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January 25
2022

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

MASTERING THE MARTIAL ARTS OF SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS

By TREVOR HOGG

Images courtesy of Marvel Studios.


Abomination was rebuilt from the ground up and was made to look more like the comic book incarnation.

Abomination was rebuilt from the ground up and was made to look more like the comic book incarnation.

Hard to imagine the Marvel Cinematic Universe without Marvel Studios Visual Effects Supervisor Christopher Townsend, who partnered with super soldier Steve Rogers, went a round with industrialist Tony Stark, hung out with the music-loving Star-Lord, did some cosmic flying with Carol Danvers, and learned some martial arts techniques from Shang-Chi. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings marks the third time that Townsend has been given the responsibility of introducing a significant character to the MCU with the others being Captain America: The First Avenger and Captain Marvel. “One of the great things about working on an origin movie is you’re making it up and setting the scene which is amazing, and that was great to do particularly with the first Captain America, Captain Marvel and then this.”

Indie filmmaker Destin Daniel Cretton gained critical acclaim collaborating with Brie Larson on Short Term 12 and had not directed a visual effects-heavy production before. “I did a Visual Effects 101 presentation to him going through all facets of how we use previs and how powerful we can be as a department,” recalls Townsend. “Destin was an incredible student and collaborator.”

Infused into the fight choreography was the Asian cinema tradition of martial arts. “We were fortunate to have had the late Brad Allan as our stunt coordinator who had worked on the Jackie Chan stunt team for many years and brought a lot of that physicality to this,” Townsend acknowledges. “There was always a strong story point as to why the character was using this particular martial arts style, whether it was Wing Chun or Tai Chi or Wushu. There was incredible planning from the stunt team, and we used a lot of stuntvis as well as previs to figure out how to marry all of that together.”

“On the day we shut down [for three months] because of the pandemic there were 400 people for the nightclub environment, for the brother and sister fight between Shang-Chi and Xialing [Meng’er Zhang]. When we came back to shoot that scene, only 50 people were allowed on set at the same time. We had 80 mannequins brought in, dressed and dotted around in the shadows of the set to make it feel more like a crowded place than it was. We had to do multiple passes for large crowds, and it had an impact on day-to-day shooting.

—Christopher Townsend, Visual Effects Supervisor, Marvel Studios

Amongst the magical creatures that make an appearance are the Foo Dogs.

Amongst the magical creatures that make an appearance are the Foo Dogs.

The camera style took cues from Hong Kong and Chinese martial arts film, but there are still about 250 face replacement shots. “We had wide shots and long takes where you get to see the actors doing the actual stunts and martial arts rather than the Hollywood way, which would be quick cuts, shaky camera and closeups,” states Townsend. “In the bus fight, we were blending takes between different performances, doing face replacements and digital doubles. It was a whole potpourri of effects that we’re doing throughout. In the scaffolding fight, there is a shot where Shang-Chi [Simu Liu] jumps down to save Katy [Awkwafina]. The special effects put the three-stories-high mirrored scaffolding set on a massive hinge to tilt it to help the stunt performers to get in the right position; that was shot in a blue volume.”

A signature action sequence is the fight that takes place on board a speeding bus.

A signature action sequence is the fight that takes place on board a speeding bus.

A prized possession of crime lord Xu Wenwu/Mandarin (Tony Leung) are 10 mystical rings that grant immortality and supernatural abilities to the wearer. “Something that I was most nervous about was how do you make 10 bracelets a threatening weapon and an extremely powerful force?” admits Townsend. “We came up with these beautiful arcs of energy emanating off of them; however, that effect didn’t work with the brilliantly powerful, quiet and contained performance of Tony Leung. We pulled it way back and for awhile ended up with just 10 rings flying around. After watching some of the editorial assemblies, we decided to bring back the idea of using elemental forces to give the rings a sense of logic and grounding. Each style of the power had a slightly different feel to it and had its own challenges, whether it be the lightning or solar flares or Aurora Borealis. It was always about how do you make them feel powerful and real at the same time.”

Filmmaker Destin Daniel Cretton discusses a shot with Marvel Studios VFX Supervisor Christopher Townsend.

Filmmaker Destin Daniel Cretton discusses a shot with Marvel Studios VFX Supervisor Christopher Townsend.

“We had wide shots and long takes where you get to see the actors doing the actual stunts and martial arts rather than the Hollywood way, which would be quick cuts, shaky camera and closeups. In the bus fight, we were blending takes between different performances, doing face replacements and digital doubles. It was a whole potpourri of effects that we’re doing throughout.”

—Christopher Townsend, Visual Effects Supervisor, Marvel Studios

Reintroduced in the MCU is the Abomination, which originally appeared in The Incredible Hulk. “We went back to traditional man on stilts as an eyeline,” states Townsend. “Abomination was rebuilt from the ground up, and we tried to make him feel much more like the comic book incarnation, particularly with the big flapping ears, scarification and piercing eyes.” Massive sets were built by Production Designer Sue Chan, such as Wenwu’s compound which was extended in CG. “A whole village set was constructed for the world of Ta Lo, but unfortunately,” Townsend says, “we were shooting in harsh Sydney sunlight and it was supposed to be overcast and moody. We had these massive 60 x 40-foot screens suspended on 350-ton cranes to be shadow casters. There was a lot of photography that had big square shadows all over our set that we had to remove and try to make it feel like an overcast world. The sets were great and invaluable throughout the film. There was a lot of world-building with visual effects adding to it.”

Meng'er Zhang portrays Xu Xialing, the estranged younger sister of Xu Shang-Chi/ Shaun played by Simu Liu.

Meng’er Zhang portrays Xu Xialing, the estranged younger sister of Xu Shang-Chi/ Shaun played by Simu Liu.

“A whole village set was constructed for the world of Ta Lo, but unfortunately, we were shooting in harsh Sydney sunlight and it was supposed to be overcast and moody. We had these massive 60 x 40-foot screens suspended on 350-ton cranes to be shadow casters. There was a lot of photography that had big square shadows all over our set that we had to remove and try to make it feel like an overcast world. The sets were great and invaluable throughout the film. There was a lot of world-building with visual effects adding to it.”

—Christopher Townsend, Visual Effects Supervisor, Marvel Studios

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings marks the third time that Townsend has been given the responsibility of introducing a significant character to the MCU.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings marks the third time that Townsend has been given the responsibility of introducing a significant character to the MCU.

Around 1,760 shots were created and shared by Weta Digital, TRIXTER, Rising Sun Pictures, Digital Domain, Scanline VFX, Method Melbourne, Rodeo FX, Luma Pictures, Fin Design, Perception, Stereo D and QPPE. “The world of Ta Lo was created by Rising Sun Pictures, and which was 30 square miles with 10 million trees,” states Townsend. “The asset also had to be built in a way that was shareable with Weta Digital and TRIXTER. The Foo Dogs were shared between Weta Digital and TRIXTER. Weta Digital built the initial effects of the rings that were then shared with Scanline VFX and Method Melbourne. Method Melbourne finessed some of their original designs and, sharing them, we had assets all over the place. 1,760 shots is relatively low for a Marvel Studios film, but we had some very long shots. You always try to find a streamlined way to do this work, and I don’t know if we could have done any differently, the volume of work and type of shots we had to share those assets.”

1,761 shots were created and shared by Weta Digital, TRIXTER, Rising Sun Pictures, Digital Domain, Scanline VFX, Method Melbourne, Rodeo FX, Luma Pictures, Fin Design, Perception, Stereo D and QPPE.

1,761 shots were created and shared by Weta Digital, TRIXTER, Rising Sun Pictures, Digital Domain, Scanline VFX, Method Melbourne, Rodeo FX, Luma Pictures, Fin Design, Perception, Stereo D and QPPE.

“We were fortunate to have had the late Brad Allan as our stunt coordinator who had worked on the Jackie Chan stunt team for many years and brought a lot of that physicality to this. There was always a strong story point as to why the character was using this particular martial arts style, whether it was Wing Chun or Tai Chi or Wushu. There was incredible planning from the stunt team, and we used a lot of stuntvis as well as previs to figure out how to marry all of that together.”

—Christopher Townsend, Visual Effects Supervisor, Marvel Studios

The camera style took cues from Hong Kong and Chinese martial arts films.

The camera style took cues from Hong Kong and Chinese martial arts films.

Second unit photography being conducted for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

Second unit photography being conducted for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

Complicating the production was the coronavirus, which increased the amount of visual effects work. “On the day we shut down [for three months] because of the pandemic there were 400 people for the nightclub environment, for the brother-and-sister fight between Shang-Chi and Xialing [Meng’er Zhang],” remarks Townsend. “When we came back to shoot that scene, only 50 people were allowed on set at the same time. We had 80 mannequins brought in, dressed and dotted around in the shadows of the set to make it feel more like a crowded place than it was. We had to do multiple passes for large crowds, and it had an impact on day-to-day shooting. We were wearing masks and COVID-19 tested every other day for the several months that we carried on shooting afterwards. Then we were all working from home for the most part when we came back in post. It was quite an achievement that we could still pull this off.”



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