“Shang-Chi and the Ten Rings”: How Marvel Created Its First Dragons
Director Destin Daniel Cretton and the VFX crew discuss the Great Protector, Dweller in Darkness, and Morris, the new Baby Groot.
“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” the MCU’s introduction to Chinese fantasy adventure wuxia, provided several unique VFX opportunities: manifesting the power of the titular rings, creating Marvel’s first dragons – the great protector, and the inhabitant of darkness – and ward off the adorable Morris, the headless, six-legged, furry friend of Ben Kingsley’s jester, Trevor.
“We knew we wanted this movie to start off very grounded and go deeper and deeper into fantasy,” Destin director Daniel Cretton (“Just Mercy”) said. “And we also knew that we wanted the visuals to be very inspired by Asian cinema. [including ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’], and we wanted other elements to be new visuals for the rings and creature design in [the magical village of] Tao Lo.
For senior visual effects supervisor Christopher Townsend, the appearance of the titular rings associated with the immortal Wenwu / The Mandarin (Tony Leung) has gone from a very extravagant display of colorful energy to a more understated one.
“We discussed whether each ring should have an individual power and what the colors should be and we landed on some gaudy visual effects on how the power of the rings manifested,” he said. .
“Then we started working with cinematography on Tony’s portrayal of Wenwu. [shot by DP William Pope], and his performance was so low-key and so grounded, ”Townsend continued. “And it just didn’t work out at all, so we stepped back and made the physicality of the rings more of a dangerous thing. But we put it so far that later in the process we looked at it again and amplified it to make it more special.
It was important to keep the power of the elemental rings, with fire, lightning, flares, and even a beautiful aurora borealis. Also, there were two distinct color combinations: blue for Wenwu and gold and green for his son, Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), who go head-to-head at Soul Mountain. In keeping with their individual styles, Wenwu’s powers were visually represented as angry and violent lightning whips or projectiles, while Shang-Chi’s were more beautiful and graceful with lots of ribbon dancing.
Weta Digital was responsible for the father-son fight as well as the battle between the Great Protector and the Dweller in Darkness. Notably, Weta prepared for the in-ring duel by using what they called “toy-vis” to block it with action figures of Stan Lee and Captain America. “Some of the shots for this scene, including Shang-Chi’s reveal with the Ten Rings, came straight from there,” said Sean Walker, Weta’s visual effects supervisor.
“After that, there were a lot of stuntmen developed and that helped inform the final shoot,” Walker added. “A simple set was built for the base of the door, but in a few takes they removed the entire background so we could replace everything with our digital environment. It has helped in so many ways. As with some of the edit changes, this allowed us to keep continuity with the direction and placement of the fight. “
Weta, known for his eponymous “Pete’s Dragon” and his Emmy Award-winning dragon work on “Game of Thrones,” created two very different creatures for “Shang-Chi” with magical powers drawn from Chinese mythology. The Great Protector is a wingless, serpent-like water dragon, while the soul-sucking inhabitant is a winged, sprawling, eyeless creature. “We wanted to make sure that the Great Protector represented peace and quiet and that the Dweller in Darkness – whom I don’t even consider a dragon – was the manifestation of evil,” director Cretton said.
“The Great Protector, who we have always considered a female creature, has to swim in the air with a lot of grace but very quickly, so we used a lot of references to sea snakes and eels to give it a beautiful and elegant feel. Townsend says. “Weta created a majestic looking creature [130 meters long] with these large scales. By removing the eye of the Dark dweller, it made it interesting in terms of perceiving objects. So [Weta] made him look creepy, with a massive jaw and a big tongue. It was aggressive in a way we had never seen before.
The Great Protector marks Weta’s first wingless dragon, so she had to rule with her head. It was animated with a combination of path-based animation and keyframes, using a Koru spline rig. Its translucent and iridescent scales gave it a soft and magical side. “We were able to adjust the iridescence per shot as it increased its power throughout the streak,” Walker said. “We gave her kind eyes, which we inspired from the eyes of actress Fala Chen, who plays Shang-Chi’s mother in the film. We wanted Shang-Chi and Xialing [his estranged sister played by Meng’er Zhang] feel a certain familiarity when looking at the Great Protector. The two siblings share a moment where they each look into the eyes of the dragon. The Great Protector, being a water dragon, also has fins on her face that she can use as an extra layer of expressiveness.
For the Nine Tentacle Inhabitant, which spans over 200 yards, Weta used an assortment of references to help define every aspect of the beast’s body. Obsidian rock for the teeth, crab and horns for the armor, a mixture of porous rock, rhino and elephant skin for the tough parts of the body. “We used raw meat for the skin in and around the mouth for a raw, mottled, and very noticeably painful appearance,” Walker continued. “Departing from a traditional reference to the lizard gave us a more unique and otherworldly feel for the Dweller, pushing him one step further from the conception of the Great Protector. Geometrically, he finished. for being one of the heaviest creatures we’ve ever built in Weta, with 128 million polygons.
Meanwhile, scene thief Morris, named after the director’s dachshund, was based on the chaotic creature Hundun and animated by Trixter (Rocket from “Guardians of the Galaxy”). “When we started talking about Morris, we realized this was the new Baby Groot,” Townsend said. “Much of the animation reference we used was my dog with wombats and puppies. The animators looked at their own pets. But without a face, Trixter was challenged to give it some personality. They animated it in a way where six legs made sense, doing wing gestures was helpful, as was positioning the body, using the shoulders, and stomping its legs. We also used sound. A voice actor came in at the last minute and provided some interesting sound effects.
Cretton added, “It was a complicated development process to find a creature that was very strange but also very cute. I think we went through many iterations of not cute until we found one when we finally all said, “Aah, there’s Morris.”