Two vampires fight down a subway escalator: how Digital Domain made this shot happen

Behind this super-crazy moment in Morbius.

Daniel Espinosa’s Morbius includes a sequence where the characters Milo (Matt Smith) and Morbius (Jared Leto) confront each other in a subway station. The scene includes several dramatic camera moves including a dramatic escalator tumble that was achieved with a combination of a special ‘rollercoaster’ rig, extensive live-action stunts and digital environments and characters crafted by Digital Domain.

Here, Digital Domain visual effects supervisor Joel Behrens, who worked with production VFX supervisor Matthew Butler (also hailing from Digital Domain), reveals the secrets of the subway confrontation for befores & afters.

b&a: That subway station fight sequence seems like such a great example of combining stunts and and of course completely synthetic environments and characters. What was achieved during the shoot?

Joel Behrens: For the beginning shot, where the camera twists around the tunnel with them as they run up the side and down the ceiling and back down, we built, on a stage in London, a set with half of the hallway that had a roller coaster rig. It was a custom camera rig built by special effects and the camera department that literally looked like a roller coaster track that spun around and did a corkscrew within the hallway.

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The plan was that we would shoot the characters going one direction and then we could turn the camera around and use that same track, redress the set and reverse it to double the length of the subway hallway. We ended up doing takes of Milo’s stunt double jumping through the glass door where we had two different camera operators. We had one camera operator with a handheld who was panning. And then he tried to get as close as he could to the rollercoaster camera so that we could blend into the rollercoaster camera, which starts going around and cork screwing with him.

Then, overnight, we redressed the set to be the second half of the subway and ran it the other direction and joined the two clips together that way. So we stitched those two plates together. In the end, we did a lot of manipulation to that and did some tweaks because even though they had this really nice, smooth rollercoaster rig, there was still a little bit of wobble that needed to be taken out.

We tried to make it a little bit more smooth, but they didn’t want it to be the most perfect camera we’ve ever seen. Actually, that was the nice thing about Daniel. He liked to keep things very grounded in reality, if he could. So some of those wobbles, he actually really liked, so we didn’t remove them all. We ended up building a full CG tunnel and transitioning in and out of CG. We also needed CG to clean up because there was a big channel that was cut into the actual subway set so that the rig could slide through it. And then we used all the usual tricks in the book of blending the different cameras together.

We had the camera that was from the break of the glass to the point where we pick up the end of the roller coaster camera and go to another Steadicam that’s running with them through the hallways, up into the edge of the escalator, take over as full CG for the escalator tumble and then tie into another camera at the end of the shot, which was someone walking down the end of the escalator, with another Steadicam, as a stuntman is pulled off of the edge and slid across the floor. There was a lot of interchanging between actors and stuntmen and digi-doubles through that side of the shot.

Rollercoaster rig.

b&a: For the moment, halfway along the escalator, when it’s slow-mo and they’re fighting, how did you and Matthew Butler craft that shot in order to get what are very realistic performances, even though the characters are doing crazy moves?

Joel Behrens: For that moment, where it kind of freezes, there was the script and it was maybe like a one line of ‘Epic chase through subway’ as they tumbled down the escalator. The production had a location for the subway tunnel in London, which meant we had an idea of what that was supposed to look like from scout photography.

NVIZ and our previs team at DD were involved from the very beginning on the show. We started figuring out how we were going to do the roller coaster portion first and then tie into the escalator portion. At that point, we still didn’t really know what the speed effects were going to be, which were some of the wispy trails that you see coming off of the characters. That part of the dynamic was left out of the previs.

Ultimately it was just kind of like, okay, let’s try and figure out what a cameraman would do if you were able to run down the escalator with them. We toyed with the idea of, okay, maybe we can hook up a cable cam down there, but then in the end we thought that’s probably going to just be too much set up to not actually be able to shoot anybody.

We got plenty of photogrammetry. We took plenty of panos, set texture photography, and all that. We were pretty confident that we could rebuild that in CG without any issue. Daniel tended to like, as you could see from the movie, the idea of these slow-motion moments within the action. We had quite a few of those and he wanted that one to pay off with a big shot of Milo just winding up to really try and take a swipe at Morbius before Morbius tackles him into the wall and they tumbled down to the ground.

Once we saw what the previs was doing, obviously when we got to set and shot that stuff, we had to figure out how to tile these different pieces together. Although that portion was all CG, it transitions into our stunt guys. So we had quite a bunch of setup to do for that, because they had a giant cable pull at the bottom of the escalator that we had to paint out and digitally remove.

We were lucky we had some really good, talented people. Greg Townley was the stunt double for Morbius. He was fantastic. Some of the shots of him are actually live action between the tunnel and the escalator where he’s running up on the wall, that’s actually the stunt guy running up on the side of the wall. He’s one of those very good parkour gymnasts and he can do that sort of stuff that you’re just like, ‘How did he do that?’

b&a: Take me through the process that Digital Domain has now refined for ensuring the digi-doubles would hold up for this scene.

Joel Behrens: We knew we had to build both of our heroes to a level where they were going to hold up between medium and close-up because there are some shots that we just wouldn’t be able to film with live action actors. It’s one of the things that DD’s gotten pretty good at. We did our usual ICT scans of our hero actors. We took them to the USC lab down the street from our office and got them scanned in high res. We took them to DI4D, which is another facility that does motion data for us that feeds into our Masquerade system. We go through a range of motion with them at DI4D, they record that, you get this high res mesh data that then feeds into our Masquerade proprietary system that uses some machine learning to figure out and that’s how we create our facial puppet.

For body scans and costumes, those were all done with standard photogrammetry. While we were on set in England, we would get them into the booth when we could, in the different costumes. And then we ended up doing full builds of each of the costume variations. In that case, it was the prison jumpsuit for Morbius and Milo and his long trench coat.

We had upgraded the technology that we had used on Thanos. So the mesh for Morbius that we were using was, I believe, twice the resolution of the mesh that we had Thanos. We did full hair sims for both of them, full clothing, everything. Everything was rigged to make them look as realistic as possible. I feel like our ‘creature’ face and our ‘Jared’ face were some of the best facial puppets that we’ve done in a long time.

b&a: One of the added things to this, of course, was the wispy, tendrily stuff coming off them. Tell me about the look dev and ultimate execution of that.

Joel Behrens: The term that we used for that was speed effects. It was used to convey movement. It was used to convey flight and it was used to also sometimes convey just the speed of some of the punches during the fights. So it was also loosely termed as our ‘manga’ effect. Daniel is a big anime fan and he liked the idea of having a bit of this visual flare to help show off some of their powers because the powers that the vampires have were echo location, super speed and super strength.

So, it was like, how do we visually display or visually show the audience how he’s using those powers at this moment in time? It was Matthew and the director’s idea that maybe we try to have them shed something so that you’re almost seeing particles break away from their body. They’re moving so fast.

That’s why a lot of the speed effects tie into the color of the costumes that they’re wearing. In the subway fight example, Morbius has his orange prison jumpsuit on so his speed effects are peeling off the color orange, Milo’s are gray. And later in the movie, when you see Morbius in his black trench coat with the bright pink silk lining, you get some of those nice kicks of black and pink to help show off his trail. We tried some echo effects. We tried some different types of trail. We tried comp only versions where it was a 2D only effect, that wasn’t quite selling it. So eventually we went down the road of, we think this needs to be an effects simulation.

It involved match-moving the characters when they were live action or taking our animated characters when they were digi-doubles and using their motion to drive this sim of a semi-liquid semi-gaseous trail that would peel off of them. We also had some impact effects that would be these bursting cavitation bubbles, kind of like a depth charge underground at a few moments where they have these really large impacts or punches. You can see it briefly at the top of the escalator when he tackles them and then you can see it a little bit later in the subway sequence when Milo takes out the cops. And then again, when Milo punches Morbius in the chest and sends him flying down the subway platform, sliding along the floor.

b&a: Is there anything else about that subway fight you wanted to make sure to mention?

Joel Behrens: I think the other big effect that we had was the echo location, where Morbius sends out these pulses that return a reaction to physical objects in the scene, or natural phenomena, like wind. That was another tough one for us to dev. We had to figure out how to visualize the pulse that goes out. That was relatively easy because it was just a shockwave pulse that had a distortion/liquidy sort of feel. But then as it interacted with whatever surfaces were around him, it was a similar language to the speed effect, where it kind of pulsed and emitted like a proof of particles. And again, it was tied to the color of the room. So now he needed to also be able to see something like air being displaced or the various wind currents that were happening in the city around him in the exterior. How do we show off what we called wind vectors, something that could tell us the direction that things are going and so that he can pick up some of these air currents and use them to his advantage.

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