How Digital Domain helped The Rock melt a mercenary

And how one hilarious moment in ‘Black Adam’ done by the VFX studio didn’t make it to the theatrical cut.

One of the first sequences in Jaume Collet-Serra’s Black Adam sees the introduction of the mysterious cloaked title character, played by Dwayne Johnson, as he battles a group of mercenaries at the Rock of Eternity.

The cave battle culminates in Black Adam literally melting one of his foes right down to the skeleton, an effect crafted by Digital Domain, who worked closely with production visual effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer and visual effects producer Karen M. Murphy on the film.

Here, Digital Domain visual effects supervisor Nikos Kalaitzidis and digital effects supervisor Greg Teegarden tell befores & afters about the work involved in creating the melting moment, including the shoot, digital stunt doubles, digital Dwayne Johnson, electricity generation, cloth simulation and even shredding CG cloth with bullets.

They also highlight a fun shot that didn’t quite make the final film involving the replacement–and re-animation–of a dummy mercenary arm ripped off by Black Adam himself.

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The cave set shoot

b&a: I’d love to start by asking about the re-creation of the live-action cave environment. What kinds of things were able to be done on set to survey and aid in recreating that environment later on?

Nikos Kalaitzidis: It was pretty standard in terms of what was done on set for scanning, texturing and HDRs. However, one thing we had to recreate were the panels of the seven sins that are inside the chamber. They only had just the bottom portion of the set with a throne that Black Adam could sit in.

It’s interesting–because they didn’t have the 7-Sins panels, I feel that the DP framed what he shot in a certain way. If he had known what the set might have looked like or if it was more of a virtual production set where he would see the seven sins, chances are, he may have panned up a little bit more and composed differently for the shots.

Greg and I would laugh about it. It’s like, ‘Oh man, here’s another shot where we just can’t see the panels back there.’ We put so much detail into those beautiful seven sins that you just can’t see because the shot was photographed looking down, say. It never really panned up.

It introduces an interesting situation where I think DPs might compose things differently if they’ve seen what the whole set will be, or if they have that in mind about how vast it might be. But they’re shooting with what they have on set. They’re really moving fast and they’re trying to get the best they can.

An on-set pic from Dwayne Johnson’s Instagram page.

b&a: That’s an interesting comment in the age of virtual production, LED walls and simul-cams, isn’t it Nikos, because it could afford that flexibility?

Nikos Kalaitzidis: Yes, and there were a few LED wall shots for that particular sequence, used during a re-shoot, for which we built the CG asset.

Greg Teegarden: There was one LED wall shot that survived for this sequence. I think the reason it survived is because, one, Dwayne looked great in it because he was being lit by the virtual stage, but it was, two, also the way he was framed–they used a fairly long lens on him. So the background was just enough out of focus where it didn’t make any sense whatsoever to roto him out and then put another out of focus background in it.

I really wanted to have at least one shot of the sequence that was the LED wall with him in it, because we had spent so much time building this asset and it was a bit of a new experience for us. So I wanted to try and see if we could at least retain one shot that was in camera, or as Bill Westenhofer would call it, final pixel.

b&a: It’s definitely a new way of working and everyone is still kind of experimenting, right?

Nikos Kalaitzidis: I think with LED wall shoots, everyone has got to be on board. I mean, the way it tends to work is, we will create this content based on story-boards, then previs and deliver the content for a specific shot. The shot, for example, would be designed and composed with a long lens, which means we would be able to use our unreal asset, which looks great in the BG slightly out of focus.

But then if the DP comes on and swaps out the lens or puts in another two cameras, and starts shooting off the LED wall to get a lens flare, then everything that we’ve done is more or less out the window. I’m not saying that’s happened on this show, but I’m saying that we should make sure that if we move forward with this sort of tech, it works best when everybody’s on board moving forward with it.

Speed ramps

b&a: One of the things Black Adam needed to do were these speed ramps, because that’s one of his superpowers. How was a speed ramp shot? How did you come to the right look and feel of this super fast speed?

Nikos Kalaitzidis: It did depend on the shot. We did have a Oner that was comprised of a number of plates.

Greg Teegarden: It was five to seven plates.

Nikos Kalaitzidis: Yes! It was done on a motion control rig. It was based on the previs and there’d be certain beats that we shot for, say when a mercenary would get attacked, where they’d be on stunt rigs and they would pull them–one, two, three, boom! We knew that Black Adam would be all-CG for those shots, but we did have Dwayne’s stuntman there on set for reference.

Here, you’re trying to use the plate and you know fully well that you’re going to replace Black Adam in this particular instance. And then afterwards, once we start stitching all the plates and action together in a presentable composite, our clients immediately realised they wanted more… ‘Well, we want more interest, let’s add more destruction, more chaos caused by Black Adam. As any Oner ever made, we added a lot more into the shot than we ever anticipated.

Shredding Black Adam’s cloak

b&a: What were some of the particular challenges with the Black Adam digi-double in terms of his cloak in that sequence?

Greg Teegarden: The biggest challenge for that was, well, making it. We originally didn’t have that cloak in our original scope of work. They were literally packing it up and putting it on the truck. We told them, ‘We need a scan of that thing.’ So they laid it out on the ground and they scanned it for us.

Nikos Kalaitzidis: They scanned it in a particular way we had suggested.

Greg Teegarden: Bob White, one of our CG supes on the show, did a little drawing of how it should be laid out to facilitate modeling and texturing. It was laid out in a big circle with the little hood sitting in the middle and they scanned that, they sent it back to us and then we just started chipping away at it.

Eventually what we had to do was grab somebody who was very good with Marvelous Designer and they took that cloak and knocked it out for us in a couple of days after we had spent some time trying to do a more traditional sort of brute force, cloak drape kind of thing. We finally just said, ‘You know what, this is actually digital tailoring, is really what it is, and that’s what that piece of software is for.’

The next hardest thing on that was the bullet hits, which our FX supervisor Jeremy Hampton came up with. With the bullet hits, Bill Westenhofer really wanted to convey the sense that this cloak was getting shredded. Black Adam is indestructible, but his cloak is not. His cloak is just a cloak. So he wanted to contrast the fact that that Black Adam can catch a bullet in his fingers and just look at it while his cloak is just getting cheese clothed or Swiss cheesed during the whole time.

Nikos Kalaitzidis: The reason why it took a while was also because the shots were pretty close up, heads and shoulders. They shot Dwayne Johnson in a cloak, with a lot of flashing lights representing muzzle flashes as interactive reference. We had to think, ‘Okay, well what do we keep here?’ It seemed we would have to replace the whole cloak since the on-set one wasn’t moving and shredding. And then once we started replacing the cloak, we decide, ‘Well, why don’t we replace his face, too?’

I would say it’s pretty forgiving because even though it’s really that close, it’s still pretty dark there. It was easier to do that in so many shots because we get the interactive light with the muzzle flashes and the sparks which are coming off his chest and then you have it on his body, you have it on his face, you see it everywhere. It’s visually more integrated.

With the cloak, after we’d done the cloth simulation with all the FX impacting it and shredding it, and adding puffs of smoke, there was just one thing that was missing. Due to the fact the cloak was so hero close to camera, there was this feeling that it should have fibers on the hood itself. So what we decided to do was add an additional layer of peach fuzz hair on the cloak so it looked like fiber itself. That also affected the look because it gave it a different diffuse quality as cloth would have just.

Shredded Black Adam

b&a: And for Dwayne’s face, were you relying on a digital asset or was it more 2D re-projections, or all of the above?

Greg Teegarden: It was all 3D. We received a Dwayne Johnson asset sans cloak.

Nikos Kalaitzidis: The primary vendor behind the asset of Dwayne Johnson was Weta FX. They did a great job. For the close-ups, we really wanted to add additional pore detail and extra shapes into our rig to match his performances.

And then an interesting thing, Greg, that you probably could mention and talk about is Dwayne Johnson’s physique. This is related to the fact that the principal shoot was finished in July 2021, and then we had re-shoots in 2022.

Tracking dots being painted on Dwayne Johnson’s body. From his Instagram page.


Greg Teegarden: Yes, so obviously when we did our CG work we started with a scan of Dwayne Johnson, like you would any other asset. Dwayne Johnson was really big. He had worked out for six months. He was just completely ripped. So his physique, it was like he was shrink-wrapped, any body fat he had on him whatsoever was just gone.

But this wasn’t necessarily his physique when he was scanned and the asset made. I said to Nikos, when they were filming him, ‘We need a scan of him while you’re there, while he’s like that.’ So we got a scan of him, we sent it back here and we lined it up with the original asset we got and it was like, ‘Holy cow, he’s a lot leaner than he was before.’ So what we wound up doing was retopologizing our body to that more leaner version of him.

b&a: I think Dwayne Johnson must be the most photogrammetry’d actor in history, just thinking about all the films he’s done. And I always thought that VFX studios could re-use these models and scans, but of course he must always keep changing appearance, slightly.

Nikos Kalaitzidis: That’s right. Yeah.

Greg Teegarden: You never know what you’re going to get depending on what movie he’s on.

The melting moment

b&a: Let’s move on to the kinds of things that he does to those mercenaries. One thing he does is shoot them with electricity. How did you get to the right look for that electricity?

Nikos Kalaitzidis: Well, last year when Black Adam was teased at DC FanDome, we worked on shots for the first trailer, and pretty much everything in that trailer was in this one particular sequence that we’re talking about at the Rock of Eternity. A lot of those shots had to do with electricity. This meant we were one of the first vendors out of the gate that needed to show something to the public and it had a lot to do with electricity.

There were a lot of different shots that we had to do. Lightning bolt coming down, bolts of lightning coming off of him. We’d say, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we had some bolts of lightning just sizzling on his arms? Because in the next shot he zaps somebody. We’d share that with Bill and he’d say, ‘Oh yeah, let’s give that a try.’

We threw a lot of stuff at the wall to see what sticks. Jeremy Hampton, our FX Supervisor, came up with a lot of different renders in Houdini, and our compositors dialed in the look to keep the depth looking correct, give some weighted glows in the lightning to give it more complexity throughout, having certain branches that are thicker and thinner and dying as soon as it appears.

b&a: When it came time to melt a mercenary, how did you approach this, to begin with?

Nikos Kalaitzidis: In the beginning, we saw the previs shots and boards. Then when these shots were turned over, I think we were expecting them to be short and fast. But, Jaume said, for at least one shot, ‘I want the Mercenary to be held there choking and melting.’ We said, ‘Oh, this shot is not short at all, this is for real.’

So we realized we really needed to see him go from human to more or less eyes bulging out, and skin really just melting away. It was inspired by Indiana Jones, which was something like 40 years ago, but taking it to a new level.

What we discovered immediately was that it was best to do the shot all-CG rather than doing a hand-off from live action photography of the actor to CG. By doing so, we realized that we had to have that asset of that human mercenary look like a human being from the get-go. Now, he’s not a Thanos like character, he’s not a different colored being, he is a human being we had to make look photo-real at the head of the shot. We had to make sure that the textures could hold up. It’s a close-up, hero, head and shoulder shot.

One of the extra challenges in making him look real was that he was an actor who had alopecia, so he didn’t have hair, and he didn’t have eyebrows, and he didn’t have any facial hair whatsoever. When you have someone like that, he can already look CG. So, we had to get him to look human and then at that point we had to figure out what it would take to make him melt with all these different stages within one shot.

One thing that did happen is that, at the end of the day, when we were finished with the shots, it came back to us later with the MPAA saying, ‘This shot is not going to pass MPAA. You will need to do something about it.’ After working so hard and trying to figure this out, at the end of the day we had to cover it up with more smoke just to pass the MPAA. That’s what’s in the film.

b&a: I guess that does show how good your work was and so convincing that it was so grotesque. That’s great actually in another way to think about it even though people won’t see the original.

Nikos Kalaitzidis: The spirit is there. Maybe, Greg, you can dive into explaining some of the things that we added into that asset to make that look come alive.

Greg Teegarden: We first got a scan of the actor and then we took what we call our ‘gen man’, which is our own internal topology, and we retopologized our gen man to the mercenary actor so that it looked like him. We got the texturing working so that we had an asset that looked like him. Of course, what we quickly realized was that we needed to have stuff underneath the skin. He needed to have a skull. He needed to have a muscular system. He needed to have a vascular system and fat and fascia beneath the skin.

So what we did was, we had another asset that had all that stuff in it. We then took all that stuff and fit that inside of his topology so that when we started to electrocute him, we could start to boil off pieces of skin to reveal the fat and then reveal the musculature and then the vascular system. The interactive light from the electricity would hit it and it would light up and you could see the veins going on inside, that type of thing.

We had to do a lot with blend shapes, where we’re going from this outside topology to eventually it all getting burned off to just all the inside topology and then that had to shrink and burn away. Then there was his clothing. We had to build his clothes and then figure out how to burn that away and get that to shrink as he boils down to a skeleton.

Nikos Kalaitzidis: His acting performance on set was great. He was shaking high frequency as if he was being electrocuted. We tried to match his performance as close as possible.

As we transformed the skin from one texture set to another, we actually ran a simulated texture through FX to feed into a material pipeline workflow so we could render that out in order to have animated textures.

And then in the end, we said, ‘Why don’t we have him do a little saliva too?’ So we threw in a little saliva goop.

b&a: There’s also the head roll.

Nikos Kalaitzidis: Yes, at that point he’s completely all skeleton and ash, and he falls down to the ground. The head rolls to camera, jaw drops off. Thank you, Arda Uysal, our animation supervisor, who came up with that idea.

So, that’s in the feature. In the trailer that we did last year that was online, when the head drops and rolls towards camera, the skull completely turns into ash and crumbles away. But the director said, ‘No, no, no, no. The skull should stay together.’ So we kept it together, but we had his jaw pop off. Fun stuff.

Greg Teegarden: And the reason that we had him roll into ash originally was because they didn’t want to have to track continuity of a skull on the ground. But the director said, ‘I don’t care about that. I just want the skull. It looks cool.’

b&a: You guys must have done this a million times, but I am fascinated about the very, very big role VFX studios end up having in promotion of the film at say a Comic-Con or a pre-release event, and then how it changes. It must be a challenge to do that while you are still working on the final shots for the film.

Greg Teegarden: [laughs] Yes, Ian.

Nikos Kalaitzidis: Yes, I mean, with superhero movies like this, you really have to roll with the punches. You really have to make sure upfront, ahead of time, way ahead of time, that your assets are going to hold up no matter what. So when they decide that, no matter what they shot on set, they take that camera and they move it around and it’s an all-CG shot, you’re ready to go. As long as we’re prepared for that, as long as we prepare our crew that these worst case scenarios may happen, I think it leads us to a better delivery.

Lens flares!

b&a: When I was watching the film, I particularly remember the lens flares in this sequence. I presume it was shot anamorphic. Tell me about lens flare challenges here, because there must have been some lens flare replication?

Nikos Kalaitzidis: Lawrence Sher, the DP, loves shooting against any light to get those lens flares with anamorphic lens’. We knew that’s how he shot it and we knew that he wanted everything backlit. And because of adding all the electricity in a lot of these shots, and learning from Larry’s visual vocabulary, we decided to add lens flares any chance we had.

We tried to mimic what we saw on set and our comp supervisors, Francis Puthanangani and Randy Ruan, were able to wrangle anamorphic lens flares, and made sure that our comp’ers were able to use them. Plus, it gave it a little bit more of a polished touch to the whole comp because the flares layered everything together nicely.

The twitching hand that never made it

b&a: Apart from the melting, I remember another moment when one of the mercenary’s arms is torn off, and it drops. Is that a prop or was that a CG arm?

Greg Teegarden: They had a prosthetic arm on set. They must have dropped it 20 or 30 times, and it just always looked like a dummy arm. And so we decided, ‘You know what, we can fix this.’ We already had the merc asset. It wasn’t a big deal to just tear an arm off and just line it up where he was connected to the shoulder and add some ‘tasteful’ gore to it. Then that way when it dropped on the ground, we had complete control over it and it didn’t look like a piece of rubber hitting the ground.

Nikos Kalaitzidis: Just to put it in context, Black Adam is killing all these mercenaries. He grabs one of these mercenaries, he grabs them by the arms, he sees three mercenaries shooting at him, he throws this mercenary at the three, hits one of them and he realizes that the arm came off and he’s still holding onto it. And then he grabs that arm and he drops it like a mic and it drops down onto the floor. That is the prosthetic that we had to replace.

Greg Teegarden: So, we’re sitting in dailies one day and I said to Nikos, ‘It’d be really funny if, when it hit the ground, it felt like he had a little bit of a last little twitch in his finger.’ Arda, our anim sup, he’s like, ‘Yeah, I can do that.’ So he does that and we’re all like, ‘That looks great.’ So we showed it to Bill Westenhofer, who showed it to Jaume, everybody loved it. It was in the movie and then it got MPAA’ed.

b&a: Oh no!

Greg Teegarden: You can’t have a disembodied hand laying on the ground and the finger just all of a sudden twitching. The thing is, it was great because it was perfectly timed comedically.

Nikos Kalaitzidis: In the end, they just cut it short. They took out a few frames.

b&a: Oh, that’s really funny. I’m so glad you shared that story.

Nikos Kalaitzidis: I just wanted to end with this note. I’ve worked on many movies throughout my career, on shows as big as this with 500 shots. We put together a great crew, great team. The production team with Bill, Karen and their team were awesome. I’ve got to say, out of all the movies I’ve worked on, this is one of the smoothest landings that we’ve done and we’ve contributed a lot creatively to get to the finish line and to see it all on the big screen. I want to really thank the team and everyone who really contributed their creativity, craft and hard work on Black Adam. It’s pretty awesome.

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