Method Ignites Fire Demon Surtur for 'Thor: Ragnarok'
November 16, 2017

Method Ignites Fire Demon Surtur for 'Thor: Ragnarok'

Marvel Studios’ “Thor: Ragnarok” pits Thor (Chris Hemsworth) against death goddess Hela (Cate Blanchett) to save Asgardian civilization from obliteration. Frequent Marvel collaborator Method Studios was tapped to help realize some of the film’s most ambitious sequences through visual effects artistry, including the opening scene in which Thor battles Surtur and his fire demons in a rocky underground hellscape of Muspelheim, and a major fight sequence that sees Hela take on an army of hundreds of Asgardian Guards.

Method VFX Supervisor Andrew Hellen worked closely with Director Taika Waititi and VFX Supervisor Jake Morrison throughout production, helping refine the looks and movements of CG characters and large-scale environments, ultimately delivering more than 450 shots as one of the film’s main VFX vendors. 

“Marvel’s concept art provided a solid jumping off point for all our work, and staying true to that creative, we translated that 2D artwork to the 3D final. Fleshing out Surtur, the dragon, the fire demons and the E-Guard soldiers for later shots was all a very iterative process that was driven by the creative,” Hellen said.

Towering at 18 feet tall, Surtur is an imposing presence with writhing and crusted magma flesh, created entirely with keyframe animation. Method artists achieved his unique look using geometry as a base then running textures through a muscle system to give directionality to the magma, which was then lightened for depth. Sculpted slag was added for definition, allowing some rigidity for facial movements, while remaining relatively fluid. To complete the volcanic effect, artists added FX-driven fire, embers and smoke. The smaller fire demons, which are closer to Thor’s stature, feature much more slag than Surtur and shatter when impacted.

For wide shots of the fire demon force, artists animated the close-up action and then used crowd software for the thousands of fire demons that swarm Thor, descending from the roof and down columns of the cavern. Motion capture footage of stunt performers provided reference for the fire demons’ movements, which artists expanded for the final characters to appear more animalistic. While much of the sequence is full CG, Thor is largely practical, though Method artists created a digital double used in a number of shots. Live action plates were captured on a small partial set, then artists created the vast cavern environment of Muspelheim digitally, complete with a flowing lava wall. The look of the exterior Muspelheim was influenced by the rocky and inhospitable Dirk Hartog Island off the western coast of Australia, for which Hellen covered the on-set VFX supervision of an elements shoot.

As if Surtur and a legion of fire demons weren’t enough to challenge Thor in the sequence, he also encounters an enormous dragon, a wingless CG creation that flies by shooting fire from its gills. Artists referenced footage of rocket launches and used the straight, fast flame from the engine to guide the development of the dragon’s propulsion flames. From there, they adjusted the amount of thrust so the result was believable but not too forceful. The creature’s skin was modeled after Surtur, but with a more leathery aesthetic.

Method’s work can also be seen in a sequence where Hela arrives at Asgard and fights with hundreds of D-Guards, decimating them all single-handedly. The high action sequence features a CG Asgard environment, hundreds of CG “E-Guards,” FX destruction and a CG Hela. The choreography of this fight sequence required extreme collaboration between animation, technical animation and FX as Hela fires out hundreds of weapons impacting the environment, CG characters and plate characters – timing was everything when bringing all of these elements together. As with all of Method’s Hela shots, Hela was crafted using Cate Blanchett’s face from the live action plates, with motion capture data supplied for creating an all CG Hela’s body, costume and headdress.

Later in the film, Hela chases Heimdall (Idris Elba) and some Asgardians to a mountain stronghold. Protected by massive 70m high rock doors, the stronghold is situated in a vast gorge and opens into a large, dimly lit cavern featuring crystal-embedded stonework all of which was a digitally created environment, requiring rigging for destruction in some areas.

In addition to the Surtur and Egard battle sequences, Method created numerous shots in the Asgard observatory and on the palace terrace, which both required extensive 3D environment work and matte painting. Sister company Iloura handled Thor’s encounter with Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) on Sakaar. Iloura VFX Supervisor Dan Bethell oversaw the work, which involved enhancing plate photography and, in some cases, inserting a full CG 3D environment. Artists also swapped out a practical keyboard for an imaginative CG one that affected the scene’s color palette, and inserted a digital double for the scene in which the Grandmaster melts one of his subjects into a disintegrating pile of flesh.