The story-telling side of animation at a VFX studio: Weta Digital on the battle sequence in ‘Eternals’

Animation supervisor Sidney Kombo-Kintombo reveals the process of finding the right story beats for that final show-down.

On a couple of recent large Marvel film and streaming projects, including Avengers: End Game and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, I’ve had the pleasure of chatting to Weta Digital animation supervisor Sidney Kombo-Kintombo. We’ve talked, on those projects, not so much about the technical parts of the animation process, but about how Weta Digital has helped re-design, re-stage or plot out exciting action beats where necessary.

So when I found out the VFX studio and Kombo-Kintombo worked on the final battle sequences in Eternals, I wanted to ask again how Weta Digital ultimately contributed to the story points of the climactic pieces of action. Indeed, the studio was tasked with coming up with key beats and visuals to take what Marvel had already devised further, as Sidney explains.

b&a: What was that process like, with Marvel, of finding the story for that final sequence?

Sidney Kombo-Kintombo: I’m impressed with the fact that Marvel is a client that is always, always seeking for ways to improve their story. I mean, they have something. It’s not like they come empty handed and say, ‘Oh, we don’t know what we want to do there.’ That is not the conversation. The conversation is more like, ‘We have this. We like this. But, okay, if we go back, what do you think of this? How would you approach that? How would you touch it?’

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The story on this film did change a little bit. What was interesting with this one is that they allowed us to even have a little control over the editing of the action scene. So, they come with their piece, but they’re still eager to hear what type of input you can have.

So, for instance, the Tiamut rising section. They had something that was working, but we were just trying to find ways to improve it. So that was like, ‘Okay, how can we make sure that this gigantic guy that is coming out of the Earth, but with just his fingers moving, which is very basic–how can we make this intense? How can we make it different? How can make it interesting?’

That was the conversation Chloé had with us. We went back and thought about it, and realized, ‘Oh, let’s put our camera underwater. Why are we staying at the surface? Let’s go underwater and see what that hand is doing to the sea floor.’

What was interesting is that after the time that Marvel spent on it, that was the first time the underwater idea had come up. So, they have a story, always, but we try to help enrich it, and that keeps us not only entertained but also engaged in the way they are trying to tell their story. It’s really valuable, as an artist, to be able to have that conversation with your client about what the best possible way could be to tell a specific part of their story. Such collaboration doesn’t come around often and I’ll always be grateful that Marvel choses to open their door to us.

b&a: How did you try and sell the scale of Tiamut?

Sidney Kombo-Kintombo: Because the character is not moving much, the best way to sell it was via the language of the camera. If we managed to get the audience to believe that the person who was shooting that gigantic thing was a human being, then the action became convincing. That’s basically what we expended our effort on. The conversation with the studio was rarely about how Tiamut was moving, but it was mainly a staging conversation, a lenses conversation, and the-position-of-the- camera conversation.

We needed the audience to have something to reference the scale of this guy from, so we always tried to have some clouds. We tried to show the island in the distance. Sometimes we were putting the camera low enough that you could see the waves or the fondling of the water at the base of his fingers. Just anything that would be a clue for the audience to realize how big he was. Obviously, Chloé pushed us to go really far with the lenses, to territories that we’ve never dared going to on a show. We made some shots with 12mm lens and that was just, wow. But you see the result and you buy it when we executed the shot with such a wide lens.

b&a: To go back to the beginning a little, what you did get from Marvel and Stef Ceretti the overall VFX supervisor in terms of concepts, ideas and previs? Also, what did they shoot, live-action, for this whole big sequence? Starting with the beach fight.

Sidney Kombo-Kintombo: They had Angelina Jolie and the rest of the cast on set and the stunt doubles as well were there. But here we are talking superheroes and we want them to be able to do stuff that nobody is capable of doing. Which means you know that ultimately the digi-double conversation is going to come into play at some point. Chloé had an interesting way of putting that. She was saying that she wants ‘her Marvel movie’, a Marvel beat, so to speak. That is, a moment in the movie where it feels like we are looking at superhumans fighting each other. That was the moment where Thena and the rest of the Eternals are fighting Kro. It was the moment when Makkari is fighting Ikaris. It was the moment when the Eternals are fighting Ikaris. So those are the three main battles that we helped redesign quite significantly. As well as in the cave, Thena versus Kro.

What Marvel had was where they wanted that story to go, but the how was where we started to engage with them a lot more. So, for instance, it was I think Nate Moore at Marvel who mentioned the fact that everybody hears that Makkari’s fast, but we haven’t quite seen her fighting at the very high pace, and so Chloé wanted to have a piece of that.

So brainstorming at our end, we thought about that idea of when you look at something, you are basically looking at the past given the time it takes for the information to come back to your brain. What you are looking at as “present” is already in the past, so to speak. We tried to play with that idea a little bit. When Makkari is moving, when you see her, she’s already gone. Ikaris paid the price of fighting with her in that regard, because every time he was shooting at her, he was shooting in a place where she no longer was. We tried to play that by having in our animation scenes, two, three, sometimes even five Makkaris in the scene just to make sure that she stops long enough for the audience to feel like, ‘Oh, she’s there,’ and the next two frames, you see her coming really close to camera at Ikaris.

So we had that and also the fight between Thena and Ikaris, just making sure that when they are moving, they move at a believable pace, but also in a super-heroic way as well. That was the first beat, the fight between Thena and Ikaris, that we re- storyboarded here. We storyboarded that piece. Then we started executing that in previs. It was great to see Chloé’s reaction to that, because she clapped and she was so happy like, ‘Yay, I have my piece.’

From that point, I think she trusted us to go further with some of those other action pieces. I think Matt Aitken, Weta Digital’s visual effects supervisor, noted that close to 43% of what was happening on the beach is entirely CG.

b&a: In some ways, previs, at a visual-effects-studio level, could be also considered blocking, or could be considered layout, and it can simply move into final shots. What do you consider the previs to be, particularly here on Eternals?

Sidney Kombo-Kintombo: On Eternals, it’s difficult to see previs as a very rough piece, just because the client had moved past that. They had moved past the concept, the storyboard. Even the previs, they have moved past it, in a way, because they were already in production. So when you go back with previs, like we did, you have to try to make sure that it’s not too jarring when you look at it in the course of the movie. Our previs was used to try to sell an idea. We push that to a level that is good enough. When we do previs on some other shows, when we are doing that very early on, we go sometimes even using step-keys. We go step-keys or we go just one pose moving in frame.

But when we are in production and we do previs, we put more effort in detailing. We still go fast. It’s not purely refined animation. But we still get that to a place that is convincing enough for the studio to understand the idea and tell us pretty quickly if they buy in or not. Then we move that into blocking animation. The difference there is that the motion gets more refined, but also if something needed to be plate, we put the plate there. If we needed some assets, we get them built, we get them rigged, and we make them pipeline-friendly so they can be used right away.

b&a: In that fight when they’re fighting Kro as a more humanoid Deviant, I was curious if they did have any kind of stand-in performer or on-set mocap at all?

Sidney Kombo-Kintombo: No, we designed all of that. Every time they are fighting Kro on the beach, a lot of what you see there is fully CG. Those are the little moments we were talking about when we were saying that Marvel gave us license even to try to cut those pieces. We created the overall emotion that was needed for the piece and once they approved them, they would grab that into their editorial and make templates out of those shots. That’s roughly the process that went into creating that.

We had Bill Skarsgård on set for the Kro-talking-shots in the cave, and we keyframe animated Kro based on his facial performance. But the body performance and everything that was there was fully redesigned just to line up a little more with what Angelina Jolie did.

b&a: I wanted to ask you specifically about Ikaris and flying. How did you develop an appropriate flying style and fighting style in the air?

Sidney Kombo-Kintombo: It’s summed up in one word and that would be rigid. Ikaris is not a dancer. Ikaris is not a character who second-guesses himself often. He does that once in the movie. Otherwise, he’s a straight-up guy. We were trying to put Ikaris at the far end of that spectrum, Spider-Man being on the other end, so to speak. Spider-Man bends his legs, bends his arms, and his body is all over the place, in an elegant way. Then you go to Iron Man who has the body armour that is heavy, which is restraining his movement a little bit. But Robert Downey Jr. has a lot of twitching in his Tony Stark character. So you put a little bit of that. It’s not wrong to have Iron Man in mid-air with his legs slightly outside of the overall alignment of the body.

Then at the end of that spectrum, you have Ikaris who flies with arms tight on the legs, legs close to each other. That was enough to create a different style of flying for him. If you get him to be rigid, you are sure that you were on the right track which is not always something easy, Ian, as you can imagine, when it comes to animators. We tend to want beautiful, extreme poses, and having to restrain that to make sure that Ikaris doesn’t turn out to be a Spider-Man or Iron Man type of flying character was one of the biggest successes.

b&a: That’s interesting because throughout the film, we’re sort of thinking they’re humans. Then we hear they’re robots, for want of a better word. But I liked that actually their fighting style, despite their superhuman abilities, did remain grounded.

Sidney Kombo-Kintombo: Yeah, exactly. It’s one of the only movies from Marvel where when the superheros are fighting, you are in their fight, you feel the intensity, you feel the power, you feel the energy, but they are not wrecking a city. Chloé often mentioned the word ‘elegant’. We tried to make sure that came across in the way they were fighting. So you feel their intensity, you feel their speed, but they are not Hawkeye. They are not Iron Man.

The only moment where you see some destruction is when Thena throws Ikaris against a rock and then slices that rock in half with a weapon. But when Kro projects Makkari and Thena on the ground and Thena hits a rock, the rock doesn’t budge. The rock stays in place and you have the feeling that Thena gets hurt badly because she just hit the rock and rolls on the side. That was what we tried to do throughout that beat, trying to maintain the fact that they are superheroes, but at the same time they are not the characters you are used to seeing.

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