In Marvel Studios’ Black Widow, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) confronts the demons from her past in a spectacular and explosive fashion. After discovering a flying fortress hidden in the clouds, Romanoff destroys the base, leading to an airborne battle where the film’s heroes and villains dodge flaming wreckage as the base crashes back to earth. The highly complex and technically demanding sequence was primarily handled by Digital Domain.

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The Red Room Rises

Since her introduction to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) more than a decade ago, the origins of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, have only been hinted at through the occasional one-liner and dream-like flashback. In Black Widow, Romanoff’s history is finally revealed, including her time spent in the brutal “Red Room,” a training ground for world-class assassins that she thought was destroyed. After the discovery that it is still active, and airborne, the Red Room makes a spectacular environment for the climax of the film.

Working with Marvel Studios and their visual development group, Digital Domain created the flying Red Room and the surrounding environments entirely in CG. The structure was designed to appear both intimidating and functional, with Marvel artists choosing a style that echoes Soviet-era architecture. The massive base features airstrips, walkways, a central tower, and several engines keeping the structure aloft, all of which needed to be created digitally.

To bring the Red Room and the surrounding environment to life, including individual clouds and the countryside below, Digital Domain’s artists used a suite of post-production tools that integrated both Maya animation and Houdini effects pipelines. One of the complex issues the team needed to address was keeping the audience from being confused as debris swirled around the action. It is easy in such dramatic high concept action pieces to end up with a disorientating series of shots that become disjointed, compared to a cohesive action sequence that engages the audience. Virtual cinematography allows the camera to go anywhere, and yet when producing such a fantastic sequence, the camera work needs to remain motivated with grounded camera blocking and framing.

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Downwards

With hallways shattering around her and gravity turning deadly, the explosive collapse of the Red Room becomes a frantic escape for Black Widow. As characters flee the doomed structure via jet, parachute, and in some cases freefall, they are joined on their descent by both enemy soldiers and debris ranging in size from small scrap to large sections of buildings. Each shot features dozens of pieces of wreckage at any time, all leading to one of the most intense sequences in the film.

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To create the live-action portion of the skydiving scene, the filmmakers used a combination of practical techniques to capture the key actors, including shooting the film’s stars on wires and mechanical arms against bluescreens. The production also shot stunt performers and the cast held aloft in an indoor vertical wind tunnel. They also filmed trained stunt people through multiple skydives. The footage was then sent to Digital Domain, where artists created a layout that tracked where the characters and the major pieces of debris were at any given time.

On average, a skydiver will fall 200 feet per second during a skydive before they open their parachute. It does take a finite amount of time to accelerate up ‘terminal velocity’, which is the fastest speed the characters would fall at during their descent. In reality, without using a chute, Black Widow would typically hit speeds close to 120mph. She would reach this speed within the first few seconds of her fall. Therefore she would take about 10 seconds for the first 1,000 feet, then 5 seconds for every 1,000 feet after that. From 10,000 feet, this means someone would be in freefall for approximately 30 seconds. From 14,000 feet, closer to 60 seconds. While the film doesn’t name the exact height of General Dreykov’s Red Room, we can estimate. Most people will go unconscious above 15,000 to 20,000 feet due to lack of oxygen, so it is safe to assume the base is not much above 14,000 feet. In the film, this actually matches fairly closely with the two periods of freefall Romanoff does. The first freefall is from the platform to meet up with her falling sister and give her a parachute. The second freefall follows when she jumps away from her sister to fight Antonia / Taskmaster all the way to the ground.  Even with being slowed down by two parachutes, the whole sequence is just 75 seconds of complex visual effects decent.

With the general layout set, the team at Digital Domain determined how the scene would evolve under different lighting and environmental conditions, as well as how the characters’ interactions would affect the falling debris. That included altering the rotation of a jet in freefall as Black Widow flies through, and a memorable scene where the Taskmaster slows their descent by dragging a sword across a piece of a falling building. Clouds were also added and removed to reflect momentum, the lighting was constantly changed to reflect the setting sun, and the wreckage shattering as it slams into itself gives the entire scene a frenetic feel.

Artists went through shot-by-shot to maintain continuity, digitally altering each key asset and environment by hand. It was a monumental and time-consuming task requiring several iterations. To create the destruction and hard surfaces – while also rendering the scene quickly enough to allow for changes – the team at Digital Domain turned to GPU rendering, along with Maxon’s GPU-accelerated renderer, Redshift.

“Rendering one cloud is easy, but rendering 100 clouds – along with dozens of pieces of big and small debris – is very complex, to say the least,” said Dave Hodgins, Digital Domain VFX supervisor. “GPU rendering allowed us to do more in a shorter period of time, and create something that we’re not only proud of, but opens up a new world of possibilities.”

GPU rendering took on the bulk of the wreckage and debris work, while traditional CPU rendering was reserved for digital characters and volumetrics. Although a relatively new technique for achieving photorealistic effects on a large scale – due in part to the hardware demands – Digital Domain successfully tested the technique with Marvel Studios’ Captain Marvel. To create the climactic and explosive shootout inside the hangar of the hidden Skrull ship during the third act of the film, GPU rendering was employed to create several digital explosions, each leading to multiple, smaller explosions that created a sea of debris. The work done on Black Widow builds on that experience but elevates it to a higher level.

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Reaching the Ground

Once the primary characters make it safely to the ground, the action continues as Black Widow faces off against the Taskmaster while a storm of metal rains down around them. The filmmakers used a combination of practical effects – including physical props dropped on the stage – along with bluescreens to introduce some of the larger wreckage. Artists at Digital Domain tracked the falling debris and altered it to reflect the damage caused by the impact, altering each piece as needed.

While the characters face-off, Digital Domain also gave the Red Room a final send-off, as the remains of the fiery and smoke-covered structure crash into a nearby forest. The main characters then stand amid a field of real and CG debris.

“Digital Domain has a long and proud history of creating amazing destruction on screen, from iconic ocean liners to entire cities, but the work we did in Black Widow is on another level,” said John Fragomeni, global VFX president at Digital Domain. “Marvel Studios’ latest blockbuster challenged us to look at the debris as if it were a moving, fluid environment in its own right. That allowed us to rethink how we approach CG destruction in films, and it will help us go even further in the future.”

In total, Digital Domain completed around 320 shots for the film, with work spread between its Los Angeles, Vancouver, and Montreal offices. The studio’s work on Black Widow marks more than a decade of collaboration with Marvel Studios, including multiple feature films and television series. Digital Domain recently completed work on Loki, and is currently working on Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Spider-Man: No Way Home, and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

Black Widow is in theaters and available to stream on Disney+.

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