The Highs and Lows of Black Widow
Issue: July-August-September 2021

The Highs and Lows of Black Widow

Audiences cannot get enough of the backstories to a number of the Marvel characters we love (and some we hate). Over the past several months, Avengers fans have learned a lot about these characters, including Wanda Maximoff (the Scarlet Witch) and the synthezoid Vision; Sam Wilson (Falcon) and Bucky Barnes (Winter Soldier); and even Thor's nemesis and brother, Loki (the prince of Asgard and God of Mischief) - all playing out on the streaming channel Disney+. The most recent Avenger to lay her past bare is Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow), this time in cinematic splendor (and streaming simultaneously). And in the process, setting pandemic box-office records.

Marvel Studios' Black Widow explores the evolution of the eponymous character. Following the events of Captain America: Civil War (2016), Natasha finds herself alone and forced to confront a dangerous conspiracy with ties to her past. Pursued by a force that will stop at nothing to bring her down, she must deal with her history as a spy and the broken relationships left in her wake long before she became an Avenger.

And she does so in a spectacular - and explosive - fashion.

After discovering a flying fortress hidden in the clouds, the Avenger puts on a master class in destruction, leading to an airborne battle with heroes and villains dodging flaming wreckage as they approach terminal velocity. It's one of the most visually complex and technically demanding scenes ever seen on film, made possible by Marvel Studios' longtime collaborator, Digital Domain.

The making of Black Widow
Digital Domain created the destruction of the flying Red Room and the aftermath on the ground.


Since her introduction to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) more than a decade ago, the origins of Scarlett Johansson's Natasha Romanoff, aka the Black Widow, have only been hinted at through the occasional one-liner and dream-like flashback. In Black Widow, Romanoff's history is finally revealed, including her time spent in the brutal "Red Room," a training ground for world-class assassins that she thought was destroyed. After discovering that it is still active - and airborne - the Red Room makes a spectacular and visually stunning debut in the film.

Working with Marvel Studios and their visual development group, Digital Domain created the flying Red Room and the surrounding environments entirely in CG. The structure was designed to appear both intimidating and functional, with Marvel artists choosing a style that echoes Soviet-era architecture. The massive base features airstrips, walkways, a central tower, and several engines keeping the structure aloft, all of which needed to be created digitally.

To bring the Red Room and the surrounding environment to life, including individual clouds and the countryside below, Digital Domain's artists used a suite of postproduction tools that integrated both Autodesk Maya animation and SideFX Houdini effects pipelines into every shot. With the stage set, artists then added movement to the flying fortress, giving it a realistic and consistent look that doesn't feel out of place in a world of superheroes. Digital Domain then went about destroying it.


With hallways shattering around her and gravity turning deadly, the explosive collapse of the Red Room becomes a frantic escape for Black Widow and her allies. As characters flee the doomed structure via jet, parachute, and in some cases, freefall, they are joined on their descent by both enemy soldiers and debris ranging in size from small scrap to large sections of buildings. Each shot features dozens of pieces of wreckage at any time, all leading to one of the most intense skydive sequences ever seen on film.

To create the live-action portion of the skydiving scene, the filmmakers used a combination of practical techniques to capture the principals, including shooting talent on wires and mechanical arms against bluescreens, recording performers held aloft in an indoor vertical wind tunnel, and filming trained stunt people through multiple skydives. The footage was then sent to Digital Domain, where the artists created a layout that tracked the location of the characters and the major pieces of debris at any given time.

With the general layout set, the team at Digital Domain determined how the scene would evolve under different lighting and environmental conditions, as well as how the characters' interactions would affect the falling debris. That included altering the rotation of a jet in freefall as Black Widow flies through, and a memorable scene where the Taskmaster slows their momentum by dragging a sword across a piece of a falling building. Clouds were also added and removed to reflect momentum, the lighting was constantly changed to reflect the setting sun, and wreckage shattered as it slammed into itself, giving the entire scene a frenetic feel.

Artists went through shot-by-shot to maintain continuity, digitally altering each key asset and environment by hand. It was a monumental and time-consuming task requiring several iterations. To create the destruction and hard surfaces - while also rendering the scene quickly enough to allow for changes - the team at Digital Domain turned to GPU rendering, along with Maxon's GPU-accelerated renderer, Redshift.

"Rendering one cloud is easy, but rendering 100 clouds - along with dozens of pieces of big and small debris - is very complex, to say the least," says Dave Hodgins, Digital Domain VFX supervisor. "GPU rendering allowed us to do more in a shorter period of time, and create something that we're not only proud of, but opens up a new world of possibilities."

GPU rendering took on the bulk of the wreckage and debris work, while traditional CPU rendering was reserved for digital characters and volumetrics. Although a relatively new technique for achieving photorealistic effects on a large scale - due in part to the hardware demands - Digital Domain successfully tested the technique with Marvel Studios' Captain Marvel. To create the climactic and explosive shootout inside the hangar of the hidden Skrull ship during the third act of the film, GPU rendering was employed to create several digital explosions, each leading to multiple, smaller explosions that created a sea of debris. The work done on Black Widow builds on that experience, but elevates it to a much higher level.

The making of Black Widow
Cinesite’s work was more terrestrial, including building this helicopter.


Once the primary characters make it safely to the ground, the action continues as Black Widow faces off against the Taskmaster while a storm of metal rains down around them. The filmmakers used a combination of practical effects - including physical props dropped on the stage - along with bluescreens to introduce some of the larger wreckage. Artists at Digital Domain tracked the falling debris and altered it to reflect the damage caused by the impact, altering each piece as needed.

While the characters face off, Digital Domain also gave the Red Room a final send-off, as the remains of the fiery and smoke-covered structure crashed into a nearby forest. The main characters then stand amid a field of real and CG debris as they head off to their various fates.

"Digital Domain has a long and proud history of creating amazing destruction on screen, from iconic ocean liners to entire cities, but the work we did in Black Widow is on another level," says John Fragomeni, global VFX president at Digital Domain. "Marvel Studios' latest blockbuster challenged us to look at the debris as if it were a moving, fluid environment in its own right. That allowed us to rethink how we approach CG destruction in films, and it will help us go even further in the future."

In total, Digital Domain completed around 320 shots for the film, with work spread between its Los Angeles, Vancouver, and Montreal offices. The studio's work on Black Widow marks more than a decade of collaboration with Marvel Studios, including multiple feature films and television series. Digital Domain recently completed work on Loki, and is currently working on Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Spider-Man: No Way Home, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and more.


Cinesite also played an important role in Black Widow, delivering several VFX sequences for the film.

Cinesite's visual effects for Black Widow, in contrast with the otherworldly effects created for previous Avengers films, are terrestrial, ranging from helicopters to cars, a laboratory, and a prison. In one sequence, where Natasha and Yelena are having a conversation while driving down a motorway, Cinesite's team replaced their BMW with a CG version, stitching together nine cameras and forming a circular array to create a 360-degree environment.

This environment was projected behind the actresses on set to achieve appropriate interactive lighting and added into the shot later, complete with glass reflections on the car windows. Another shot, filmed with a locked-off camera, was altered so that the car drives into shot, adding dynamism and pace to the dialog scene. This was achieved through careful sleight of hand, which involved adding the plate with the actresses into a separate card and positioning them within the CG vehicle and environment.

Much of Cinesite's work takes place inside a squalid Russian prison, where Alexei (The Red Guardian) is languishing. In one gruesome but hilarious sequence, Alexei is participating in an arm-wrestling contest in which he easily snaps the wrist of a particularly gargantuan opponent, as his arm hangs precariously at a very uncomfortable angle. A CG hand and forearm were added, and 2D projection techniques used to blend seamlessly out of the live action into the CG limb.

One of Cinesite's most challenging shots involves Alexei pulling one of the prison guards over a guard desk, through a pane of toughened glass. Cinesite VFX Supervisor Ben White says, "What made this shot a particular challenge is that it's laminated glass, which behaves very differently from the regular type. It's like windshield glass - it's tough, flexible, and very difficult to break. As it shatters, it behaves more like a kind of rigid, glassy cloth; that was a challenge for the FX team, but they really pulled it off, and it makes for a very convincing action shot."

Cinesite partner company Trixter also delivered a significant body of work, which includes Taskmaster's mask, Black Widow's veil, and several major action sequences and environments. Last year, they delivered over 280 shots for Captain Marvel, including Marvel's cat, Goose. More recently, they delivered the VFX for the Loki series, and they are currently in production on Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, scheduled for release in September 2021.

Meanwhile , Black Widow is the fourth Marvel film to which Cinesite has contributed visual effects in the past three years, following Avengers: Infinity War (2018), Antman & The Wasp (2018), and Avengers: Endgame (2019).