Thor Ragnarok: Hela and back

Australian VFX studio, Rising Sun Pictures (RSP) has produced more than 170 final visual effects shots for Director Taika Waititi’s smash hit Thor: Ragnarok.

The production Visual Effects Supervisor was Jake Morrison. RSP’s team spent more than 18 months on the project including helping to develop Hela, the Asgardian Goddess of Death played by Cate Blanchett. For example RSP worked on developing the hair wipe transition to Hela’s horns, and her hammer crunching introduction to the film, that initially was very different.

As some fans noted, in the early trailers and ComicCon reel for Thor: Ragnarok, Hela was featured crushing the iconic hammer in a very urban looking environment. In the original first act of the film, Thor and Loki travel to New York city as in the theatrical version but then don’t suddenly move to Norway to find their father. In the film Odin has inexplicably traveled to an idyllic retreat in Scandinavia, but in the first version of the film Odin never left America and was instead homeless on the streets of NYC, hence the first version of the showdown had Thor first confront Hela in an alleyway. It is this ‘deleted’ sequence of her crushing Thor’s mighty hammer Mjölnir, that was seen in one early trailer.

A shot from the first trailer, note the environment was then NYC

As this was the first introduction of Hela into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, RSP took great care in preparing Hela’s look, including her cape, the cowl she wears on her head, and her menacing antlers. Artists initially developed concepts for Hela’s costume for a trailer that screened at Comic Con in 2016 but continued to refine the look through later stages of production. For approximately 80% of the schedule RSP was handling Hela’s appearance but the final Norway sequence was produced by ImageEngine, as RSP was by then busy on the palace fight sequence. The Norway sequence involved a scheduled second reshoot and a recreation of the hammer destruction. “It was quite tricky,” recalls Head of Lighting/Look Development Shane Aherne. “We needed to remain consistent with the assets’ practical counterparts and with their representations in the original Marvel comics. But we also needed to accommodate Cate Blanchett’s performance and the action of the scene.”

The homeless storyline was deemed too depressing a send off for the Asgard King, in a film that has delighted audiences with its humor, wit and repositioning of Thor as a funnier version of the Avenger superhero.

In prior films, it was safe to assert that at times the villains, Loki in particular, were just more interesting than Thor himself. In Waititi’s version, Thor is the emotional centre of Thor: Ragnarok.  While the film may have taken on a more humorous approach to the problems of the galaxy and the end of Asgard, the visual effects need to not only deliver a much more expressive Hulk (more in our upcoming coverage), but also vast environment work and an epic glimpse at the apocalyptic Valkyrie attack on Hela. The original cut started with Hela’s POV of the horses arriving, but the scene shifted more to the Valkyrie’s perspective «which put you more in the battle and with Valkyrie, in amongst people. And she isnt that special, she is just one of the Army, so not a hero in that Army, she is just one of the rank and file. This established her as being in the battle but in the leading edge, and she only survives because she get’s pushed into a portal, and that’s how she escapes» comments RSP VFX Supervisor Dennis. «It was a gift for us to work on all of that scene from planning, boards, — right through to final execution».

The Valkyrie flashback was a good fit for RSP as the sequence plays out in extreme slow motion under a glittering and flickering light. It was described as the fatal encounter between the female warriors riding on winged steeds, «emerging from portals in the sky only to be mercilessly struck down by Hela using her magical powers.» RSP had previously found great success with the extreme slow motion of Quicksilver in the X-Men films X-Men: Days of Future Past and X-Men: Apocalypse. This new sequence played to the facility’s strengths. But unlike Quicksilver, RSP had to build its creature animation pipeline to accommodate not only this but the near full body replacement of Hela in this scene and later fight scenes.

Production was filmed on the soundstage in Queensland where the slow motion effects were achieved by capturing actor performances via a Phantom camera operating at up to 900 fps. The imagery was given a further surreal cast through the use of a rotating lighting system that bathed the scene in undulating patterns of light and shadow. Overall visual effects supervisor Jake Morrison personally helped engineer the complex lighting rig and planned its coordination with the high speed frame rates. RSP’s On-Set Visual Effects, Concept and Pre-Vis Supervisor Adam Paschke headed the RSP on-set team that gathered practical data and provided technical advice during the shoot. RSP did previz, storyboard and animatic for the Val’s Flashback sequence.

The special lighting rig was called a ‘Satellite computer controlled rig’ and it was able to vary the banks of lights at an extremely fast rate this allowed the team to sync the Phantom and the lights so that it almost appears as the lighting is different every frame. While this gave the sequence an ethereal appearance it was still very difficult to really isolate the exact look of the attack. The first shot that was approved is the shot of a single falling Valkyrie while fellow warriors charge around her.

The first shot in the sequence that was approved.

This shot become the formula for the entire rest of the sequence. «You got almost every 24 fps (in the final) a complete lap of the light rig, with a 360 light spin per second…the special rig gave a one off look that was very unique and a bit ‘out of this world and out of time» comments  Jones. In the final shot the team blended fixed lighting, such as distance skylight with this close proximity close lighting. The RSP team first post-vized the scene they did about ten main shots, «but they were about three times the length of those in the film», adds Jones. «They were a lot slower and graceful, .. and in the end that almost tripled the shot count, but then the shots become quicker, but the Satellite rig gave almost a fade up fade down feel from the movement of the shadows in the shot I felt».

Considerable attention went into the creation of the Valkyrie and horses. Often revealed in close up, the animated characters had to be photo-real. “We spent a lot of time in look development, making sure that their fur and feathers were right, and that the muscle system moved like a real horse,” explains Head of Creatures Tim Mackintosh. “If they had been monsters, we would have had more leeway, because monsters aren’t real, but everyone is familiar with horses. Although these were mythical, winged horses, audience members will have an idea for how they should look and move.”

RSP utilised digital characters to perform actions impossible for a human or to facilitate integration into the scene. This was especially important for characters that exhibited magical powers or super-human strength. In most instances, the character’s motion was derived from motion capture data from the actor. “Motion capture will get you 90 percent of the way there, but the rest has to be sculpted to the CG character,” notes Mackintosh. “It’s a labour-intensive process and one that requires artists with a lot of different skill sets.”

«We did a lot of motion tests on Hela to try and understand the character, weight, motivation and style of fighting. The production wanted an effortless, elegant style, as if she can kill people effortlessly, in a way like Quicksliver in X-Men, she is almost nonchalant about it. She can kill entire armies at a whim» Jones adds. One of the references for Hela’s style was some of the female fighters in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. This was apparent in the one on one fight in the Palace with Thor. RSP ended up getting a very good digital match for Cate Blanchett, and in many of the fight sequences while her face and in particular her eyes are real, the rest of her body is digital. Blanchett and her stunt double, Zoë Bell, both did the motion capture for Hela, «Cate has a nice strut, character wise, she has a very, what I call:  ‘geezer strut’ » says Jones referring to Hela’s some what eccentric walking stepping motion. Bell was a bit shorter than Blanchett and so the team needed to re target some of the MoCap and adjust the action.

RSP rendered the project in Arnold, but RSP did use some Mantra rendering for some of the volumetric elements. Jones explained that Jake Morrison had a quick eye when it came to spotting any non-physically based rendering, that did not display the correct results in terms of bounce and energy conservation. The pipeline evolved as RSP moved quickly to a fully rendered physically correctly solution in Arnold. For example, originally for the first trailer, the Hammer destruction sequence, RSP had everything lit and rendered separately with the intent of solving and balancing in Comp. «We had the alley itself rendered in Arnold, volumetric elements coming out of Mantra but as RGB channels not even photometrically lit correctly, but then we ended up consolidating it all into Arnold, to the point we had effects generating meshes that were correct color temperature data, real world values were used that cast nice light through the smoke onto surfaces that were reflecting and rendered with correct secondary shadows. Suddenly you could turn off half the comp tricks and it still looked really good» recalls Jones.

The Palace Fight depicts a confrontation between Hela and Thor that plays out over some 60 shots. Although live action elements were shot on a practical set, the production ultimately chose to have the entire background replaced with a 3D environment created by RSP. “We produced a palace that was much bigger and with a higher ceiling than was possible on any stage.” explains Wood. “It was more spread out and more opulent».

«Everything got replaced even the floor», comments Jones. The Throne room set was built based on assets provided by Double Negative (Dneg) from the last Thor film. DNeg had finished the last film with shots of Loki as Odin in the Throne room, and it was this CG model that RSP used as a starting point for the new Throne room. The two environments did not need to match as the previous Throne room had suffered enormous damage and hence it made plot sense that the new room had been rebuilt differently.

In the finished scene, Thor is the only non-digital element. “Replacing the background in its entirety created its own challenges,” observes 2D Lead Jess Burnheim. “It meant that we had to extract Chris Hemsworth from the plate with no blue screen. We literally rotoscoped everything, including his hair. It was painstaking work.”

Executive Producer Gill Howe comments that as this was RSP’s first Marvel Studios film, «we wanted to give it our best effort and ensure that everything we delivered was spectacular and exceeded expectations,… “The results are a testament to the dedication and creativity of our artists, and the strength of our pipeline in managing photoreal creature animation; complex, interactive lighting and look development. It’s a big step forward for RSP.”