Majestically Morphing Morbius

In Sony Pictures Marvel superhero films, Morbius, (Jared Leto), is a compelling and conflicted character. The Oscar-winner Jared Leto transforms into the enigmatic antihero Michael Morbius. Dangerously ill with a rare blood disorder and determined to save others from suffering the same fate, Dr. Morbius attempts a desperate gamble. While at first, his research seems to be a radical success, a darkness inside him is unleashed. As the film progresses his existence is both extraordinary and tortured, which leads the filmmakers to consider new ways to express the character while remaining true to the inhuman, vampiric look of the character. To solve his inhuman, the filmmakers worked with the digital human experts, at the award-winning, Digital Domain.


Digital Domain began its work on Morbius by designing the final look for each character’s vampiric forms, with the goal of creating photorealistic, monstrous looks, without restricting them through the use of prosthetics or having the actors sitting in a makeup chair for hours each day. Despite having a rough idea of what the character Morbius should look like thanks to his comic origins, the final look still required countless tweaks to ensure everything fit the filmmakers’ vision — from the jagged teeth to the exact pigmentation in the skin. The vampire version of Michael’s brother Milo (Matt Smith) was also an original design, created by Digital Domain.

Container Ship Sequence Detailed Breakdown

Along with the work on the vampires, Digital Domain oversaw several action sequences throughout the film, including the container ship sequence that introduces audiences to Morbius’ vampiric nature for the first time.

 Facial animation: Fully Digital Michael/Leto

Joel Behrens, was the Visual Effects Supervisor at Digital Domain, and he worked closely with Matthew Butler, the client VFX supervisor, and the director Daniel Espinosa on makeup options and the issues that may come from practical makeup. Additionally, makeup can add to a face, but it is hard to make it appear to remove facial mass and make a face look gaunt. Morbius has much higher cheekbones, and sunken cheeks compared to actor Jared Leto.

The principal actors of the film were scanned in the USC ICT Light stage, with a full set of different lighting scenarios and a DI4D session, as is now fairly standard in DD’s pipeline. Not only did the team scan the actor’s faces but also their skull and head shapes, this was critical as the nature of the cinematography meant that the character would appear at times in silhouette. The team also moved inside the Light Stage to do detailed skin reflectance sampling for skin detail.

Digital Domain’s Masquerade

In Morbius, the team did enjoy advances to Digital Domain’s facial capture software Masquerade, which allowed the team to record nearly double the geometry resolution and details used to create Thanos in the Avengers films, another character created by Digital Domain.  This was made possible by advances in the machine learning Digital Domain deployed as part of its facial capture pipeline. Fxguide has previously covered in-depth the proprietary Masquerade 2.0 tool that the team developed to produce their high-fidelity facial animation. Read our technical story on Masquerade here. 

“Masquerade is in a class of its own, and it gives filmmakers the ability to create better CG faces faster, without sacrificing the nuance and subtlety of the actor’s performance,” commented Butler. “It was already the most advanced tool of its kind when Digital Domain’s Digital Human Group developed it to create Thanos, and the version we used on Morbius is at least a generation more advanced.”

With the final look of each vampire determined, the stars performed their scenes live on set wearing facial capture markers. Each performer also recorded a full range of facial expressions and movements, in order to create a complete facial geometry for each subject. Following principal photography, several scenes were then later re-filmed on a motion capture stage, giving Director Daniel Espinosa the ability to adjust and fine-tune the monster performances as needed.

From there, artists were able to turn the high-resolution face model into a high-resolution, photorealistic digital character. When Morbius transforms, he becomes a 100% CG character. This required the artists to make the necessary adjustments to ensure that the CG version of the character was an exact match to the original subject’s performance, and details including all the nuances of skin and facial hair. In a fast-moving monster transition, there is no issue, but in closeup slow transitions, individual hairs can’t be seen to dissolve away, they need to match and grow or shrink. In fact, the studio did not initially want Morbius to have a beard as a monster, but it was decided that it would be too distracting to have Jared’s facial hair all contract into his face, so the digital Morbius was given matching facial hair. “We were asking ourselves what happens to the beard? Does it fall out? Does it like pull back in? Does it magically thin out?” recalls Behrens. “We went through some iterations of trying to figure out how that would work, but thankfully they were okay with us keeping a beard on the monster!”

The Vampire Bullet times shot

The attack down in the container ship was Digital Domain’s first one-off all CG shots in the film. The entire sequence, up to the last take over back to live-action is fully digital sets and characters. Originally the container ship sequence was to be live-action and the crew built at the studio in England a full set. The plan was to shoot the interesting camera moves that the director and editor could tie together into one long shot where Morbius starts by dodging a bullet and then he jumps around killing each mercenary one by one. This was shot and although the team tried to stitch the plates together, they all ended up just believing that it would not really work. This was in part because the real camera could never move fast enough, “and it all ended up looking a little silly – a bit like Benny Hill, with our actors all of a suddenly moving with fast movements,” explained Behrens. Thus, the whole sequence moved to become a Digital Domain CG sequence, however, the real set had been LIDAR scanned and all the textures sampled, so the team had a lot to work with. “We also scanned the extra mercenary guys and built them out in CG with full cloth rigs, sims, and hair.” This was then combined with a Houdini effect for the almost magical way Morbius moves at speed.

While the models were standardized, for some shots there was specialist modelling adjustments. In the middle of the sequence, Morbius does a 360 around a pole and is momentarily lit by the yellow muzzle flash of a gun in slow motion. This shot was one of Behren’s favorite shots in the film, “We’re pretty happy with that shot as a whole and I especially love that particular frame. “Morbius ends up in this fantastic pose that we did have to do a little bit of shot model sculpting to really sell. Especially to have that exact pose, with his hair doing just the right thing, his clothing doing just the right thing, and that perfect muzzle flash moment where we get to show it all off.”

This shot was one of the Behrens favorite shots in the film.


In addition to Morbius’ face, his hands had to change, and this presented special challenges, for example, his fingernails and the distance between joints are much longer than Morbius. “In many ways, the hands were more difficult than Morbius’ face,” commented Behrens. “You don’t really realize on a close up on a hand, just how many little muscles and tendons and different things change shape in the back of your hand, especially when you have a very thin skin layer and you’re showing off the bone structure quite a lot.” It was also a challenge to get the color of this skin to look still something akin to skin when the shot below was so blurred and so dark. “We definitely had to tweak our Morbius lighting to get it to read a little bit better, but we were lucky enough to where you could push a little bit of red into his skin tones to counter the LUT, so it didn’t feel like you had a monochromatic wash across him.”

Along with the core look of the vampiric characters, Digital Domain also created multiple variations of the character Morbius, highlighting his evolution throughout the film. Five separate versions of the character were seen, from the earliest moments where just hints of the coming transformation are present to a final form where Morbius gives in to his rage and unleashes a truly monstrous look at the character.

To complement the design of the vampires, Digital Domain also developed the look of the superpowered effects throughout the film. This included the speed and fighting sequences, which primarily used animated digi-doubles of the characters, created after a two-week motion capture session featuring the main performers and stunt people. Digital Domain also developed the look of Morbius’ echo-location power.  Each movement at super-speed included a wispy, almost smoke-like trail added by Digital Domain’s artists, with the colors changing based on the clothes the character was wearing.


In total, Digital Domain contributed over 500 VFX shots to the film.

Morbius is streaming on multiple platforms.