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October 11
2022

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

HOW DIGITAL DOMAIN EMPOWERS MS. MARVEL

By TREVOR HOGG

Images courtesy of Digital Domain and Marvel Studios.

Ms. Marvel (Iman Vellani) is the first Muslim-American teenager-superhero in the MCU.

Ms. Marvel (Iman Vellani) is the first Muslim-American teenager-superhero in the MCU.

If your dreams came true, would they meet your expectations or become an unwanted burden? This is a prevailing question that drives the MCU Disney+ series Ms. Marvel, which revolves around a teenage Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani) wishing to be a member of the Avengers and is unexpectedly given supernatural powers and abilities. With Nordin Rahhali acting as Overall Marvel VFX Supervisor on Ms. Marvel, and Sandra Balej and Sandro Blattner as Marvel VFX Supervisors, Fuse FX VFX Supervisor Kevin Yuille helped guide the visual effects for the six episodes, working with Digital Domain to create the powers of the title character, digital doubles, Ms. Marvel being transported back in time, an iconic lamppost shot, training montage and elephant toothpaste. Digital Domain VFX Supervisor Aladino Debert is proud of a particular aspect of Ms. Marvel. “The fact that Ms. Marvel is the first Muslim American teenager superhero in the MCU is culturally great. It showcases Muslim families in way that no other show has done.”

Iman Vellani as Kamala Khan travels back in time to the eve of the Partition of India.

Iman Vellani as Kamala Khan travels back in time to the eve of the Partition of India.

Practical smoke and steam had to be replaced with CG because they were not conveying the proper scale in wide shots.

Practical smoke and steam had to be replaced with CG because they were not conveying the proper scale in wide shots.

The powers and abilities illustrated in the Ms. Marvel comic books had to be reinterpreted. “Ms. Marvel is a polymorph, meaning she can stretch her body, grow and shrink,” Debert explains. “It is a bit of Fantastic Four and Ant-Man. The creatives wanted to stay away from that, and for powers to be more magic and energy-based than physical.” Two important aspects were grounding non-realistic effects in the familiar and creating something that looks cool. “That balance is always an interesting one,” Debert notes. “We wanted to showcase the powers as being separate, yet manipulated by her. It feels physical and solid in certain parts of her body, but not others. It also depends on what she is trying to do in a specific shot. It is like a moving target because you want to maintain a cohesive look to her powers.”

Among the various simulations that Digital Domain had to create was fire.

Among the various simulations that Digital Domain had to create was fire.

“The good thing about having photorealistic digital doubles is that it gives the creatives freedom to experiment with things that they couldn’t otherwise. We ended up using the digital doubles in sequences that were never part of the original plan because they looked great, like when Kamala is running through the city.”

—Aladino Debert, VFX Supervisor, Digital Domain

One of the powers of Ms. Marvel (Iman Vellani) is the cosmic, photonic and mystical Noor energy.

One of the powers of Ms. Marvel (Iman Vellani) is the cosmic, photonic and mystical Noor energy.

One of the powers of Ms. Marvel is the cosmic, photonic and mystical Noor energy. “We wanted to come up with something that felt part of the MCU universe; however, at the same time different because it’s a new character,” Debert states. “What we talked about was hard light. The idea is that her powers are essentially light made solid, so the hard light is what gives her the ability to embiggen herself and walk on it. It also enables her to create shields to protect herself. On the other side of the coin, it is what gives Kamran’s [Rish Shah] powers a sense of danger; he creates this similarly nature effect that is out of control, jagged and destructive. It’s like a cosmic cactus coming at you! We wanted to come up with something that had a similar source between Kamran and Kamala,  but with a different feel as far as the color palette. Kamala’s powers are mostly cyan, amber and magenta, which goes with the colors of her suit. Kamran’s ended up being cyan and gold, which is on the opposite of the color wheel.”

“Ms. Marvel is a polymorph, meaning she can stretch her body, grow and shrink. The creatives wanted to stay away from that, and for powers to be more magic and energy-based than physical. That balance is always an interesting one. We wanted to showcase the powers as being separate, yet manipulated by her. It feels physical and solid in certain parts of her body, but not others. It also depends on what she is trying to do in a specific shot. It is like a moving target because you want to maintain a cohesive look to her powers.”

—Aladino Debert, VFX Supervisor, Digital Domain

Digital Domain was tasked with filling a massive train station with tens of thousands of people clambering and jumping the trains.

Digital Domain was tasked with filling a massive train station with tens of thousands of people clambering and jumping the trains.

Digital doubles were created without knowing how they were going to be utilized. “We just knew that the digital doubles were going to be used at some point,” Debert explains. “We took scans and created turntables to make sure that the characters looked photorealistic. Then we did some animation and CFX to test the behavior of the character with different clothes on. In the case of Kamala, we did two different digital doubles because she changes her attire. She has a version with clothes and an early type of suit, and then later a super suit. The good thing about having photorealistic digital doubles is that it gives the creatives freedom to experiment with things that they couldn’t otherwise. We ended up using the digital doubles in sequences that were never part of the original plan because they looked great, like when Kamala is running through the city.”

Digital Domain was responsible for the battle between Ms. Marvel (Iman Vellani) and Kamran (Rish Shah).

Digital Domain was responsible for the battle between Ms. Marvel (Iman Vellani) and Kamran (Rish Shah).

“What we talked about was hard light. The idea is that her powers are essentially light made solid, so the hard light is what gives her the ability to embiggen herself and walk on it. It also enables her to create shields to protect herself. On the other side of the coin, it is what gives Kamran’s [Rish Shah] powers a sense of danger; he creates this similarly nature effect that is out of control, jagged and destructive. It’s like a cosmic cactus coming at you!”

—Aladino Debert, VFX Supervisor, Digital Domain

Noor energy was treated as a hard light, with Ms. Marvel's (Iman Vellani) version having a color palette of cyan, amber and magenta.

Noor energy was treated as a hard light, with Ms. Marvel’s (Iman Vellani) version having a color palette of cyan, amber and magenta.

Kamala travels back in time to the eve of the Partition of India. “The time travel was more of a storytelling technique than an effect itself,” Debert notes. “What we were tasked to do was creating the Partition shots. There is massive train station with tens of thousands of people clambering and jumping the trains. Some plates were shot in Thailand with a couple hundred extras. You’re outside with a crane, so it was nothing like motion control. They were single plates, usually with Kamala in the foreground and few hundred extras around, on top of the trains and close up to the camera. Then you pull back and see everything. You see the greenscreens, cranes and camera trucks. Especially in the wide shots, we ended up replacing most of it.” Atmospherics assisted in conveying the proper size and scale. “One thing that people don’t realize is smoke, fire and water don’t scale easily,” Debert adds. “The biggest challenge was that the plates had on-set effects such as steam and smoke, which come in handy for close-ups, but become tricky when you pull back because it has to be rotoscoped out and be replaced with our own steam.”

Kamran (Rish Shah) has a hard time controling the Noor energy. causing him to manifest something that is jagged and destructive.

Kamran (Rish Shah) has a hard time controling the Noor energy. causing him to manifest something that is jagged and destructive.

Kamran's (Rish Shah) version of Noor energy has a cyan and gold color palette to stand out visually from what is produced by Ms. Marvel (Iman Vellani).

Kamran’s (Rish Shah) version of Noor energy has a cyan and gold color palette to stand out visually from what is produced by Ms. Marvel (Iman Vellani).

The decision was made for the powers of Ms. Marvel (Iman Vellani) to be more magic and energy-based than physical.

The decision was made for the powers of Ms. Marvel (Iman Vellani) to be more magic and energy-based than physical.

“If you want to go down the rabbit hole, just type ‘elephant toothpaste’ on Google or YouTube and you’ll have a feast! When the chemical components join, they explode in volume creating an extra dimension of foam. Simulations in general are challenging, but when you’re dealing with something that is not quite a fluid, liquid or solid, such as foam, it becomes extra tricky. We spent many a month working on that until we were able to nail not only the behavior, but also the specific look. As it expands, pieces fall off. It was really challenging for our effects team!”

—Aladino Debert, VFX Supervisor, Digital Domain

It was important to showcase the powers as being separate, yet manipulated by Ms. Marvel (Iman Vellani).

It was important to showcase the powers as being separate, yet manipulated by Ms. Marvel (Iman Vellani).

Kamala situates herself on top of a lamppost. “It was one the shots we started the earliest on the project because we knew that a version was needed for the trailer,  which turned out to be lightly different than the final one in the show,” Debert reveals. “Originally, she was shot against greenscreen on a live-action lamppost with wind and wires. We knew that Manhattan, Hudson River and the buildings around her had to be created, but we were not sure to what degree. In end, 95% of the shot was digital, including her body. The wires that she had for safety were wrinkling her suit in way that wasn’t pretty, and even though we could paint them out, it was tricky to get rid of every single wrinkle. Since we had a digital double that was hyper-accurate, we suggested using her head only because it was easier for us to give them a clean suit. We decided against CG hair because of how close we got to it and the fact that we could make it work. It involved a fair amount of rotoscope to replace from her neck down and keep her hair in.” The trickiest part was animating an iconic, blowing red scarf which had to interact with real hair. Comments Debert, “We simulated some CG hair so that the scarf would have a natural interaction, but getting rid of the CG hair and compositing the scarf under the real hair.”

Making Noor energy a hard light enables Ms. Marvel (Iman Vellani) to create shields to protect herself.

Making Noor energy a hard light enables Ms. Marvel (Iman Vellani) to create shields to protect herself.

Training montages are a staple of the superhero genre. “What made it easier for us is that Kamala has a unique personality; she is cute, perky and bubbly,” Debert observes. “We did a full CG version of her jumping and doing parkour on this roof in New Jersey. We didn’t have her doing the performance, so we had to mimic what she would have done. This was designed way after the shoot. We looked at a lot of the footage that we already had of her and got the animators and stunt double to try to come up with what Kamala would do. How would she jump over this? How would she react? At the end we had a bunch of different versions, and Kamala celebrates in a unique way, fist pumping and jumping. It was fun presenting all of those options to the creatives to see what they felt represented Kamala best.”

Digital Domain wanted to come up with a power for Mr. Marvel (Iman Vellani) that felt part of the MCU universe, at the same time different because it’s a new character.

Digital Domain wanted to come up with a power for Mr. Marvel (Iman Vellani) that felt part of the MCU universe, at the same time different because it’s a new character.

Ninety-five percent of the shot where Ms. Marvel (Iman Vellani) is seated on the lamppost was digital, including her body.

Ninety-five percent of the shot where Ms. Marvel (Iman Vellani) is seated on the lamppost was digital, including her body.

What proved to be more difficult was the foam for the elephant toothpaste sequence, which took a year to get right. “If you want to go down the rabbit hole,  just type ‘elephant toothpaste’ on Google or YouTube and you’ll have a feast!” Debert laughs. “When the chemical components join, they explode in volume,  creating an extra dimension of foam. Simulations in general are challenging, but when you’re dealing with something that is not quite a fluid, liquid or solid, such as foam, it becomes extra tricky. We spent many a month working on that until we were able to nail not only the behavior, but also the specific look. As it expands, pieces fall off. It was really challenging for our effects team!”


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