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September 21
2021

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

HOW DIGITAL DOMAIN CREATED COLLIDING METEORS AND MASSIVE CELESTRIAL DESTRUCTION FOR LOKI

By TREVOR HOGG

Images courtesy of Marvel Studios.

Renewed for a second season is the Marvel Studios production of Loki, where the trickster Norse god portrayed by Tom Hiddleston takes center stage and wreaks havoc with multiple-dimensional incarnations of himself. Digital Domain was responsible for 300 visual effects shots which involved creating massive celestial destruction caused by meteorites colliding with a planet that in turn has devastating ramifications for a circling moon. An actual global catastrophe caused by coronavirus pandemic resulted in the work being done entirely remotely.

“As an episodic project, Loki was interesting because everything that we did took place on a moon of a planet which is separate from the rest of the series,” notes Jean-Luc Dinsdale, Visual Effects Supervisor at Digital Domain. “Loki and Sylvie [Sophia Di Martino] come to Lamentis-1 in Episode 103 and upon leaving in Episode 104, they never come back. We got to develop the look of the moon, the atmosphere and the planet that gets destroyed. There are a lot of times when you get these plates in of actors who are not entirely comfortable working in mostly bluescreen environments, but Tom and Sophia were amazing, and that helped to bridge the gap between their performances and the digital settings built around them.”

As an episodic project, Loki was interesting for Digital Domain because everything took place on a moon that was separate from the rest of the series.

Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino) visit the moon of Lamentis-1 in Episode 103.

A large amount of concept art was generated by Production Designer Kasra Farahani (Bliss) and the art department for the sets, props and characters. “We have worked with [Marvel Studios Visual Effects Supervisor] Dan DeLeeuw [Avengers: Endgame] on multiple previous projects, and there was a shorthand and familiarity that helped us to quickly hone in on the looking he was going for,” notes Dinsdale. “We did a lot of concept work for Lamentis and for the color scheme of Lamentis-1, which was a dark grey moon with purple mining dust in the air being lit by an orange sun and influenced by the green spill of this giant planet that is about to strike it. We were using software like Terragen to dial what everything would look like and tweak the overall color scheme. Dan’s approach towards visual effects is to be pragmatic and based in reality, which was great.”

A real rock quarry with mortars going off was shot for the opening sequence featuring Loki and Sylvie being bombarded by meteors. “They ended up handing over the clean plates and gave us a couple plates as reference for what they did on set,” remarks Dinsdale. “We got an idea of the sense of doom and peril that Loki and Sylvie were in. But having said that, we were asked to create meteor effects from scratch. We went through multiple versions of providing the meteors, the impacts, and the dust and debris that flies around them. That was then tweaked and populated throughout the episode because the meteors are a constant threat, but are not always the focus of the sequence.” Concept art depicted the look and destruction of Lamentis, but, in the end, footage from another Disney franchise of a planet getting destroyed as seen from the ground was the key reference and was extrapolated on a global level.

“As visual effects artists and technicians, our job is to keep pushing reality, but tweaking stuff to make sure it tells the story and looks cool,” explains Dinsdale. “Literally, if the planet has been strip-mined to the point that it has lost all of its mass, the moons wouldn’t be orbiting around it because there wouldn’t be enough gravity. Similarly, if the planet had been mined from the inside, rather than exploding outwards, it would collapse from the loss of an internal structure. There is a bunch of logic stuff that you need to sweep under the rug for dramatic reasons!” No major software and workflow modifications were required to complete the work, says Dinsdale. “We did an incremental update in Houdini to make sure that we could get the meteors and the physics of the explosions right,” remarks Paul Chapman, Compositing Supervisor at Digital Domain. “There were some new processes made available to the effects team. But from a pipeline standpoint, we were in a good space post-Infinity War and Endgame that we could pick up and move Loki without much in the way of rebuild or modification.”

“We did an incremental update in Houdini to make sure that we could get the meteors and the physics of the explosions right. There were some new processes made available to the effects team. But from a pipeline standpoint, we were in a good space post-Infinity War and Endgame that we could pick up and move Loki without much in the way of rebuild or modification.”

—Paul Chapman, Compositing Supervisor, Digital Domain

A real rock quarry with mortars going off was shot for the opening sequence featuring Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino) being bombarded by meteors.

Tom Hiddleston and Sophia Di Martino helped to bridge the gap between their performances and the digital settings built around them.

Digital Domain was responsible for 300 visual effects shots.

A beat sheet was created by Dinsdale for the falling meteors that served as a guideline. “One of the compositors on my team had gone in and built with canned effects elements a hot core meteor with smoke streaking across the background,” states Chapman. “We had determined at that distance we would never see a major explosion. Most of them would fall behind the ridge line of the mountains. Every now and again, an explosion would happen in that mid-distant background. We were able to procedurally do that inside of Nuke. You could bring it in, orientate your camera for that scene, set your frame range, and it would populate on predetermined basis. All that we needed to do was slide stuff around on X. We didn’t have think about it from a compositing standpoint, which allowed us to focus on the other bits.” Dinsdale adds, “That saved us so much time, particularly for the long walk and talk sequences where there were easily 30 to 40 meteors in every shot. Being able to hand that task off was fantastic.”

A sequence shot completely against bluescreen was when Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino) are sitting down in a dining car having a conversation.

“On the asset level, a good example of procedural tools was the creation of Lamentis. We knew right off the bat that we were going to be seeing this planet from multiple distances, so it needed a very good level of detail. We also knew that it was going to explode. We could sit there and generate a dozen different planets per shot which would be time-consuming or generate one asset that would hold up for everything and be a really heavy asset that would bring the render engine to its knees.”

Jean-Luc Dinsdale, Visual Effects Supervisor at Digital Domain

Each building in the city of Shuroo was unique and different, so there was no way to procedurally build them.

Tom Hiddleston listens as Loki series director Kate Herron has an on-set conversation with Sophia Di Martino.

“One of the compositors on my team had gone in and built with canned effects elements a hot core meteor with smoke streaking across the background. We had determined at that distance we would never see a major explosion. Most of them would fall behind the ridge line of the mountains. Every now and again, an explosion would happen in that mid-distant background. We were able to procedurally do that inside of Nuke. You could bring it in, orientate your camera for that scene, set your frame range, and it would populate on predetermined basis.”

—Paul Chapman, Compositing Supervisor, Digital Domain

A beat sheet was created by Digital Domain Visual Effects Supervisor Jean-Luc Dinsdale for the falling meteors

Digital Domain Visual Effects Supervisor Jean-Luc Dinsdale believes that the job of visual effects artists and technicians is to push and tweak reality so that it tells the story and looks cool.

Lamentis-1 is a dark grey moon with purple mining dust in the air being lit by an orange sun and influenced by the green spill of a giant planet.

“On the asset level, a good example of procedural tools was the creation of Lamentis,” observes Dinsdale. “We knew right off the bat that we were going to be seeing this planet from multiple distances, so it needed a very good level of detail. We also knew that it was going to explode. We could sit there and generate a dozen different planets per shot which would be time-consuming or generate one asset that would hold up for everything and be a really heavy asset that would bring the render engine to its knees. Our CG Supervisor Attila Szalma devised a clever approach working with our effects and modeling supervisors. We started the asset in Maya and ZBrush to get the rough shape, and the creation of the mining holes as well as all of the details and cracks on the planet were created procedurally in Houdini.” Instancing was useful when constructing the giant spaceship known as the Arc, says Dinsdale. “A lot of procedural tools were used for the texture work, the amount of grime, and for a lot of the small details to give a sense of scale.” However, art direction was unavoidable. “There was also a lot of stuff done by hand,” he notes, “like the buildings in the mining town. The same thing with the city of Shuroo, which gets destroyed. Each building was unique and different, so there was no way to procedurally build them.”

A sequence shot completely against bluescreen occurred when Loki and Sylvie are sitting down in the dinning car having a conversation, get found out, guards try to arrest them, and they get thrown off of the train. “We rendered out the far distance background, separate mid-ground, and foreground for different desert environments seen outside of the window,” states Chapman. “Because they had done the on-set lighting where you get the dimming and illumination to emulate the distance and time-traveled, we were able to justify the lighting by bringing in a closer foreground bit that indicated that we’re passing through a valley or being shadowed by a high mountain range. Once we had that world rendered and established, we were able to bring the whole thing in compositing — it was literally plug and play. Because they were shooting a fairly shallow depth of field, we were able to make use of a couple thousand frames of rendered miles, go in and grab the bits that we needed. There was no sense of repetition because stuff was out of focus, plus the camera was shifting around. We were able to get through a substantial number of frames in terms of comp renders fairly quickly.”


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