Weta’s 350-strong team worked through the pandemic on the gargantuan project of creating dragons, demons, mystical weapons, water simulations and epic battle scenes

If you’ve seen Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, you’ll appreciate the immensity of the VFX: the complexity of the shots and the sheer number of those complex shots made for a huge and challenging project.

The film’s third act battle at Ta Lo and the two dragons, Great Protector and Dweller in Darkness, are the work of Weta Digital. The sequence contains a murmuration of thousands of demons, complex water simulations and a crowd of warring villagers, each wielding a weapon that required VFX.

The slightly translucent scales of albino lizards were used as a reference to create the beautiful Great Protector dragon, and obsidian and marbled meat were used for the teeth and gums of the less attractive Dweller in Darkness. The hero mesh for the latter contained 128 million polygons, one of the highest polycounts for a creature at Weta.

Sean Walker, VFX Supervisor at Weta Digital gave us the lowdown on how these scenes were put together:

Tell us about the team you put together for this project.

We had a team of about 350 people who worked on Shang-Chi. Working with Marvel is usually a very organic process and this film was no different. I wanted to put together a team of people who were familiar with Marvel projects, so much ofthe team had plenty of experience on their films. I’ve worked on seven myself, the last five being all Marvel. The team had to be flexible and innovative in order to adjust to any changes in story or aesthetic.

Karl Rapley, our Animation Supervisor, has worked on the last few Marvel shows with me, and we continue to have a great working relationship. We have the same goals and vision when it comes to animation and cinematography and coming from a pre-vis background, he has the ability to really help tell the story the film-makers are looking to tell.

Our Compositing Supervisor Sabine Laimer is another Marvel veteran. We usually rely heavily on compositing in the Marvel world to maximize efficiencies and develop the look of our sequences. She has an amazing eye for visual effects and was a perfect addition to the team.

Joanna Davidson was our CG Supervisor for the show, and while less experienced in the Marvel world, I’ve worked with her many times before, and there is no way we could have completed the show without her.

Our FX Supervisor Claude Schitter has worked on some insane films throughout his career, and had just finished up on a big water show, so he was a great fit for Shang-Chi. Water was our biggest FX concern going in, so having Claude join us was excellent.

It’s hard to express how amazing the whole team was on this project. I had many people asking to work on this show in particular, so it wasn’t very hard to cast at all.

How would you describe the overall aesthetic that you had to work within?

The overall aesthetic for the film was generally ethereal and dramatic. We had a little artistic freedom, in that the world exists outside of ours through a portal. We based everything we did in reality with plenty of environmental reference from east Asian countries, but pushed a little of that ethereal aesthetic to service the drama of the film. Our vision was to create something that no one had seen before. Something beautiful and dramatic, but also violent and chaotic.

Live-action shot against blue screen
Final animation
Final shot

Tell us about the process of creating the dragons and other creatures.

The design of the Great Protector dragon started with some beautiful art provided by Marvel. While there were details that we altered throughout production, the design was based heavily off that initial artwork. We built her with 8000 hand-placed scales, and a full skeleton. She also has a fully dynamic groom for the hair and a simulated moss layer for close up shots. A dragon without wings was a new one for us so we animated the dragon with a combination of path-based and keyframe animation, using a Koru spline rig. We wanted her to lead with the head for clear purpose and intention, but the body had to be able to express itself. We broke the path with additional key frame animation to create a strong physicality to its movement, while also adding in powerful leg drives where appropriate as she pushed herself through the air.

The Dweller in Darkness was a beast both in the literal sense, and with its build. It was a heavy rig with nine tentacles, four arms, two legs, and two enormous wings. The hero mesh consisted of 128 million polygons, which is one of the highest polycounts we’ve had for a creature at Weta. We also built a full skeleton, muscle and vascular system. We used these during its powered-up phase. Emissive veins shone through translucent sections of its body, while also revealing and shadowing its internal muscles and skeleton. It was a key frame animated performance as the motion had to be invented from scratch. Trying to balance all of the limbs, wings and tentacles was a major animation challenge and we used multiple creature “costumes” to simplify the animation approach, allowing us to focus on core body mechanics first, before moving to the outer extremities. Sine wave deformers built into the tail helped us to iterate quickly as we discovered the expressiveness of their movement. This was used as a base where appropriate before being baked down and additional key frame work added.

The soul sucking demons were a bit more of a challenge. They were designed with around 36 tentacles, and there were thousands of them. We tackled their animation with a combination of Massive crowd and Houdini simulations, vignettes, and keyframe animation. Our talented animation team were put to the test with the sheer number of tentacles. Some shots involved multiple demons crawling on the face of the Great Protector which had to be invented and crafted by hand in order to be convincing. At one point, our demon murmuration (the simulated flock of demons surrounding the beast) consisted of 16,000 demons. This was deemed a little too insurmountable by the villagers and we dialled it back, but made the individual demons feel more threatening. The demons themselves were blocked in again using sine-wave deformers to help with the incredible number of tentacles, as well as pre-made animation cycles that we could dress into the background plate photography. All the demons in the foreground, and especially the ones interacting with characters in the plate, were all meticulously hand keyframed.

The last of our creatures were the Foo Dogs. Their designs were based off the traditional guardian lions seen protecting temples and palaces. We groomed them with 30 million strands of hair, which I think may also be a creature record at Weta. We built them with a full muscle and skeletal rig, which was used to simulate muscle movement, flexing and weight.

Did you use any special reference materials?

For the creatures we used a number of different reference materials. When designing creatures, we start out with art reference packs. These are generated by our art department and help define every feature that you see on our creatures. We’ll split up every part of its body and find material reference that would suit each section. Much of the reference is organic, but occasionally you’ll find materials that you wouldn’t always think of. For the Dweller in Darkness for example, we used the mineral obsidian as inspiration for its teeth. Obsidian has a dark but translucent quality, which suited this evil creature that had been locked in a cave for thousands of years. We also used heavy-skinned creatures like rhinos and elephants for much of the skin reference, and beta-keratin scales and plates from lizards for the armour. Lastly, for the mouth we wanted a raw, painful feel to the skin, so we used raw marbled meat as reference to be exposed around the teeth and the mouth, like it hasn’t flossed in quite a while.

For the Great Protector dragon, we wanted something much more beautiful than the usual dark, horned, spikey dragon that we’ve come to expect in film. To achieve this, we looked at softer materials that would transmit a little light into the scales. We landed on albino lizards as reference for the scales. There is a beautiful subsurface feel to their scales that adds a little blood and colour complexity. It’s that subtle little detail that really brings her to life. For animation reference we looked at sea snakes and swimming iguanas, as well as traditional ribbon dancing for inspiration and posing.

For the demons, we looked at bats in flight, but more importantly bats crawling across the ground. There was a certain uneasy, sporadic, creepy movement to them which we felt suited these creatures, especially as the climb over walls and the Great Protector’s face.

How did you create the water simulations?

The water simulations were a huge part of our focus in this production. Water is traditionally a tricky and time-consuming effect to get right, and this project needed not only a lot of it, but it also needed to be manipulated in a way that we hadn’t done before. We started by blocking the gross shapes, motion and tendrils in animation. This allowed us to get early sign off on the motion and composition for each shot. Once we had that, we used a cacheless delivery system to pass the animation to FX, providing us with a faster turnaround with any changes. We then blocked out the water surface FX and from then on, animation would use that rough simulated geo in their presentations. The idea being, we wanted to make sure once the animation was signed off, we were already advanced on the water simulation side and the client had a good idea of what the shot would look like with the FX, before we even hit the render button. This gave us an incredibly high approval rate on the final water renders.

We had a bit of a production line happening once the animation and FX blocking was signed off. Individual artists focus on singles elements for every water effect. One person would simulate the water surface, another would simulate the spray, another the spindrift and so on. This meant we were able to hit a lot of shots at once and keep the look consistent through the sequence.

Final Animation
Water tornado FX
Water tornado FX with animation
Final shot

How were the battle scenes done?

The battle in Ta Lo was definitely a challenge. This was for two main reasons, the army of demons and the weapons the villagers used against them. The weapons needed to emit a mystical energy. It was a little daunting when the plates came in, seeing the sheer amount of background actors swinging their swords and shooting their bows at invisible enemies. We tried to come up with ways to optimise which weapons to track and for what specific frames, but with the amount of demon interaction that was needed, we decided that it would be most efficient, on both counts, to match move every actor and weapon in the plates. This gave animation an ideal playground to work in and allowed lighting to generate passes that could be used to create the mystical weapon effects.

Before our plates had even been processed, we generated numerous animation stacks for the demons. Demons swooping and dodging, demons dying, demons attacking and sucking the souls of their victims. We had a library of animations that we were able to integrate into the battle scenes relatively quickly. Much of the foreground action however still needed custom keyframe animation in order to cater to the unique action the stunt people performed.

How did you go about integrating elements shot in bright sunlight into the overcast Ta Lo environment?

The bright Australian sunlight was another challenge but thanks to our process of match moving all the actors in the plates, it proved a little less painful than it could have been. On set they used a giant crane-suspended sheet to shadow the foreground action, but almost always the background was hit by hard sunlight. There were shots in which we were able to use custom grades and roto to push the plate in to a more overcast feel, but for the most part we found it easier to roto out everything being hit by sun and replace it with our digital version of the village. The good thing about having match moved all the actors was that we could easily replace them all with our digital doubles, while still preserving their performances.

What technologies and software did you use for your work on this project?

For the most part we stuck to our standard workflows and tools. We have a bit of a Marvel package of tools that allow us to be flexible and efficient. In animation we used Koru Animation Puppets for all our digi-doubles and a Koru spline rig for the Great Protector dragon. For the Dweller in Darkness and the demons, we opted for a more traditional Maya puppet.

For our water simulation work, we mostly used Houdini. Synapse was used for our large-scale destruction and volumetric work. Houdini was also used for much of the rings, magic and soul FX. For the souls, we used Nuke Point Render to get the echo of the victim that gets pulled from the body.

Manuka was used to render all of our characters, water FX, and closeup environment, while Mantra was used to render most of the rings FX and magic FX. Eddy in Nuke was used to simulate and render all of the steam vents and interactive atmosphere on the Mountain of Souls, as well as add little volumetric details to Shots.

We also used machine learning models to help out with our face replacements. Being such a stunt heavy show, we needed to generate a lot of face replacements, and using machine learning, we were able to reach a more realistic facial performance with a simplified facial rig.

What was most challenging on this project, artistically and technically?

Technically, the most challenging part of this project was the sheer amount of work. There were very few shots that we would consider “low-hanging fruit”. Much of the work included creatures of immense complexity, bulk camera work in match-moving everything, complicated plates, and of course insane water and magic FX. Most of the work, from a technical standpoint, wasn’t too out of the ordinary for us, but the complexity of the shots and the number of complex shots is what made it logistically challenging.

Artistically, the main challenge was trying to make all the crazy stuff feel real. It was one of those sequences that you knew couldn’t possibly be real, considering the creatures and magical elements of the show, but you have to convince the audience that it could be. It meant a bit of a process in grounding everything in reality as much as possible to begin with, then pushing things to just before they break. We’d make sure that every element that built an effect had some basis in reality. The water for example was shaded to react like a deep ocean in our lighting. Aeration was added to the crests of the “waves”, foam would travel across the surface, and light spindrift would whip across the surface. This was so that even when you see massive spikes of water rising up into the air, you can still feel like you’d be able touch it.

What are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of our team. It was a long show by Marvel standards, and we began during the early stages of the pandemic, plus the release date was pushed a few times. Marvel shows are always a lot of fun, but generally challenging. Working on these projects is an organic process with both artistic and editorial changes throughout. The good thing is knowing this, you are able to plan for it. Planning for the pandemic was a little more difficult. What would usually be a challenging short burn ended up being a challenging long burn. Our artists really pulled out all the stops, keeping an amazing attitude the whole way through, and helping to create a wonderful experience for director Destin Daniel Cretton and his team, this being his first with us.

Live-action shot on gimble against blue screen
Final Animation
Final shot
Tanya Combrinck
Author: Tanya Combrinck

Tanya is a writer covering art, design, and visual effects. She has 15 years of experience as a magazine journalist and has written for publications including 3D World, 3D Artist, Computer Arts, net magazine, and Creative Bloq.