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Digging Deeper: Doctor Strange VFX supervisor Stephane Ceretti

By Daniel Restuccio

Marvel’s Doctor Strange — about an arrogant neurosurgeon who loses the use of his hands in an accident and sets off on a self-obsessed journey to find a cure — has been doing incredibly well in terms of box office. You’ve got the winning combination of Benedict Cumberbatch, Marvel, a compelling story and a ton of visual effects created by some of the biggest houses in the business, including ILM (London, San Francisco, Vancouver), Method (LA, Vancouver), Luma (LA, Melbourne) Framestore London, Lola, Animal Logic, Crafty Apes, Exceptional Minds and Technicolor VFX.

Stephane Ceretti

Leading the VFX charge was visual effects supervisor Stephane Ceretti, whose credit list reads like a Top 10 list for films based on Marvel comics, including Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The First Avenger and X-Men: First Class. His resume is long and impressive.

We recently reached out to Ceretti to find out more about Doctor Strange‘s VFX process…

When did you start on the project? When were all the shots turned in?
I started in September 2014 as Scott Derrickson, the director, was working on the script. Production got pushed a few months while we waited for Benedict Cumberbatch to be available, but we worked extensively on previz and visual development during all this time. Production moved to London in June 2015 and shooting began in November 2015 and went until March 2016. Shots and digital asset builds got turned over as we were shooting and in post, as the post production period was very short on the film. We only had 5.5 months to do the visual effects. We finished the film sometime in October, just a few weeks before the release.

What criteria did you use to distribute the shots among the different VFX companies?  For example, was it based on specialty areas?
It’s like a casting; you try to pick the best company and people for each style of effects. For example, ILM had done a lot of NYC work before, especially with Marvel on Avengers. Plus they are a VFX behemoth, so for us it made sense to have them on board the project for these two major sequences, especially with Richard Bluff as their supervisor. He worked with my VFX producer Susan Pickett on the New York battle sequence in Avengers and she knew he would totally be great for what we wanted to achieve.

What creative or technical breakthroughs were there on this project? For example, ILM talked about the 360 Dr. Strange Camera. What were some of the other things that had never been done before?
I think we pushed the envelope on a lot of visual things that had been touched before, but not to that level. We also made huge use of digital doubles extremely close to camera, both in the astral world and the magic mystery tour. It was a big ask for the vendors.

ILM said they did the VFX at IMAX 2K, were any of the VFX shots done at 4K? If yes, why?
No we couldn’t do a 4K version for the IMAX on this project. IMAX takes care, upresing the shots to IMAX resolution with their DMR process. The quality of the Alexa 65, which we used to shoot the movie, makes it a much smoother process. Images were much sharper and detailed to begin with.

It may be meaningless to talk about how many effects shots there were in the movie when it seems like every shot is a VFX shot.  Is there a more meaningful way to describe the scale of the VFX work? 
It is true that just looking at the numbers isn’t a good indication … we had 1,450 VFX shots in the film, and that’s about 900 less than Guardians of the Galaxy, but the shot complexity and design was way more involved because every shot was a bit of a puzzle, plus the R&D effort.

Some shots with the Mandelbrot 3D fractals required a lot of computing power, having a full bending CG NY required tons of assets and the destruction simulation in Hong Kong had to be extremely precise as we were really within the entire street being rebuilt in reversed time. All of these were extremely time and process consuming and needed to be choreographed and designed precisely.

Can you talk about the design references Marvel gave you for the VFX work done in this movie?
Well most of the references that Marvel gave us came from the comics, especially the ones from Steve Ditko, who created all the most iconic psychedelic moments in Doctor Strange in the ‘60s and ‘70s. We also looked at a Doctor Strange comic called “The Oath,” which inspired some of the astral projection work.

How did you draw the line stylistically and creatively between impressively mind-blowing and over-the-top psychedelic?
It was always our concern to push the limits but not break them. We want to take the audience to these new places but not lose them on the way. It was a joint effort between the VFX artists and the director, editors and producers to always keep in mind what the goal of the story was and to make sure that the VFX wouldn’t take over when it was not necessary. It’s important that the VFX don’t overtake the story and the characters at any time. Sometimes we allow ourselves to shine and show off but it’s always in the service of pushing the story further.

What review and submission technology did you use to coordinate all the VFX houses? Was there a central server?
We used CineSync to review all the submissions live with the vendors. Marvel has a very strong IT department and servers that allow the various vendors to send their submission securely and quickly. We used a system called Signiant that allows all submissions to be automatically sorted and put in a database for review. It’s very efficient and necessary when you get a huge amount of submissions daily as we did toward the end of the project. Our team of amazing coordinators made sure everything was reviewed and presented to the studio so we could give immediate feedback to our vendors, who worked 24/7 around the globe to finish the movie.

What project management software did you use?
Our database is customized and we use Filemaker. Our review sessions are a mixture of CineSync (QuickTime and interactive reviews) and Tweak RV for 2K viewing and finalizing.

In talking to ILM about the film, they mentioned previs, production and postvis. Can you talk a bit about that whole workflow?
We do extensive previz/techviz and stuntviz before production, but as soon as the shots are in the can editors cut them in the movie. They are then turned over to our postviz team so we can quickly check that everything works and the editors can cut in a version of the shot that represents the idea of what it will be in the end. It’s a fantastic tool that allows us to shape the film before we turn it over to the vendors, so we nail basic ideas and concepts before they get executed. Obviously, there is lots that the vendors will add on top of the postviz, but this process is necessary for a lot of reasons (editing, R&D, preview screening) and is very efficient and useful.

Collectively how many hundreds of people worked on the VFX on this movie?
I would say about 1,000 people in the VFX overall. That does not count the 3D conversion people.

What was the personal challenge for you? How did you survive and thrive while working on this one project?
I worked two years on it! It was really difficult, but also very exciting. Sometimes mentally draining and challenging, but always interesting. What makes you survive is the excitement of making something special and getting to see it put together by such a talented group of people across the board. When you work on this kind of film everybody does their best, so the outcome is worth it. I think we definitely tried to do our best, and the audience seems to respond to what we did. It’s incredibly rewarding and in the end, it’s the reason why we make these movies — so that people can enjoy the ride.


In addition to being a West Coast correspondent for postPerspective, Daniel Restuccio is the multimedia department chair at California Lutheran University and former Walt Disney Imagineer.

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