Plus, the making of the Void and the shot ILM did that ran almost the entire length of the production.
The moment viewers laid their eyes on Alligator Loki in the MCU streaming series, they were hooked. An ILM CG creature, the Loki variant is seen as part of a ragtag group of variants stuck in the Void.
befores & afters talked to ILM visual effects supervisor David Seager about the creation of Alligator Loki, as well as the main parts of the void, the creature Alioth and what turned out to be one of the toughest shots in the show.
b&a: With Loki as an alligator, what was your starting point for this?
David Seager: There was the great concept art that it came with. Really, at the get-go, it was primarily just, ‘How big do we think it should be? How old?’ type of a scenario. With our performers and such we can put them in costume and put them in a photo booth and take scans. Not as easy with an alligator.
The first challenge was around us just trying to corner what we were looking for. We did a lot of internet searching, just looking at different pictures of alligators. They’re a unique creature—you Google ‘alligator’ and you get a spectrum. There’s bright yellow ones and the eye color is just all over the charts. So really job number one was just, ‘Narrow it down. Let’s get into an area of things we like.’ Then once the character was built and we got into the performance stuff that was stage two.
b&a: What was their methodology on-set for filming Alligator Loki scenes? I’ve, of course, seen the stuffy, but tell me a bit about that.
David Seager: It was definitely one of those things where it’s always beneficial to have something ‘there’. For me, it’s about eyeline. I think camera operators, even subconsciously, it helps them. It’s always hard when there’s a blank space. There’s people like us going like, ‘No, no, no, no. There’ll be an alligator there,’ and they struggle. They’re wired to frame away from the empty space.
Luckily, too, we had gotten to a point where we were far enough along where we’d shown a couple rough models on set and we did some wedges compared to the characters. We sent that information to them on-set, and they built that lovely blue stuffy that we’ve seen used. Kid Loki tended to be the one who held it mostly. But there were moments in the fight that he was used as well.
b&a: There was something about the movement of the Alligator Loki that is fascinating. Because, I imagine, if you were asked to build a photoreal, physically-plausible alligator, you’d have to follow certain things in terms of its animation and locomotion. But here of course he was thrown around, he did different things, jumped in a pool. How was that in terms of treating the animation quite differently than normal?
David Seager: I’ve been around creatures like this before where you’re doing a photoreal take on a creature that, story-wise, you’re intending to go, ‘Well, there’s an intelligence there.’ So the tendency then is how much is it animalistic versus how much is there an intelligence? With an animal, the way you’d promote intelligence is in their behavior. Even following a conversation, eyeline. You’re like, ‘Well, does an alligator understand what’s being said?’ Where we landed was actually more animalistic with very subtle understanding of responses to the world.
The animation supervisor, Dave Crispino, and I would often joke he was a study in minimalism. You look at footage of alligators and they’re just hanging out there and they’re not doing a lot. But a writer, like yourself, writing a really good one-paragraph thing is often harder than writing a five-page thing, right? So with animation it’s the same thing. It’s like there’s a challenge in doing very little and making it still feel alive and not just this frozen statue. So there was definitely a challenge still there.
To what you alluded to, there’s the extra range of things that he needed to do. I’m pretty sure an alligator couldn’t have made that leap up into Boastful Loki’s arms. So there’s the point where you’re stretching it and we played on that shot, like, ‘Well, how fast can they go?’ That’s actually one of the big challenges on-set as well is people don’t tend to understand the speed of locomotion at times of creatures. Actually, we faced that a couple of times where Classic Loki, and Loki, and Kid Loki were walking at a pace. That’s fine when you’re that tall, but when your legs are only this long, he was always trying to keep up. You just try to find the sweet spot that doesn’t break character. Or he can still make that leap believably.
b&a: I love that subtlety. Sometimes the shot would cut to him, his face, and you almost expect some sort of reaction, like a wry smile or something. But of course it’s an alligator so it just sits there. But you can read into it that he’s got some sort of expression.
David Seager: Yes, as a fan watching it, I feel like you can interpret it however you want it to be. You could almost interpret it like some level of dementia of the other Lokis who have been trapped in this place forever. That they found this creature and they’re like, ‘Look, another Loki.’ Then you’re like, ‘Is it a Loki?’ You can ask yourself that kind of a thing of whether it is in fact that creature and they’re just imposing a level of Loki on it, like putting a hat on a dog and giving it an identity.
b&a: I wanted to give a quick shout out to roto, paint, comp, layout and integration. As you mentioned, he has to run after the team. Not only were you obviously expanding partial sets and the bluescreen set with just some grass, you’ve also got him moving around all these objects. That just seems such a tricky exercise.
David Seager: The team did a great job. A lot of times with that it’s a bit of a puzzle of, ‘Well, where can we put them?’ On some of the shots, they were very clear, especially on the traveling ones. They didn’t have the stuffy dragged along and you could tell at times that they weren’t quite sure like, ‘Are these in between these two?’ or, ‘Where are they?’ We had to invent it and we went through many iterations of, ‘Well, what if he’s behind?’ Then, ‘Oh, well then he never catches up.’ Some of those types of things. But it worked quite well.
Then, whenever they’re holding a creature, in my experience, it’s this domino effect where very rarely do you just put a CG thing inside an actor holding onto a stuffy. You end up going, ‘You know what? It’s going to be easier if we replace the hands.’ So it goes up the chain to, ‘Alright. Now, we’re placing the hands up to the shoulder.’ The toughest one was the wrestling, where he attacks Boastful and Boastful has him and then Loki and Classical come in. So actually all the hands are in there in the one shot with the CG alligator in the middle. It’s one of those shots that I don’t think the public knows, when it finishes, how much you end up having to wrestle him into there.
b&a: Let’s talk about Alioth, I’m always curious about the brief. Because he is a big cloud effectively.
David Seager: The great thing is we did some early tests with Alioth and the thing they had always talked about from day one was that there was an animalistic quality to him. So it wasn’t just big purple cloud comes in and big purple cloud goes out. There was talk of silhouettes of predatory cats and things like that. Probably the aspect of the anatomy that stuck the most was definitely the head.
From day one it was always a very pyroclastic kind of cloud. It’s always very, very thick, always kind of expanding kind of a thing. We always knew that was there and we had our sim tools that were really great as far as pulling that off. But then the challenge becomes hitting those poses. We did a couple of experiments with different animal shapes and skull shapes underneath, as far as when the skull does show itself. Kate always liked this idea of it being subtle, like not really in your face, especially early in the show.
b&a: What kind of workflow can you establish between animation and effects?
David Seager: It’s a really challenging one in that Third Floor did amazing previs and postvis on Alioth and actually was able to use some of the tests we had done on cards and various things. They had worked out a really great looking system on their end and then of course we picked it up on our end when we jump into animation.
To me, the challenge, with a creature that’s simulated, is it’s really easy for an animator to say, ‘Oh, there’s the shape and it’s here and it moves over there.’ But then when you get into the physics of it and you start to put it through the simulation, you find that it’s like, ‘Oh, that was too fast.’ If we try to make the sim go that fast it starts to maybe lose scale and doesn’t look as big and massive and those kinds of things.
In the end, what we wanted out of Dave and his team of animators was to supply animation that defined, well, I always talked about, we want to know composition, we want to know timing, ‘The head of the shot is over there. At the end of the shot over there.’ In some cases it was just a visual guide. We passed the 3D geometry along and it would be used as a check against where Alioth was, but we were not so beholden to those shapes just because we want the sim to do what the sims going to do to make pyroclastic flow look like pyroclastic flow.
The skull was about the only thing we really made sure was in there, and some of the arms that reach out. Those were areas where we got a little more strict with matching the animation. But in a lot of other cases, it was literally just a squint your eyes kind of a thing of like, ‘Okay, we’re over there. Good. We match that.’ What we didn’t want to do is not show anything to Dan and Kate and everybody, and then show a sim and then they’re like, ‘Faster,’ and then we go back to sim, and we’d sim again, and we come back and that would be a lot slower.
b&a: When Classic Loki conjures up Asgard, tell me about the build for that city. Were you able to rely on anything from previous Thor movies?
David Seager: Oh, absolutely. Marvel does a wonderful job of this. They understand that they’re making lots of movies. It is a universe. The U is very accurate in MCU. Shows, at the end, everyone is sending their assets back to Marvel so they have all those things. Even when we started Asgard, I would not be able to quote to you the proper number of terabytes, but all of a sudden it was like, ‘Here’s Asgard.’ It’s like, ‘Wham.’ It was Asgard from multiple facilities.
I think one of the funny challenges we came up against is Asgard is, one, in most of the films, in this very mountainous valley, and, two, on this waterfront. With Classic Loki, he conjures it in the middle of, well, the Void was intentionally devoid of hero kind of typography. There weren’t mountains and hills. It was all just kind of similar kind of rolling hills so it almost felt infinite. The first time we brought it in, we realized Asgard was built on this valley and we’re like, ‘Okay, we need it to be flat.’ So we had to push it around a bit to make it feel like Asgard, have the vibe of Asgard, and work with cameras so that you didn’t miss some of those things.
b&a: I think at the beginning of that episode, there’s a pretty long fly-through that shows New York and so many different things. How was that done?
David Seager: It’s a shared shot. It’s us and Method. You start in the TVA and the camera does this barrel roll. Then you go down this elevator shaft and, what you now know is the robot of the Time Keepers, you go into the eye of that. Then on the other opposite side of that you’re in the Void.
b&a: I’m curious how long artists spent on it, because it’s an enormous shot.
David Seager: The short answer to how long is that was almost the entire length of the production, if you string it all together. Not to say it was all 100% that shot. From the first trailers that shot in its first incarnation was what you saw in the first trailers, which is a lot more of, you find Loki and in the distance is New York City. Obviously, from the perspective of us, New York in mid distance on the horizon is one type of thing versus flying over New York. So the appetite obviously increased over the course of production. We had to pivot in the middle of production to, ‘Okay, we’re going big. Now, we’re going in and doing all of that work.’
The script called for this-is-him-waking-up, I’m-not-in-Kansas-anymore kind of moment. That’s why you see the Lighthouse of Alexandria in there as well. It was a great opportunity for featuring tower of the Stark building with the new logo on it. And at this point, all the big vendors, all of us, have made New York a lot, or New-York-style buildings. So there’s a level to which when you start something like that you immediately go, ‘Alright. What’s the last show that touched this style of work?’ We go in, we see what buildings we have, and we start working from there. For us, the challenge was damaging it. They had a really great piece of concept art to match to that set the tone. The nice thing is Dan and everyone were very aware. I think we always said, ‘It’ll be New-York-ish.’ I don’t want anyone to check, ‘That’s not the building that’s supposed to be south of so and so street.’
You know what? The Void is awesome in that you get this great, get-out-of-jail-free card of, ‘It’s an alternate universe where New York was slightly different.’ So if anyone ever tries to fact-check you on your placement of buildings, you’re OK. There are so many little Easter eggs, Alligator’s in it at the end, albeit small, and then you pull up at the end to see Alioth. So it’s kind of the, ‘Here’s everything all in one’ shot. It was the last shot delivered on the show, very predictably. Even though we had it early, it’s just one of those things that iterations are just challenging on that. I think it was close to just under 4,000 frames. It’s just painful, every iteration. But it’s a great shot.You can now subscribe to befores & afters magazine.