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How mushrooms and werewolves shaped Captain Marvel’s coolest visual effects

captain marvel skrull
Marvel Studios

It’s a bit of an understatement to suggest there were high expectations for Captain Marvel when the film hit theaters in March. Arriving just a month before Avengers: Endgame and tasked with introducing a character primed to be one of the most powerful heroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the movie certainly had its work cut out for it.

Fortunately, Captain Marvel delivered on its potential and then some, raking in more than $1 billion worldwide with an adventure that firmly established lead actress Brie Larson’s cosmic alter ego in the MCU pantheon.

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From developing futuristic costumes and alien spacecraft to the transformation sequences that introduced the shape-shifting Skrulls, innovative visual effects helped bring some of the most memorable moments of Captain Marvel to life. Overall visual effects supervisor Christopher Townsend guided the work of multiple visual effects studios, including two teams that already had a well-established relationship with the MCU: Framestore and Digital Domain.

Tasked with designing the unique, fractal-esque uniform transitions that Carol Danvers (Larson) initiates upon entering battle — first as a member of the Kree military unit Starforce, and later as a solo hero — Framestore looked to the MCU’s past for inspiration.

Captain Marvel review

Marvel Studios

“The visual aesthetics [of the Kree] were somewhat established in other Marvel franchises,” explained Framestore’s visual effects supervisor, Christian Kaestner. “The Kree exist in Guardians of the Galaxy [and] we knew they used very geometric shapes — hexagons and such. … So we used that as a guide and built a complex, material-growth system, something that’s a bit more organic [and] not just a wipe. We layered that with different hexagon outlines, and that brought it to life.”

The team’s work on Kree uniform transitions played into one of the movie’s most iconic moments, when Carol decides on a new color scheme for her suit — ultimately settling on the red, blue, and gold pattern typically associated with the character.

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Creating the uniform transition effect was complicated enough, but the process had an added layer of difficulty in an early scene that had Starforce traveling underwater to approach a Skrull outpost.

Developing realistic underwater effects is always tricky, but the Framestore team found themselves tasked with designing an extended, slow-motion effect for the team’s aquatic approach that simultaneously included some of these aforementioned uniform transitions, bubbles, hair, and other elements.

“It seems very trivial, but to go from something real-time to something 500 times slower, then back to real-time, all underwater, was particularly challenging on this one,” recalled Kaestner. “We have simulations for bubbles, for hair, for cloth, for everything underwater — but as you can imagine, it’s quite complex to figure out how they need to behave when all of a sudden you have a live slowdown.”

The team wasn’t able to use traditional slow-motion techniques due to the length and makeup of the shot, which ran for more than 500 frames, but included approximately 80 frames of extensively slowed action. Typically, a studio would simulate the entire scene in slow-motion and speed up the parts that occur in real-time, but the length of the scene and its fluctuation between slow-motion and real-time complicated matters.

Framestore ultimately solved the dilemma by simulating the scene in real-time, then using a combination of slowdown effects and animation between the frames to fill in the missing elements — such as the motion of hair and bubbles.

“[The underwater scene] was one of the hardest shots we had to do,” he said.

Bringing the adventures of the film’s titular hero to life wasn’t the only complicated element the film’s various visual effects teams had to contend with.

Captain Marvel review

Marvel Studios

Captain Marvel was also tasked with introducing the world to the Skrulls, the shape-changing alien race created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1962. Leading up to the film’s debut, one of the big questions surrounding the project was how the Skrulls’ transformations would be depicted on the screen.

They were encouraged to use John Landis’ horror classic An American Werewolf in London as a touchstone for the transformation effect.

Figuring out the answer to that question fell to the team at Digital Domain, led by visual effects supervisor Dave Hodgins and digital effects supervisor Hanzhi Tang.

According to Hodgins, the directive his team received from Marvel Studios was relatively open-ended, but they were encouraged to use John Landis’ horror classic An American Werewolf in London as a touchstone for the transformation effect. That 1981 film not only earned makeup effects artist Rick Baker an Academy Award, but is widely regarded as a game-changing project when it comes to recognition of makeup and visual effects achievement in cinema.

“What they liked about [the transformation scenes in American Werewolf in London] was the physical sense of it,” explained Hodgins.

“It’s not entirely effortless, like a chameleon changing color,” added Tang. “They wanted it to be a more physical transformation, requiring a more physical change in character.”

The team’s initial, smoother iterations of the Skrulls’ transformation were “underwhelming,” remembered Hodgins, leading them to look to some unexpected reference points in the natural world for inspiration.

“We looked at a lot of time-lapse photography of mushrooms growing, and squids changing color.”

“We looked at a lot of time-lapse photography of mushrooms growing, and squids changing color,” he recalled. “We began experimenting with a splitting effect, like slow-motion photography of popcorn splitting. Hanzhi found some reference material for plants and how they split into new forms. There’s a fibrous material you would see as the fruit starts bulging out.”

Simply coming up with this unique way for the Skrulls to change their physical form wasn’t enough, though. The team also had to get Townsend and Marvel Studios on board with their unusual inspiration for the visual effect. In order to convey what they were going for and how each transformation would appear, the Digital Domain team often found themselves running through the effect’s entire production pipeline for each shot in order to provide the best visualization of it.

Marvel Studios’ CAPTAIN MARVEL..L to R: Director Anna Boden, Director Ryan Fleck, and Ben Mendelsohn (Talos) on set. Chuck Zlotnick © Marvel Studios 2019

“You can show your reference material, and you can do renders, but until you have it finished, it’s really hard to visualize something like this,” explained Hodgins. “Any other time, you can usually rough it out, and know what’s not going to work — but with this particular effect, it seemed like we were always walking it all the way through the entire pipeline and then making changes.”

The end result, however, established one of Marvel Comics’ oldest villains firmly within the modern Marvel Cinematic Universe in a way that gives the Skrulls a visual aesthetic all their own.

Still in select theaters throughout the U.S., Captain Marvel will be released May 28 on digital platforms and June 11 on Blu-ray, 4K Ultra HD, and DVD.

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