DeLeeuw also talks about the retro feel to the VFX, filling bluescreens with final shots, and offers his thoughts on LED volume shooting.
When behind the scenes footage for episode 5 of Loki started to be revealed, many observers noticed the huge presence of bluescreen shoots used for the Void. Indeed, that was how much of the live action with actors such as Tom Hiddleston was captured. It proved to be one of the show’s most challenging sequences, and episodes.
I got a chance to ask frequent MCU visual effects supervisor Dan DeLeeuw—who shared duties with Brad Parker—about this, as well as what he thought any kind of LED volume shooting could have brought to the show. We also discussed the retro side of the TVA effects (including Miss Minutes). and some Easter eggs you should look out for.
b&a: Inside and related to the TVA, from an overall point of view, there’s a ‘retro’ feel to some of the technology here. How did that design influence the visual effects work required for screens, environments, robots etc?
Dan DeLeeuw: Production designer Kasra Farahani and his team did an amazing job with designing and building the sets for the TVA. Kate Herron made sure that Kasra’s design aesthetic was pervasive throughout the prop design, costumes, and visual effects.
Our set extensions and CG environments were taken from Kasra’s designs. We looked at old World’s Fair images and were inspired by their construction techniques. Method used these examples for the creation of The Expanse—the buildings outside of the TVA offices that exist outside of time and space. The robot straddled the line between something from the 60’s and modern day. It’s exterior shell was designed as if it was polished metal that would house largish motors to drive its limbs. During the 60’s the motors could never be that small, but we wanted to hint that the TVA was something more than what it appeared to be.
The Robot’s face was modeled as if it was an old CRT. Cantina came up with the idea that the face could have more of a wave form feel rather than just a video image. The waveform was a great idea to remind us that the robot was based on old tech.
The rest of the screens were designed as if they were CRT’s from the late 60’s but could achieve a pixel density of 80’s era PC’s. In fact, the amber color of the display was inspired by old Wyse 99 terminals. The Tempads were another anomaly within the retro design feel. Clearly they were more advanced than a lot of the other tech. They are basically smart phone with a 60’s feel. We made the graphics with a low pixel count and created halftone images for any pictures that they displayed so that they fit within the language of the series,
b&a: How were Miss Minutes sequences filmed? Were there any stand-ins or lighting interactions? How did you arrive at the right kind of look and feel for her transitions, transparency and those kinds of elements?
Dan DeLeeuw: The shots with Miss Minutes were filmed with an interactive light on the end of pole. Paper eyes were attached to the light for the actors eyelines. The light was then puppeteered around the set to coincide with Miss Minutes movements. The interactive light was painted out in post. Because Miss Minutes was transparent the entire background where the interactive light was needed to be repaired.
Luma created Miss Minutes as a 3D model that was rendered as 2D. Kate Herron, our director, was inspired by the Felix the Cat cartoons that ran from 1919 up the 1960’s and beyond. We looked at the the cartoons from the 60’s because they matched the era of our ‘retro’ feel for the show. We incorporated their line style and animation sensibilities into her movement.
Her face was mostly flat but did have some contouring around the eyes. We were inspired by Who Framed Roger Rabbit and added tones and shadows to the 2D render of the 3D object to make her sit into the lighting of the environment. Her transparency, glow, and video effect were added in compositing. Luma animated a series of intros and outros for Miss Minutes and Kate picked the one she liked the best.
b&a: There were many sequences in Loki that started off as bluescreen stage shoots or with bluescreen backgrounds. Can you talk about your previs/postvis effort in filling in backgrounds as temps for editing and to start the post process?
Dan DeLeeuw: The Third Floor team was headed by Jesse Lewis Evans. Bigger sequences like the Alioth battle went through previs. This allowed production to schedule the show accordingly and build whatever set pieces or proxy object needed to accomplish the shots. For instance, Alioth’s attack on the USS Eldridge’s previs helped us to understand how much of the ship we needed to build. The art department did an amazing job of creating the starboard side of the deck with an elevated deck gun. Once the shot moved into postvis, Third Floor could use their assets from the previs to turn around the shots quickly.
It was interesting to work on the series. For features we would typically have one to two editors working on a single story. For Loki, we had three editors working simultaneously on two episode each with the director’s cut delivering two weeks apart. Jesse and his team would prioritize the episodes and were able to fill 98 percent of all bluescreens and all CG shots for each episode. They did a great job.
b&a: Also, it is not always a possibility on every production, but do you see a place for LED volume shooting in a series like this? What are the challenges that exist in doing this (ie. early asset builds etc)?
Dan DeLeeuw: LED volumes are definitely a brave new world. Like any tool, there are some things that they do very well and some things they fall short on. I think The Mandalorian has done a fantastic job at leveraging the strengths of the volume. A set like the Void in episode 5 would have been a great choice for the LED volume.
There does need to be a mindset shift in terms of using the LED volume. Currently, a lot of CG environments are designed last. With the volume you shift the volume design to earlier in pre-production. It comes down to managing the digital build on the same schedule as the practical one.
Something else to consider is the turnaround with getting sets in the volume. Traditionally sets are assigned to one stage. When you finish a scene, you tear down the set and then move to another stage to shoot. Once the set is torn down, construction starts on the next set. Typically, you only have one volume, and you need to design the set so that you can wheel it in quickly and wheel it out quickly. If you have a lengthy assembly of the set, you are not utilizing the volume to its peak efficiency.
b&a: What was one visual effects scene/sequence/shot in the show that ended up being the most challenging, even if it was one that you thought might have been ‘easy’ to tackle, at first?
Dan DeLeeuw: I think the Void was the most challenging and fun. In this case, it was a sequence that was effectively an entire episode. Episode five contained 527 shots—more than any other episode in the series. Its opening shot was one of the longest in the series. We fly from the TVA to the Time Keepers Chamber and then dissolve into the Void. Method created the Time Keeper Chamber and ILM created the Void. Once we were in the Void, we fly past the Lighthouse of Alexandria, over the top of Dr. Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum, through a destroyed New York City, and land in Central Park. The move had to dove tail into a plate with the Loki Variant’s grabbing our Loki. Then we did a digital boom up as Loki walks out of frame to reveal Alioth roaring in the background. Only in a Loki series can you have a shot like that. ILM reused their New York City model from the first Avengers and destroyed it based on being dropped out of a portal.
Alioth was a creature from the comics comprised of smoke. It was important that Alioth felt amorphous—there was no distinct front or backend. Only when he manifested his head did we know which direction he was facing. When he moved, his head would disappear inside his body and reappear in his direction of travel. His main body was defined by a particle simulation that made an appealing silhouette. For his skull and fore legs, particles were birthed on proxy geometry as needed. Lightning and interactive light helped to make him more sinister. ILM created tendrils that Alioth used to chase Sylvie at the beginning of the episode. The particle simulations would pour forward through containment geometry like a rushing river as if being directed by an imaginary arroyo.
The episode contained the largest amount of Easter eggs we have ever put into a show. Frog Thor was created by Method. There were many versions of that shot. In some versions the camera descended past the Infinity Gauntlet. We created new models for the Living Tribunal and reused models for the Hydra Helicarrier and the Dark Aster. Leviathan Corpses littered the floor of the valley at the end of the show. We also had the opportunity to bring Asgard back again!
A lot of the Easter Eggs have been discovered, but there’re still some that fans have yet to find…
Although the episode was difficult, it was great fun to work on!