For Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, VFX supervisor Sean Walker, along with his team at Weta, was tasked with bringing the Great Protector and the Dweller-in-Darkness to life. “The most challenging part with these insane, massive, mystical and mythical creatures, is that the human mind knows that these things can’t possibly live,” says Walker. “They can’t possibly be real, so everything that we do has to make it feel like you can touch them.”
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings follows Shaun (Simu Lu), whose real name is Shang-Chi, as he confronts his past when the Ten Rings organization, run by his father Xu Wenwu (Tony Chiu-Wai Leung), comes for him. Along with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina) and his sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), he returns to his mother’s homeland to protect them from the Organization and stop them from releasing a great evil.
Below, Sean Walker gives a breakdown of how Weta created the Great Protector and the Dweller-in-Darkness for the film.
“There’s a combination of a few programs we use,” Walker says. “The first image was rendered in Houdini and Mantra. We animate the creatures with a combination of Maya puppets and our proprietary Loki puppets, which is a tool we use at Weta. For the most part, the animators use Maya and our effects artists use Houdini.
The first one is actually kind of a proxy version of the dragon and the Dweller that our effects artists use. These low-res versions of the beast and the dragon allow the effects artists to simulate that soul coming out without having to deal with the enormous weight of what these creatures normally cost when you’re rendering them at full res.
We went through a few rounds of the soul and we started with going quite colorful. We wanted to visualize all the chakras in your body, with different colors for different chakras. The soul itself ended up being a lot more of a subtle, slightly magical effect that got pulled out of both the humans and eventually the dragon here.”
After the proxy image is used to experiment with effects, the model with the new effects needs to be assessed. “This image is rendered using our real time renderer, Gazebo. This is what we call a creature preview,” Walker says. “It allows us to visualize any problems with the simulations and you can see what part of the creature is working. Everything is mostly gray right now because that’s all stuff that we have seen before. The colored area is the new stuff for this particular diagnostic.
“The hair on the dragon was pretty difficult because it’s entirely simulated, which means it’s all done dynamically and it will move based on parameters that you put into the simulation. So, we’ll add wind and drag, and then the rest of the movement is based off the movement of the dragon. This hair was particularly difficult because we couldn’t just have it flopped down the whole time. It couldn’t have a kind of Jennifer Aniston haircut that frames her face. It’s not what it’s designed to do. So, the hair itself was simulated in a way that made it feel like she was almost always underwater. That way, it held its shape the whole time and when she would pose, it would always kind of go back to that original modeled look that we all loved in the first place.”
Weta’s texture artists come in to add shading, which “gives the creatures their material properties,” Walker says. “So, it’ll define their base colors, their specular response, how oily or shiny they are, or how transmissive they are. There are parts of the body where light will penetrate, like if you shine a light behind your hand, so they’ll define all of those. And the texture artists will be the ones that provide the shader artists all of the textures they need to build it.”
To get the most realistic textures, they look towards real life materials. “For the dragon, we looked at lots of white material reference, so things like quartz, quartz rock, shells. We ended up using albino lizards, albino alligators and snakes as reference because they have this beautiful sort of translucent specular quality to their scales. And there’s a hint of blood. This is a bit of a dark shot, so it’s a little hard to see, but you can see it obviously in the glow.
For the Dweller, we stuck to larger earth creatures for reference. So, rhino hide and elephant hide for a lot of the more malleable skin. For the plate armor, we were dealing with rocks and some really cool armored lizards. Then things like raw meat, where you could see the marbled fat in your steak, when you get close up to the Dweller’s mouth, with obsidian rock for the teeth. We wanted to get just that tiny hint of translucence in there, because it really adds to that realism. And yeah, and then lots of saliva and weird, funky mouth texturing as well.”
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