A New Hero Enters the Ring
Issue: October-November-December 2021

A New Hero Enters the Ring

Multiple vendors add compelling VFX to Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

It seems that nearly every superhero character who has appeared in the pages of Marvel Comics has been the subject of a film or TV series within the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). From well-known characters such as Iron Man, Spider-Man, and the Hulk, to lesser-known ones such as Black Widow, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Panther and more, Marvel has continued to up the ante in terms of action and story when putting each in the spotlight. Not long ago, it released Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, its 25th film from Phase Four of the MCU, focusing on this little-known character. For those who may not have been familiar with Shang-Chi prior to the film, surely that is no longer the case.

While box-office numbers for 2021 are wonky due to untraditionally low theater attendance thanks to COVID and simultaneous theater-streaming releases, as of this writing, Shang-Chi remained at the top of the domestic box office (in third place was another Marvel film, Black Widow).

The action/adventure/fantasy film Shang-Chi is directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, with Christopher Townsend as production visual effects supervisor. It features a mostly Asian cast and Asian-centric themes, delving into Chinese mythological culture and classical martial arts.

In the film, Shaun (Simu Liu) initially comes across as your average guy, working as a parking valet with his close friend Katy (Awkwafina). That is, until they are attacked on a city bus by lethal gang belonging to the Ten Rings. That is when Shaun demonstrates his mastery of weapons-based kung fu, dispatching the baddies but not before they steal a pendant that was given to him many years ago by his now-deceased mother. “Who are you?” asks Katy after witnessing Shaun’s fighting skills. The answer: Shang-Chi, whose powerful father is the leader of the Ten Rings. 

Together, Katy and Shang-Chi travel to China to find Shang-Chi’s estranged sister, Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), and to confront his father Xu Wenwu (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung), whose taste for power was only satiated after falling in love and marrying Jiang Li (Fala Chen). After she is killed, he retrieves the powerful 10 bracelet rings (the source of his supernatural powers) he had hidden away, and his brutal appetite returns. Not willing to follow in his father’s footsteps, a teenage Shang-Chi flees the compound, as does his sister sometime later. Now, Shang-Chi must return to confront his past and his father and the Ten Rings organization.

Shang-Chi contains a full gamut of effects and visual styles, from reality to fantasy. In all, a dozen VFX studios worked on the film’s 1,761 VFX shots. Weta Digital was the lead VFX company, responsible for the majority of the third act that includes the epic end battle. Trixter followed, handling the mythical creatures (except for the dragon, beast, army of demons, and building the Foo Dogs), including the companion Morris to the imprisoned Trevor Slattery (Sir Ben Kingsley). Other major vendors include Rising Sun Pictures, which created the mythical land of Ta Lo, home to Li and the CG environment where the third act takes place. Digital Domain built Wenwu’s sprawling compound, Scanline created a bamboo forest where Wenwu and Li first meet. Method Studios in Melbourne opened the film, depicting Wenwu’s rise to power, and helped craft the brother versus sister battle at the gambling den in Macau, while Rodeo FX handled the fight outside that club on the scaffolding lining the outside of a skyscraper. Meanwhile, Luma was charged with the iconic fight on the city bus. 

“We started off with the bus fight and later on the scaffolding outside the gambling den, and both of those two sequences are very much reality-based. There’s nothing fantastical about them other than the martial arts performances, but the events occur in reality-based worlds,” says Townsend. “What’s interesting, from a visual effects perspective, was taking things from that naturalistic, grounded place and slowly over the course of the film, getting more into this wild fantasy element. We tried to maintain that level of grounded reality as much as possible and have familiarity even in the fantastical parts of the film so people are not taken out of the story.”

For reference and inspiration, the VFX teams turned to classic kung fu and tai chi styles. “Obviously there’s a nod to the old Hong Kong/Chinese martial arts films,” says Townsend, noting a number of different fighting styles are represented in the film. “Careful attention was paid to making sure those fights looked realistic and the styles accurate.” Townsend also credits the deep understanding by the stunt team concerning the various styles, thanks in large part to the recently deceased stunt coordinator for the film, Brad Allan, a martial arts guru and the first non-Asian member of Jackie Chan’s JC Stunt Team. 

“[Allan] employed a large team mainly of Chinese and Asian stunt actors who brought authenticity. For visual effects, that meant a lot of face replacements were required to make it feel as if the actual actor from the film was performing all that stunt work, especially in these very long takes,” adds Townsend. 

Wenwu’s Rise to Power—Method Studios, Melbourne

The film opens with a flashback on Wenwu’s rise to power, with a montage of battle scenes against various armies from different locations throughout history while using the power of the rings. The scene opens on Wenwu mounted on horseback with his band of followers laying siege to a Seljuk-style castle as the warrior single-handedly overcomes the defending army, with the battle culminating in a rotating single shot of him wreaking havoc with the legendary Ten Rings of Power before smashing down the castle’s defenses with a blast of ring power. The sequence then follows Wenwu’s progress through frozen forests where, during another battle, he captures a treasure cart, laying the foundation for his fortune.

The 112 VFX shots by Method Studios in Melbourne involved face replacements, crafting digital horses (with a rider dismounting into battle), the brother-sister face-off at the gambling club, and set extensions. But, its main work entailed creating the look for the rings seen throughout the film, including four main sequences spanning the opening shots to the end battle. The base ring asset was modeled by hand in Autodesk’s Maya, while Adobe’s Substance Painter was used extensively for texturing, along with Chaos’ V-Ray for shader work and rendering. The rings had rig controls to discreetly tweak their shape and scale to fit onto Wenwu’s arm, which was also re-created in CGI during a number of shots, allowing the artists to tune the amount of deformation and contact between the rings and the skin.

The ring powers were much more challenging to generate than the base ring asset, however. “We tried to use elemental forces as much as possible as a basis for the various ring effects, to make it feel natural even though it was fantastical,” says Townsend. “There’s also a lot of logic and a sense of grounding to them.”

Method was involved early on with look-dev for the ring effects — which, says Townsend, was a very long, ongoing process, as the group dialed up and down their strength and subsequent elemental effect. Eventually each ring had a different effect depending on which ring power was in use at the time. According to Joshua Simmonds, VFX supervisor at Method Melbourne, the first hero shot of the rings leaving Wenwu’s arms in close-up was staged to display their otherworldly beauty and power as energy forms between the rings, suggesting a powering up. “They need to dangle around the character, and then when they’re activated, they rise up the forearm to become equidistant along the forearm,” he explains.

The ring shield effect — which Wenwu creates to defend against the raining arrows during the castle attack — was much more challenging, Simmonds adds. This was due to the speed at which the conqueror  is moving on horseback, combined with the extreme whip-like motion of the rings, resulting in a lack of visual clarity in the simulations based on the individual rings.  The solution, he says, was found by combining world-space simulations with local space, which were then motion-compensated to connect it all back again. Effects and lighting contributed many render passes to the compositors for fine detail control of color and intensity.

In all, 30 effects elements, both physical-based and emissive, were used by compositors to achieve the final effect, which also included collisions from airborne arrows.

Method’s sequences further required a digital version of Wenwu, which was based on detailed scans and texture references. Many of the shots involved CG forearms and hands for the ring integration. The arms had a full muscle and skeletal system, while the artists used SpeedTree (from Interactive Data Visualization, recently acquired by Unity) to grow the veins down to the capillary level for use with subdermal glow effects.

The animators also generated crowds by feeding a large volume of in-house motion capture  into Method’s custom (SideFX) Houdini Crowd system to form the basis of the crowd shots. The crowd data was then passed from Houdini to Maya via a lightweight USD wrapper, which in turn rendered a custom procedural in V-Ray leveraging the Houdini Engine. In addition, Method’s custom Maya Vignettes system enabled the auto-simulation of clothing and hair for crowd shots that required specific placement of action by animators.

“Our crowd system made use of Houdini’s robust dynamics to simulate physical reactions to impacts, which could in turn be promoted to Maya animation rigs for further performance refinements, including higher-quality cloth and hair simulation,” explains Simmonds. 

As for Wenwu’s battle costume, it had complex, multi-layered clothing underneath armor, presenting challenges with tailoring in Marvelous Designer’s software as well as with cloth simulation. His long hair also required the placement of hundreds of guide hairs, which were in turn groomed with multiple tools to match the on-set hair. This CG hair was further used to augment the plate when Wenwu didn’t have bluescreen coverage. 

The Bamboo Forest—Scanline

Continuing the flashback, Wenwu sets his sights on his next target, the mystical land of Ta Lo, when he encounters the beautiful Li, who is guarding the village entrance. The two engage in an elegant, poetic, ballet-like martial arts battle set amid a tranquil CG bamboo forest built by Scanline VFX. The studio also created the sequence involving a chase through the forest when Shang-Chi escapes from his father’s compound later in the film during an attempt to reach the hidden Moon Gate that opens into Ta Lo. Scanline delivered 201 shots across those two sequences.

During the “love fight” between Wenwu and Li, audiences are shown how the two first met and are introduced to their respective superpowers of the rings and qi, involving the vital life force of any living entity. Scanline’s work required combining full-CG shots with plate integration and digital set extensions for the bamboo forest, as well as with complex paint and roto rig removal. The studio also created various simulations driven by the superpowers, along with secondary sims for swirling dust and leaves — extensions of Li’s movements — as the fight plays out. There was also bamboo splintering and breaking from the ring power. 

The artists used the studio’s Flowline and SideFX’s Houdini for the various simulations, as well as Autodesk’s 3ds Max and Maya, and Foundry’s Mari and Nuke, for the assets, lighting, and compositing. 

Scanline’s Jessica Harris, digital effects supervisor, notes that any of the CG they added had to feel natural, even if it was moving in an unnatural way. 

The set contained a pool of water, large kapok trees, and one layer of bamboo trees. For the environment build, the artists had three main layers of forest — a foreground layer that lined up with the edge of the set, a mid-layer, and a background layer. That was augmented with hero trees and plants inside the set, in addition to bamboo trees, to make it feel as if the clearing was at the center of a vast, dense forest. 

“Our artists did a fantastic job making this magical environment feel rooted in the real world. They were able to achieve a very organic look even though the movement of the leaves, trees, and dust were driven by a mystical force,” says Harris. 

In fact, the team built an environment that could be used for both of the bamboo forest sequences in the film. Overall, it consisted of 600,000 trees and 15 different plant species. Millions of leaves were involved; tree leaf counts ranged from 200,000 leaves up to 14 million per tree. “It added up quickly, depending on the shot and how much of the trees you saw,” adds Harris.

Scanline’s second sequence  entailed the drive through the bamboo forest to Moon Gate, as Shang-Chi and his friends flee Wenwu’s compound and try to warn the people of Ta Lo about the planned attack. In the scenes, they drive through what becomes a bamboo maze as the forest comes alive and closes in around them in an attempt to devour the vehicle. For this, the entire environment had to be replaced with CG bamboo forest and ground cover, as only the vehicle and actors were used from the plate. The artists also built a CG car, which was sometimes used or blended with a practical vehicle on set.

This sequences required many simulations: trees bending, breaking, and moving; ground sims caused by moving trees and the car racing through the shifting forest labyrinth; and plant sims reacting to the ground and moving trees. “That sequence was really pushed to the limits of computational power of being able to animate so many millions of leaves in these hundreds of thousands of trees and acres and acres of forest. It was certainly a challenge for Scanline to pull off,” says Townsend.

From a technical standpoint, the size of the environment and the number of required elements were quite challenging. “Tying them together and having them interact in a cohesive manner that told the story was very complicated,” says Micah Gallagher, Scanline compositing supervisor. “Creatively, we had to make the forest act almost like a character. It had to have a motive and reactions to the characters in order to create the tension that gives the life-or-death feel of the sequence.”

Bus Battle—Luma Pictures

After the flashbacks, we are transported to modern-day San Francisco, where we find a grown-up Shang-Chi and Katy catching a bus to work, but en route are ambushed on board by the Ten Rings gang as they try to steal Shang-Chi’s pendant. The driving force behind this sequence: Luma, which crafted approximately 150 VFX shots for this high-energy fight on what became an out-of-control runaway bus rambling through San Francisco.

According to Alex Cancado, Luma’s VFX supervisor, a large portion of the sequence was filmed against bluescreen in Australia using two articulated bus rigs — one 40 feet high and placed on a gimbal for the extreme motion (shaking, flipping), and the other used for general driving. Another rig, with a 360 Arri camera array, drove through pre-determined streets in San Francisco, and that 360 video was then stitched together and used as a background for many of the shots behind the actors. “So, the majority of the shots when we’re inside the bus looking outside, it’s basically a combination of the bluescreen rig with the outside scenery from the 360 shoot in San Francisco,” Cancado explains. “That was the simple part of the project.”

The more complex part involved shots from outside the out-of-control bus as it is moving more erratically and destructively. “For those shots, we still used parts of the rig and the shots inside the bus. But then we stitched and added those into a combination of a 2D bus with a full CG bus that we had built for moments that were full CG,” Cancado says. 

Moreover, Luma constructed a CG build of the necessary city sections based on location plates, Lidar scans, projection mapping, and photography reference, with extensive previs and stuntvis done by The Third Floor. “The combination of using plate projections for the buildings so we didn’t have to build every single one in 3D was successful. It adds realism and keeps things grounded without us having to create everything from scratch,” says Cancado. The artists also built a number of full-CG elements (all the props, trees, the streets themselves, the windows for the right reflectivity, the inside and outside of the bus). At times, the group used projections with photos, while other times the work involved an all-CG environment.

“We had a perfect representation of how every one of those streets looked in 3D. Then, using the Lidar, we built and retopologized on top of it all the geometry we needed for the buildings. And then we put the camera in a spot where the photo [of the area] was shot, and we would project that back into the geometry,” explains Cancado. “Almost like you’re spray painting in every one of the buildings, but they already have lighting and texture, so it already looks like a city. But then we had to light the props and street to match those.” 

To build the environment, the group used a combination of Maya and Pixologic’s ZBrush for modeling and Foundry’s Katana for rendering, along with other tools. Compositing was done in Nuke, while sims and other work was accomplished in Houdini.

As Cancado notes, the biggest technical challenge for this lengthy sequence was building the CG environments with the outside of the bus, which is also CG, then adding the plate to those and making sure all the angles worked. “Imagine they were shooting those elements inside a bluescreen but trying to pretend you’re visualizing how a bus is driving, and making it look real and making sure people don’t know what’s CG and what’s not — that was pretty challenging,” he says.

In addition, Luma created digi-doubles for inside the bus that reacted appropriately to the mayhem. A digi-double was also used in the final fight on the bus between Shang-Chi and Ten Ring’s Razor Fist, so named due to the CG blade the artists crafted that projects from his arm.

Skyscraper Fight in Macau—Rodeo FX 

After the Ten Rings successfully steal Shang-Chi’s pendant, he and Katy fly to Macau, where he is lured to a gambling den inside an unfinished skyscraper. There, Shang-Chi unwittingly enters into a fight — with his estranged sister, Xialing, who owns the Golden Dagger Nightclub, essentially a fight club. 

According to Townsend, the filmmakers wanted the scenes to be flashy and a bit different from the naturalistic world of some of the other scenes. 

One full wall of the inside set was mirrored, with a lot of the action taking place in the reflection. With camera crews and stunt doubles to remove, along with destruction and a fight performance that needed enhancing, Method Melbourne built most of the set mirrored along the Z axis. Digital-double animation replaced sections of the performance, along with various effects work including window destruction and mirror smashing.

Eventually the brother-sister battle moves to the outside wall of the building, along bamboo scaffolding attached to the outside of the mirrored glass building, before Shang-Chi and Xialing join forces against the Ten Rings gang. The majority of scaffolding, as well as the realistic neon-lit city, was built in CG by Rodeo after COVID struck down plans for shooting background footage in Macau. The digital city, based on the actual Macau albeit with tweaks for creative storytelling, contains thousands of lights, pedestrians, and cars, procedurally crafted to feel like a bustling city, says Townsend. It also offered creative freedom in designing and art-directing shots.

“It’s quite a large set, and the whole thing was built on a hinge so it could be titled 45 degrees, which allowed us to do some complex stunt work,” says Townsend of the battle on the side of the skyscraper. “We were shooting against bluescreen and then compositing and building our entire world around it, including extending a three-story structure to 56 stories, and adding all the lights and atmospherics to make it feel real.” (The fight itself occurs across 36 digital floors, from the start to end of the scene.)

During a 17-month period, Rodeo worked on 155 shots for the sequence. For the digital Macau, Matthew Rouleau, environment supervisor at Rodeo, started out with Google maps and Open-Street-Map (OSM) data, using photogrammetry tools to extract a rough geometry of every building in the city, and populated the empty canvas with them. The group then extracted topography/elevation data and used it to accurately displace the ground plane, which gave them the most accurate starting point to build the city.

The CG artists then constructed buildings for the skyscrapers near the hero building containing the club, followed by the mid-resolution structures in the main section of downtown. They then created various types of architecture and procedurally scattered them on the accurate ground plane. They also designed all the building interiors (offices, apartments, and so on) using HDR images via an OSL shader that procedurally mapped those interiors onto low-res geometry. 

The environment team used a combination of Maya, Mari, Blender, Substance Painter, Isotropix’s Clarisse, and Adobe Photoshop for the matte paintings. Additionally, Golaem was used for the crowd sims, Houdini for the effects and sims, Katana for the look-dev and lighting, and Autodesk’s Arnold for rendering.

According to Ara Khanikian, Rodeo VFX supervisor, the size and photorealism of the CG Macau presented the biggest challenges, as did the reflection of the entire city in the skyscraper window. Rodeo graded all the shots so they matched in continuity, and created a sequence LUT that gave the whole scene a better, more realistic night look.

In addition to building a CG Macau, Rodeo also constructed the skyscraper and the scaffolding. “We built the skyscraper in a very modular way to give it all the control we needed across the sequence,” says Khanikian. “Knowing that the height and width of the building would potentially be modified to suit the needs of specific shots, we separated the building of the inner concrete structure and the outside mirrored glass panels and mullions to easily duplicate and modify certain portions.” 

The window mullions needed to contain a notch where all the vertical bamboo in the scaffoldings attached to the building. The scaffoldings themselves were built in a modular fashion, as well. The team built individual high-res bamboo sticks matching the ones built on set, and proceeded with assembling sectional groups of scaffoldings and scattered them across the four sides of the building. Straps of cloth were created and distributed across all the connection points of the sticks.

“The glass windows on the skyscraper were an extreme hero element in every single shot, so we spent a fair amount of time on them to develop the reflective shaders and how they affected the coloring and luminosity of the reflected renders as well as the dirt and smudge textures on them,” explains Khanikian. “We knew from the start that dialing in a tinted color to the reflections was going to be a pivotal aspect of the look and one that ensured the audience would always be able to quickly differentiate between looking at a reflection and looking directly at Macau from shot to shot.”

For additional detail and continuity, the studio built wooden planks onto which people could walk and run, and distributed them on all the scaffolding sections. Various props like that were positioned in a logical way in the master digital set with added controls to easily modify and override their positions and visibility on a per-shot basis.

As Khanikian notes, one of the complex aspects of the hero skyscraper build was assembling the various subsets together, allowing for maximum flexibility for in-shot modifications, continuity, and the introduction of variants (broken windows, for instance) during the fight. This was achieved through early analysis of the fight sequence and a mockup of the entire scene with every shot tagged to a specific locale on the skyscraper. “This helped identify from which window they come out at the very start of the scene, at what location and height every shot takes place, which window needs to explode, which sections of scaffolding need to have damage, where the scene ends, and so forth,” Khanikian says, adding it also enabled the group to determine over how many stories the action takes place.

Once every shot was camera-matchmoved, the layout team could easily place every camera from all the shots into a master layout scene with the entire skyscraper and manage the continuity of all the elements, from the first shot to the last. “This step was instrumental in ensuring the asset evolved over time with different story points through time across the sequence,” notes Khanikian.

In addition, Rodeo created numerous digi-doubles to enhance some of the action, even though many of the actors were doing some of their own stunt work; the artists also adding CG versions of the Ten Rings soldiers falling to their deaths.

Building Wenwu’s Compound—Digital Domain

Following the incident in Macau, Shang-Chi, Katy, and Xialing reluctantly meet with Wenwu, who operates out of a remote fortress that has existed for centuries, and over the years has grown and changed, reflecting his loves and losses. It’s an ever changing and fluid structure, built by Digital Domain. 

As audiences are introduced to Wenwu's compound, the sequence follows a helicopter over a remote and uninhabited wilderness, inaccessible to all but the most determined. Originally intended as live-action plates, but due to VOCID travel restrictions, the filmmakers asked Digital Domain to create the entire opening scene digitally, from the ground to the sky, along with the fortress itself. 

Working with the Marvel Studios’ art department, Digital Domain began building the landscape using survey data of an uninhabited area of New Zealand. Working with the filmmakers, artists created several iterations of the CG landscape using Maya and Houdini. Artists experimented with the precise look of the rock and vegetation, eventually creating a complete forest, says Hanzhi Tang, Digital Domain VFX supervisor. They then added environmental effects such as mist and cloudy skies, utilizing Maxon’s Redshift and GPU rendering to handle the massive amount of details and allow for faster iterations. Digital Domain then added a helicopter that became the focal point of the scene, along with the impression of movement across the landscape.  

To create the compound itself, Digital Domain used a combination of CGI and live footage on physical sets. After an introductory look from the air created entirely using CG, the location includes a series of shots on plates and live action. Artists initially received Lidar scans of the courtyard, which included bluescreens above the set. With the live action focused on the courtyard, artists then added the rest of the compound, creating a look that reflected the location’s expansion over the course of centuries. With the scene set in 1996, artists also added technology and equipment appropriate to that era.  
Following a jump to the modern day, the film returns to Wenwu’s compound to find it significantly altered, reflecting the character’s heartbreak and anger. Using the original model, Digital Domain’s artists updated the look, giving it a militaristic and ominous feel. The compound has become more fortress than home, with new defenses and weaponry added digitally, and dated components reflecting the ’90s removed. The film then returns to the compound once more for the final shot, with artists updating the location yet again to reflect the shift in circumstances and modernizing it for a new era, complete with modern artwork, telecommunications towers, and the removal of many of the more aggressive features previously added.  

The studio also helped orchestrate Shang-Chi and his allies’ escape from the compound. After being forced back to his former home, Shang-Chi leads a group to a massive staging area filled with dozens of vehicles. After selecting a BMW iX3 to escape in, the fun begins.  
The escape from the compound sequence is a mixture of practical and digital effects, beginning with the BMW itself. To capture the performances of the characters in the BMW, the roof of the SUV was removed, then later replaced by Digital Domain’s artists. The BMW itself was also re-created digitally — along with a pair of motorcycles and an armored personnel carrier (APC) — using Lidar scans sent to the artists from the set, and CAD files from the manufacturers. Digital Domain also added additional touches to the structure, including windows with server rooms in the distance and a power source in the distance.  
During the violent chase, the stunt performers driving a pair of motorcycles were replaced by digital human replacements and CG models of the vehicles. The filmmakers were then able to show the riders meeting a grizzly fate that would otherwise be too dangerous to perform using practical effects. The chase then concludes with the BMW narrowly escaping, while the APC crashes into a steel gate. For this, the filmmakers used a real vehicle and recorded it during a high-speed crash, with Digital Domain adding digital flourishes.  

In total, Digital Domain created nearly 250 shots for the film. Along with the exterior and escape from the fortress, the VFX studio also helped replace the rings in several scenes to give them a more free-flowing look, added several costume replacements throughout the film, and also replaced Razor Fist actor Florian Munteanu’s hand with a metallic brace for his non-combat scenes.   
Meet Morris—Trixter

While held at the compound, Shang-Chi, Katy, and Xialing discover the long-held captive Trevor Slattery and his companion, a most unusual but lovable creature created by Trixter — a rotund, fuzzy little CG creation with six legs, four wings, and no head, eyes, or mouth. Aside from having no face, Morris, an expat from Ta Lo, does have feathers and fur — all of which presented a challenge when bringing the character to life.

According to Dominik Zimmerle, VFX supervisor at Trixter, Morris is based on a Chinese mythological creature called a Hundun (a primordial God of Chaos), and as such, there are some historical illustrations that set some level of precedence for how Morris was designed. The studio also used a number of other creatures for reference, including dogs, bears, wombats, and birds such as Canada geese (for the wing structures).

“We started out with a few concepts created by Marvel’s art department and worked closely with the team there to create a  cute, wobbly, affable creature,” says Zimmerle. The artists then refined the design, deciding how to configure his six legs (would he have two sets of front legs or two sets of back legs?), whether he would walk like a digitigrade creature on his toes or a plantigrade creature on the full foot. In the end, it was decided that Morris would have two sets of back legs and plantigrade movement. 

“Animating and rigging a six-legged creature like Morris was unprecedented for our team. And, considering he is such a small and compact creature, it was a big challenge not only to find space for the additional set of legs in his tiny frame, but also to make sure they could move in a lifelike and realistic way,” says Zimmerle. 

Morris not only had to be cute, but he also had to communicate — no easy feat with a creature that has no face — which he does by fluttering his wings and shifting his weight. 

In addition to Morris, Trixter also created a full-CG world and numerous other mythological creatures for the film that appear as Shang-Chi and his friends pass through a water portal (created by Scanline) and enter the path to Ta Lo, all contributing to Trixter’s 237 total VFX shots in the film. As with Morris, these were all existing creatures from Chinese mythology. “The designs are very interesting and based on animals that are somewhat familiar in terms of their appearance, to keep them as real-looking as possible while still being fantastical,” says Townsend. 

There are a variety of creatures that appear along the so-called Ancestral Road (also an all-CG environment built by Trixter) upon entry into Ta Lo, including white nine-tailed foxes and qilins, horse-like animals with the face of a dragon, turquoise, iridescent, scaled skin, flamboyant white manes, deer antlers atop their head, and wizened faces.  

Lastly, Trixter created Abomination, a hulking creature at the fight club in Macau.

Dragons and Demons

Although Trixter was responsible for most of the film’s creatures, it was Weta that created the Great Protector, a wingless water dragon which represented peace and tranquility, and the Dweller in Darkness, a soul-sucking winged, tentacled, and eyeless abomination that represented evil — both based on creatures from Chinese mythology.

Marvel presented Weta with a good deal of artwork for the Great Protector, which they combined with reference of albino lizards, snakes, and crocodiles for her scales, giving them a  translucent quality. “You can see the blood under the scales, which gives them, and her, a sense of life,” says Weta’s Sean Walker, VFX supervisor. “There’s also a lot of cool, subtle things you might not notice at first glance. “And, she has this iridescence over her scales, with a bit of a paua shell feel to it, so when the light hits it just right, you get a hint of color here and there.”

One person pretty much handled her entire sculpt. According to Walker, the group decided the best way to approach her rig was to use individual scales so they moved and passed over one another. So, the person hand-placed all of the scales — all 8,000 — so they matched his sculpt. Otherwise, her model contained a reasonably simple muscle rig so her skin and muscles flexed in the right way as she moved around. 

For her hair, which is fully dynamic, the artists also studied the flowing motion of hair underwater, even when she’s in the air. “We didn’t want it to droop. We wanted it to constantly flow and feel like it had a bit of a magical quality,” Walker adds.

“The dragon went through a few revisions. We wanted to find the right balance of mass. Also, she had to look beautiful yet sort of terrifying, although kind when she’s looking at Shang-Chi and his family — but still strong,” Walker describes. In fact, Weta forged a familiar connection between the dragon and Shang-Chi and his sister by basing the creature’s eyes on that of the actress playing their mother.

The dragon is 130 meters long, and even though she is “ginormous,” she is majestic and moves gracefully through the air using a swimming-like motion, with Weta referencing the movement of sea snakes and underwater iguanas. Weta created her spline rig using Koru, its proprietary puppet rigging tool. Because she is wingless, the dragon leads with her head as she moves, with the group applying path-based animation, but every now and they broke that path at the body (with the head still following the path) to make it feel as though she was pushing herself through the air.

On the other end of scale was the Dweller-in-Darkness, which is creepy and terrifying, thanks to its massive jaw and large tongue that it uses to locate its prey. It is even larger than the dragon at 250 meters when it spans its nine tentacles (plus its four arms and two legs). For reference, bats were the obvious choice. Weta also referenced obsidian, a black rock, for its sharp teeth, and the thick hides of rhinos, elephants, and crocodiles for the general skin quality. They even used raw meat for the skin and gums surround the beast’s teeth. “We wanted a sore, worn-down quality to the skin,” says Walker.

“Whereas with the Great Protector, the artists had certain limitations in the design; for instance, she had to look beautiful. Whereas with the Dweller, we could go to town and were told to make it as scary and freaky as possible. There was very little in the way of limitations,” Walker recalls. At 128 million polygons, Walker believes it is the heaviest creature ever made at Weta.

The Dweller contains a simple muscle rig for the arms, legs, and torso, but its wings and the membrane between the wings are fully dynamic, as is the neck and the scales that slide atop one another that protect the neck. A dynamic rig was also used to allow the neck to expand and engorge as the beast sucked the souls from his prey.

“The dragon had a full skeletal structure in it, so when its soul was being sucked up by the beast, you could see its internals as the soul was rising up through the body,” says Walker. “The beast itself has a full skeletal, muscular, and vascular system built into it so that we could portray that visual power-up through emissive veins. The veins inside were glowing, and while that occurred, the rest of the musculature and skeletal system would shadow it, so you could feel its internals and organs while the rest of the veins were glowing inside its body.”

Because of its size, the artists used a traditional Maya puppet system and treated each part of the body as a different “costume,” enabling them to animate the torso to get bulk motion, and then add a costume — for instance, the arms — and work those separately. The same goes for the tentacles, although they had to be keyframed by hand because of their size. “It was literally a beast of a thing to animate,” adds Walker.

For creating the dragon and beast, the artists mainly used a mixture of Autodesk’s Mudbox and Maya for modeling; Foundry’s Mari for texturing; and Manuka, Weta’s proprietary tool for shading and rendering. As Walker point out, Manuka is a path tracer and designed to handle extreme amounts of polygons, so while the two creatures were tricky to model and animate, they weren’t a problem for the renderer.

While the Dweller was massive, Weta also generated the hordes of demons that escape from the cave, too, which were similar to the Dweller but on a much smaller scale.

Water Map—Fin Design

While held at the compound, Shang-Chi discovers his father’s plans to invade Ta Lo, Li’s ancestral home, where Wenwu believes she is being held against her will. (The so-called pleas from Li are actually coming from an evil force locked away there that is mimicking the dead woman’s voice.) However, Ta Lo is located in a pocket dimension and separated from Earth by a moving bamboo labyrinth (created by Scanline and detailed above). 

According to a unique map at the compound, Ta Lo can be entered through the so-called Moon Gate at the end of that labyrinth. The heroes discover this via a relief map on the compound wall that explodes into a burst of water and forms frozen water features revealing that secret. “Although a small sequence, it is quite beautiful,” says Townsend of the work by Fin Design. 

Ta Lo—Rising Sun Pictures 

Following Shang-Chi and his allies’ escape from Digital Domain’s compound, Scanline’s car chase sequence through the labyrinth, and Trixter’s fantastical creature encounter, they enter Ta Lo — home to mighty warriors who guard a gate that stops soul-sucking demons from escaping — built by Rising Sun Pictures (RSP).  All told, RSP delivered nearly 300 VFX shots, which also included face replacements (see special section below) generated using AI.

RSP’s work centered on the creation of the vast, CG environment representing the village of Ta Lo and its jungle environs. The CG environment augmented a physical set in a grassy field outside of Sydney. Everything beyond the near part of the village was computer-generated.

The digital jungle serves as the backdrop for much of the latter part of the film and is the site of some of its most electrifying action. The Ta Lo set describes a swath of jungle spanning 75 square kilometers. Loosely based on locations in Southeast Asia, it is meant to appear real to audiences but not identifiable as any actual place. RSP artists, led by Visual Effects Supervisor Malte Sarnes, designed the geography of the landscape, including lakes, mountains, ancient forests, and rice paddies, populated it with plants and myriad other details, and integrated practical elements shot on set in Sydney.

“We studied forested areas in Vietnam and Indonesia, and reproduced the variety of plant life found there as well   as how plants are distributed across the environment. We mimicked the light, humidity, and feel of the jungle,” notes Sarnes.

Digital production of the Ta Lo environment occupied the team for months. Artists began by laying out the physical structure of the environment and then added successively finer layers of detail. “We built a library of plants that were interesting and appropriate to the environment, including many varieties of bamboo,” says CG Supervisor Julian Hutchens. “Once we had the proxy geometry in place, we began fleshing things out. We ran erosion simulations to wear away parts of the landscape where water would naturally run and carve out deep crevasses. Then we added species of trees and other plants, distributing them based on wet versus dry areas and the amount of sunlight.”

The complexity of a landscape so large presented numerous challenges. “We developed a logic that allowed us to build an  environment that looked organic but did not appear overly art-directed or require too many individual decisions,” Hutchens says. To this end, the artists used procedural methods that were flexible and enabled “happy accidents” like those that occur in the natural world.

Finished shots required the integration of live-action elements, including actors and a partial set. Getting those elements to blend with the background required detailed attention from RSP’s compositing team. “We had to adjust the live plates, which were shot in the harsh Australian sun, to match the moody mix of light and shadow of our jungle,” explains Compositing Supervisor Guido Wolter. “It required extreme care, especially at the edges of actors, to keep background lighting from pushing through.”

Extra effort was also required because the jungle environment had to be shared with other studios (Weta and Trixter) working on different shots. The entire expanse of the jungle needed to be fully detailed and viewable from any angle. “It was a technical feat because every asset we created, from the library of plant species to cloud shaders, had to be easily accessible to other vendors using different software and methodologies,” notes Sarnes. “It required good communication, tight logistical coordination, and a collaborative spirit.”

In addition, RSP crafted a huge CG wooden mural found in Ta Lo that Townsend praises.  

Face Replacements

A number of VFX studios performed traditional face replacements and created digi-doubles for their various scenes in Shang-Chi — amounting to about 250 in total. But several studios took a particularly unique approach to that work.

For example, in addition to creating the Ta Lo jungle environment, RSP contributed to several other aspects of the film. Notably, the studio collaborated with technologists from the Australian Institute for Machine Learning (AIML) to develop a novel technique for facial replacement using artificial intelligence, using it in certain high-intensity combat scenes. “We used machine learning tools to train neural network models of principal actors and apply them to the faces of stunt doubles engaged in martial arts fighting,” explains Compositing Supervisor Guido Wolter. “The output is incredibly real and sets a new bar for believability.”

While initially intended to be traditional 2D and 3D face replacements, the team opted for AI, with Dr. John Bastian and Dr. Ben Ward building on the principles of open-source “deep fake.”

Bastian explains the process by which an “identikit” of both the stunt double’s and actor’s face are learned against a shared dictionary of facial features. The faces are then detected in the plate, and the machine rebuilds the image using the identikit of the intended actor.

Ward adds that the group used approximately 30,000 face images across five characters, training five principal models that combined to over four million training iterations. The team’s work grew to a total of 51 face replacements over six key scenes. In more complex circumstances where training material was not available, performance was driven by digital doubles as the basis for the face replacement.

“This would have been unheard of a couple of years ago,” notes RSP Managing Director Tony Clark. “What would have been a costly, labor-intensive process is now in the hands of machine learning, with no special hardware. Where RSP differentiates itself is with the expertise of Dr. Bastian and Dr. Ward, and the collaboration with AIML, which worked closely with our creative team.”

End Battle—Weta Digital

In the third act, we find the people of Ta Lo preparing for Wenwu’s attack to “free” Li. Wenwu arrives, and a large-scale epic battle ensues, fought on three fronts: the Ten Rings against the Ta Lo villagers; Wenwu against Shang-Chi; and the Great Protector dragon against the Dweller-in-Darkness beast. 

For the most part, RSP constructed the village and jungle of Ta Lo, and on the opposite side of the lake, Weta took over, creating the so-called Mountain of Souls, with the two facilities sharing assets to construct one big, combined environment, according to Weta’s Sean Walker, VFX supervisor. However, the third act, for all intents and purposes, belongs to Weta, which generated 305 VFX shots, including the dragon and beast (along with its demon army), digital environments, ring effects, and more.

The battle between father and son occurs on the Mountain of Souls against a giant red gate, the Dragonscale Gate, behind which the Dweller-in-Darkness and smaller demons are contained. Most of that fight was shot on bluescreen stages with Weta’s virtual world surrounding them, along with atmospherics and plenty of ring effects. 

For the father-son battle, Weta built the CG environment, while filmmakers constructed a partial fragmented set for that environment as well. Preferring the digital environment, the filmmakers eventually bluescreened the set, but not before a large amount of shooting had been done, leaving Weta to roto out the actors throughout the entire sequence and completely replace the plate environment with the CG one. “We had to make sure we replaced the entire environment seamlessly. There’s nothing on that side [of the lake] that is real other than the actors,” says Walker.

Since this was such an important fight, there was a lot of stunt choreography — and digi-head replacements — and a lot of editing. “We had to make sure we were keeping up with the edit. We did a continuity pass to make sure we were always shooting in the right direction and that the action was happening in a continuous manner, even when they cut chunks out of it,” says Walker. 

Of the more impressive work, according to Townsend, were the exterior CG water environments that Weta created, starting when Shang-Chi is gut-punched and is propelled into the lake, where he is rescued by the Great Protector dragon. More underwater scenes follow during the Protector versus Dweller fight. 

“We’re constantly developing and refining our water technology, and we have a new tool called Loki that we use to simulate extremely realistic-looking motion and bubbles, which we use a lot for our underwater environments,” notes Walker. However, the tool produces simulations that are too realistic, so instead the artists used Houdini to simulate giant spirals, which are more of an unnatural motion for water. “In the end, we had to treat it more like a character because of the way it moved and reacted, and had to make sure it could do all the things that essentially a character could do — for instance, hold down the beast — and then we used all our current rendering technology to make it look like water,” he adds.

Additionally, Weta generated VFX associated with the ring, which Walker called “deceivingly difficult.” “They’re simple, they don’t deform or anything like that, but we had to do some development to get the motion of the rings, the character of the rings, especially since the rings react so differently for each character,” he explains. The rings are blue on Wenwu, who uses them in a more angry, violent way, more as a weapon, creating whips out of them, discs of destruction, and projectiles, for instance. Whereas with Shang-Chi, the rings are gold and are more an extension of his body — graceful — and he uses them to accentuate his own motion, to block, for instance. 

Eventually Wenwu manages to release the Dweller and its demon horde, and a full-fledged attack ensues. The destruction was extensive as the beast breaks free from the gate. The Third Floor previs’d most of the fight, but as the edit continued to change, at a certain point Weta began handling the postvis itself. “While they were cutting things, we had a constant continuity pass going. Our layout team would constantly make sure that the dragon and the beast were in the sky in the right position all the time. So, if a big chunk of the fight was cut out in the middle o[f the take], we had to align all the story beats,” explains Walker.

That’s a Wrap

Just as Black Panther paid a beautiful homage to Black people, Shang-Chi does so as well for Asian people, leaning into Asian culture and mythology, and bringing that to the screen beyond the fighting styles we see. “Bringing in some of the elegance of that culture was a big part of our aim in the visual effects and throughout the film” says Townsend, “while also creating something unique.”

Perhaps Weta’s Walker sums up the experience working on this film best. “Shang-Chi has everything that a CG artist really wants to work on: giant beasts, superpowered martial arts, and just massive effects everywhere. It’s the longest show we’ve done for Marvel — at least until Eternals comes out.” 

That’s right, there is never any rest for those associated with the MCU, as Marvel quickly moved on to Eternals, released Nov. 5, and the plethora of other cinematic and streaming titles that will begin popping up soon enough. 

Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor of CGW.