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‘Doctor Strange’: How VFX Tapped ‘Inception’ for a New Marvel Dimension

Marvel's trippiest superhero movie opened new VFX dimensions inspired by comic book artist Steve Ditko and Christopher Nolan's Oscar-winning mind-bender.

“Doctor Strange”


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With “Doctor Strange,” Marvel entered the supernatural realm for the first time, requiring a new set of VFX tricks for Benedict Cumberbatch’s arrogant wizard. They not only found inspiration in “Doctor Strange” comic book artist Steve Ditko’s psychedelic tropes but also Christopher Nolan’s Oscar-winning “Inception” effect of bending and folding buildings.

“It was about creating new worlds and magic, going from simple ring shields to portals opening to other dimensions to entire cities being bent to time going backwards,” VFX production supervisor Stephane Ceretti told IndieWire.

There are three major dimensional worlds — Mirror Dimension, Dark Dimension and Astral Realm — each requiring different looks. And Strange’s introduction was called “Magical Mystery Tour” (with VFX created by Method), a film-within-the-film psychedelic journey, leveraging Ditko’s artwork, for starters, where Strange gets pushed out of his body into worm holes and various kaleidoscopic shapes.

“Charles Wood, the production designer, came up with key points, which we did with concepts and previs [by The Third Floor],” Ceretti said. “And director Scott Derrickson responded to constantly evolving and moving worlds almost as one long shot, inspired by fractal worlds, macro photography and kaleidoscopic animation.”

"Doctor Strange"

“Doctor Strange”

But the biggest set piece — the most visually complex of any Marvel movie thus far — is a confrontation between Strange and Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) in New York, which was inspired by M.C. Escher, who also inspired “Inception.”

“It was a great power that they have to fold space when going into another dimension,” Ceretti said. “But we wanted to do it more as an action sequence environment and make it bigger and crazier — add all this magic to it with the formation of space and the mirrors and the kaleidoscopic stuff. And we looked at a game called ‘Monument Valley’ on the iPhone. Optical illusions needed to be sorted out and moved. It was trying to grab ideas from everywhere and make it exciting, like a Rubik’s Cube.”

Industrial Light & Magic handled the sequence, supervised by Richard Bluff, but, in execution, didn’t take any cues from “Inception” because they had a greater vision. “We’ve seen bending buildings, we’ve seen folding, but what we haven’t seen was the fracturing of a city and the introduction of mass duplication on a mathematical level and infinitely complex fractals,” he told IndieWire.

“When Strange and Mordo run out of the New York Sanctum, for example, we have the exterior of the building starting to deconstruct into smaller and smaller component parts and duplicating,” Bluff said. “And after revealing gaps, we grow out of the [curve-shaped] Menger sponge or [geometrically complex] Mandelbrot fractals.”

"Doctor Strange"

“Doctor Strange”

“As the scene progresses, we move to a larger scale event of twisting into itself,” Bluff said. “We were trying to convey a cat-and-mouse chase where the fractal environment serves as the mousetrap.”

ILM created a 3D city, mirrored the edges and then rotated them 360 degrees to put the audience in the center of a tube where all the walls were mirrored versions of a New York City. Coupled with the kaleidoscopic imagery, this resulted in a visual design language for the rapidly-changing fighting arena.

“The process was very difficult,” Ceretti said, who also worked on “Guardians of the Galaxy.” “We had less than six months to do the post on this film. There is so much in the Marvel universe and the genres that we can play with.”

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