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April 16
2019

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

On the Beach with Digital Domain and Shape-Shifting Aliens in CAPTAIN MARVEL

By TREVOR HOGG

Ben Mendelsohn wearing prosthetic makeup portrays Skrull leader Talos, who has the ability to shape-shift into other beings. 

Having previously worked on Thor: Ragnarok and Avengers: Infinity War, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was not unfamiliar territory for Digital Domain DFX Supervisor Hanzhi Tang. However, having to deal with an invading shape-shifting alien race featured in Captain Marvel was not routine.

The Skrull transformation was much more creatively challenging than the normal work that we do for a Marvel movie,” Tang recounts. “Usually, you can point to a sky or explosion that you like, but as far as the Skrull transformation it was a creative blank sheet. There is no real-life example. The most difficult part of it was trying to think of transformations in new and interesting ways.”

Inspiration for Captain Marvel co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson) came from the iconic prosthetic makeup transformations featured in the horror classic American Werewolf in London (1981). “It was a painful and visceral experience,” notes Tang. “When we shot the original plates, the directors gave Ben Mendelsohn (who portrays Skrull leader Talos) guidance to make it feel like he was trying to physically manifest this being. Then on the effects side we tried to have the skin changing color like a chameleon and have more physical processes on the surface. The skin is splitting, something is emerging from beneath, and reforming into whatever the new flesh is going to be.” To avoid going directly from the green skin of the Skrull to the pigment of the copied being, a white gel oozes out of the splitting skin. “We toyed with the idea of when a squid changes from blue to orange, and how those chromatophores expand and contract to give you a new color.”

Digital Domain DFX Supervisor Hanzhi Tang

“The Skrull transformation was much more creatively challenging than the normal work that we do for a Marvel movie. Usually, you can point to a sky or explosion that you like, but as far as the Skrull transformation it was a creative blank sheet. There is no real-life example. The most difficult part of it was trying to think of transformations in new and interesting ways.”

—Hanzhi Tang, DFX Supervisor, Digital Domain

Co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck on the beach with Ben Mendelson discussing the hero transformation between him and a surfer girl.

A change of physical volume needed to be taken in account as the size, weight and shapes of those being copied varied. “Looking at some Skrull background in the comics, there are some certain rules that have already been set up,” remarks Tang. “They can change volume 25%. I don’t think a Skrull can turn into a mouse! For the most part, we tried not to make it too weird for our characters. We kept certain things like the eyeline the same within the transformation and had to figure out what to do with the clothes. Are the clothes part of the character or something else? The clothes would disintegrate and reappear through a different process than the body itself. It was meant to be a technological, not a biological thing.”

Several weeks were spent looking at everything from lobsters molting their shells to crustaceans changing colors, to high-speed footage of popcorn popping, which served as an example of skin splitting and an interior volume bursting out. “We chose our favorite clips and presented those to Anna and Ryan as inspirations, and they choose the things that would be cool if we combined them together,” explains Tang. “Out of the gate, Anna and Ryan were like, ‘Make us feel gross.’ Initially, we did not put any limits on the gore because we could always dial it back. If something was too bloody, you could change the color or not have stuff dripping off so it’s cleaner looking.

The facial groove lines on the Skrulls guided the transformation process.

A white gel oozes out of the splitting skin to make transition of the skin pigment appear to be more natural. 

Different parts of the body transform at different rates to prevent it looking like a wipe going from head to toe. 

“It was a painful and visceral experience. When we shot the original plates, the directors gave Ben Mendelsohn (who portrays Skrull leader Talos) guidance to make it feel like he was trying to physically manifest this being. Then on the effects side we tried to have the skin changing color like a chameleon and have more physical processes on the surface. The skin is splitting, something is emerging from beneath, and reforming into whatever the new flesh is going to be.”

—Hanzhi Tang, DFX Supervisor, Digital Domain

“We started with good scans of the actress (playing the part of the surfer girl) and a CG version of Talos, so we had our A and B sides of it,” explains Tang. “For the textures, geometry and transformation, we went through hundreds of different simulations. There was a lot of exploration of every kind of procedural texturing or noise, as well as layers and layers of various bubbling effects. The directors liked the idea of the skin splitting along the natural groove lines on the faces of the Skrulls. That helped to guide us as to how this was going to work. In the beginning we tried to figure out if there was a logical process that happened. Whichever character the Skrulls were in the movie, they would go through the same stages of the transformation.”

Complicating rigging and animation was the fact that characters did not freeze while the transformation takes place. “There is this whole rigging and animation system to go along with it that changes size and shape while animating at the same time,” states Tang. “There are some complicated camera moves especially for the scene with the surfer girl. The background is all ocean so you don’t have fixed points that are easily tracked. It was a tricky 90-degree move with the background all sky and moving water.  We tried to put tripods in the water, but nothing stayed where it was supposed to be.  There was a lot of eyeballing that we had to do to try to get that locked down and also track the body movement of both actors.”

The clothes of the Skrulls disintegrate and reappear through a technological rather than biological process.

“The entire crew was on the beach the whole day and the weather was amazing. There were about a dozen transformations. Most of them had a single character transforming into another. There was one shot where four people are transforming at the same time. On top of that it was a shared shot with Framestore. They were doing the background and we were looking after the foreground. There were some logistical challenges for us. Seeing the hero transformation when Talos transforms into the surfer girl was the highlight of our work.”

—Hanzhi Tang, DFX Supervisor, Digital Domain

The speed of the transformation did not occur uniformly throughout the body. “A lot of work went into the staggering of the skin splitting,” states Tang. “Different parts of the body would transform at various times to keep it alive and interesting.” Several transformations occur throughout Captain Marvel. “We have one long hero transformation early in the movie where you see the whole thing happen. The following transformations needed to fit a quarter of the time that we had for the first one. When you squeeze everything down to 30 or 40 frames it becomes difficult not to make the transformation look like a wipe going from head to toe. That’s where staggering all of the different effects helped to make it still visible and tangible.”

“It was great working with Marvel Studios VFX Supervisor Christopher Townsend (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2) who was collaborative,” remarks Tang. “The shot was only 10 minutes from our studio in Los Angeles. The entire crew was on the beach the whole day and the weather was amazing. There were about a dozen transformations. Most of them had a single character transforming into another. There was one shot where four people are transforming at the same time. On top of that it was a shared shot with Framestore. They were doing the background and we were looking after the foreground. There were some logistical challenges for us.” Tang adds, “Seeing the hero transformation when Talos transforms into the surfer girl was the highlight of our work.”


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