Behind Shang-Chi’s VFX: 10 Rings, 2 Dragons, and Imagination

Marvel Shang-Chi and the legend of the ten rings it broke new ground and broke many box office records, and like so many other movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it looked pretty spectacular doing it.

Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, the film features Simu Liu as the film’s titular martial arts superhero, who is forced to confront both his fate and his dark past when his father, Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung), fixes his gaze. , and the criminal empire he leads – in acquiring the magic of the mighty dragons located in the hidden city of Ta Lo. Shang-Chi is forced to reunite with his estranged sister, Xu Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), to prevent her father from using the power of the Ten Rings to unleash the dragons on humanity.

Tips Clear spoke with Weta Digital’s visual effects supervisor on the film, Sean Walker, to learn how the studio team helped bring to life the power of the rings, dragons, and the magical world that all inhabit on screen. Shang-Chi and the legend of the ten rings.

Tips Clear: How many takes did the Weta team work on for the film?

Sean Walker: I think it was around 305 shots, and we hit a few more than that overall.

Let’s start with the Ten Rings. They are a unique visual in the movie, and not what many people expected in terms of how they are used and what they look like when used. What did it take to create them and bring them to the final look they had in the movie?

Yes, the rings were a bit more complicated, honestly, than I thought they would be. From a CG perspective, getting a realistic looking ring is not much of a challenge. It’s metal, we’ve seen something like this before, and it doesn’t warp, but its movement was very, very character specific. They became a character of their own.

Every time Shang-Chi manipulated them, for example, they became more fluid in their movements. He used them defensively, and they flew around him in a way that was almost as if he was throwing them through water. So we did a bit of research and exploratory work with that, and we also wanted to make sure they were playing the emotional beats, so there was a little lag between the Shang-Chi’s movements and the rings themselves.

Simu Liu against a blue screen while filming Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
The visual effects depict the character of Simu Liu in Shang-Chi and the legend of the ten rings.

And Wenwu wore the rings in a very different way …

Exactly. Wenwu is very aggressive towards them and predominantly uses them as weapons. He uses them as whips and projectiles, or even what we call a circular saw. So when marking that specific move for each character, each specialist had to take a little time to work on the moves, and the effects themselves that come off the rings were also very important. We did some exploratory work there too. The original Ten Rings from the comics had different colors, as well as being rings on the fingers instead of what we see in the movie. [In the comics], each had a particular purpose, and there was a point at which [Marvel President]Kevin [Feige] I wanted to bring some of that to the movie as well.

In fact, we explored having color variations for each character. We would have a wide range of colors for Shang-Chi that weren’t just the warmest colors seen in the movie: the golds, oranges, and reds. It initially spread a bit further than that. So when he was performing a specific move, we would get a specific color, and when they would fly around it, they had an aurora effect, and you would also get some wacky colors there. That was great visually, but we found it was too distracting from the story.

There is only a limited amount of visual information that we want to offer people and, in the end, we stick to a tighter color palette. I think that helps, because it’s a little easier to understand. … The rings were a great topic of conversation at all times, obviously.

Well, they are in the title …

Correct. But it was fun exploring all of that from the beginning. There were a lot of geek moments along the way when people were talking about how things could work with rings.

Simu Liu in Shang-Chi and the legend of the ten rings.

Let’s talk about dragons. How was the evolution of the Great Protector and Dweller of Darkness? How did these elements evolve in terms of their design and the way they move?

Well, the story itself evolved throughout production, as did the characters. For him [Great Protector] dragon, we have some very early artwork. It was one of the first things I saw when I entered the movie. Chris Townsend, Marvel’s visual effects supervisor, presented some illustrations that they had done before before coming to us and said, “This is the dragon and this is the Dweller.” And honestly, we didn’t deviate too much from that initial artwork. Marvel was so happy with the initial designs. I’ve never seen them more confident in a design right from the start. So we had to modify very little of that first artwork.

So the look didn’t evolve much from that early concept art?

There were some evolutions in the [Great Protector] dragon design in regards to storytelling. The dragon itself is a water dragon, so we wanted to show that it was powerful and manipulated water. At one point, the dragon itself emitted energy in the same way that weapons made from dragon scales do. The weapons have this golden energy flowing through them, and the dragon itself was completely golden for a while, buzzing with energy. It was crazy. We’d progressed through quite a few takes with that, and then decided it was too distracting to have that amount of “sparkle” in the shots. So we re-dialed that and got rid of most of it.

Filming an underwater scene in Shang-Chi and the legend of the ten rings.
A scene from Simu Liu and an underwater dragon from Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

What about the skin and textures of the dragon and such? It is definitely a unique appearance for a dragon.

We did a lot of exploring with real life materials. For scales, we started with things like quartz and porcelain, just to see if we could find some real-life equivalents that would help ground it in the truth. But we ended up finding a perfect reference elsewhere. Many albino lizards have white scales with a hint of blood that can be seen running underneath the scales, just a bit of red here and there, and adding that extra translucency to the dragon really helped bring it to life. Its body is also covered with a dynamic moss, so when you are close, you can see the moss fluctuating in the wind.

There is also a lot of wear and tear and aging. They wanted her to feel old, but not old, which is a tricky balance. It is supposed to look old through the weather and scars, but not wrinkled and weakened over time.

The visual effects artist tells me that fire, water, and hair are the most difficult elements to create digitally, and all three were in the final scene of the battle, particularly water. What made the effects of the water seem real?

Yes, like so many other elements, the water ended up being its own character. The water had to be completely manipulable. A bunch of [Weta’s] Work in the past has involved a realistic interaction of water, but this is one of the first times that we actually manipulated water in this way. We treat it exactly as we would a character. We had the animation run through it, and they guided the water tendrils, as we called them, and from there we had a little more process, checking with Marvel every step of the way. They were great simulations, some of the biggest we’ve done and some of the most expensive renderings we’ve done in a long time.

The visual effects show dragons fighting over water in a scene from Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
Dragons fighting for water in a scene from Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

You’re basically directing the water in scenes like this.

You are! We had a small production line with the water, which helped maintain consistency. We had individual artists taking care of each component of the water simulations. We will have one person take care of the surface of the water. Someone else would take care of the spray and splash flying off the surface of the water. We will have someone else take care of the additional details and ripples. That kept the look consistent, because there’s not one artist doing one take and another artist doing another take in a slightly different way, for example. They were all exactly the same throughout the entire process.

Is there an element that your team has worked on that a lot of people don’t realize is a visual effect?

In the big fight between Wenwu and Shang-Chi, they started with a full set, and by “full set”, I mean they built a part of the door at the bottom and the rocks and soil around it. But about halfway through the filming of that fight, they realized they didn’t like the set at all, so they started to blue screen everything around them. So the only things that are real in that whole fight are the actors themselves. We just rotoscoped them and the whole thing became a complete CG replacement for the ground and everything else around it.

It was also a bit the same for Ta Lo. The fights in the village and the village scenes were filmed in sunny Australia. But as you see in the movie, it’s actually cloudy in those scenes. So they overshadowed the action and the actors in the foreground with a giant sheet in the sky suspended by a crane, but everything beyond that shadow they created was almost completely replaced. They had people fighting in the sun in the background of the shot, and we replaced each of them digitally. It was too difficult to digitally graduate the sun, so we just replaced everything.

Production of a fighting scene against a green screen background in Shang-Chi and the legend of the ten rings.
A fight scene in the Ta Lo village of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

What is the shot you are most proud to work on in the movie?

In fact, there are two. I love the photo of the dragon approaching to look at Xialing after she eliminates all the demons. It’s the take we worked on at the beginning, and the one I was most proud of when it came to the dragon.

The other was the post-credits scene. We worked on that long scene and got it a little later. It was something very abstract, this idea of ​​what they were seeing: a beacon within the rings. So it was getting to cable and we were struggling a bit to conceptualize it. At a certain point, we just took two effects artists and two songwriters and said, “We really don’t know what we’re doing here, so I just want you to use all your imagination and creativity and stick together and start something.” And they did. There’s a great zoom shot that goes all the way to the beacon and in the end it took around three days to put that together out of nowhere. It blew my mind.

That was one of my proudest moments for the team, because we just put together a little team to stick together and deal with this particular shot. And I thought it was a beautiful effect in the end. It was one of those moments where if you trust your artists to come up with something and give them the flexibility to do it, they will come up with something epic.

Well, there you have it: the anatomy of a post-credits scene.

Correct? Sometimes this is how it works.

Marvel Shang-Chi and the legend of the ten rings is now available on the Disney + streaming service.

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