Tag Archives: Doctor Strange

ILM’s Richard Bluff talks VFX for Marvel’s Doctor Strange

By Daniel Restuccio

Comic book fans have been waiting for over 30 years for Marvel’s Doctor Strange to come to the big screen, and dare I say it was worth the wait. This is in large part because of the technology now available to create the film’s stunning visual effects.

Fans have the option to see the film in traditional 2D, Dolby Cinema (worthy of an interstate or plane fare pilgrimage, in my opinion) and IMAX 3D. Doctor Strange, Marvel Studios’ 15th film offering, is also receiving good critical reviews and VFX Oscar buzz — it’s currently on the list of 20 films still in the running in the Visual Effects category for the 89th Academy Awards.

Marvel Doctor StrangeThe unapologetically dazzling VFX shots, in many cases directly inspired by the original comic visuals by Steve Dittko, were created by multiple visual effects houses, including Industrial Light & Magic, Luma Pictures, Lola VFX, Method Studios, Rise FX, Crafty Apes, Framestore, Perception and previs house The Third Floor. Check out our interview with the film’s VFX supervisor Stephane Ceretti.

Director Scott Derrickson said in in a recent Reddit chat that Doctor Strange is “a fantastical superhero movie.

“Watching the final cut of the film was deeply satisfying,” commented Derrickson. “A filmmaker cannot depend upon critical reviews or box office for satisfaction — even if they are good. The only true reward for any artist is to pick a worthy target and hit it. When you know you’ve hit your target that is everything. On this one, I hit my target.”

Since we got an overview of how the visual effects workflow went from Ceretti, we decided to talk to one of the studios that provided VFX for the film, specifically ILM and their VFX supervisor Richard Bluff.

Richard Bluff

According to Bluff, early in pre-production Marvel presented concept art, reference images and previsualization on “what were the boundaries of what the visuals could be.” After that, he says, they had the freedom to search within those bounds.

During VFX presentations with Marvel, they frequently showed three versions of the work. “They went with the craziest version to the point where the next time we would show three more versions and we continued to up the ante on the crazy,” recalls Bluff.

As master coordinator of this effort for ILM, Bluff encouraged his artists, “to own the visuals and try to work out how the company could raise the quality of the work or the designs on the show to another level. How could we introduce something new that remains within the fabric of the movie?”

As a result, says Bluff, they had some amazing ideas flow from individuals on the film. Jason Parks came up with the idea of traveling through the center of a subway train as it fractured. Matt Cowey invented the notion of continually rotating the camera to heighten the sense of vertigo. Andrew Graham designed the kaleidoscope-fighting arena “largely because his personal hobby is building and designing real kaleidoscopes.”

Unique to Doctor Strange is that the big VFX sequences are all very “self-contained.” For example, ILM did the New York and Hong Kong sequence, Luma did the Dark Dimension and Method did the multi-universe. ILM also designed and developed the original concept for the Eldridge Magic and provided all the shared “digital doubles” — CGI rigged and animatable versions of the actors — that tied sequences together. The digital doubles were customized to the needs of each VFX house.

Previs
In some movies previs material is generated and thrown away. Not so with Doctor Strange. What ILM did this time was develop a previs workflow where they could actually hang assets and continue to develop, so it became part of the shot from the earliest iteration.

There was extensive previs done for Marvel by The Third Floor as a creative and technical guide across the movie, and further iterations internal to ILM done by ILM’s lead visualization artist, Landis Fields.

Warning! Spoiler! Once Doctor Strange moves the New York fight scene into the mirror universe, the city starts coming apart in an M.C. Escher-meets-Chris Nolan-Inception kind of way. To make that sequence, ILM created a massive tool kit of New York set pieces and geometry, including subway cars, buildings, vehicles and fire escapes.

In the previs, Fields started breaking apart, duplicating and animating those objects, like the fire escapes, to tell the story of what a kaleidoscoping city would look like. The artists then fleshed out a sequence of shots, a.k.a. “mini beats.” They absorbed the previs into the pipeline by later switching out the gross geometry elements in Fields’ previs with the actual New York hero assets.

Strange Cam
Landis and the ILM team also designed and built what ILM dubbed the “strange cam,” a custom 3D printed 360 GoPro rig that had to withstand the rigors of being slung off the edge of skyscrapers. What ILM wanted to do was to be able to capture 360 degrees of rolling footage from that vantage point to be used as a moving background “plates” that could be reflected within the New York City glass buildings.

VFX, Sound Design and the Hong Kong
One of the big challenges with the Hong Kong sequence was that time was reversing and moving forward at the same time. “What we had to do was ensure the viewer understands that time is reversing throughout that entire sequence.” During the tight hand-to-hand action moments that are moving forward in time, there’s not really much screen space to show you time reversing in the background. So they designed the reversing destruction sequence to work in concert with the sound design. “We realized we had to move away from a continuous shower of debris toward rhythmic beats of debris being sucked out of frame.”

before-streetafter-street

Bluff says the VFX the shot count on the film — 1,450 VFX — was actually a lot less than Captain America: Civil War. From a VFX point of view, The Avengers movies lean on the assets generated in Iron Man and Captain America. The Thor movies help provide the context for what an Avengers movie would look and feel like. In Doctor Strange “almost everything in the movie had to be designed (from scratch) because they haven’t already existed in a previous Marvel film. It’s a brand-new character to the Marvel world.”

Bluff started development on the movie in October of 2014 and really started doing hands on work in February of 2016, frequently traveling between Vancouver, San Francisco and London. A typical day, working out of the ILM London office, would see him get in early and immediately deal with review requests from San Francisco. Then he would jump into “dailies” in London and work with them until the afternoon. After “nightlies” with London there was a “dailies” session with San Francisco and Vancouver, work with them until evening, hit the hotel, grab some dinner, come back around 11:30pm or midnight and do nightlies with San Francisco. “It just kept the team together, and we never missed a beat.”

2D vs. IMAX 3D vs. Dolby Cinema
Bluff saw the entire movie for the first time in IMAX 3D, and is looking forward to seeing it in 2D. Considering sequences in the movie are surreal in nature and Escher-like, there’s an argument that suggests that IMAX 3D is a better way to see it because it enhances the already bizarre version of that world. However, he believes the 2D and 3D versions are really “two different experiences.”

Dolby Cinema is the merging of Dolby Atmos — 128-channel surround sound — with the high dynamic range of Dolby Vision, plus really comfortable seats. It is, arguably, the best way to see a movie. Bluff says as far as VFX goes, high dynamic range information has been there for years. “I’m just thankful that exhibition technology is finally catching up with what’s always been there for us on the visual effects side.”

During that Reddit interview, Derrickson commented, “The EDR (Extended Dynamic Range) print is unbelievable — if you’re lucky enough to live where an EDR print is playing. As for 3D and/or IMAX, see it that way if you like that format. If you don’t, see it 2D.”

Doctor Strange is probably currently playing in a theater near you, but go see it in Dolby Cinema if you can.


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.

Credit: Film Frame ©2016 Marvel. All Rights Reserved.

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.