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April 19
2022

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

EFFECTS PROVE THE CURE IS WORSE THAN THE DISEASE FOR MORBIUS

By TREVOR HOGG

Images courtesy of Columbia Pictures.

For the greater portion of the movie Dr. Michael Morbius (Jared Leto) walks around in his human form.

For the greater portion of the movie Dr. Michael Morbius (Jared Leto) walks around in his human form.

“We designed Morbius’ face to have some resemblance to Jared Leto and wanted to carry through all of his idiosyncrasies into what the monster does. That was achieved through standard techniques and leaning on machine learning techniques that we employ these days. … We marked up the face to have an accurate tracking of where his head was in 3D space, knowing that we would totally own the face underneath. We kept the hair and clothes; there were times that we didn’t. It’s a performance that leans on machine learning techniques that Digital Domain has put into place over the years.”

—Matthew Butler, Visual Effects Supervisor

Highlighting the rogues’ gallery of Spider-Man villains is the Sony Pictures Universe of Marvel Characters, which began with the malevolent symbiote Venom and has expanded to include Dr. Michael Morbius, a brilliant biochemist turned vampire. The origin story gets explored in Morbius, directed by Daniel Espinosa (Child 44), with Jared Leto playing the title character alongside Michael Keaton, Adria Arjona, Jared Harris, and Matt Smith. Hired to handled the visual effects was Matthew Butler (Ready Player One), who collaborated with Digital Domain, One of Us, Lola VFX, Storm Studios, Sony Pictures Imageworks and NVIZ to visualize and create 1,000 shots.

Dr. Michael Morbius (Jared Leto) attempts to cure his rare blood disease with experimental vampire-bat science.

Dr. Michael Morbius (Jared Leto) attempts to cure his rare blood disease with experimental vampire-bat science.

Making impossible things occur in a believable manner for audience members is tricky. “In this case, you have Jared Leto and Matt Smith playing vampires, and we see them walking around as humans for the greater portion of the movie, so we know their physical inertia,” explains Butler. “We tried to masquerade within almost gratuitous visual effects that justified where physical reality needed to be bent. The face was the most impressive work in the movie, but honoring the dynamics was much harder.” The vampire faces had to appear monstrous but still resemble the actor so to retain its appeal. Comments Butler, “We designed Morbius’ face to have some resemblance to Jared Leto and wanted to carry through all of his idiosyncrasies into what the monster does. That was achieved through standard techniques and leaning on machine learning techniques that we employ these days. We let the director Daniel Espinosa run free with his actors on the day. We marked up the face to have an accurate tracking of where his head was in 3D space, knowing that we would totally own the face underneath. We kept the hair and clothes; there were times that we didn’t. It’s a performance that leans on machine learning techniques that Digital Domain has put into place over the years.”

Aftering injecting himself with his cure, Dr. Michael Morbius (Jared Leto) gains superhuman strength but also transforms into a vampire.

Aftering injecting himself with his cure, Dr. Michael Morbius (Jared Leto) gains superhuman strength but also transforms into a vampire.

“In this case, you have Jared Leto and Matt Smith playing vampires, and we see them walking around as humans for the greater portion of the movie, so we know their physical inertia. We tried to masquerade within almost gratuitous visual effects that justified where physical reality needed to be bent. The face was the most impressive work in the movie, but honoring the dynamics was much harder.”

—Matthew Butler, Visual Effects Supervisor

Prosthetic makeup was strictly used for the gaunt and sickly versions of Jared Leto and Matt Smith. “There are levels of madness,” notes Butler. “Phase seven ended up being the most dramatic and extreme. Most of time, Morbius is at phase three. There was also a phase that we referred to as a balloon, where he would elastically go into this mode and comes back again. Those shots are so subtle that they’re almost subliminal.” The first transformation happens off screen. “Morbius bursts out of the glass where he is being contained and is full monster. Now that we know what he’s going to become we can balloon into that, not go as far, and see the progression,” notes Butler. It was important to avoid the transformation appearing as a morph or dissolve. “We would have different parts of the face do various behaviors,” Butler adds. “Morbius has this pale skin, so we had to pull red blood cells out of him and accompany that with a fairly grotesque vein work and a quite translucent subsurface to the skin. When he reverts back from being a monster in the container ship, the last frame of that shot is a fully digital face of Jared. It’s quite an achievement by Digital Domain because it’s a lot easier to do a monster than a human who is your lead actor – and full frame.”

The face of Morbius was designed to have some resemblance to Jared Leto.

The face of Morbius was designed to have some resemblance to Jared Leto.

The face of Morbius was designed to have some resemblance to Jared Leto.

The face of Morbius was designed to have some resemblance to Jared Leto.

To receive the PG-17 rating many shots had blood removed or made to look black.

To receive the PG-17 rating many shots had blood removed or made to look black.

To receive the PG-17 rating many shots had blood removed or made to look black.

To receive the PG-17 rating many shots had blood removed or made to look black.

To receive the PG-17 rating many shots had blood removed or made to look black.

“There are levels of madness. Phase seven ended up being the most dramatic and extreme. Most of time, Morbius is at phase three. There was also a phase that we referred to as a balloon, where he would elastically go into this mode and comes back again. Those shots are so subtle that they’re almost subliminal.”

—Matthew Butler, Visual Effects Supervisor

A unique ability possessed by Morbius is echolocation, where high frequency sound pulses are emitted through the nose or mouth of a bat that listens for the resulting echo. “How does one visualize something that is not visual?” asks Bulter. “We had to show that he is seeing these surfaces by bouncing soundwaves against them. It didn’t have to be sound, but a wave-like phenomena that has a particle system response. I also wanted it to be beautiful. We see Morbius sending out these pulses and an energization of the surfaces which have inherent colors.” Not everything happens on the ground. “Flying was one of my biggest fears as it can quickly become hokey. Morbius has a certain mass and telegraphs that by the way he walks around and picks up and puts down a cup. You can’t suddenly [show] that he has shed his mass and is now a helium balloon. I love any natural phenomena because it tends to be beautiful, and if someone has seen a real thing before, they are now clued into a curtained believability. The technique that we used to hide some of the sins here was a cavitation of the volumes around them.”

“We would have different parts of the face do various behaviors. Morbius has this pale skin, so we had to pull red blood cells out of him and accompany that with a fairly grotesque vein work and a quite translucent subsurface to the skin. When he reverts back from being a monster in the container ship, the last frame of that shot is a fully digital face of Jared. It’s quite an achievement by Digital Domain because it’s a lot easier to do a monster than a human who is your lead actor – and full frame.”

—Matthew Butler, Visual Effects Supervisor

Greenscreen and bluescreen were favored over LED walls. “There was a greenscreen shoot for the cave exterior for the opening sequence in Costa Rica,  which was some of the hardest in the movie because that was shot indoors,” reveals Butler. “It was difficult to get that lighting to look real. The end of the movie is all bluescreen. We built a partial set with it being 90% synthetic. We knew what it was and could pull it up on the video feed there because we had already conceived it.” The third act completely changed from being situated during the day to a nighttime setting. “We shot for months in a park in England doubling for Central Park in New York City,” notes Butler, “and the action we did with Jared Leto, Matt Smith and Adria Arjona was all gone. The entire third act was reconceived digitally. We selectively re-shot little pieces of Jared, Matt and Adria, and the rest was CG.” The theatrical rating of Morbius impacted the blood and gore. “It is hard to do a PG vampire movie,” observes Butler. “There were so many shots where we went back and took blood out or made it black.” The stunt performances were impressive, in particular by Jared Leto’s stunt double, Greg Townley, who literally ran up walls sprayed with Coca-Cola for the subway scene. States Butler, “I came at this from what can we do practically first.” A major accomplishment occurs during the container ship sequence. “It is an elegant shot,” savors Butler, “where you see him go from full monster and become Jared Leto. I love that shot and am so proud of it. It looks like Jared, but that’s all synthetic.”

In the subway scene the walls were sprayed with Coca-Cola so that the stunt double for Jared Leto could actually run up the walls.

In the subway scene the walls were sprayed with Coca-Cola so that the stunt double for Jared Leto could actually run up the walls.

In the subway scene the walls were sprayed with Coca-Cola so that the stunt double for Jared Leto could actually run up the walls.

In the subway scene the walls were sprayed with Coca-Cola so that the stunt double for Jared Leto could actually run up the walls.

In the subway scene the walls were sprayed with Coca-Cola so that the stunt double for Jared Leto could actually run up the walls.


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