shang-Chi’s father) as he sets his sights on his next target, the mystical land of Ta Lo, when he encounters the beautiful Li, who is guarding the village entrance. 

The two engage in an elegant, poetic, ballet-like martial arts battle set amid a tranquil CG bamboo forest built by Scanline VFX. The studio also created the sequence involving a chase through the forest when Shang-Chi escapes from his father’s compound later in the film during an attempt to reach the hidden Moon Gate that opens into Ta Lo. Scanline delivered 201 shots across those two sequences.

During the “love fight” between Wenwu and Li, audiences are shown how the two first met and are introduced to their respective superpowers of the rings and qi, involving the vital life force of any living entity. Scanline’s work required combining full-CG shots with plate integration and digital set extensions for the bamboo forest, as well as with complex paint and roto rig removal. The studio also created various simulations driven by the superpowers, along with secondary sims for swirling dust and leaves — extensions of Li’s movements — as the fight plays out. There was also bamboo splintering and breaking from the ring power.

The artists used the studio’s Flowline and SideFX’s Houdini for the various simulations, as well as Autodesk’s 3ds Max and Maya, and Foundry’s Mari and Nuke, for the assets, lighting, and compositing.

Scanline’s Jessica Harris, digital effects supervisor, notes that any of the CG they added had to feel natural, even if it was moving in an unnatural way.

The set contained a pool of water, large kapok trees, and one layer of bamboo trees. For the environment build, the artists had three main layers of forest — a foreground layer that lined up with the edge of the set, a mid-layer, and a background layer. That was augmented with hero trees and plants inside the set, in addition to bamboo trees, to make it feel as if the clearing was at the center of a vast, dense forest.

“Our artists did a fantastic job making this magical environment feel rooted in the real world. They were able to achieve a very organic look even though the movement of the leaves, trees, and dust were driven by a mystical force,” says Harris.

In fact, the team built an environment that could be used for both of the bamboo forest sequences in the film. Overall, it consisted of 600,000 trees and 15 different plant species. Millions of leaves were involved; tree leaf counts ranged from 200,000 leaves up to 14 million per tree. “It added up quickly, depending on the shot and how much of the trees you saw,” adds Harris.

Scanline’s second sequence entailed the drive through the bamboo forest to Moon Gate, as Shang-Chi and his friends flee Wenwu’s compound and try to warn the people of Ta Lo about the planned attack. In the scenes, they drive through what becomes a bamboo maze as the forest comes alive and closes in around them in an attempt to devour the vehicle. For this, the entire environment had to be replaced with CG bamboo forest and ground cover, as only the vehicle and actors were used from the plate. The artists also built a CG car, which was sometimes used or blended with a practical vehicle on set.

This sequences required many simulations: trees bending, breaking, and moving; ground sims caused by moving trees and the car racing through the shifting forest labyrinth; and plant sims reacting to the ground and moving trees. “That sequence was really pushed to the limits of computational power of being able to animate so many millions of leaves in these hundreds of thousands of trees and acres and acres of forest. It was certainly a challenge for Scanline to pull off,” says Townsend.

From a technical standpoint, the size of the environment and the number of required elements were quite challenging. “Tying them together and having them interact in a cohesive manner that told the story was very complicated,” says Micah Gallagher, Scanline compositing supervisor. “Creatively, we had to make the forest act almost like a character. It had to have a motive and reactions to the characters in order to create the tension that gives the life-or-death feel of the sequence.”