Hammer Time!
Linda Romanello
Issue: Volume 40 Issue 6: (Nov/Dec 2017)

Hammer Time!

The Marvel juggernaut continues to smash the box-office competition as the studio releases yet another offering from its Marvel Cinematic Universe – Thor: Ragnarok. The Thor franchise’s two prior successes – 2011’s Thor and 2013’s Thor: The Dark World – collectively earned over $1.1 billion worldwide.

The newest film, Thor: Ragnarok, surprisingly directed by indie filmmaker Taika Waititi, follows the God of Thunder (Chris Hemsworth) as he escapes imprisonment on the other side of the universe. The adventure continues as he races to get back to Asgard to stop Ragnarok – the destruction of his home world and the end of Asgardian civilization – at the hands of an all-powerful and ruthless Hela, who also happens to be his sister. But with a pit stop along the way, where he is captured yet again, he is forced into a deadly gladiator-style contest against his former ally and fellow Avenger – the Incredible Hulk.

Jake Morrison, who worked on VFX for Ant-Man, The Avengers, and the earlier Thor films, is visual effects supervisor on the film. Just weeks prior to the film’s opening, as he was still putting the finishing touches on several scenes, Morrison spoke at length about the work on the feature.

The third installment “is a very different picture,” says Morrison. “For starters, we’re going back to the comic source a lot more, sourcing a lot more of the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby stuff and really getting into some of that initial artwork. We had Taika, who’s an amazing secret weapon as well. An artist in his own right. It was incredibly exciting to let him loose and see some of the stuff that he was putting together for these worlds.”

The fact that the whole thing is this intergalactic road trip “gave us the ability to put a fresh coat of paint on everything, Asgard included,” Morrison offers. “[We didn’t] reinvent the wheel 100 percent, as there are landmarks that people will recognize from Asgard, but it’ll look different.”

While Morrison’s film credits also include Mission: Impossible II, The Deep Blue Sea, and Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, the UK native explains that he has unknowingly become a bit of a Thor authority. “I ended up working on all three Thor films, which was never a plan, but it just sort of happened. There was a moment when we were in prep on Thor 3 and we were in this board room, where these huge production meetings happen, and there’s costume, special effects, stunt coordinators, and I suddenly realized that people kept looking at me with all these questions about how Thor worked, how his powers worked,” he says. And I realized, ‘Oh jeez, I have become an expert on Thor (laughs). That was never part of the plan, but it comes in handy.”

Shooting for Thor: Ragnarok began in July 2016, after months of planning, with filming mostly on Australia’s Gold Coast using Arri Alexa 65 cameras. The production was headquartered at Village Roadshow Studios in Queensland.

Prior to the release of the film, Morrison explained that even with all of the sets and location shoots, “I think that every frame of the film will, at some point or in some small way, go through the VFX department.”

With approximately 2,700 VFX shots, it looks like Morrison had predicted correctly. The film is about 97 or 98 percent VFX, he notes.

A Cosmic Road Trip

There’s “not a rock unturned here,” Morrison says. “There are huge set pieces with fully--animated characters, all the way down to motion-captured characters delivering lines. We visit multiple worlds, interstellar travel, spaceships, huge-scale destruction. I think at the moment, it’s clocking in as Marvel’s biggest picture yet in terms of just shot count. I think we’re past Age of Ultron. It’s a huge, behemoth of a picture, and it’s basically like a cosmic road trip, which means you never really go back to the same place more than once or twice. You just keep moving forward. It’s a dream job for us because we get to turn the creative tap on and just let all the juices flow.”

Morrison did point out that his one mandate from Waititi was, “Don’t let all this technical crap get in the way of the fact that I like to shoot actors’ performances, long takes, and series, and throw lines out and ad lib stuff and get the actors to improv.” Morrison elaborates: “Really, the only thing he said to us was make it transparent and just make it so he never thinks about it.”

To pull off the VFX, the longtime Marvel veteran brought quite the impressive team of studios along for the adventure, with more than 18 houses contributing their talents, including Industrial Light & Magic, Framestore, Method, Rising Sun Pictures, Digital Domain, Double Negative, Legend3D, and Iloura.

“We went to ILM to leverage all of the Hulk work, of course. It would have been nuts not to. And then for our final battles, I went to Framestore in London. It’s a really strong character house. Our third act is absolutely jam packed with character animation,” says Morrison. “Rising Sun did some early work for us on Hela, Cate Blanchett’s character. Method in Vancouver has been standout – the studio has done some really stunning work, everything with Cate. We wanted to maintain as much of Cate’s performance as possible, even though her suit is digital. And through much of the fight sequences, she often turns into a digital character, so Method did some incredible work there.”

Digital Domain, meanwhile, did a whole section of Aragorn planet Sakaar for what is effectively a spaceship chase. Luma Pictures helped develop Korg in the scene where Thor meets Korg. “They really found the character for us and helped us find that performance,” says Morrison. Iloura contributed quite a lot, he adds, especially for many of the Jeff Goldblum sequences: “They did standout [digital matte paintings], literally stuff that was 100 percent visual effects.”

The Third Floor completed the previs work on the film, led by the studio’s Shannon Justison as visualization supervisor. “Because it’s a Thor film, you can do anything,” says Morrison. “You basically have final battles where you have two gods battling against each other. It means you don’t limit yourself to physics or sensibilities, so Shannon has really helped us. She has a cinematic eye, and when you’re looking at fully-digital sequences, you’re looking at story-boards. But that only goes so far, and then you go into visualization. What [Third Floor] did on the film is absolutely killer.”


Director Waititi, who is well known for casting himself in his own movies, has appeared in all four previous New Zealand-based feature films that he wrote and directed. “When we were writing the story, I asked myself, ‘Who do I want to play?’ ” Waititi says. “I like playing characters who sort of provide a little texture and make it a bit more interesting to watch. I had never played a guy who was made of rocks.”

“He’s a character that grew organically during the filming,” says Morrison. “The Korg character started appearing in more and more storyboards. I knew Taika likes to do cameos, I knew he was going to be something in the movie, but I wasn’t quite sure what it was. And it became clear that he was interested in the whole motion--capture thing.”

As the script continued to evolve, Korg’s part got bigger and bigger. Eventually the project found the director in full motion--capture gear with the head-mounted cameras, dots, and the rest of [the mocap tech], calling ‘Cut,’ and giving direction to the lighters, grips, and actors, and then literally jumping back into the scene. “I think it’s a first,” Morrison says. “If you think finalizing the shots in which the director is an actor in the movie is a challenge, try and finish shots where the director is actually a visual effect in the movie!”

Another first for Morrison was how they did the motion capture for the Korg scenes. “Typically, when they do motion capture, they do it in a volume; they’ll take a corner of a stage with this gray floor with gray and black walls, they’ll build around 15 or 30 different cameras that are all pointing back in a central area, and those actors perform in there,” he explains. “We thought that with this one, we would work with the art department to take these motion-capture cameras off the technical stage and bring them onto the actual stages where the actors would be performing.

“That meant we would have, in the prison scene where we first see Korg, the whole thing built into the walls and segments, so you could actually pop sections of the wall out and the motion-capture cameras were behind them,” Morrison continues. “So, if we’re doing a scene with Korg, you could pop them out and you’d shoot the scene with the motion-capture cameras in-camera, or if there was a scene that took place where two characters were talking, we would just leave the sections in the wall and film as much as possible in-camera.”

According to Morrison, the team used the exact same approach for other scenes involving Thor and Hulk. Hemsworth and Mark Ruffalo were able to do their improv, and the team actually had an array of cameras around the top of the massive sets that Dan Hennah had built.

“That way, you got a real set that you could shoot with a standard motion-picture camera, but because all the technology was in place, there was this amazing ability for the team to overlay the CG characters,” says Morrison. “We had the virtual production team literally around the back of the set, and there were like 30 incredibly smart [folks] there with keyboards, and on the screens they would have a live version of whatever Mark Ruffalo was doing but overlaid as the Hulk. They would pipe that back into the viewfinder on the camera, so when the camera operator actually looked through the camera, they didn’t just see Chris and Mark, they literally saw an overlay, so they could see Chris talking to Mark, who was eight-foot-six and green. That’s how the camera operator knew to tilt the camera up. We had the same approach across the entire production.”

According to Morrison, for the final piece of the Korg puzzle – which was like a jigsaw puzzle because he was made of rocks – the group ran into a specific problem. “Imagine a situation where you sort of twisted the waist or bend over and raise your knee, stretching like we do as humans, and you map that to a creature that’s made of rocks,” he explains. “It looks like it’s latex. The computer wants to make sure those rocks squash and stretch to maintain the overall volume, instead of just staying the same size and moving around each other. To a modern audience, that looks immediately like we’ve gone back to the ’80s and put somebody in a latex suit. People are far more sophisticated now.”

Instead, two teams at Luma Pictures and Framestore built basically “the most complicated moving jigsaw puzzle I think you can get anywhere, where we built three layers, and as those movements happened, each rock moved against each other as if they were sort of tectonic plates,” says Morrison. “That’s easy when they’re stretching out, you can make spaces; but if there are holes in there, it looks like he has weird gangrene appearing all of a sudden because he has these dark sections. So, there’s another layer of subcutaneous rock, if you will, that’s in there that covers it up.

“The other challenge is, if you lean back again and the rocks start meeting each other, how do you have them not compress and move over each other? That’s a challenge enough for the body, but for the facial stuff, it was an amazing feat. There was literally a moment where you’ll see Taika deliver a line, but you see Korg the entire time, and the only thing moving is his face, mostly just his mouth,” continues Morrison. “You can see all of these rocks in the face; the facial structure is moving around against each other and not actually smashing into each other or stretching. I think it’s the most complicated piece of understated character animation that has been done.”

Thor vs. Hulk

While both Korg and the all-CG fire demon Surtur were brought to life by Morrison’s digital team, the fight between Hulk and Thor was technically impossible to stage as a real fight because of the physical discrepancy between Thor and Hulk. “Hulk’s eight-foot-six,” explains Morrison. “He’s also about one and a half times the width of a normal human.”

So early on in pre-production, the crew needed to address how to stage this epic battle and make it feel realistic and not like it’s over-animated. “[It has to] make you feel like every punch really lands and all the reactions are appropriate and genuine,” says Morrison. “To do that, we cast a much shorter stunt double, who’s actually four-foot-two, to mocap the role of Thor.” Because you can’t get somebody who’s eight-foot-six, the group superimposed a Hulk double who’s about six-foot-six with the other shorter stunt double.

“We were able to stage the entire fight using two people who have the correct height-dimension relationship between them. We shot the entire fight from a mocap point of view. The plan then was to have Chris learn the Thor part of the fight,” says Morrison. “We shot Chris on the arena bluescreen set behaving as if Hulk were there. We already had the motion-capture data from the fight that we did in miniature, as it were, on the motion-capture volume. We re-targeted that and put Hulk on screen. And those two elements then dovetail. Now we have a realistic fight that couldn’t have been staged in the real world but still happens on this gargantuan scale.”

Linda Romanello (lromanello@postmagazine.com) is the managing editor of Post, CGW’s sister publication.