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.
The 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.