Cantina Creative is a Los Angeles-based design studio with a reputation for providing high-end design and creative VFX solutions. Most recently, it designed, animated, and composited a wide range of compelling time-travel story point graphics for its seventeenth MCU title, “Loki.”
“Loki'' featured the God of Mischief in a Marvel Studios Disney+ series that takes place after the events of “Avengers: Endgame.” The series sees Loki recruited by the Minutemen of the Time Variance Authority (TVA). Branded as a “variant”—someone who disrupts the flow of the “Sacred Timeline”—Loki embarks on a mission that pits him against various versions of himself in a time-hopping adventure across the universe.
Cantina Creative created 172 shots in 33 sequences over six episodes of “Loki.” The Cantina team operated from familiar ground, having collaborated previously with Marvel Studios VFX Supervisors Dan DeLeeuw and David Allen, and VFX Producer, Allison Paul, on Marvel’s “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Avengers: Endgame.” Cantina also provided story-driven VFX sequences for “WandaVision” and “The Falcon and The Winter Soldier.”
Cantina was initially contracted to design and animate numerous screens that would play a key visual role in the TVA time-travel story over a number of episodes for “Loki.” The studio also created content that appears on the many monitors and Chronomonitors situated throughout the TVA command center that visually display the actual timeline, and designs for a series of elaborate holographic projections showing variations of Loki to illustrate different periods of the character’s history.
Here, we posed five questions with Stephen Lawes, co-founder/creative director at Cantina Creative, about the facility and its work, including the work done on “Loki.”
Q. What was the motivation for starting a VFX studio 11 years ago? How have changes in CG technology over time impacted the type of projects Cantina is now able to handle?
Our motivation was to create our content. In the early days we had partnered with Bandito Brothers since they were already doing that. We knew our bread and butter was going to be motion graphics for film, and we gradually became pretty good at it. But ultimately, we want to get to a point where we are producing our own projects. The ever-changing landscape of technology presents a struggle and an opportunity. It’s often hard to keep up with what’s new and emerging but we are often looking for ways to use technology in unexpected ways, which might produce a fresh and interesting visual. It’s also easy to get trapped in a technology dead end or loop, so we try to stay tool agnostic and approach a project or task with the creative and story leading the way, and then select the tool that seems efficient and appropriate.
Q. Cantina has earned a solid reputation for contributing HUD and screen graphics to iconic Marvel Cinematic Universe films and Original Series including "WandaVision," "The Falcon and The Winter Soldier" and "Loki." How did that relationship begin, and how has it evolved over time?
At Cantina, we started on the first "Avengers" movie, but Sean Cushing, Cantina co-owner and executive producer, had worked on "Iron Man 1" and we had designed and executed the HUDs on "Iron Man 2" at PLF. So, it’s been a long process working with Marvel from essentially day one and like any long relationship you have the good days and bad days. It was rough in the early days as we were all finding our feet but has ultimately become incredibly rewarding. I think the content Marvel is now producing has matured and the quality just keeps getting better and better. The same can be said for the quality of the work Cantina produces. We always are looking to the next project to improve in some capacity.
Q. The studio’s recent work on "Loki, "in particular, centers on time travel to the past and future. How early did you and the team work with Marvel to prep the look and feel of the juxtaposition of so many varied VFX time elements -- many with limited real world references? What kind of direction are you provided?
Initially we came on in November of 2020 to start look dev. The priority was to handle the design and execution of the ‘Sacred Timeline.’ We were given some postvis and concept art that been produced, and started on the look dev. Our main focus was story since it appeared in many different forms across the episodes and how it communicated the notion of variants creating branches from the timeline. Together with the fantastic production design, we produced something that was story coherent and felt at home in the Time Variance Authority (TVA). This was the same strategy we employed whether we were dealing with the array on monitors in the TVA command center, an animated robot face, the Roxxcart super store monitor graphics, or a time shovel.
Q. What were some of the challenges in helping to convey the pivotal and climactic ‘He Who Remains’ sequence in Loki that reveals the backstory of the TVA? What primary software tools were used to realize it?
We had to make sure that each of those sculpts read as He Who Remains, and you knew who it was from a character perspective. Because they were mini-vignettes and describing a scene, you want it to be as clear as possible. Then we backtracked and got into the science of what is this material? How did it come to be? How is it based on the character? Does it say anything about the character? When Dan DeLeeuw, the visual effects supervisor, described the scene, it reminded me of some of the early creative concept work we did for Captain Marvel. Some of that didn’t make it into the movie due to editorial changes. I think we called it tech dough when we were working on "Captain Marvel." And it was just this ever-changing liquid/light matter, that was specifically for the Skrulls at the time. They used it as a controller device, based on proximity, where they’d be able to control going back through someone’s mind, figuring out what their history was.
I sent Dan a whole bunch of this work, and he seemed pretty excited about the tech and how it could be used. This, in turn, was shown to the director, and we got busy figuring out the physical qualities of matter and how it works. We asked ourselves, how does this pertain to Who He Remains from a physics standpoint? Because he controls time, should each of these moments start life as light, and then the light turns to more of a liquid, and then a solid, and we show the different changes in form as we do these little vignette statues? We did a whole bunch of tests in that department, and then it evolved over time to echo his environment, which was much more of this marble-esque built environment, with this gold veining through it. And so that’s how it ultimately ended up being, which is echoing the production design or the set that he was in. We primarily used Houdini beginning to end on the transitions and used After Effects for look dev and finish comp.
Q. What evolving technology trends most excite you? Any plans for adopting these into Cantina’s offerings?
SL: Shooting in an LED volume utilizing Unreal is super exciting. We have a few of our own projects that we are trying to get off the ground, and this type of technique would be ideal. Frankly, anything to do with Unreal seems exciting. We are presently on a Disney project (which I can’t mention) where we are delivering Unreal assets for real-time playback. Unreal 5 looks amazing especially with the introduction of Lumen and Nanite.