Designing the sacred timeline in ‘Loki’

How Cantina Creative made the timeline, as well as those morphing He Who Remains figures.

Cantina Creative has a long association with the MCU in terms of HUDs, UIs and holograms. They continued their work on Loki, but this time with a much more retro feel to suit scenes such as those showing the sacred timeline, screens and other elements in the TVA. They also tackled the figure tableaus demonstrated by He Who Remains in season one’s final episode.

Here, creative director Stephen Lawes breaks down Cantina’s approach to the work, which was overseen by Lawes, design supervisor Andrew Hawryluk, VFX supervisor Tony Lupoi and VFX producer Donna Cullen.

b&a: What did Cantina Creative come on board to do for the show?

Stephen Lawes: Initially, Marvel were really interested in the sacred timeline and how that was going to be represented on their little’ Nintendo DS’ TemPads which basically open up a portal to another time. But also, give some information on the tracking of variants, and if there’s any spurs off of the sacred timeline.

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Cantina came on board primarily in November last year to figure out, okay, how’s this going to tell the story visually? And make sure it tells the story clearly to the audience. I think the director really went super simple in the end. We actually ended up doing a whole host of designs specifically for the TemPads. And we created all the graphics for that device, not just the sacred timeline.

b&a: And as you say, it was meant to look quite simple, so you could grasp it quickly as a graphing plotted line with diverging things. But how did you generally come to that and pull it off?

Stephen Lawes: With any project, we always like to have some sort of baseline. Because it’s easy to just go ahead and go, ‘Well, we can design this based on what we know or what we’ve done in the past, or what’s been done in the past for the MCU too.’ But ultimately, there are a number of categories that we look at. One is production design. It has to lend itself to the production design and feel like it’s part and parcel of what has been designed for the tone, the aesthetic of the scene. So, that as much as these types of movies are pretty big effects driven movies, and audiences know it’s an effect, we still want our work to feel grounded within the production design, so it feels like it is cohesive and belongs.

Second, then we look at the science behind that. If there’s some specific choice on technology. What does it say about that? Which, in this case, it was pretty retro. And what does that say about the TVA? How do we adhere to that? I think the production designer, Kasra Farahani, did a writeup on his production design aesthetic for Loki. It’s all a kind of 8-bit world. You’ve got the aesthetics of the ’60s, but then you’ve got graphics and tone of the ’80s, so it’s somewhere in between.

Certainly, those of us of a certain age will fondly remember my little Game Boy or Atari. But the designs had to bridge those two-time placements, because the TVA lived in no time, it’s a timeless state, it afforded a certain amount of latitude, where it can just live there and be its own thing. And then from a technology standpoint, we were like, ‘Well, how does that actually work? And if I was a TVA person, how would I use it? And how would the interface be designed as if I’m actually using it?’

So we approached it with a thought of it being a practical device, and wanting to know how would we want that to be laid out, so it makes it easy to use? And those are always the considerations that we’ll take going into that. Marvel had done quite a bit of concept work on this too. The whole thought of 8-bit, 4-bit world and keeping it pretty monochromatic was already in the wheelhouse.

I think for the chronometer, which is the big screen in the main TVA Command Centre, the design was simple. Whereas there was, actually, interestingly, a lot more complexity in the TempPad designs. But for those big establishing shots that were a little bit shorter, they wanted a quicker read. Much like we did on WandaVision, we got into the science of time travel, which can be a nightmare, to be quite honest. You’re’ like, ‘Okay. Well, if it goes off on a tangent, should it also have its reciprocal alternate tangent below it?’ We did all sorts of versions where the sacred timeline was more in the middle with stuff going up at the top and below, to represent the future, but a relative future, and then versions that were just on the top of the timeline.

b&a: It looks relatively simple, but I’m always curious about what tools Cantina tends to use to do this in terms of design animation and layering it up?

Stephen Lawes: We actually do the spectrum of visual effects, but because we are known for motion graphics, we’re often using After Effects for the most part, generally the Adobe suite. But we’ll even comp in After Effects still. I think we’re one of the last holdouts for studios that actually do some serious film comp’ing in After Effects. Approximately half the show is designed in Nuke from a capacity standpoint, and half the time in After Effects. Decisions also depend on the sequences, what was entailed in the comp, plus what artists we have on-board for that specific show. But certainly, from the standpoint of the storytelling aspects of it, and all the motion graphics are always done in, for the most part, in After Effects.

b&a: Can you talk about those tableau figures in He Who Remains’ ‘office’?

Stephen Lawes: Yes, we created those CG sculptures from the material that he flicks off his time watch, that jumps onto the table and then it morphs into various kinds of states.

We had to make sure that each of those sculpts read as He Who Remains, and you knew who it was from a character perspective. Because they were mini-vignettes and describing a scene, you want it to be as clear as possible. But then, we got into the science of like, well, what is this material? How did it come to be? How is it based on the character? Does it say anything about the character?
That all had an interesting lead up and past to it as well. We used Houdini beginning to end on this sequence and compositing in After Effects.

The way Dan DeLeeuw, the visual effects supervisor on Loki described it reminded me of some of the early creative concept work we had done for Captain Marvel. Some of the work didn’t make it into the movie because we came on-board super early on that project and because of editorial changes. So we were like, ‘Oh, let’s resurrect that.’

I think we called it technology dough, when we were working on Captain Marvel. And it was just this ever-changing liquid solid matter, that was specifically for the Skrulls at the time. And they used it as a controller device. And based on proximity, they’d be able to control going back through someone’s mind, figuring out what their history was.

On a call with Dan, I sent him a bunch of this work and he was like, ‘Oh man, this is great.’ And we got into, again, the physical qualities of matter and how it works. And initially, as I say, it was much more complicated. It started off life as well, how does this pertain to Who He Remains from a physics standpoint? Because he controls time. So should each of these moments start life as light, and then the light turns to more of a kind of a liquid, and then a solid and we show the different changes in form as we do these little vignette statues?

We started off down that road, and researching that, and figuring out, well, how could light turn to a liquid form? Or even if it’s slightly solid, is it semi-transparent? Is it more opaque? What is it? Then we were rolling in some sort of color design into that, that would also help express the tone of the character, which was mostly purples at the time.

Following a number of tests, the designs evolved over time to echo the He Who Remains environment, which was a much more marble-esque built environment, with this gold veining through it. And so that’s how it ultimately ended up being, which is echoing the production design or the set that he was in.

b&a: Where did the assets come from? Did you have some sort of 3D photogrammetry scans of the actor to start with?

Stephen Lawes: Yes, they scanned the actor, so we had full scans of him in his usual T-pose. And there were some other poses too, specifically in postvis, that they handed over. We took the scans and did some pretty heavy cleanup on it. Because that was the other thing, as soon as you start attaching some shaders to this, you get a completely different visual read of the expression, or as the person as He Who Remains. So it was always a balance of the shader with the gold veining, not to overpower it. So it was really art directing there.

There was also a flickering of candles on set that required us to match the cadence. But then also, just tweak it just enough so we got a little bit of fill, because most of it was this rim lit stuff. It was warm with purples, and the gold veining.

This was the same with getting a recognizable version of Alioth, which is the big cloud demon character that we got from ILM that looked like a brain.

It was figuring out how do we represent Alioth’s face in this, so that it still looked close enough to what ILM were doing with the cloud version of Alioth, that you would connect the two, and understand that that’s the character. That was pretty tricky actually, because when you’ve got something that’s very amorphous and cloud-like, and you have to represent it in a hard-edge form, you’re like, ‘Ugh, okay.’ There was a lot of art direction for that.

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