Strange designs

Wētā FX unleashes zombies, and strange environs, for Multiverse of Madness.

The third act climax of Sam Raimi’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness takes place on Mount Wundagore and features a ‘Zombie Strange’, a Spirit Cloak used to battle the Scarlet Witch, and a whole lot more magic.

Using Marvel concepts as a base for the sequence, Wētā FX explored specific environment designs and magical or zombified visuals when developing the final VFX.

In this excerpt from issue #8 of befores & afters magazine, Wētā FX art director Nick Keller breaks down the company’s work and discusses the important idea of delivering concept design, rather than just finished concept art keyframes, as the filmmaking process evolves.

b&a: On Multiverse of Madness I guess one of the things that you had to do a lot of concept work for, or look development for, was Mount Wundagore. I’m curious about that as an environment and where you started in terms of the pieces that needed to be developed there.

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Nick Keller: One thing we did there was set extensions. We would take a lot of the elements and, depending on what they needed for different shots, come up with something that harmonizes with the rest of the set.

We had a maquette of the whole temple provided by the client. I spent quite a bit of time doing supplementary work to it, detailing the fine filigree work all the way around the temple. So, there was a rough model and I did quite a bit of work on detailing it up.

Another factor was that the client decided they didn’t like the top of the temple. The original design had two big angular prongs sticking up, so I was tasked with redesigning the whole top segment – this features quite prominently when the temple collapses at the end.

b&a: For that top piece, did you start sketching in basic form, or do you jump straight into Photoshop or another tool?

Nick Keller: I tried out a lot of different options very quickly, so I did some basic silhouette studies in Photoshop that were more front on. For one of the studies, I took a very rough model into ZBrush and did a rough digital sculpt, then exported that back out and Photoshop painted over it with some of the snow, not taking it too far.

This is a lot of the work we do that probably isn’t publicized as much as the key frame pieces. Concept art is what a lot of people would be more familiar with. It’s fun doing that stuff and that has its place, but so much of the stuff we spend our day-to-day doing is more ‘nuts and bolts’ – solving problems then passing the solution on to the other departments in the pipeline.

Issue #8 of befores & afters magazine.

b&a: In fact, I’m really interested in that because I think that is the thing that’s a bit unspoken in VFX in relation to visual development.

Nick Keller: Yes, sometimes the request to work on something more ‘nuts and bolts’ will be directly from the client, and other times it’ll be in-house, more at a problem solving level. But it’s very much from the get-go of a show – shots will come through from the client and it’ll be a case of ‘Okay, where do we need art to resolve some of this stuff before we dive in and involve a lot of people in the pipeline?’

b&a: I guess this depends on the project and what you’ve asked to do and how much time there is, but do you find that you are able to produce any very early kind of models or ZBrush sculpts that are taken directly by the rest of the team to continue VFX work, or does it just depend how much time you’ve got to do something if you don’t?

Nick Keller: Over the years I’ve worked on quite a few characters and creatures, so sometimes it’s more cost effective and expedient to do studies in 2D. Other times that’ll only get you so far and you have to resolve things by taking it into 3D, which can be quite beneficial when it comes to hand over.

I’ll often have a crude model that solves enough problems for me, then I’ll work over it in 2D. I can do lots of variations in 2D and Photoshop, but it’s really helpful for the modelling department if I hand over a maquette model for them to flesh out and detail up.

b&a: One of the things visualized for Wētā’s work was when Wanda Dreamwalks via the Darkhold. Tell me about fleshing out the concepts for this.

Nick Keller: The brief was about trying to find a very clear visual way of representing this network or map through the multiverse. We wanted to be able to look into some of these orbs and see that there’s a whole world within. My work was an exploration of how to best represent that clearly to the audience in a visual way.

b&a: I think what can be challenging in a Marvel film is that there’s always lots of magic or explosions or beams of energy or light and I like this sequence because it actually felt different.

Nick Keller: Yeah, I think there’s a bit more of an organic quality to it, perhaps. I know exactly what you mean about all of the different types of magic and supernatural qualities that the different characters have. For the Marvel films I’ve had the opportunity to work on, color is very important. The color of the magic that the characters create comes up again and again with the client, like ‘Oh we can’t lean it too far in that direction, because it looks too much like this other magic’. Color is a tool that really helps with that differentiation.

Read the full interview in issue #8 of befores & afters magazine.

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