TV Time
Issue: April-May-June 2021

TV Time

For decades, characters from Marvel Comics have successfully made the leap from comic books, to television shows, to feature films. Their popularity, however, began to skyrocket when Iron Man (2008) kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) - a media franchise of properties produced by Marvel Studios that focused on various characters from the pages of Marvel Comics.

The highest-grossing franchise in history, with 23 feature releases to date and numerous in development, the MCU extended its reach into the expanding TV market and launched Marvel Television in 2010 (which has since been folded into Marvel Studios). In 2012, Agents of SHIELD debuted on network television, followed by a string of others on broadcast and streaming outlets.

The most recent MCU small-screen introduction to viewers: WandaVision, on Disney+. The limited streaming series centers on Wanda Maximoff (the Scarlet Witch) and Vision, a synthezoid, who began a relationship in the feature Avengers: Infinity War (2018). In that film, Wanda kills Vision when she tries to destroy the Mind Stone implanted in his head; he dies a second time when the villain Thanos turns back time, retrieves the stone, and crushes his skull.


If you think WandaVision is simply a continuation of that film, or like any other previous MCU offering, you have not seen the series. WandaVision, in fact, is perfectly styled for TV. "It's a mash-up of classic sitcoms and large-scale Marvel action," says Matt Shakman, who directed all nine episodes. "I think it's really lovely that the first streaming show from Marvel Studios - producer of huge blockbuster films - is really a love letter to the history of television."

And true to MCU form, WandaVision contains amazing effects - some big and bold, some subtle, and some charming and harkening back to a different time… several, in fact.

WandaVision picks up soon after the events of Avengers: Endgame, with Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and the now-alive Vision (Paul Bettany) having just been married, living a sitcom life, and hiding their powers from neighbors and friends, who seem to be playing along in the episodes. Vision has amazing processing speed and the ability to change densities, while Wanda is still capable of telekinesis and warping/altering reality.

Domestic bliss seems to suit them well, but soon little clues surface that seem to indicate something is not quite right in this drama/mystery/romance/sitcom/superhero series.

In the town of Westview, New Jersey, where Wanda and Vision live, the concept of time is rather perplexing, often advancing at breakneck speed. Meanwhile, Wanda and Vision's relationship progresses in classic television show styles, starting with 1950s black-and-white, then moving through the decades, with the sets, clothing, attitudes, technology, and even the effects reflective of the particular period. Moreover, a contrived commercial indicative of that time is inserted into each "episode," complete with Marvel references, such as a Stark Industries' ToastMate 2000 toaster oven, a Strucker watch, and Hydra Soak bath powder.

"It was really important to us from the get-go that we weren't parodying sitcoms. We studied tone and style from era to era (from the 1950s through the 2000s)," says Shakman. "We wanted to make sure what we were creating was absolutely faithful to the original touchstone shows," he adds.

And that includes the visual effects. "We watched all different sitcoms and films that had used visual effects in those time periods, to see what had been achieved," says Tara DeMarco, visual effects supervisor. "We tried to stay faithful to what could have been achieved in each decade."

Wire work and other traditional effects were used in the first episode to correlate with those used at the time.

Through the Years

For maximum authenticity, the first two episodes of the fictional WandaVision show were presented in black-and-white using a 4:3 aspect ratio with significant lens falloff on the edges of the frame, capturing the style of the '50s and '60s sitcoms, respectively, such as I Love Lucy and Bewitched. The first episode was even filmed in front of a live studio audience, while Episode 3 has the flair (and color) of the 1970s.

Filming for WandaVision initially started at Pinewood Studios in Atlanta but finished in Los Angeles (after a several-month hiatus due to COVID), using period-appropriate camera lenses, lighting, and live special effects. In fact, cinematographer Jess Hall, ASC, BSC used 47 different camera lenses for the seven time periods covered in  WandaVision - many of which were modern lenses custom-modified to achieve the desired period lens characteristics. He also incorporated certain composition and camera movement popular at the time to convey the various periods.

Effects were used sparingly in the earlier episodes, indicative of the era.

Tungsten lights were mainly used for the 1950s to the 1970s episodes, as was indicative of that time, with LED lighting in episodes starting around 2000.

As DeMarco explains, the black-and-white episodes were made using period--specific sets, costumes, makeup, and so forth, so they could be graded in black-and-white (as opposed to filmed in black-and-white). "We wanted flexibility later on, so we chose a modern style of filmmaking in that we used a digital acquisition," she says.

When shooting the scenes in black-and-white, Bettany was painted blue, rather than Vision's signature maroon color, since red shows up very dark in grayscale. Also, a little extra shine was added to the metal on his head to make it stand out more from his skin tone.

Likewise, the filmmakers looked at era-specific footage acquisition and broadcasting during the 1970s, with the team leaning heavily toward a particular palette during finishing. (For the 1980s, the crew introduced a purposefully flaked red color bleed, which occurred with film-to-video transfer during this time and was a popular look for '80s sitcoms.)

Artifacts were added to reflect the look of sitcoms from the period.

As for the effects, according to DeMarco, the first three episodes featured film cuts and rewind effects that were employed along with the practical effects during those periods. For Episode 1 and 3, the VFX crew did a lot of wire work, as special effects and props teams worked together with puppeteers to fly items in and out of the kitchen as Wanda prepared for unexpected dinner guests.

Contemporary visual effects were used to paint-remove the wires, smooth the cuts, and, occasionally, create wire gags that were not filmed practically. As DeMarco points out, the charm of the wire work is that you can feel the hand of the puppeteer. It's imperfect; to add imperfection in CGI would have taken a significant amount of time.

The house and the characters undergo numerous style changes.

Effects were kept at a minimum up to and including Episode 5, which encompasses the 1980s, a time when effects were not frequently used on TV or even in films. Episode 6, however, jumps to the 2000s, when television effects had essentially caught up to feature films in terms of what was being created. "Once we hit this period, we figured, OK, it's fair game to use modern effects," DeMarco notes.

Cut to Present Day

With each subsequent episode, the number of effects increase in number and complexity. These were handled by 20-plus VFX vendors, with the major contributors including Digital Domain, Industrial Light & Magic, Monsters Aliens Robots Zombies (MARZ), Rodeo FX, and Screen Scene.

A number of vendors provided various VFX for the series.

Episode 6 raised the bar significantly with, among other work, speed effects for Wanda and Vision's twin boys, Billy and Tommy, who inherited the superpower from Wanda's brother, Pietro (Quicksilver), a "version" of whom suddenly appears at her doorstep. In fact, the VFX team borrowed the speed effects from Quicksilver in the Age of Ultron, before Pietro was killed off. "We went back and looked at how they did it because it's meant to be the same effect," says DeMarco.

That episode also shows the disintegration of Vision as he breaks through the Hex, the boundary enveloping and containing the town of Westview, using its real residents as cast members in Wanda's make-believe family sitcom. While viewers have experienced the disintegration of characters in Infinity War and Endgame, in WandaVision, the VFX team took a new approach. Rodeo took the reins and worked with DeMarco's group on the Hex aesthetic as it pulled pieces from his body.

"You get the visceral quality of this character in pain from the performance, but the spectacle of those pieces being torn off and sucked backward, and you can feel the energy of the Hex wall," DeMarco points out.

The first thing Rodeo had to do was matchmove Vision's movement so the CG asset would move accordingly to Bettany's performance. They then built a skeleton that was used as an anchor and revealed by the destruction. Vision's whole body was layered cables and wires that had been procedurally generated in SideFX's Houdini by Rodeo. Then, they simulated his cape, also in Houdini, so the audience could feel the vacuum that attracts Vision toward the Hex. "We decided to keep a tiny part of the cape for the whole sequence to emphasize this effect," adds DeMarco.

To achieve the visual complexity of the shot, Rodeo started to cut Vision's skin into pieces. The tiny space between those pieces created a path for an energy pattern that was revealed prior to the peeling of the area. In the holes created by the main pieces, the artists added two layers of cables and wires; the biggest cables were inside the body, between the skin and the skeleton, with some light visible coursing through them. The lights slow down throughout the sequence to emphasize Vision's death.

"The pulled wires were linking the big pieces of skin together but broke after a certain distance," adds DeMarco. "For better artistic control, Rodeo keyframed the bigger pieces. To that purpose, they designed a tool for the animator to place and animate some placeholder pieces. That way, they had full control of the overall timings of the shot."

One of the biggest challenges was the layer of pixel sorting that's emitted from the pieces. Rodeo translated a well-known 2D technique into the 3D world to get proper perspective and interaction with Vision. They also added a layer of fine dust to link everything together.

Finally, on top of that, they created a smearing effect to integrate Vision into the Hex. This was enhanced by a particle simulation engulfing Vision. Those particles were later converted into a distortion map that was used in compositing to smear and displace the resulting pixels toward the Hex.

In addition to Houdini, the artists used Autodesk's Maya for modeling, Foundry's Mari for texturing, and Katana (Foundry) and Arnold (Autodesk) for shading and rendering.

As for the Hex, it becomes increasingly visible as the season progresses, turning more ominous and turbulent. "It's its own barrier and atmosphere. It isn't light-emitting. It's not a light panel, and it's not a traditional energy field," says DeMarco. "Instead, we leaned into the language of television. So, it's made up of cathodic lines and chromatic aberration, and those glitchy textures that we borrowed from reference of old and broken TVs, and occurrences when you put magnets against old TVs. And we put all that recognizable visual language of television into that protective barrier that Wanda erects."

On the opposite side of the Hex is the real--world present day, with SWORD analyzing the anomaly. Episodes cut from Wanda's contrived world on the edge of Westview to the SWORD activity outside the Hex. Upset with SWORD's interference, Wanda exists the Hex and confronts SWORD before she pulls a disintegrating Vision back into her world again.

Creating Vision

In WandaVision, Vision is the same character from the film world, and the same process was used to bring him to life for the streaming series. According to DeMarco, VFX were used for the character's head, his metal crown, and his red skin. "We do put some prosthetics on him and paint his skin using a very specific tracking pattern so we can track all the CG onto him," she explains. "A lot of vendor work on Vision was about reworking the CG rig so the stoic Vision could have the necessary range of expression that he would have as a fully emoting sitcom character."

WandaVision WandaVision
A few studios were responsible for Vision’s VFX, including Rodeo as he enters the Hex. Digital Domain created the White Vision (Top).

That meant working on how his CG face would interact with Bettany's real performance. Despite the fact that Vision always has to look the same, a handful vendors were responsible for his effects in various episodes: MARZ, Lola, Rodeo, Digital Domain, and Screen Scene.

On the show, Vision assumes his synthezoid appearance while in private; in public, he changes to his human form. "In the first transition, at the end of Episode 1, it's a really nice blend of an elegant CG transformation that's meant to feel like an era-specific dissolve and is one of my favorite effects in the series," says DeMarco.

At the very end of Episode 8 and throughout the Episode 9 finale, audiences meet the so-called White Vision (a sinister, colorless replica created by SWORD), although in the real world the CG asset was crafted by Digital Domain. The original concept art was created by Andy Park and the Marvel Visual Development team. Mayes Rubeo and the costume department created a new White Vision suit based on the original character's shape.

All of that planning came together on set, as Bettany acted both parts during the battle at the town library against a stunt double dressed as the opposite Vision. A Digital Domain team joined the Marvel team on-set and did extensive texture and reference photography of both Visions for the digital assets.

The animation in the Vision vs. Vision sequence is meant to reflect that White Vision is a true robot, a creature sent on a killing mission, while the Red Vision has a soul and doesn't want to fight. The two Visions act as a mirror of each other, but with different objectives and intent.

Meanwhile, the digital doubles for Wanda and the witch Agatha for the sequence were also created by Digital Domain based on scans and texture photography captured on-set.

The witch battle animation between Wanda and Agatha was designed to be something the viewer could go back and watch again for the "intentional" misses - the magic blasts that missed Agatha were the ones that carved runes into the Hex wall and later enabled Wanda to overpower Agatha. On first viewing, it might seem that Wanda lost control, but really, she had a solid plan all along.

Building a Home

Prior to those showdowns in the series finale, audiences discover that Wanda is not the only witch in town, as her neighbor, Agnes, is actually the powerful witch Agatha Harkness, who wants to know how Wanda is controlling the entire town. To this end, she takes Wanda back in time, as we learn this Avenger's backstory, her power source, her relationship with Vision, and how she became obsessed with American sitcoms.

The episode contains a significant number of VFX shots. Among the more interesting is a CG Vision in a state of dismantlement at SWORD. A distraught Wanda leaves and is spurred to travel to Westview. There, she uses her powers to construct a home piece-by-piece on a plot of land Vision had purchased for them.

Glitchy textures reminiscent of imagery from old, broken TVs were used for various VFX throughout.

In that sequence, executed by ILM, Wanda not only creates their home, but also an intact Vision, and transforms Westview from 2023 to the 1950s. Wanda was filmed on an empty-lot set in Atlanta, and everything apart from her and the initial footprint of the house was created digitally by ILM.

ILM's art department created the concepts for this sequence, which was brought to life in a collaboration between ILM's CG department and compositing teams. "Initially, we plotted out the timing of the house being built as well as the composition of the magic in each shot. This meant starting early on in the extraction of the greenscreen photography of Wanda so as to place her in each shot with the blocked-out house geometry and a torus for where the magic would be at that point," she explains.

The assets team modeled Wanda's house in 3D using Lidar and on-set photography as reference, then built both the internal and external structure, including the framework, plasterboards, pipe work, and brickwork. The internal components of the house were built using the 1950s set as reference. Each piece of geometry was separate so this could be used in effects.

One of the important aspects of the house-building sequence is that Wanda's magic had to feel powerful and filled with grief. The sequence starts off with a grief bomb explosion. "Using Houdini, we started with a shockwave that pulses out from Wanda to set the outer wall of the explosion. We then built a particle system inside the dome that pushes out with incredible force and clumps together to form tendrils," DeMarco explains. "To sustain the energy flowing out of Wanda, we were constantly emitting particles from her chest and hands, and pulling this through curves towards the edges of the FX dome area."

Rodeo created the sequence when Vision exists the Hex and disintegrates.

In Houdini, the house was split into separate sections - structure, plasterboard, windows, and so on - so that parts of the house could form independently. Separate setups were used for parts of the house flying in and for parts of the house being "born." The "flying in" setup followed a similar trajectory to the vortex force field around Wanda. Here, curves were also used to set the basic shape and direction the magic would flow. The curves start at Wanda's hands and flow into a circle that represents the size and position of the vortex. By setting the activation along these guide curves, the artists would control where and when the magic would appear.

The house model was fractured into cubes that were heavily inspired by House of M's comic artwork, whereby the building blocks appear as tetris/jigsaw 3D blocks. To realize this, the artists pre-fractured the entire house into blocks and used a growth solver to spread the activation of each of those blocks within a point cloud. As soon as the pieces become active, they started moving toward their final size and position. The active house pieces were then used as a source for Wanda's red magic.

The house was rendered in Foundry's Katana, and to create the illusion of the external structure in color and the internal components of the house in black-and-white (for the 1950s era), this was done in comp using AOVs passed from lighting. Additionally, the ILM generalist and environments teams created Blondie Street surrounding Wanda's house - this being a mixture of 3D and 2.5D projections, again created using Lidar and on-set photography. The shrubbery was created using SpeedTree's foliage and vegetation software.

During the iterative compositing process of developing the creative look of the magic and house building in CG, ILM developed looks and setups to apply in comp to add extra levels of complexity - specifically the glitchiness that was prevalent in the show's overall style. "A lot of fun was had figuring out ways to essentially 'break' the beautiful renders that we were being passed," says DeMarco.

Integrating the photography of Wanda into the scene was helped greatly through the use of deep compositing, which allowed the artists to place her among the magic and have all the different elements move both in front and behind her. "Since this was the first time we see the 'chaos magic' in the show, a lot of the look development in FX and comp was about finding a balance between what we're used to seeing with Wanda's magic and something more ominous and powerful," DeMarco notes. "This meant things such as dialing in the density of the darker tendrils, adjusting the heat at the core of the magic, how much camera shake there should be, and adding layers of period TV static and glitching."

Saying 'Good-bye'

In another compelling finale scene, Vision begins to slowly disappear, this time in a sheath of yellow light and filament. "Vision's 'death' in Wanda's arms was a very emotional story point. There is a strong narrative symmetry with the previous episode, which ends with Vision's creation at the hands of Wanda," DeMarco notes. Again, this moment was carefully concepted by ILM's art department, where individual key moments throughout this long shot were carefully constructed.

One of the first big challenges of this emotional and complex shot, where the camera rotates around the couple as Vision disintegrates, was the stitching together of three different plates, as the desired action was not captured in one take. There was a plate shot for the travel toward the house on the edge of the Hex wall as it closed in on Wanda and Vision, and two separate takes of the actors inside the house. All three of these takes need to flow seamlessly as one. They were camera-tracked, as were the actors, with their body positions matched up as closely as possible in 3D space across the section where the transition from one plate to the other occurs. Subsequent 2D warping and patching was done to make sure the arms, hands, heads, and hair matched up completely across the transition - as no actor perfectly re-creates a previous pose when in a moving embrace.

Like Wanda’s power, the effects intensify during the course of the series.

Meanwhile, the group captured Vision's body, head, and facial movements, enabling the generation of his head in 3D. The artists matched the lighting and integrated it around the actor's real eyes and mouth to preserve as much of his actual performance as possible.

"Vision's internal structure is revealed as a glowing net of wires and particles, not quite organic, not quite machine," says DeMarco. "Getting the pacing right was crucial as it is a very long, slow-moving shot."

Again, using Houdini, ILM created multiple particle, mist, and filament layers. To tie the effect with the TV signal distortion and artifacts theme, some of the layers moved on a 2.5D space. The particles were created in the correct 3D world space, but their motions were constrained to the plane of the camera. This allowed the team to generate scanline and block artifacts that interacted with the three-dimensional world.

During this reveal, the team removed the actor and replaced him with these varying effects elements, which were animated to swirl and dissipated away.

In terms of the house, four differently--styled interiors were modeled to represent different decades, and the artists glitched and wiped between those decades using 2D techniques. Towards the end of the shot, the final environment was broken up into particles and wispy creation magic by the effects department, again taking inspiration from House of M as they did in the previous episode.

One of the most challenging aspects, according to DeMarco, was retaining a photographic feel while keeping the overall effect simple-looking. Processing all the glows and light interactions through detailed mist renders provided texture and breakup. All of this was then composited together using Foundry's Nuke, with additional 2D chromatic glitching added over the environment and Vision to keep in line with the glitching treatment applied across the whole show.

Stay Tuned

Since 2008, fans have moved through three phases of the MCU. WandaVision was the first offering in Phase Four, which will encompass additional series and films over the next few years, including The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, which began airing in mid-March, picking up after the events of Endgame.

Despite the release of so many MCU projects over the past dozen years, Marvel Studios managed something extremely unique with WandaVision, while delivering on the high expectations of audiences - including high-quality visual effects. "We all knew the show had to have the same quality of visual effects, just over a longer period of time in terms of airing. So we chose when we wanted to have those big beats and tried to make them as impactful as the beats in the movies," says DeMarco.

Bettany has said on numerous occasions that he believes the series had more VFX shots than Endgame (nearly 2,500). He is correct; WandaVision tapped out at 3,010 VFX shots. Impacting the work was the challenges presented by COVID, as principal photography on this series was interrupted and the crew sent home to work remotely as best they could, not knowing when they would be able to continue filming, where they could film, what restrictions they would face, which sequences they could get done…. With rigorous COVID protocols in place, work started back up after several months, with the production pivoting to move a number of scenes outside.

And then there's the pressure of working on a brand-new series and finishing the first TV show for Disney+ and for Marvel.

"It took a while to wrap our minds around the shot count and the turnaround time, and trying to preserve the quality from the feature films and get it onto the small screen. The whole big picture was a challenge, and while difficult, it felt achievable. I think we've created something great," DeMarco says.

Indeed they have. Audiences think so, too: Viewers crashed Disney+ twice - when Episode 7 went live and when the series finale dropped.

Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor of CGW.