Hammering Away: Jake Morrison talks about Thor: The Dark World

Trevor Hogg chats with Jake Morrison who sheds some light about creating the visual effects for Thor: The Dark World….

Jake Morrison
“I’d been working with Marvel for quite a few projects, helping with Additional Supervision on the original Thor [2011] and then 2nd Unit VFX Supervisor for Avengers [2012],” explains Jake Morrison as to how he got involved with Thor: The Dark World (2013).  “I was delighted when Victoria Alonso, Marvel’s Executive Vice President of Visual Effects, asked me to lead the project as overall Production VFX Supervisor.”  Even within the confines of an established franchise there was still room for some creative freedom.  “Surprisingly there was a lot! The brief was to work on top of the previous film, staying true to the canon and faithful to the first film, but to improve the work across the board wherever possible.   Asgard was to become a more lived-in and practical place thereby giving the audience a view of the pubs, military training grounds and markets there.”
Alan Taylor on-location composing a shot

A topic of conversation with the director of the project was the amount of green and blue screen required for the different scenes.  “Alan [Taylor] worked closely with me and the other Heads of Department in pre-production to make sure we knew what was expected and we’d then go off, put our heads together and slice up the work the most efficient way,” states Morrison. “As it’s always a balance between the real and the virtual, there’s a constant dialogue as to how much set to build, which effects can be practical, and at what point in both of those cases where’s it’s simply not desirable or practical to do it for real. In practical terms, knowing what you can and can’t get away with is one of the most important skills for a VFX Supervisor! On a scene by scene basis we would work out what we thought the camera coverage would be and adjust the height of the sets accordingly.  The general metric is usually the more the actors move around a set, the more you have to build.  But if it’s a short scene it’s not always possible to build a full set, so the discussions turn to redressing previously build sets or going partially virtual in some cases.”

 

“Having the audience inherently understand and believe the various locations and technologies was one of the greatest design challenges for the picture, all practical issues aside,” reveals Jake Morrison.  “Asgard, for example, had to be true to its Norse roots – Viking ships, sword flights, drinking mead, and all that – but we are never to believe that the Asgardians look, dress or behave like that for any reason except that they want to! Arthur C. Clarke stated that, ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ That’s the driving force behind all the Asgardian tech design. The fun in the design process with that in mind is working out what a Medieval Hologram looks like. They have nano-technology and anti-gravity but instead of making futuristic spaceships they chose to make flying boats, because they like boats; they’re Vikings! We’ve got loads of that tech scattered through the film.  There are Asgardian CAT scans, nano-tech swords and spears, holograms, force-fields in the Prison that have Celtic patterns running through them, and the first Asgardian nano-tech books that were created with animating pages. We got to repeat that design process again for the film’s villains, the Dark Elves and come up with their versions of spaceships, holograms, and weapons. A tremendously enjoyable design process from pre-production, all the way through to the last VFX shots completing.  If we were successful, the audience won’t really question any of that.  We’re stretching belief but hopefully not breaking it!”

 

“As with the Production Design, it’s all about the blend point where one aspect starts and another stops,” remarks Morrison.  “The goal is to make sure that the right tool is being used for the right job. Take for example a shot where one character lands a super-powered punch on the other one. I would ask Steve Dent [Stardust], our Stunt Coordinator, to give us a good hard punch with the actors attached to a wire with just enough of a hard yank to get them off their feet and onto a mat. Having got the difficult bit in-camera, the reaction of the actor or stunt double jerking backwards, we’d then transition to a digital-double for the ‘in-flight’ portion of the shot. For the final impact I’d then worked with Paul Corbould [Children of Men], our SFX Supervisor, to give us a satisfying brutal bit of distraction. A good example of this process is in the final Greenwich battle where Thor smashes Malekith, the baddie, off his feet with his hammer. The initial impact that takes Malekith off his feet is real and is done with wires. The middle of the sequence where he’s ‘rag dolling’ through the air is a digital double and the final impact where he’s smashing into a London Taxi, brutally crimping it in two is a practical effect.  Paul smashed a concrete pillar into a real cab with a CG character added into the shot. Each of the departments contributed the portion that would deliver the best result on screen.”

Having an on-set presence was crucial.  “No matter how much you plan and prep, it’s still a movie with all of the practical considerations  and variables, actors, props, weather and, of course, on-the-spot epiphanies and changes in creative direction,” states Jake Morrison.  “I can’t overstate how much you need to be there, with the thinking-cap on, and ready to jump in any direction at a moment’s notice.  Although sometimes it can feel like that direction is off a cliff! Thankfully, the more you work on set, the more aware you get of what is possible in moments of crisis and so the better you get at heading off those moments, or so one hopes!”  Morrison remarks, “Marvel, being comic-book people, rely heavily on Storyboards. The storyboards are cut together as animatics, with sound effects and sometimes a sequence will simply be shot based on that. Other times, a sequence will have elements in it, like a moving camera or a flying vehicle that will lend itself strongly to previs. The Attack on Asgard is one good example.  Jane Wu’s storyboards delivered the foundation of the sequence to Gerardo Ramirez, our US Previs Lead at The Third Floor. Gerardo then brought the boards to previs life. If you look at the finished sequence back-to-back with the previs you would likely be surprised just how accurately the two match.”

 

“Our lead VFX house was Double Negative in London, chosen for their undoubted skill in creating cities and environments, from Batman Begins [2005] to the Total Recall [2012] reboot,” states Jake Morrison.  “DNeg were responsible for Asgard and Svartalfheim.  Asgard was based on a practical location in Norway which was extensively photo-textured during a week-long Aerial shoot and Svartalfheim was based on a practical location in Iceland, also extensively photo-textured and laser-scanned. If DNeg delivered the VFX shots of the realms by the hundred, Luma Pictures executed some of the smaller, but equally challenging sequences and vignettes. Luma had already shown great skill in character animation and rendering on the Destroyer character in the first Thor film.  We brought them on again for the Stoneman, seen at the beginning of the movie in Vanaheim. This character is a creature that has to be fully able to move and fight, but is made from hundreds of individual rocks that couldn’t be allowed to interpenetrate or squash. Much harder than it looks! They also created the Frost Puppy, the younger brother of a creature seen in the first Thor from the Ice Planet, Jotenheim; a brief appearance but a great moment that has become an audience favourite. We added another few VFX Vendors into the fold towards the end of Production, Method Studios, WhiskeyTree and Blur, working on the Final Battle, Throne Room dialogue scenes and Prologue respectively.”

“Shared Vendor shots are notoriously painful for everyone involved and thankfully we were able to avoid them entirely,” states Morrison.  “That’s not to say that the various effects and characters weren’t passed between the Vendors, with multiple VFX Vendors creating CG Dark Elves, Thor, Malekith, the Ark Mothership, and Inter-Realm Portals.  The asset most passed around was the Aether. Maintaining a unified look is of tantamount importance and we achieved this by sharing visuals between the vendors. In some cases the Vendor were actually passing each other cached VFX simulations. This film reflects my best experience so far with inter-vendor asset exchanges.  It’s in part because of the quality of the teams we had, but also because the industry is maturing and tools are starting to appear which reflect the unavoidable need for this kind of exchange of information in these VFX heavy tentpole pictures.”

“The Aether is this film’s MacGuffin. It is a power-source, a weapon, and a virus,” notes Jake Morrison.  “It needs to be gaseous enough to be inhaled and exhaled, a liquid in general appearance with an undersea fluidic motion, and turn crystalline when it is fired at Thor or when Thor attempts to destroy it with his lightning. To complicate matters further, the Aether starts out the size of a football and ends up thousands of feet tall. Obviously, this is a big ask from a humble VFX element, not to mention the fact that four different vendors, Double Negative, Luma, Method and Blur all had to create the effect.  Coming up with a look for The Aether took a long time collectively, as it has a different look in each scene, depending on its state. The solution presented itself often in shot with the FX technical directors and Supervisors at each house working tirelessly to make the shots functional for the story and also look like supercool effects work!”

 

“One thing that Marvel is careful to avoid is repetition for the audience so reels were complied for reference of films that had attempted the same sort of effects to avoid inadvertently reinventing the same wheel,” reveals Jakes Morrison.  “Most interestingly, these reels consisted of not only the most successful attempts, but also ones that hadn’t worked as well! We spent equal time working out why the best examples were successful as working out why the lesser examples hadn’t worked as well. Virtual mountains of still photography and art were collected for reference too; there’s some crazy stuff out there! With all that said, there are times when Alan or the Marvel execs specifically asked us to come up with an effect that would be immediately recognizable to the audience to avoid taking them out of the story or causing confusion; the cloaking and de-cloaking of the Dark Elf ships is a good example of this. Although we did come up with some really unusual Dark Elf technologies, eventually it was felt that the story would be better served by something straightforward and identifiable.  In general, my metric for designing these effects often comes down to the simple question, ‘Would my Mum know what the hell this is?’ She’s not a Sci-Fi or Comic Geek, but loves going to the movies. It’s important in design not to be so ‘clever’ that you lose an audience member and spoil the most important part of the movie-going experience – the story!”

 

“The stereo was handled by a dedicated Stereo Supervisor, Todd Napier [Alice in Wonderland] and his Stereo Producer Mike May [Captain America: The First Avenger] and given the complexity of the VFX work in the film, it was very much appreciated by me!” states Jake Morrison.  “The IMAX process was a great one. We mastered the film in a hybrid DCP format, an anamorphic version of the 2K 2.40 DCP and the 4K 2.40 DCP. This meant that creating the up-resolution version for the IMAX presentation or the smaller version for the standard cinema presentation was a relatively straightforward process. In my opinion, the IMAX version looks awesome – the team did a fantastic job with the conversion!”  Reflecting on Thor: The Dark World which has become box office success earning $630 million worldwide as well as making the Oscar short list for Best Visual Effects, Morrison remarks, “If I’m to look for a specific scene I’m most proud of it would be one of the most sombre moments in the film; the Royal Funeral is almost entirely VFX driven, but I hope that the audience would never stop to think that. It’s a sad moment not a whiz-bang one so it’s a delicate line to walk. Hopefully, we got that one right!”

Production stills © 2013 Marvel. All Rights Reserved.

Many thanks to Jake Morrison for taking the time for this interview.

To learn more visit the official websites for Thor: The Dark World, Double Negative, Luma PicturesMethod Studios, WhiskeyTree and Blur.

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Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.

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