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Celestials, a bus, and the Big Bang: Behind the amazing VFX of Marvel’s Eternals

Marvel’s Eternals introduced audiences to the titular, immortal aliens who emerge from thousands of years of hiding on Earth to battle the sinister creatures known as Deviants, only to find themselves facing a threat that might be far worse. The star-packed ensemble film not only expanded the Marvel Cinematic Universe farther into the cosmic realm — it also featured some truly spectacular scenes that explored the origins of creation and (literally) blew up everything fans thought they knew about Marvel’s movieverse.

Directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Chloé Zhao, Eternals delivered audiences some of the MCU’s most groundbreaking, epic visual effects sequences so far, with multiple visual effects studios working under the guidance of overall visual effects supervisor Stephane Ceretti. Among those studios was Scanline VFX, led by visual effects supervisor Jelmer Boskma, which helped create some of the film’s memorable, out-of-this-world moments, as well as many grounded — or even invisible — effects that were no less impressive in their artistry.

Digital Trends spoke to Boskma about Scanline’s work on Eternals, which involved presenting a new spin on the Big Bang, transmuting a runaway bus into a pile of rose petals, and destroying the Earth from inside, among other amazing moments in the film.

An image of a Celestial from Marvel's Eternals movie.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Digital Trends: What were some of the shots your team primarily worked on in the film?

Jelmer Boskma: Our work was all over the place in terms of placement within the movie. But some of the big ones that come to mind are the Camden fight sequence, where we see Kro for the first time and we see Sprite, Sersi, and Ikaris’ powers. That whole bit with the flower petals and the bus, that was us. There’s also the big exposé in the center of the film with Arishem, and the Big Bang sequence, as we’ve called it, which explains the origins of the Celestials.

The World Forge and the Wall of Memories and all those transitions, that was stuff we did, too. And all the way at the end, when Arishem comes to Earth for judgment, that was us as well.

The film is filled with massive, cosmic scenes on such a grand scale. How do you approach elements intended to be like nothing we’ve seen before, like the Big Bang, as opposed to things we have some reference for in our lives? Is it easier or more difficult to create those shots?

With stuff like that, you always need some sort of a grip on reality. For the cosmic stuff, you have to end up becoming a bit of an overnight expert in physics and get your Neil deGrasse Tyson hat on for a bit, instilling just enough logic and real-world reference so it comes across as believable. For the Big Bang sequence, which is essentially described in the script as “a beautiful cosmic journey,” it could really be anything, right? Thankfully, there are people who work in in the previsualization department who are the first line of attack on stuff like that. They take a look at the script and start blocking out the big beats along with Chloé Zhao, in this case.

Chloe brought a lot of the references to the table, including Carl Sagan and a lot of documentaries. It was much more of a National Geographic-type, grounded look. She was quite taken by Douglas Trumbull’s cloud-tank practical effects, so we had an idea of the visual flavor she was after. And then it was a matter of how we interpret the visual reference or feeling she’s after and instill enough logic into it to have the sequence make sense.

We start with essentially the Big Bang, so there’s a giant ball of energy sitting in the hand of Arishem, and then explodes. After that point, it was like, “OK, now what?” What really happened during the Big Bang? We have all of this antimatter, dark matter, and you see the fabric of space is not perfectly smooth, with crevices where matter can collect and gravitational pull can start to form …

An image of a Celestial from Marvel's Eternals movie.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

You’re getting into some heavy astrophysics here. Does it get difficult to boil this stuff down into something everyone working on the shot understands?

It does sometimes. You have to draw inspiration from those things, but not at an astrophysics professor’s level, but at a level we can do something with. We talked about visualizing a web and seeing those first stars being born, but keeping the color palette relatively limited because there are fewer elements in existence at that point. We talked about introducing a supernova, because, first, it’s cool, but it can also help us transition into a much more colorful world over the course of the scene. A sequence like that takes time, though. This particular one took almost a year from beginning to end to tie things together with reference, concept illustrations, ideas, and visualizing it.

A year to create the universe? That’s not so bad.

That’s true! That’s a good way of looking at it.

Eternals (2021)

Action, Adventure, Science Fiction, Drama, Fantasy
Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Angelina Jolie
Directed by
Chloé Zhao
Watch on Disney+

We see the World Forge in the film, where the Celestials create planets and life and so many things people are going to want to pause to examine when they’re able to do so. What went into creating that shot and squeezing so much into it?

That was a really interesting challenge for us, as it was so highly conceptual — to the point where it wasn’t quite figured out what it would look like or where the emphasis should be until later. We got involved after principal photography had wrapped, and it was in postproduction when we started to figure out the design and look for the place. It was done in close collaboration with Chloe and Stephane. Chloe was very adamant about one thing: Whatever we do, it needs to breathe Jack Kirby, the legendary Marvel illustrator [and creator of The Eternals].

An early concept image of the World Forge from Marvel's Eternals movie.
Image used with permission by copyright holder
An early VFX design of the World Forge from Marvel's Eternals movie.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

She gave us some references for that, and the idea eventually came up of constructing an environment out of Domos, the triangular spaceships, to create a dome and suggest there might be more Eternals out there. We ran with some of those early ideas and went through illustrations, concept designs, and pitching ideas to Chloe to see if we could capture the mood and get the right feeling for that environment.

The sequence itself, including when Sersi meets a copy of herself and sees rows of copies, that was all designed as the train was figuratively barreling down the tracks, and we were essentially designing the track in front of the train as it went along. It’s hopefully cohesive enough in the end that it feels like that’s the way it was always meant to look.

I wasn’t alone in wondering whether the film could translate Jack Kirby’s illustrations to the screen, so it’s great that Chloe made it a priority. What other directives did she give your team when designing the film’s visual tone?

Chloe was quite particular about what we call “atmospheric perspective,” which is a pretty standard tool in cinema and illustration to communicate depth. The further things are away into the distance, the softer they often look, and the less contrast they have and are a bit brighter, perhaps. Things closer to the camera can be darker and have deeper black values and more contrast. The original King Kong is a perfect example of it. The jungle is flooded with light and atmosphere, and is very bright in the distant background and very dark in the foreground. It creates a sense of depth, and is a commonly used trick.

But Chloe was adamant about having none of that nonsense in Eternals. She wanted crystal-clear images, vivid colors, and none of those tropes. So it was interesting to work with a director with a sensitivity for things like that.

An early VFX design of the World Forge from Marvel's Eternals movie.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Can you walk us through the shot you mentioned, when Sersi transformed a runaway bus into rose petals to save the driver? It was such a beautiful visual effect.

In visual effects, there’s a big separation between what we call animation — which can be done with motion capture or with key-frame animation, which is where an animator would go in and set the poses — and what our company, Scanline, is mostly known for, which is very sophisticated, large-scale simulation work. Whether it’s natural phenomena, like tsunamis or volcano eruptions, or large-scale destruction, it’s essentially letting the computer simulate naturalistic behavior of whatever the script needs. In that aspect, the shot was right in our usual line of of work, simulating hundreds of thousands of rose petals. That’s quite complex due to the sheer amount of objects interacting and getting the weight correct, and so on. But the idea was conceived fairly early on and it stuck. It was a great way to show a practical use of Sersi’s transmutation powers.

The tricks for us were how to flip this bus upwards and get the timing of that correct, and to make it look believable. The bus is a fully computer-generated element. We had a real bus and a real bus driver for portions of it — in fact, that’s a real London bus driver who plays that part — but the bus you see on the screen is always a CG bus. We tried to animate it in a believable manner as the bus flips upwards, carries that momentum, and then Sersi steps in and and transforms the bus into flower petals. And then it was a matter of making the flower petals feel real.

Early visual effects images from the bus transmutation scene from Marvel's Eternals.
Image used with permission by copyright holder
Early visual effects images from the bus transmutation scene from Marvel's Eternals.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Rose petals are semitranslucent, so light scatters through them and you get this red glow on everything. We didn’t have that red glow in any of the original scenes that were shot, of course, because we didn’t have hundreds of thousands of flower petals in the air. So we did a little bit of tinkering to help add it into the shots.

We also had to add petals to the rest of the sequence, because if there are all these flower petals around, they should appear in these other shots while Ikaris and Kro are fighting each other, too. So every time Ikaris fires his eye beams, or there’s some turbulence or air being displaced, we kicked up the flower petals. It became a nice, additional element to play with as a level of detail, and made the shots a little more dynamic.

The final bus transmutation shot from Marvel's Eternals.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

The design of the Deviants is so unique. Were they challenging to work with?

Chloe is a big anime fan, and she was very taken by the the creature design in Princess Mononoke, the Studio Ghibli movie. That’s where some of the unique nature and the design of the Deviants came from. Obviously, the design department at Marvel was heavily involved with their design, too. The main body of the Deviants was done by [visual effects studio] ILM, but we initially worked on a tiger deviant for a sequence set in India. Sadly, it didn’t make it into the final cut of the movie.

There are snippets of that sequence you can see in the film, including a beautiful shot of our heroes riding horseback on an old Indian city wall, but if you blink, you miss it. That used to be a much larger scene. It was painful to lose that, but I think it served a purpose by helping us find a translation between those cool concept designs and how to put them in motion and light them in order to integrate them into our shots.

Concept art from a cut scene in Marvel's Eternals.
Image used with permission by copyright holder
Visual effects shots from a cut scene in Marvel's Eternals.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

I remember seeing a tiger-like deviant in the film, though.

Right! They did eventually end up using our tiger deviant design in the Babylon battle. It’s a cameo, but he’s in there.

Let’s talk about the emergence sequence a bit, when Sersi’s given a vision of Tiamut emerging from the Earth’s core. What was the evolution of that scene like?

Well, we built Tiamut, along with all the other Celestials in the film. The three Celestials you see in the Big Bang, even though it’s just that one shot, they’re built to the exact same level of quality and detail as Tiamut and Arishem, which you see a lot more of. We built Tiamut for that scene when Sersi learns about their true mission, but the scene in the third act with Tiamut actually emerging was done by Weta. Before that, we worked on the surreal idea of an enormous, golden creature breaking through the center of the Earth.

Ideally, we approach any visual effects shot asking ourselves, “How would we shoot this in reality?” In this case, you’d have to borrow a satellite. So we found the spot on the map where Chloe wanted that scene to happen, and we got satellite height data from Google Earth, and added some additional city lights to communicate the fact that this event would happen at great cost. It’s hard to find reference for a giant golden monster coming out of the Earth, for obvious reasons, so we contemplated talking to someone like Neil deGrasse Tyson to find out hypothetically what would happen if something were to come out of the center of the Earth like a chicken out of an egg.

What would happen to Earth atmosphere? At what point does gravity cease to exist? And since there’s a lot of magma and hot matter erupting out of the center of the Earth, and space is very cold, does the magma freeze in space? What about the oceans?

The celestial Arishem from Marvel's Eternals movie.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

That’s a lot of research to put on your plate.

It is. There’s so much to think about, and you can get kind of stuck in trying to figure it all out when you’re trying to base everything in reality. At the end of the day, though, it needs to be crystal clear as to what is going on, because you’re trying to tell a story. It’s about finding a balance between introducing enough relatable events happening that people understand, but being clear enough not to obscure the image too much with all those elements.

But again, Chloe wanted it crystal clear. That’s challenging, because we love to create layers and layers of complexity. For example, we initially had a beautiful bed of clouds and a hand breaking through and pushing the clouds away, based on some cool footage we found of volcanoes erupting, and she ultimately said, “No, no clouds.”

There’s so much in the movie that’s clearly a visual effect, but are there some elements people might be surprised to learn are visual effects?

Wow. That’s a fun one. There are a few in the Camden fight sequence with Sersi, Sprite, Ikaris, and Kro. At the location where all of that was shot, there was a building under construction. Bright scaffolding was put up and it was dominant every time it popped up in a shot. That scene is supposed to be rather dark, so every time you see in that direction in the film, that’s a digital building. That one is very subtle.

There’s also a handful of shots in that sequence which were shot on a blue screen stage much later, adding little lines of dialogue. We put a virtual background of Camden behind everyone. And because these scenes were shot months later, there was a little extra work, too. Lia [McHugh, the actress who played Sprite] is quite young, so you might notice there’s a slight difference in her appearance in some of those shots.

Kids’ appearance changes quickly when they’re that young. She hadn’t changed much in her face, but she lost that very specific haircut from the time she was originally shooting the movie. So she ended up wearing a wig. The wig worked all right in some shots, but in others, it just didn’t look the same, which is to be expected. So we occasionally had to replace her hair with a full head of digital hair. It was a digital haircut we gave Lia for those pickup shots to make it look more closely like it did on the days when the rest of the scenes were shot.

The celestial Arishem in a scene from Marvel's Eternals movie.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

When it comes to films like this, which do you enjoy more: The crazy cosmic shots or the invisible effects?

It’s all part of the beauty of doing this. The invisible side of things is always exciting and fun, but I’m just as excited about the blatantly obvious, design-heavy pieces that allow the telling of epic tales like this. It’s a great way to tell stories that, in some cases, we couldn’t do 50 years ago.

Marvel’s Eternals is in theaters now and will premiere January 12 on the Disney+ streaming service.

Movie images and data from:
Rick Marshall
A veteran journalist with more than two decades of experience covering local and national news, arts and entertainment, and…
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