The dark side: behind the VFX of Thor: The Dark World

With Thor: The Dark World, Marvel continues to cement its incredible reputation in bringing the studio’s Cinematic Universe to life, as well as continuing to broadening the worlds and characters that we see with inventive visual effects.

Director  on the set of Thor: The Dark World.
Director Alan Taylor on the set of Thor: The Dark World.

That is particularly apparent for Thor’s homeland of Asgard, a location seen in the first film but now made even more visible by director Alan Taylor. Helping to achieve enhanced views of Asgard, as well as many other locations and characters in the film, were overall visual effects supervisor Jake Morrison and visual effects producer Diana Giorgiutti. “The over-driving aesthetic was to make Asgard a place that you could actually live in,” notes Morrison. “There’s now a medina, there’s a town area. If you were living in Asgard, these are the places you would go for a beer.”

Heavy lifting on The Dark World’s visual effects was handled by Double Negative, with several other effects vendors contributing key shots and sharing many assets and sequences. The Third Floor delivered previs, techvis and postvis throughout the production. Morrison was also aided in production by second unit visual effects supervisor Stéphane Ceretti. With so much work in the film, fxguide takes a look at just a portion of the main visual effects shots and sequences and the facilities behind them.

Above: take an exclusive look at The Third Floor’s previs work for Thor: The Dark World, thanks to our media partners WIRED.

The Prologue

Blur Studio handled The Prologue sequence.
Blur Studio handled The Prologue sequence.

What happens: In a battle between the Dark Elves and the Asgardians 5,000 years ago on the Elve’s home world of Svartalfheim, Odin’s father Bor captures a dark weapon known as the Aether. But the Dark Elf leader Malekith and his lieutentant Algrim escape and go into suspended animation.

The challenge: Blur Studio, with a strong history of cinematics work, realized much of this Prologue sequence completely digitally based on environments and assets already being created by other vendors.

“We approached the Prologue from a pure 3D perspective knowing that we would have 80 plus cameras looking at the environment,” outlines Blur visual effects supervisor Kevin Margo. “It made more sense to construct a solid 3D base and that would enable us to point the camera at will with minimal additional effort on the back-end once we got into compositing.”

The scene was mostly made of fully-digital characters and environments.
The scene was mostly made of fully-digital characters and environments.

“This scene was taking place 5,000 years before the rest of the film,” adds Tim Miller, Blur’s co-founder and creative director. “So we had lot of latitude on how we could change what they had shot for present day Svartalfheim and how we could adapt it. Right now it’s a graveyard for the Dark Elves but in our sequence it’s a vital planet where the Elves live. We had to make it seem like the last battle in a long war and the Asgardians are about to overwhelm them before the secret weapon is unleashed.”

Blur took digital models of Asgardian and Elf fighters created by Double Negative and worked them into the studio’s full-CG pipeline. The plan was to produce fully digital battle scenes that would intercut with some live action shots for the Prologue. A two day motion capture shoot information much of the animation. “We worked out some elaborate fight scenes,” says Miller, “not knowing exactly when we started what the running time had to be. We knew the goal was three to four minutes – they wanted us to make it huge and epic, big, really big.”

Above: watch Blur’s breakdown of the Prologue.

Going all or mostly CG allowed a heightened sense of fighting amongst the warriors, who in their live action costumes were not always able to perform such an array of movements. Apart from the battle scenes, the studio also created a Kursed transformation and a representation of the Aether. Blur’s pipeline involved modeling in ZBrush with textures done in MARI and Photoshop and finalized in 3ds Max. XSI was used for rigging and animation, effects carried out in 3ds Max and Houdini, with shading, lighting and rendering completed in V-Ray. Blur then assembled scenes in 3ds Max and performed final compositing in Digital Fusion.

The Prologue ends with the film’s main title: Thor: The Dark World, which Blur also produced. The seemingly simple moving title proved to be an interesting challenge. “We had a few aliasing and sampling issues,” admits Margo. “It’s amazing to see the issues that present themselves when things come to almost a halt but that are very slow and subtly drifting. These issues exist all the time in the all the renders, but when things are moving just 1% all of a sudden these pixelated issues present themselves and it takes a lot more samples and refinements.”

A still from the Prologue.
A still from the Prologue.

“We were looking at this incredibly complicated CG with hundreds of characters and effects in every frame and our pipeline just chews through those things,” says Miller. “But this gold shiny logo brought the render farm to its knees! It’s funny because it’s the easiest things that turn out to be the ones that snag you.”

Asgard re-visited

Double Negative crafted the vistas of Asgard.
Double Negative crafted the vistas of Asgard.

What happens: Early scenes of Asgard reveal a vast city, as well as Heimdall’s observatory and a re-built rainbow bridge.

The challenge: For this film, Asgard was conceived as a location much more nestled in its natural surrounds. Double Negative took production plate photography of Norway’s coast as a starting point for creating Asgard in digital form.

“I’m a big fan of even if you have to do everything in CG it’s always great to have something to build on,” says Jake Morrison. “So we had a fantastic locations manager, Emma Pill, who found this chain of islands called Lofoten in Norway – 120 miles into the Arctic Circle. It’s well tucked away and takes three planes to get up there! But it’s this amazing little Norwegian miniature – it’s got all of the fjords and the beautiful landscapes, greenery and rocky precipices, but it’s actually shootable. You can fly a helicopter to one bit from another fairly easily.”

The Third Floor helped previs views of Asgard.
The Third Floor helped previs views of Asgard.

Morrison and the production filmed with an ARRI Alexa from a helicopter over three days in the area, capturing six hours of footage. “We shot it all with a short, choppy shutter with the express idea that we could get some pretty establishing shots, but also with photogrammetry in mind,” says Morrison. “We would take an area and do strafing runs with the helicopter, fixing the focal length and running backwards and forth, or revolving around things like nice mountain peaks. With a twenty two and a half degree shutter that stuff’s fairly sharp so you can use that in photogrammetry – it’s a fairly good starting point.”

Double Negative took those plates, as well as previs from The Third Floor, and ‘bedded’ its CG Asgard on top, drawing also upon concepts by production designer Charles Wood and informed by full and partial sets constructed on stage H at Shepparton Studios. “We would then go the whole hog and reconstruct a lot of coastal Norway to make our environment,” says Double Negative visual effects supervisor Alex Wuttke, who shared supervision duties at Dneg with Pete Bebb. “The benefit of that is that you have some real world terrain to work with – so you have buildings that have to convey natural features. Then from there we went in there populating the terrain with different buildings.”

Another view of Asgard's palatial features.
Another view of Asgard’s palatial features.

Although on previous projects Dneg had utilized CityEngine to craft vast building layouts, Asgard required structures that were unique in their shapes and so the team mostly relied on hand-modeling. “However,” notes Wuttke, “when we got down to the smaller underlying structures we started to do a lot of virtual kit-bashing. So we’d have ten or fifteen low-rises – smaller generic building blocks then a bunch of repeating assets – ornamental herbs or balustrades to lend a unique character to the structures.”

Ultimately, Dneg built a 12km by 10km area of geography for Asgard, including significant work on the water and ocean areas and waterfalls. The geography was then broken down into several sectors. “An artist wouldn’t have to load all of the geography to fly through the city,” says Wuttke, “it was all represented as a series of nested bounding boxes, nested assets – and the unpacking done by RenderMan. We also did a lot of virtual scouting into the environment – dropping a camera in there and running with it. There were a lot of real world metaphors in how we approached the work.”

Stone man’s short-lived existence

Luma Pictures handled shots of Thor's encounter with Stone man.
Luma Pictures handled shots of Thor’s encounter with Stone man.

What happens: On Vanaheim, Thor confronts a giant stone man before quickly dispatching the creature with Mjölnir.

The challenge: Stone man’s irregular surface and multiple stone sections required a rig that could simulate rocks rolling over each other but with a maintained volume, a feat achieved by Luma Pictures.

Luma had tackled a somewhat similar issue for Destroyer on the first Thor film. “The issue there was rigging a character with a bunch of discrete parts that need to move in unison but also move independently of each other,” says Luma Pictures visual effects supervisor Vince Cirelli. “For Stone man, we updated the rig so that it would essentially simulate rock and then rock rolling over rock, keeping the volume and keeping the pieces rigid without penetration, but in a very irregular pattern. Then we ran simulations between the rocks so that as he moves it spawns little pebbles and rocks that come out from the cracks.”

Thor tells Stone man he accepts his surrender.
Thor tells Stone man he accepts his surrender.

The process had begun with a maquette created by production which had been made out of a solid piece of material. “In rigging we re-worked the cracks on the faces so that we could convey facial animation,” says Cirelli. “The tricky part was getting expression. When you have a broken rock surface with a lot of small pieces, the facial expressions turn to noise when they go through the render. We ended up having to lay out rocks based on different muscle groups for expressions that we knew would cast shadow and have light in certain areas. For example, when he goes to roar we had to make sure the eyebrows read as scrunching down or facial features are pulling in to express anger. We drew basic lines over the most prominent features of a face that need to read to hit that expression.”

The Stone man was rendered through Arnold. “We used to split everything out into a million passes and then bring it back in in comp,” notes Cirelli. “Nowadays with Arnold we’re doing mostly beauty renders and then just a few control passes. What it’s allowed us to do is have continuity across a sequence.”

The levitating truck

The cement truck was a practical set-up.
The cement truck was a practical set-up.

What happens: Jane and her science associates in London discover some strange phenomena in London that represent The Convergence. One of those is a levitating truck.

The challenge: It was an effect achieved via both practical and digital means, helped out with previs from The Third Floor.

“There was this weird moment in a production meeting where I said when the truck picks up and starts floating I’ll need a large inflatable thing of the same color for the secondary bounce,” recalls Jake Morrison. “I swear, I looked up and it was as if I had grown another head and everyone literally said, ‘Why do you want to make a CG truck?’ And I said, ‘Can you make a truck float?’ and they were like, ‘Oh yeah’.”

Watch a behind the scenes clip from the film.

“What we did in the end,” adds Morrison, “was have an unbelievable hydraulic rig attached to the back of it – like a spit roast – orchestrated by special effects supervisor Paul Corbould. There was a massive structural bar through the heart of this truck. The end of the hydraulic section was programmable so we could dial in speeds and moves. And then we did a huge amount of rig removal.”

Inside the healing room

The healing room nanotech was developed by Luma Pictures.
The healing room nanotech was developed by Luma Pictures.

What happens: Jane Forster, having stumbled via a portal into a Dark Elf crypt housing the Aether, is taken by Thor to Asgard. Here she is monitored by Asgardian healers with scans revealing the Aether force within her body.

The challenge: Luma Pictures had to craft an Asgardian-looking hologram element drawn from nanotechnology being used by the healers to view Jane’s life-force.

“(Marvel’s President of Production) Kevin Feige came to me at the start of the show and said, ‘We need to do Asgardian holograms and they have to be never seen before things’,” recalls Jake Morrison. “The thing is, Asgard is a tricky place in terms of technology. You think of it as fairly medieval – it’s got drinking halls and robes, beards. But the thinking is, they’re not Gods, they just have an incredible command of technology which is so far beyond ours that they would seem as Gods to us. So with the holograms, it looks like magic to us, but it’s just nanotechnology, really.”

“Jake wanted to make sure we were coming up with technology that fit inside this Asgardian world,” adds Vince Cirelli. “That meant we couldn’t use your traditional holograms from say Iron Man or Avengers. As Asgard is an elegant place with lots of sweeping curves with no hard edges or hard lines, we took a lot of that design for how this nanotech hologram effect was going to look.”

Watch part of the sequence in this video.

Natalie Portman and the healers were filmed on a practical set with ‘tuning fork’-looking elements on either side of the healing table. “Jake told us they were called tuning forks,” says Cirelli, “and at that very moment we thought well maybe the nanotech is something to do with wavelengths? And so we took that and worked up to this alternate idea where the tuning forks actually create a magnetic field and inside the field people can interact with, and it can emit strings like on a violin. So we have this magnetic field that drives streams based on attenuation through an actuator and the particles are drawn to a particular event.”

The nanotech would then display essentially a representation of Jane’s soul, achieved as a floating volume that Luma crafted in Houdini and Maya to show a series of swarming particles. “It looks like this fine strings of gold that move through her and at the same time are interactive,” says Cirelli. “So when the Asgardian nurse goes to interact with it, it disrupts the magnetic field and moves all the particles around.”

History lesson – Yggdrasil and the Asgardian storybook

VFX by Luma Pictures.
VFX by Luma Pictures.

What happens: On Asgard, Odin recounts the story of the nine realms which will soon be in alignment – known as the Convergence, passing by the world tree known as Yggdrasil and also showing Jane a book outlining the fate of the Dark Elves and the Aether.

The challenge: Luma Pictures took on-set photography of a partial tree-structure and fleshed out Yggdrasil and the realms. For the animating storybook, 3D geometry was collapsed down into 2D lettering.

“On set they filmed the base of the tree and it went up about 6 or 7 feet, explains Vince Cirelli. “In SpeedTree we then worked up a model and exported out the geo into Maya and sculpted out the branches.”

Cirelli notes that the most complicated aspect of the work was not so much the tree, but also including the volumes of nebula and star fields that would be pictured within it. “The idea is,” he says, “that the leaves themselves, well they’re almost like portals and you can see these different realms. So what we ended up doing was using a series of textures that point and reference the colors from the nebula so in a 3D volume we had a mix of space of the nebula with the actual tree and realistic working leaves all in one volume.”

The nebulas were rendered in FumeFX and Maya used for the spiral galaxies and starfields. Luma rendered special passes for the leaves so that artists could blend out of the green textures of the leaves into the space imagery. “We also broke out the geo and did a replacement at render time,” adds Cirelli, “putting a particle at the end of each branch that represent each of the leaves. We made use of Arnold’s instancing for that which is exceptionally good at throwing tons of geo into a scene.”

The animated storybook was an important challenge for Luma. “Our mandate was that it had to differ from something in Harry Potter,” says Cirelli. “Rather than looking like photography that was just mapped onto a page, what they wanted to do was take real 3D geometry, animate that so that all the edges of the book that had patterns would be built out in 3D.”

Those patterns were realized out of tubes and spheres to provide dimensionality and then rendered with a reduced color palette so that they would not appear fully shaded. “We would then bring it into the comp and re-project it onto the page,” outlines Cirelli. “When you do that you have a 3D scene that has perspective but it’s baked into the page and animated. It was rendered with a gold effect that made it look like gold leafing so as to fit the gold of the rest of the book.”

Kurse transformation

Kurse is played by actor Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje.
Kurse, prior to transformation.

What happens: To help penetrate Asgard’s defences, Malekith turns his lieutenant Algrim into Kurse by implanting in him a fiery stone.

The challenge: For the transformation sequence, Dneg combined live action performances of actor Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as both Algrim and Kurse.

“We approached Kurse with the knowledge that there would be significant CG work, possibly even full body replacement, but not knowing the exact nature of the transformation,” says Jake Morrison. “Carbonizing was how the script described it. We did know it was a very painful process though! With that in mind, we shot three passes for each shot, one with Algrim, the character’s name pre-transformation, a Kurse pass and a clean plate.”

Kurse by Malekith's side.
Kurse by Malekith’s side.

Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s body double, Maurice, also played a role in the live action portion of the transformation. “We split the sequence into two sections,” explains Morrison, “the ‘Algrim’ section, the first half, and the ‘Kurse’ section, the second half, and each was shot on a different day to ensure Ade could play the most prominent character.”

Double Negative then produced the metamorphosis, which include thick, dark smoke pouring from Kurse as he transforms. That in itself was based on a chemical smoke mix created by Paul Corbould. “In the final shot,” says Morrison, “which is a tracking nightmare, we added lava-like burning streams into every groove that was practically cut into Kurse’s costume. Kurse’s transformation is a real combination of VFX, SFX and David White’s special make-up FX.”

Attack on Asgard

Heimdall see the Ark ship.
Heimdall see the Ark ship.

What happens: Malekith is awakened by the Aether’s release and attacks Asgard in a giant Ark ship.

The challenge: The Third Floor previsualized much of the attack, from Heimdall’s take-down of one of the ‘cloaked’ ships to the multi-ship attack, ship-to-ship battle and force-field removal. Double Negative realized the final shots.

Seen in several parts of the film, the Ark ‘mothership’ makes a major appearance on Asgard. “The silhouette of the ship started off almost like a cadaver,” notes Jake Morrison, “a huge crucifix thing that hangs in space. We ended up re-designing it a little bit, because for the end-game when the Dark Elves arrive at Greenwich, the original design had a lot of ‘witchy fingers’ that were tendrils or strips skin or cloth. When we made this connection with the Earth, it looked like they should snap off. So we did a re-design on the art to make it more like a vertical battleship. We added a lot more metals in there, steel plating and nurnies and greebles which helped with the scale.”

The Third Floor's previs for this sequence was crucial in planning the necessary beats and action.
The Third Floor’s previs for this sequence was crucial in planning the necessary beats and action.

Heimdall becomes alerted to the presence of an Ark ship – in cloaked form – and proceeds to launch himself onto the craft and bring it down. This was actually one of The Third Floor’s first sequences it has previs’d. “We modeled the ships in 3D and put some camera moves around it,” says The Third Floor previsualization supervisor Gerardo Ramirez, who shared duties with Glenn Burton. “We did the same things for the Harrow ships that the Elves use to attack the city. We would figure out how the ship works and saw it move. And once we started showing that people actually leaned away from that design, which was good to know early on that that wasn’t one they wanted to go for. So they could do a concept painting for a new ship – then we did the process again. So previs was really able to help show how the models and designs and characters would look animated with action.”

The Ark’s cloaking device was an effect the visual effects teams wanted to take in a new direction. “Originally we started with a volumetric approach with this idea that the ship would be represented as a volume by these cubes that would then be doing a traditional optical camouflage,” says Alex Wuttke. “Then we were going to use a simulation to roll these cubes in a volumetric fluidic-type motion into the center. And that was really cool and great, but ultimately was a little bit too confusing. It kind of looked a little too abstract and surreal, so we switched to a more straight ahead approach. We still retained some of that sense of volume to the ship, so we had depth passes so when you were looking through a thin part of the ship you’d be looking through just some refraction but when you’re looking through a thicker part of the ship, we’d vary the amounts of refraction and optical effects taking place.”

From inside the Ark ship come the smaller Harrow crafts. “The whole length is like a blade and they get to ram things,” says Morrison. “On the attack on Asgard we follow quite a few of them as they perform these high G turns and flips and knock out artillery installations. There was some science to them, though They have a micro-black hole in the engine casing, the idea being that if you have a black hole, and stuck a cube around it and punched a hole in one side of the cube, it would actually pull the cube forward in the direction of the hole. So if you imagine the ship’s designers strapped around that, these ships kind of fall instead of having propulsion – the engine on the front gave them a hap-hazard and very fast flight profile. It’s almost as if they’re falling forwards all the time.”

Animating the Harrow, with its knife edge profile, proved challenging for Dneg. “Because of the way it’s constructed and its general form,” explains Wuttke, “it was quite a hard thing to animate. On certain angles relative to the camera it didn’t quite look right but on other angles it looked really cool. We spent quite a lot of time working out the best way to present to camera and show the nice silhouette.”

The Harrows pierce through Asgard’s defences which include the Gatling-like guns and skiffs. “Double Negative produced some really high energy, super-kinetic almost ride film stuff where you’re flying behind the Harrow ships doing their insane twists and turns,” says Morriso. “We have the flying boats of the Asgard army with anti-gravity tech and Gatling guns. All the time we’re inching towards the Throne Room and palace.”

Watch the attack.

Eventually, with the force field knocked out, one of the Harrow ships uses its blade as a blunt instrument and pierces through the palace into the Throne Room. “There’s a sea of columns in there with very high ceilings,” outlines Morrison. “It’s a good combination of the practical and the synthetic. We had the throne room built in Stage H, and Paul Corbould, the special effects supervisor built a load of dump tanks. We had stunt players running, practical debris shattering around and dynamic camera moves.”

Dneg augmented the practical shoot with a digital Harrow smashing through the columns. “We had a representation of a column in Houdini and it’s comprised of different materials – a soft core within it and a harder core around that,” says Wuttke. “Then there was bronzed plating around that and each would have a different reaction as the ship crashed through them – there’d be a main crash, splintering and then fine amounts of dust and debris. The metal panels would react in a different way and spin off and catch the light in nice ways.”

Thor takes flight

Thor's flight is featured several times in the film, including at the battle at Greenwich.
Thor’s flight is featured several times in the film, including at the battle at Greenwich.

What happens: During the Asgard attack, and many other sequences in the film, Thor demonstrates his flying ability and use of Mjölnir.

The challenge: Morrison and the team at Double Negative devised a particular look for Thor’s rapid transport, plus an efficient way to create the character, and others, as digital doubles.

“It’s one of the benefits of working for Marvel,” admits Jake Morrison. “You can have really in-depth conversations about how Thor flies – does he spin the hammer then throw it and catch it by the strap, or does he leap? From a practical point of view we made sure it looked like that when he throws the hammer to take off it’s kind of a parabolic arc, so in some ways it’s just a really good assisted jump with a battering ram on the front of it.”

Adds Morrison: “There’s a shot at Greenwich where he swings the hammer, takes off and there’s an upward arc and he comes smashing down with a short parabolic arc and lands crashing into a car and fires out lightning as the hammer comes crashing to the ground. So we did try and make sure we didn’t go with the straight arm out Superman approach since that’s been done and been done well.”

Chris Hemsworth portrays Thor.
Chris Hemsworth portrays Thor.

Alex Wuttke says that in keyframing Thor’s flight, Dneg would begin with blocking, then character performance and also work on the virtual camera. “What worked was subtle manipulation of Thor’s limbs, trying to introduce little motions to give the idea that he’s adjusting his flight to take advantage of his own aerodynamics, like his limbs are becoming their own control surfaces. If you keep things very subtle and almost subliminal it really sells the performance.”

Dneg built a digital model of Thor and other characters – including Loki and Malekith – using the studio’s photography-based on-set PhotoBooth process. “We have an array of digital SLRs that are shutter-synced and sync’d flash boxes,” explains Wuttke. “We arrange the cameras in stereo pairs and get the actor to cycle through a series of face shapes and poses, and the photography capture takes 10-15 minutes. Then with the footage we process it and do mesh extraction from that photography. We’re getting sync’d textures along with the mesh, so we can have very quick projections and build a character very quickly. We also shoot polarized and non-polarized exposures so that we can derive specular and reflection maps.”

Interestingly, Double Negative also experimented with using digital film cameras in place of DSLRs to try and capture a full moving performance of Natalie Portman. “We had a moving mesh as she ran through the whole performance with the same set of textures projected back on,” says Wuttke. “We could then introduce re-lighting because we had a digital representation of the performance. Ultimately it was never required but that was an extension of that technique. We ended up trying to introduce some in-camera lighting across Natalie. We had some LED arrays that would be playing back footage of the environment she was going to be dropped into surrounding her. Again, that had to be sync’d up to the footage. For that we had a single frame of red to mark the beginning and a single frame of green to mark the end of the run of illumination.”

A fitting funeral

A still from the funeral sequence.
A still from the funeral sequence.

What happens: Asgard honors its war dead after the Dark Elf attack by launching its Norse boats containing the corpses, setting them alight via fired arrows, as they go over the waterfall.

The challenge: Pete Bebb supervised Double Negative’s shots for the nighttime funeral, piecing together some live action shots with Asgard CG environments, digital water, boats and digi-doubles.

“It’s a scene I’m really proud of,” comments Jake Morrison. “It really acts in service of the story, it’s an emotional moment. You want to make sure the visual effects don’t detract from the story.”

One aspect of the shot – the waterfalls – was something Double Negative had invested significant time in for all of its Asgard shots. “We’d generate strips of waterfall elements that we could then extend up the line of the perspective to create this huge waterfall,” explains Alex Wuttke. “Then there’s a junction between the waterfall dropping off the edge and the vast stretch leading into that. We had some digital ocean tools for the large stretches that were shader based and then we’d use proceduralism to generate swells and peaks.”

“Then as we approached the coastline we added more jaggedy rocks,” adds Wuttke, “and created generic sims of water crashing and swirling and splashing against the rocks which we could drop into and comp into the larger wider water sims. Then right at the edge of the world we get the more white water channeling between rocks and we did sims that we could mix and match together. We used quite a lot of elements and footage from our library.”

Escape from Asgard

Thor, Loki and Jane end up on Asgardian skiff.
Thor, Loki and Jane end up on Asgardian skiff.

What happens: Thor covertly recruits the imprisoned Loki to find a secret portal out of Asgard to Svartalfheim. The pair, along with Jane, hijack the crashed Dark Elf Harrow ship, break out of the Throne Room and then sneak out to Asgard’s outer areas on a waiting skiff.

The challenge: The sequence involved destruction sims and major virtual camera moves through the Asgardian environment, including cockpit views, all completed by Double Negative.

The Harrow ship takes off with the hijackers inside. Dneg began by extending the existing Throne Room set. “What was great was they shot a full-scale mockup of the Harrow sitting in the Throne Room which was great reference,” says Alex Wuttke. “It was like one of the largest sculptures ever seen and actually re-creating that was quite a challenge. The obvious problem with it was that it had quite shiny material. We had a real problem LIDAR’ing or scanning it in any way because the lasers would just bounce off. So we had to do our version of the hand-sculpt.”

Watch a clip from the escape sequence.

As it had done for the initial crash, Dneg simulated the Harrow’s smash through a number of Throne Room columns. Once outside the Throne Room, the Harrow streaks away, zooming in between buildings and escaping Asgardian laser blasts and skiffs (since Odin has specifically banned Thor and Jane from leaving). Dneg approached the scene with a virtual camera scout of the Asgardian city and then its surrounds after The Third Floor had previs’d the main beats. “We created a flight path for the ship,” says The Third Floor’s Gerardo Ramirez. “Now we knew which direction they would fly and we could populate buildings in that area and give those files to Double Negative.”

A feature of the sequence are the cockpit shots which show Thor and Loki piloting the Harrow, with the HUD showing both Elven graphics and exterior ‘geo’. “Jake Morrison had the great idea of bringing the outside environment into the inside environment. With some cockpit shots in other films, you’d cut from the exteriors that would be frenetic and fast paced into potentially quite a dark interior with a lot of dialogue.”

The HUD inside the Harrow ship.
The HUD inside the Harrow ship.

“It was a like 360 degree wraparound around them,” says Morrison. “Like a sat nav projected into a bubble around you – as you’re flying one of these crafts you see all the surroundings whipping past you as geometry. The nice thing was that it added a lot to the dynamic because the classic thing in flying sequences is that you can make the outside very exciting but when you get into the cockpit, how do you make that stuff fun?”

Dneg would work out where the cockpit shot lived in terms of the outside world, then take a virtual camera and generate an interior view. “We did some rendering for the actual terrain that they were flying past,” says Wuttke, “then everything else was developed in Nuke using some of the two-and-a-half-D tools. We had lots of planes of text and pieces of geo that would be available to the compositor to spin around and react to the flight they would be experiencing. We also developed an Elven typeface for the HUD graphics.”

Desolate world: Svartalfheim

The production visited Iceland to film scenes for Svartalfheim.
The production visited Iceland to film scenes for Svartalfheim.

What happens: The Dark Elves’ home world of Svartalfheim is revealed to be a barren, graveyard-like wasteland.

The challenge: Like Asgard, practical photography was invoked to inform the look of Svartalfheim, with production filming in Iceland and Double Negative building on that to create the world.

“We knew this was a poison world so we needed somewhere where there wasn’t any vegetation and where it was a little grim and inhospitable-looking,” outlines Morrison. “We shot in areas that were very volcanic, gravely and had lots of wind. There we did oodles of LIDAR, texture photography, as well shooting for photogrammetry and vistas.”

Pete Bebb’s team at Double Negative built on top of the plate photography to add in various ruins, middle-distance mountains, Dark Elf ships, also replacing skies. “It definitely has a look to it where you wouldn’t want to breathe the atmosphere for too long,” notes Morrison.

Attack on Greenwich

An enormous Ark ship attacks Greenwich.
An enormous Ark ship attacks Greenwich.

What happens: Malekith and the Dark Elves materialize on Earth in their Ark ship at Greenwich – revealed to be the center of the Convergence.

The challenge: The Third Floor and Double Negative orchestrated the Ark’s arrival, importantly selling the scale and impact of the ship as it glides through the Thames and the Greenwich river wall.

In previs’ing the Ark’s arrival, The Third Floor Final worked closely with the storyboard artist who worked on the sequence. “We were then tasked with finding real locations in London, working out the angles, animate it, editing it together and present it so they could film it,” outlines Gerardo Ramirez. “Then we went into our files and extract data to find out how high the camera is off the ground, the speed it’s traveling, all this information helps while filming and speeds up the process.”

The Ark smashes into Greenwich.
The Ark smashes into Greenwich.

Production filmed scenes on location using pontoons in the river and a stand-in boat for the Ark before Double Negative started on the visual effects. “The ship has a massive wake and then when it touches the wall there’s multiple rippling explosions that go across the front of it where it pops all the tiles off,” states Morrison. “Then there’s a buckling wave – the ship is displacing so much of the ground and lawn. There’s a ripple cracking effect and as it gets far enough in there’s a backfil of the water as the Thames starts to swell around and goes into the trench in front of this thing.”

Battle between realms

The Convergence nears.
The Convergence nears.

What happens: Thor and Malekith battle in Greenwich but soon find themselves transported between realms by the imminent impact of the Convergence.

The challenge: Capitalizing on work completed by other vendors, Method Studios came on late in production to help realize portals, digi-doubles, cars and Malekith’s use of the Aether as a weapon against Thor.

The battle between realms is, of course, enabled by the presence of portals which almost literally spit characters through them. “Practically-speaking,” says Jake Morrison, “we ended up calling this ‘time toffee’, so as you punch through from one realm to another it’s almost like cling film or a slightly gelatinous membrane you have to pass through. It bends a little bit then rips and spits the person out.”

Watch a clip of the battle between realms.

“The other thing we wanted to do was to make sure it was quite fast from an editorial point of view,” adds Morrison. “In the fight scenes there are times when Thor and Malekith are portaling all over the place, quite frankly. We made sure we always kept up the momentum and never stopped the fight. It was a way of making sure the audience weren’t conscious there was an effect going on.”

One scene Method created involved Thor, Malekith and a couple of cars being ‘projectiled’ into the side of a mountain on Svartalfheim. “We had some aerial photography from the side of the mountain that production had shot in Iceland and some elements of the vehicles,” says Method visual effects supervisor Chad Wiebe. “But the final shot is a fully digital environment with digi-doubles and digital cars, dust and rocks.”

The Third Floor also contributed previs for the Greenwich battle sequence.
The Third Floor also contributed previs for the Greenwich battle sequence.

Now embodied with the Aether, Malekith is able to propel it as particulates and crystal shards against Thor. “Initially,” says Wiebe, “the Aether was somewhat of a particulate based or crystalline structure, starting as fine dust and assembling into bigger pieces and finally into larger shards of a crystal. So we built a flexible RBD system using Houdini bullet and blend solvers, where each small piece of particulate knew its final placement on the larger crystalline shards and tried to get there while interacting with other pieces along the way.”

However, the Aether then evolved towards more a fluid-based look, so Method re-designed its setup. “We built a SOP-based solver that emitted points from curves which clumped together in a fluidy fashion, and their velocities were also smoothed between neighbors,” explains Wiebe. “The points’ behavior was different depending on their age/curve/character distance. So as points came closer to Malekith they were taking into account transformation matrices on geometry points of his body to ensure proper collision and interaction. The SOP solver allowed us to do a lot of substeps for fast moving deforming geometry.”

Filming the Greenwich battle.
Filming the Greenwich battle.

“Then the points were surfaced using VDB tools with some filtering applied,” adds Wiebe. “Because we did a lot of substeps we were able to achieve a very smooth and detailed surface that looked like fluid. Also we turned a percentage of the points into crystal pieces as they got closer to character, eroding the fluid surface at the same time to make a seamless transition from fluid to crystal. For all secondary particles flying around Malekith we also used a custom fast SOP solver. The age/distance/velocity attributes were transferred to the surface geo to drive some of shader parameters.”

Fright of the Frost monster

What happens: During the final battle, an almost playful but still frightening frost monster is accidentally transported to Earth from Jotunheim during a portal transfer.

The challenge: Luma Pictures created the monster – a throwback to the terrifying frost beast from Thor – both on Jotunheim and for its encounters on Earth.

Artists at Luma considered original designs for the frost monster and its final look in the first film in order to piece together its appearance here. “We looked at the first film for inspiration and essentially updated the design a bit, added some spikes at the end and reconfigured the volume and details of the skin,” says Luma visual effects supervisor Vince Cirelli.

“We went back to reference of really large animals to see how they move, especially elephants fighting,” adds Cirelli. “We wanted to see how we could convey a lot of mass and weight moving significantly. They’re able to shift their body weight a hell of a lot faster than I would have suspected.”

Thor and Malekith first encounter the beast on Jotunheim where they all fall from a precarious ice ledge before being transported back to Earth. “The sim was fun,” says Cirelli, “we used a fracture on that, we drove it with some Houdini sims for some of the frost and icicles breaking off, and then used FumeFX for snowy, dusty particulates.”

Ported into London, the frost monster encounters some Dark Elves, one bearing the brunt of the monster’s mouth. Luma delivered CG Elves and and a matte painted environment, plus the Ark ship in the background for the sequence. And, in a scene that has brought patient audience members much joy, the frost monster makes a memorable re-appearance pursuing a set of mumurating starlings.

Graphic design: the main-on-ends

What happens: Thor: The Dark World ends as the main titles display still shots of key scenes from the film.

The challenge: Blur Studio’s design department had to create the main-on-ends with wipe on brush strokes that also worked in stereo.

“We proposed three or four different designs for Marvel,” says Blur’s Tim Miller. “Some were incredibly 3D with the observatory and portals but they ended up picking the more graphic approach with the painterly design. An illustrator friend of ours – Justin Harder – came in and did this very loose adaption of these images. We always knew they wanted to do a reprise of the film. So we did a still edit to make it all work and flow.”

“The minute I saw it in 3D for the first time, wow,” exclaims Miller. “Just the fact that they’re still images and you can really focus on the 3D and it’s not buried beneath a lot of frenetic action. And the fact that the brush strokes themselves are dimensional, which was all done in After Effects. They would do the paintings on layers in Photoshop and bring them into After Effects to do the stereo. And of course they wanted to end on Loki because he stole the show.”

All images copyright 2013 Disney/Marvel. All rights reserved.

6 thoughts on “The dark side: behind the VFX of <em>Thor: The Dark World</em>”

  1. IMO, the best VFX of the film was the prologue done by Blur. Such an amazing work. And great article!

    1. Yes I agree that the Prologue was great – but there was a bunch of great shots – I loved the end titles ! (As you will hear in this week’s vfxshow podcast!)


      1. Yeah Mike. Thanks for such a great work in coverage of cg news and articles. FXGuide is the best place to learn more about VFX, thanks for all the hard work.

  2. Pingback: VFX Breakdown do filme Thor: The Dark World | Dicas e Tutoriais de After Effects

  3. Pingback: The Dark Side: Behind The VFX of Thor: The Dark World « Pavel Kacerle

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