The Marvel Cinematic Universe has featured talking trees and attacking aliens and a certain big, green guy. But until Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, there had never been a proper dragon before.
As we now know, that's because they exist in another realm from our own, which Shang-Chi discovers when he arrives in Ta Lo to face off with his father. A third act battle evolves into a full-on kaiju-on-kaiju battle featuring the mystical dragon known as Great Protector.
Tasked with building the dragon was Shang-Chi's visual effects team, led by Christopher Townsend, Joe Farrell, Sean Noel Walker and Dan Oliver. Together, they are nominated for Best Achievement in Visual Effects.
"This is one of those movies that has a little bit of everything in it," Townsend tells A.frame. Visual effects-wise, the team was responsible for face replacements and digi-doubles, plus bringing to life fantastic creatures (like Morris the scene-stealing Chaos God) and executing death-defying action sequences (like Shang-Chi's scaffolding fight).
But perhaps the biggest challenge was the dragon. Here's how they did it:
Step 1: Start with a work of (concept) art
Townsend: I've never worked on a movie with a dragon before, so this was amazing. It's even more interesting that it was a very specific sort of dragon. It wasn't a Western dragon. It didn't breathe fire. It didn't have wings. It was inspired by the Chinese dragons, so making something authentic to that mythology was really interesting.
Walker: It one of the first pieces of art that came to us [from Marvel Studios' art department] that really didn't need a whole lot of adjustments. The dragon itself was actually a really good selling point to all the team here. The art that we received had it shooting giant water bolts and manipulating water in a crazy way. Of course, whenever you're in visual effects and you see that amount of water being thrown around, you're a little bit freaked out, because traditionally water is a tricky effect to get done right. We kept very close to the original design throughout the film. There were a few changes here and there. It started to glow a little bit --
Townsend: And then, not so much.
Walker: But, for the most part, we tried to honor the original design as much as possible.
Step 2: Research, research, research
Walker: Chris wanted to make sure that even though what you're seeing on screen was very fantastical and you knew it couldn't possibly be real -- you still wanted to be able to reach into the screen and touch it. It had to have those physical properties, and so we looked at a lot of real-life reference. We looked at albino lizards and snakes and albino crocodiles. They have this beautiful, translucent quality to their scales where you can pretty much see the blood running underneath them, so we wanted to replicate the same look.
We wanted to make sure that the dragon's movements and actions were at least somewhat based in reality, so we looked at a lot of sea snakes and iguanas swimming through the water. There's a head motion and drive as they swam. And they have this powerful kick -- which allows them to push themselves through the water. As a wingless dragon, we thought that would be the appropriate way for it to fly through the sky, magically.
Step 3: Getting animated
Walker: We started with a bunch of animation tests. We wanted to make sure that we found the character before we even dug into shooting. The idea being that, on set, they understand how the dragon should be acting. We built our digital model almost immediately. We wanted to make sure that we were able to pass off a geometric representation of the dragon to the guys on set. We modeled a full sculpt before they had even started shooting so that the onset team could replicate and create a life-sized representation to create a buck for the actors to ride.
Townsend: It was all done based on animation tests that Wētā [FX] had done. It was this back-and-forth process of looking at the animation that Wētā did, and then, based on that, and on previs that The Third Floor had done as well, we would then have the thing fly.
Step 4: Go buck wild
Townsend: Once we figured out the actual sculpt and look of the dragon, the art department created this big buck of two sections -- one of the back of the head and one of the body -- for the actors to be holding onto. And we painted it blue and it had scales and everything. It was all beautifully crafted and very accurate to the model that Wētā had created. Then, that was given to Dan, our fellow nominee, and his team put that on a 6-axis gimbal, and was able to manipulate that to move and sway and tilt.
It was a very creative process, all to try and make it feel like the characters were actually flying on the dragon back. We added wind, rain machines, made them pretty uncomfortable at times -- but it obviously added to the drama and, hopefully, the strange reality of this idea.
Step 5: The dragon is in the details
Walker: From there, we design and rig the creature in a way that is appropriate to all the shots that we receive. We gave it an actual skeleton throughout the whole body. We wanted to make sure that, when you see the dragon's soul being pulled up through its body, that you could actually see its internals, that that would all be revealed through the glow.
We wanted to make sure all the scales were individual so that they could move over the top of each other. So, we actually placed 8,000 individual scales on the dragon. We had this sort of beautiful translucent quality to our scales whenever the light was shining in the right direction. You could actually see the red in the blood underneath. And then, it was just a fine balance of making a creature that looked ancient -- but not old. It had to feel like it is thousands of years old, but didn't look like a wrinkly old mess.
Townsend: The other big thing about The Great Protector and also her foe, The Dweller-in-Darkness, which is the large tentacled, winged beast, is that we wanted them to feel huge. The usual way that you do that is you just slow everything down, because you relate that, if it's big, it has to move slowly. But we didn't want them to be lumbering beasts. Particularly the dragon. We wanted her to be beautiful, and elegant, and serpentine, and have some speed and grace to her. That was one of the big animation challenges -- which Wētā did a really great job on.
Step 6: Just add water
Walker: Water is traditionally an extraordinarily difficult effect to complete and master and this was a new challenge for us. It was the first time we treated the water as a character, not just as a passive, interactive element. And the dragon needed to manipulate it in a way that was used as a tool. So, we created a pipeline that allowed effects and animation to pass the data between themselves seamlessly.
Townsend: It was pretty phenomenal. From an artistic point of view, we wanted the water to do things that water doesn't really do. The dragon is using her magic powers to make the water swirl or turn into sort of daggers. So, it was the fine line between trying to tell that story -- but also -- do it in an artistic way that felt physically real and believable, as much as these things can. It was a real challenge. And really fun. And I think some of the most beautiful shots in the film.
Walker: There are few facilities in the world that could actually handle the amount of rendering power we needed to actually get through the show, because the water simulations were so massive. Even just one shot, for example, where the demons are diving down and dropping all the souls into The Dweller-in-Darkness' mouth, the water alone took something like 25 million threaded render hours, which would take your average high-end home computer about 25 years to render on its own.
Farrell: It sucked all the power out of New Zealand!
Step 7: Get an Oscar nomination
Townsend: From a visual effects point of view, every year, the quality of films goes up and up. So many films this year have been beautiful. To be nominated is an amazing honor. There were about 1,750 people who worked in the visual effects department on the film.
Walker: It's an absolute honor. And a testament to all the love, and passion, and commitment and just the insane amount of hard work that all these incredibly talented people put into this film. And the fact that the enthusiasm never waned -- that people were passionate right up to the very end. It is something that I don't think I'd ever experienced to this level before. So, it's excellent to see all that hard work be honored by the Academy.
Farrell: To be in the company of some almighty productions, and then, to be patted on the back by your fellow workers in the business is such a huge honor. It just shines a light on all the hard work that was done by these 1,750 people that the four of us are representing. Plus, when we got to stand onstage -- and Steven Spielberg claps when you go up there -- that's always nice. I'm like, 'I can't believe it! He's clapping for us!'