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Interview: ‘Shang-Chi’ VFX Team On Origin Stories, Creating Rings, the Challenges of Good Weather

The ‘Verse! Squad recently sat down with the Academy Award-nominated visual effects team behind Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. This was an extra big deal for us because this was the only movie of 2021 (and 2022 so far!) that The ‘Verse! gave top ratings to across the board. We know none of the elements we praised—the performances, the choreography, the story itself—would have landed without the film’s dedicated and talented visual effects team of Christopher Townsend, Joe Farrell, Sean Noel Walker, and Dan Oliver. In addition to their VFX work delivering amazing visual for viewers’ eyes, it helps set the mood for each scene, adds depth to characters, and much, much more.

We chatted about their work on the film; novel opportunities afforded by an origins story for a lesser known hero, inspirations for going into film, and the unexpected challenges of tiny details. Some highlights of our conversation are below, but for the full experience we highly recommend listening to their interview in its entirety.

The character of Shang-Chi went from an obscure, stereotypical comic book character to the face of cultural representation as the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first Asian leading hero. Townsend discussed his introduction to this journey.

When I first started, I thought, okay I need to learn about this character. What comic should I read? And they said, don’t read any comics. We’re basing it on our own version. It was very much a matter of starting with a clean slate.”

Joe Farrell: “We got to invent something that nobody’s seen before and those opportunities don’t always present themselves. It’s a little bit like [Guardians of the Galaxy], when you take a relatively unknown source material, and then it turns out to be something epic.”

Christopher Townsend: “Marvel had never done anything with an Asian lead. And I think that was very important. There was an incredible sensitivity and awareness and care taken with the entire film from script to costume to set design to performances and acting. So much care was taken to make it appropriate and not appropriated.”

With how fascinating origin stories can be, we couldn’t help but wonder about the origin stories of the team. Early inspirations were all over the board, but a couple themes stood out.

Christopher Townsend: Seeing Harryhausen stuff as a kid was a big influence…But I think Jurassic Park was the film for me. I was working in Singapore in the early 90s before Singapore became a hub for visual effects. There were just a couple of small companies and I was doing TV stuff. We had just finished working on a chameleon ad that had a full digital chameleon. And we were really thrilled with ourselves and thought we were amazing. Then we went to see Jurassic Park and thought, oh my god, I either need to move to America, or pack up shop and just forget about this business. Fortunately, I went to the States and worked at ILM. And I ended up working on the second Jurassic Park.”

Joe Farrell: “I used to freak out my family because they tell me that I knew exactly what I was going to do. And I was like eight years old. They were like, how on earth do you know what you want to do? Blade Runner was definitely an inspiration. This film in particular felt like a nice bookend to my journey. If you can tell from my accent, I’m Australian. But I spent the last 20 years traveling the world after that quest of wanting to work in movies, which led me to working at Digital Domain over here in the States and up in Canada, working on television, and so on. And then Chris invited me and said, hey, come and join me in Sydney, Australia. I said, well, I speak the local language. The experience on this project and the passion that everybody had on it is something that I hope I can repeat one day.”

Dan Oliver: “Unfortunately, I don’t have a really great story of how I came into the film industry after seeing a movie and developing this amazing passion. I was at university and studying engineering. I was looking for an excuse to get out of university and I got a job on a film assisting in the special effects department. Obviously special effects is a bit more mechanical compared to the artistry that happens in the visual effects world. But on that job, I thought this is kind of cool. I never realized there’s a job called special effects. With my engineering background, everything we do is physics and mechanics and making things work. It really helped me even though I didn’t finish my degree. I’ve basically never had another job except for doing special effects straight out of university.”

Sean Walker: “The very first movie I saw at the cinema was Who Framed Roger Rabbit and I think that was probably—considering it gave me nightmares for a while—the most impactful movie for me. I must have been around eight years old, so maybe a bit too young to be seeing that movie. But then it just hit in waves. Every five years or so, a new movie would come out that would blow my mind and reinvigorate my hunger to get back into it.”

A huge part of what made Shang-Chi special was the inspiration it took from classic Hong Kong cinema and action movies, and the care taken by the crew to ensure the story would feel authentic.

Christopher Townsend: “It was an homage to many classic Hong Kong and Chinese films. Jackie Chan movies, obviously, Kung Fu Hustle, Crouching Tiger, there’s so many films that we were watching and studying and trying to do something that felt like part of that genre. One of the great things about this film is that you bounce around in so many different looks and feels. You go from the very aggressive to Tai Chi, and all these different styles. Brad Allan, who was the second unit director and the stunt coordinator—unfortunately he died a couple of weeks before the premiere—was incredibly influential. What he brought to the table was an incredible knowledge on very authentic martial arts.”

Joe Farrell: “There were some key members on the stunt team that brought a lot of manga and anime influence into it. Same with the camera work. It’s amazing what the cameras do in anime and manga. It became an interesting balance of these wild camera moves that you would never think were believable. There’s a lot of influence, especially in the scaffolding fight sequence, for instance. The attention to detail on this project was pretty outstanding. As Chris said, Brad’s attention to detail on even how you were holding your hand exactly—he wanted to pay respects for the martial arts. He wanted even a hardcore martial arts master to look at this film and say they did it right.”

But in the process of filmmaking, there are also sometimes setbacks or unexpected developments. The titular ten rings themselves went through many iterations as the team adapted to the performances of the actors.

Christopher Townsend: “The idea of the rings on the arms, the bracelets, became something we thought would look more powerful. They went through many evolutions. We spent a long time creating very flamboyant effects initially. And we also spent many months working to get a look for the rings. Unfortunately, the MCU has used up all the colors when it comes to visual effects and special powers. Making something unique is always a challenge. And then we started seeing Tony Leung’s performance, who was going to be wielding the rings for a lot of the film. And he was so understated, and so quiet, and so contained, that having these big, flashy things going on just looked ridiculous. So we toned it way down. We ended up with ten metal bracelets that glowed a little bit. And then when we started seeing cuts, we thought, okay, they need to be a little bit more special than that. We reintroduced color and different elemental design bits.”

Sean Walker: “The rings were trickier than we originally thought because their movement is so dependent on the character’s motion and their different styles. Tony’s a little more aggressive and forceful with his martial arts style, and Simu is a little bit more fluid. We were very specific about this and wanted it to show in the way they rings moved around. They would always drag slightly behind Simu’s actions to get that nice flow. Originally we thought, it’s just ten rings, how hard can this be?”

One other big challenge the team faced was not bad weather, surprisingly, it was too much great weather. Here in the last gasps of New York City winter, I’m almost jealous.

Christopher Townsend: “In Australia, which is a gorgeous climate, we were blessed with bright blue skies and harsh sunlight. Very little cloud cover and very little rain, very little stormy skies. But we wanted stormy skies. We had this massive rigging, particularly for the last third of the movie set in Talo. The Art Department created this amazing village of about a dozen houses with the temple, all as practical. A lot of the stuff in the in the actual village was originally practical, but the harsh sunlight didn’t really work. We wanted this moody overcast feel that got moodier and more overcast as things progressed. We had a couple of 350 ton cranes—”

Joe Farrell: “The biggest cranes in Sydney holding up two of the biggest scrims I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Christopher Townsend: “—and they cast these beautiful square shadows on the ground. We were thinking maybe we just have a world with square clouds?”

Sean Walker: “Originally we’re thinking, let’s see what we can get away with just grading the sunlight out. But the sunlight was hitting every surface with such harshness that it was impossible to degrade. So we started to roto off all of the main actors within this square shadow. We match moved every single person in the in the background who was getting hit by hard sunlight so that we could preserve their action, and from that, we had pretty much replaced entirely with CG.”

That’s enough to give anyone a newfound appreciation for clouds. In tandem with the digital work were the practical effects, especially when it came to the range of weapons used in the film. Oliver discussed a few of his many jobs and the work that went into every detail.

Dan Oliver: “Within special effects we have another department that basically builds everything that’s soft or breakaway. The props department and the team will design the weapon and give that to us. We replicate that in sometimes two or three different versions. There might be a super soft, which are used in close combat fighting where there’s a chance they’re going to hit each other. It needs to be super soft, but it might be a tiny bit wobbly or not perform as well. The next one will be a bit heavier, which is for performance use, so it’s got to have the exact right weighting. And they can swing it around and do all the crazy stuff. If they do accidentally hit each other, they’re still not going to take an eye out.”

He paused: “Well, it could take an eye out, but it might not break bones. Then there’s harder weapons, which might have to be structural. They have to look like the weapon, they’ve got to have the same finish. You build so many variations, sometimes just for one move, or one stance.”

With every Marvel movie there are lots of details and potential easter eggs for zealous Internet sleuths to discover. We hoped to bypass all that work and ask the crew directly. To avoid sending anyone to Marvel jail, we only asked about fun, low-stakes stuff. No spoilers for Dr. Strange here.

Joe Farrell: “I think we can talk about the bus sequence. A guy is holding a phone and it’s a live stream and there’s all these names coming up, which don’t really mean much to anybody. Except they’re all our names just streaming up there. I think my dog’s name is in there.”

Sean Walker: “And when you see the monitors in the nightclub, there’s a whole lot of hardened criminals. And that was us. Mug shots of us. I think I didn’t shave for two days so I could take the mug shot photo and look like some sort of hardened criminal in the underground fight ring.”

We saved the hardest question for last. In honor of Shang-Chi, Katy, and Wong’s penchants for karaoke, what is the team’s go-to banger?

Christopher Townsend: “I’m English so I don’t do karaoke.”

Well said, and what matters most is the incredible artistry they brought to Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. We wish them all the best for Oscar season!

(Listen to the complete interview for more insights into the making of the blockbuster film. Also be sure to subscribe to The’ Verse! for more fascinating industry interviews, reviews, commentary, news and insights.


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Written by Emilia Yu

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