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November 22
2017

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

The Surprising, Hidden Costume Effects in Thor: Ragnarok

Marvel Studios’ THOR: RAGNAROK © Marvel Studios 2017

By IAN FAILES

Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok contains a dazzling array of visual effects, from computer generated worlds to digital characters and complex destruction. But one front-and-center effect in the film may be one many people don’t notice at all – the costume worn by the evil Hela, played by Cate Blanchett.

For much of the shooting of the film, Blanchett wore a costume covered in active tracking markers, or a full motion-capture suit for action scenes (as did her stunt doubles). In post, several visual effects studios were called upon to realize the final costume in CG, including the character’s antler-like headdress. Visual Effects Supervisor Jake Morrison elaborates for VFX Voice.

Cate Blanchett on set as Hela in the active marker mocap suit, with director Taika Waititi.

Crafting a CG costume

A crucial reason for completing Hela’s costume in CG was Marvel’s desire to make sure what the character was wearing appeared completely alien. That means it could not have any seams or signs of an earthly build. Previous Marvel films had, of course, also dealt with the full or partial CG replacement of costumes, so the production was confident it could be done.

One challenge was that Hela was in so many scenes, and there was a desire not to have her wear a gray tracking suit or the usual performance-capture suit for all of these scenes. Instead, Technoprops created a nimble, active marker set-up that could be built into the wardrobe designed by Costume Designer Mayes C. Rubeo, and then captured via infrared cameras built into the set.

“I haven’t seen anything quite that tight before,” recalls Morrison. “Usually these marker things turn into big donuts that you have to rip on and rip off, which is all well and good when you’re dealing with just the gray suits. But we wanted this incredible high-frequency level of information for Cate because we wanted to make sure we’d preserve her performance.”

“We had numerous tracking markers across the body all wired into a suit with a couple of different battery packs in the background that basically meant that we could capture her live.”

—Jake Morrison, Visual Effects Supervisor

Watch a featurette on Cate Blanchett’s Hela.

“We knew we’d be going to replace her entire body, but keeping the hands, the shoulders, the face and hair,” adds Morrison, who praises the body-tracking and camera-tracking work done by the visual effects vendors working on Hela shots. “You want to make sure that you’re not throwing anything away because it’s all performance at that stage. So we had numerous tracking markers across the body all wired into a suit with a couple of different battery packs in the background that basically meant that we could capture her live.”

Hela’s headpiece

At times in the films, especially when she is about to wreak havoc, Hela ‘grows’ a headdress with well-defined antler-like pieces from her cowl. These were realized in CG, which actually presented a very early challenge to the VFX team: how would the antlers grow either from Blanchett’s cowl or her long black hair?

Hela’s headdress was deliberately realized as slightly different in scene to scene.

“We explained all this to Cate [Blanchett] and she got it, and then she then took it to the next level because she realized this was actually a character note now, because effectively after seeing two or three of these, the audience is actually cued in. The minute she reaches her hands up to her temples you’re like, ‘Ah, it’s on…’.”

—Jake Morrison, Visual Effects Supervisor

“CG hair is still really hard,” admits Morrison, “and Taika and I didn’t really want to see hair growing in reverse. That’s never going to look like anything but cheesy CG. So at a certain point we were just sort of banging our heads against the wall and then we thought, well, how many times does it really happen? We realized it was about three times and then decided we could cover it a different way each time.”

The solution was to have Blanchett ‘motivate’ the transformation every time by placing her hands on her head, then shooting from different angles, or behind the actress, having her out of focus, filming tight on her face, or shooting in silhouette.

“We explained all this to Cate,” says Morrison, “and she got it, and then she then took it to the next level because she realized this was actually a character note now, because effectively after seeing two or three of these, the audience is actually cued in. The minute she reaches her hands up to her temples you’re like, ‘Ah, it’s on…’.”

Hela makes Skurge (Karl Urban) her executioner.

“If you look at the film, and somebody probably will, and go through and actually count the number of antlers from shot to shot, it changes. We told all of our vendors from the beginning that we needed to make sure that the antlers were effectively a character.”

—Jake Morrison, Visual Effects Supervisor

Interestingly, in comic books Hela is illustrated with antlers often different in number and configuration from scene to scene, something the filmmakers themselves embraced. “If you look at the film, and somebody probably will, and go through and actually count the number of antlers from shot to shot, it changes,” states Morrison. “We told all of our vendors from the beginning that we needed to make sure that the antlers were effectively a character.”

Another challenge was ensuring that Blanchett’s performance remained despite the addition of the CG headdress and cowl. At one point, a re-design was instituted.

“We took the cowl back into just two states,” says Morrison. “One which had these slightly tuning fork things on the forehead and completely open eyes, and then a second one where we added the battle cowl and we had these rings that are just underneath which popped her eyes and gave you some extra contrast.”

A host of vendors delivered Hela costume and headdress VFX, including Method Studios, Framestore, Rising Sun and Trixter. “We basically had everybody working in parallel, and it really was very much a collaborative effort,” acknowledges Morrison.

“Everybody folded developments back into their own work, and we encouraged all the vendors to talk to each other directly and work out best practices.”


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