“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” the MCU’s introduction to Chinese wuxia fantasy adventure, offered several unique VFX opportunities: manifesting the power of the titular rings, creating Marvel’s first dragons — the Great Protector and the Dweller in Darkness — and conjuring the adorable Morris, the headless, six-legged, furry friend to Ben Kingsley’s court jester, Trevor.
“We knew that we wanted this movie to start off very grounded and move deeper and deeper into fantasy,” said director Destin Daniel Cretton (“Just Mercy”). “And we also knew that we wanted the visuals to take a lot inspiration from Asian cinema [including ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’], and we wanted some other things to be brand new visuals for the rings and the creature design in [the magical village of] Tao Lo.”
For senior VFX supervisor Christopher Townsend, the look of the titular rings associated with the immortal Wenwu/The Mandarin (Tony Leung) evolved from a very extravagant display of colorful energy to a more subdued one.
“We discussed whether each ring should have individual power and what the colors should be and we landed on showy visual effects about how the power of the rings manifested,” he said.
“Then we started working with the cinematography on Tony’s portrayal of Wenwu [shot by DP William Pope], and his performance was so understated and so grounded,” Townsend continued. “And it just didn’t work at all, so we pulled way back and made it more about the physicality of the rings as a dangerous thing. But we put it so far back that later on during the process we looked at it again and amped it up to make it more special.”
It was important to keep the power of the rings elemental, with fire, lightning, flares, and even a beautiful aurora borealis. Also, there were two distinct color schemes: blue for Wenwu and gold and green for his son, Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), who face off at the Mountain of Souls. In keeping with their individual styles, Wenwu’s powers were represented visually as angry and violent lightning whips or projectiles, while Shang-Chi’s were more beautiful and graceful with a lot of ribbon dancing.
Weta Digital was responsible for the father-son fight as well as the battle between the Great Protector and the Dweller in Darkness. Notably, Weta prepared for the ring duel by employing what they called “toy-vis” for blocking it out with action figures of Stan Lee and Captain America. “Some of the shots from that scene, including the reveal of Shang-Chi with all ten rings, came directly from there,” said Weta’s VFX supervisor Sean Walker.
“After that, there was plenty of stunt-vis developed and that helped inform the final shoot,” Walker added. “A simple set was built for the base of the gate, but within a few takes, they had bluescreened the entire background off so we could replace it all with our digital environment. This helped in a lot of ways. As with some of the edit changes, it allowed us to keep continuity with the direction and placement of the fight.”
Weta, known for its eponymous “Pete’s Dragon” and its Emmy-winning dragon work on “Game of Thrones,” created two very different creatures for “Shang-Chi” with magical powers drawn from Chinese mythology. The Great Protector is a serpent-like, wingless water dragon, while the soul sucking Dweller is a winged, tentacled, eyeless creature. “We wanted to make sure that the Great Protector represented peace and tranquility and the Dweller in Darkness — which I don’t even consider a dragon — was the manifestation of evil,” said director Cretton.
“The Great Protector, which we always thought of as a female creature, has to swim through the air very gracefully but very fast, so we used a lot of reference of sea snakes and eels to give it a beautiful, elegant, feel,” Townsend said. “Weta created a majestic-looking creature [130 meters long] with these large scales. By removing the eye of the Dweller in Darkness, it made it interesting in terms of how it perceived objects. So [Weta] gave it a creepy look, with a massive jaw and large tongue. It felt aggressive in a way we haven’t seen before.”
The Great Protector marks Weta’s first wingless dragon, so she needed to lead with her head. It was animated with a combination of path-based and keyframe animation, using a Koru spline rig. Her translucent and iridescent scales gave her a soft, magical edge. “We were able to dial in the iridescence per shot as she amped up her power through the sequence,” said Walker. “We gave her kind eyes, which we based off of actress Fala Chen’s eyes, who plays Shang-Chi’s mother in the film. We wanted Shang-Chi and Xialing [his estranged sister played by Meng’er Zhang] to feel some familiarity when looking at the Great Protector. Both siblings share a moment when they each stare into the dragon’s eyes. The Great Protector, being a water dragon, also has fins on her face that she is able to use as an extra layer of expressiveness.”
For the nine-tentacled Dweller, which spans more than 200 meters, Weta used an assortment of reference to help define each aspect of the beast’s body. Obsidian rock for the teeth, crab and horns for the armor plating, a mixture of porous rock, rhino and elephant skin for the leathery parts of the body. “We used raw meat for the skin in and around the mouth for a raw, marbled, and quite distinctly sore look,” Walker continued. “Deviating from a traditional lizard reference gave us a more otherworldly, unique feel to the Dweller, again pushing it a little further away from the design of the Great Protector. Geometrically, it ended up being one of the heaviest creatures we’ve ever built at Weta, at 128 million polygons.
Meanwhile, the scene-stealing Morris, named for the director’s dachshund, was based on the chaotic Hundun creature and animated by Trixter (Rocket from “Guardians of the Galaxy”). “When we first started talking about Morris, we realized this was the new Baby Groot,” said Townsend. “A lot of the animation reference we used was my dog along with wombats and puppies. Animators looked at their own pets. But without a face, Trixter was challenged to give it a personality. They animated it in a way where six legs made sense, gesturing with wings was helpful, as was body positioning, and the use of shoulders, and stomping its legs. We used sound as well. A voice actor came in at the last minute and provided interesting sound effects.”
Added Cretton: “It was a complicated development process to find a creature that was very weird but also very cute. I think we went through many iterations of not cute until we found one when we all finally said, ‘Aah, there’s Morris.'”