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Ten rings and imagination: Behind Shang-Chi’s VFX magic

Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings broke new ground and plenty of box-office records, and like so many other films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it looked pretty spectacular while doing so.

Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, the film casts Simu Liu as the film’s titular martial arts superhero, who’s forced to confront both his destiny and his dark past when his father, Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung), sets his sights — and the criminal empire he leads — on acquiring the magic of powerful dragons located in the hidden city of Ta Lo. Shang-Chi is forced to reunite with his estranged sister, Xu Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), in order to stop his father from using the power of the Ten Rings to unleash the dragons on humanity.

With the film earning an Oscar nomination for its impressive visual effects, Digital Trends spoke to Weta FX’s visual effects supervisor on the film, Sean Walker, to learn how the studio’s team helped bring the power of the rings, the dragons, and magical world they all inhabit to life on the screen in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

This article is part of Oscar Effects – a five-part series that puts the spotlight on each of the five movies nominated for “Best Visual Effects,” at the 94th Academy Awards. The series explores the amazing tricks filmmakers and their effects teams used to make each of these films stand out as visual spectacles.

An "Oscars Week" badge on an image of Simu Liu in Shang-Chi.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Digital Trends: How many shots did Weta’s team work on for the film?

Sean Walker: I think it was about 305 shots, and we touched a few more than that overall.

Let’s start with the Ten Rings. They’re such a unique visual element in the film, and not what many people expected as far as how they’re used and what they look like when they’re used. What went into creating them and getting them to the final look they had in the film?

Yeah, the rings were a little more tricky, honestly, than I thought they would be. From a CG perspective, it’s not much of a challenge to get a realistic-looking ring. It’s metal, we’ve seen something like it before, and they’re non-deforming — but their movement was very, very character-specific. They became a character of their own.

Whenever they’re being manipulated by Shang-Chi, for example, they had more of a flow to their movement. He used them defensively, and they would fly around him in a way that was almost like he was pulling them through water. So we did a little bit of research and exploratory work with that, and we also wanted to make sure that they were hitting the emotional beats, so there was a little bit of a delay between Shang-Chi’s movements and the rings themselves.

Simu Liu against a blue screen while filming Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
Image used with permission by copyright holder
Visual effects work depicting Simu Liu's character in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

And Wenwu used the rings in a very different way …

Exactly. Wenwu is very aggressive with them and uses them as weapons predominantly. He uses them as whips and projectiles, or even what we called a buzz saw. So dialing in that specific movement for each character, each stunt person had to really take a little bit of time to work through the movements, and the effects themselves that come off the rings were also very important. We did a little bit of exploratory work there as well. The original Ten Rings from the comics each had different colors, along with being finger rings instead of what we see in the movie. [In the comics], each one had a particular purpose, and there was a point at which [Marvel President]Kevin [Feige] wanted to bring some of that into the movie as well.

We actually explored having color variations for each character. We would have a wide color range for Shang-Chi that wasn’t just the warmer colors you see in the movie — the golds and oranges and red tones. It initially ranged a little further out than that. So when he was performing a specific move, we would get a specific color, and when they were flying around him, they would have an aurora effect, and you would get some funky colors there, too. That was cool visually, but we found that it was distracting from the story a bit too much.

There’s only so much visual information we want to throw at people, and in the end, we kind of stuck to a tighter color palette. I think that helps because it’s a little easier to understand. … The rings were a big talking point throughout, obviously.

Well, they are in the title …

Right. But it was fun to explore all of that early on. There were lots of geeky moments along the way when people were talking about how things could play out with the rings.

Simu Liu in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Let’s talk dragons. What was the evolution like for the Great Protector and Dweller in Darkness? How did those elements evolve as far as their design and the way they move?

Well, the story itself evolved throughout production, and so did the characters. For the [Great Protector] dragon, we got some really early artwork. It was one of the first things I saw when I came onto the movie. Chris Townsend, Marvel’s visual effects supervisor, presented some artwork they had done before coming to us, and said, “This is the dragon, and this is the Dweller.” And honestly, we didn’t deviate too much from that initial artwork. Marvel was so happy with the initial designs. I’ve never seen them more confident in a design right out of the gate. So there was very little we had to alter from that first piece of artwork.

So the look didn’t evolve much from that early concept art?

There were a few evolutions in the [Great Protector] dragon’s design when it came to the storytelling. The dragon itself is a water dragon, so we wanted to show that it was powerful and manipulating water. At one point, the dragon itself was emitting energy in the same way the weapons made from dragon scale do. The weapons have this flowing, golden energy that runs through them, and the dragon itself was fully golden for a while, buzzing with energy. It was pretty crazy. We had progressed through quite a few shots with that, and then we decided that it was too visually distracting to have that amount of “glowy-ness” in the shots. So we dialed back on that and got rid of most of it.

Filming an underwater scene in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
Image used with permission by copyright holder
A scene of Simu Liu and a dragon underwater from Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Image used with permission by copyright holder

What about the dragon’s skin and textures and such? It’s definitely a unique look for a dragon.

We did a lot of exploration with real-life materials. For the scales, we started with things like quartz and porcelain, just to see if we could find some real-life equivalents that would help ground it in truth. But we ended up finding a perfect reference elsewhere. A lot of albino lizards have white scales with a hint of blood you can see running underneath the scales — just a little bit of red here and there, and adding that extra translucency to the dragon really helped bring her to life. Her body is covered with a dynamic moss, too, so when you’re close, you can see the moss fluctuating in the wind.

There’s also a lot of wear and tear, and aging. They wanted her to feel ancient, but not old — which is a tricky balance. She’s supposed to look ancient through weathering and scarring, but not wrinkled and weakened over time.

VFX artists tell me that fire, water, and hair are the most complicated elements to create digitally, and all three were in that final battle scene — particularly water. What went into making the water effects look real?

Yeah, like so many other elements, the water ended up being its own character. The water had to be completely manipulatable. A lot of [Weta’s] work in the past has involved realistic water interaction, but this is one of the first times we’ve really manipulated water in this way. We treated it exactly like we would a character. We had animation take a pass at it, and they guided the water tendrils, as we called them, and from there we had a bit more of a process, checking in with Marvel every step of the way. These were big, big simulations, some of the biggest we’ve done, and some of the most expensive renders we’ve done in a while.

Visual effects work depicting dragons fighting over water in a scene from Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
Image used with permission by copyright holder
Dragons fighting over water in a scene from Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

You’re essentially directing water in scenes like this.

You are! We had a bit of a production line with the water, which helped in keeping things consistent. We had individual artists looking after each component of the water simulations. We would have one person look after the water surface. Another person would look after the spray and the spindrift that comes flying off the tops of the water surface. We would have someone else look after the additional detailing and rippling. That kept the look consistent because you don’t have one artist doing one shot and another artist doing another shot in a slightly different way, for example. They were all exactly the same the whole way through.

Is there an element your team worked on that a lot of people might not realize was a visual effect?

In the big fight between Wenwu and Shang-Chi, they started out on a full set — and by “full set,” I mean they built a portion of the gate at the bottom part of it and the rocks and the ground around them. But about halfway through filming that fight, they realized they didn’t like that set at all, so they started to just blue-screen everything off around them. So the only things that are real in that whole fight are the actors themselves. We just rotoscoped them out and the whole thing became a full CG replacement for the ground and everything else around them.

It was a little bit of the same for Ta Lo, too. The fights in the village and the village scenes were filmed in sunny Australia. But as you see in the film, it’s actually overcast in those scenes. So they shadowed the foreground action and actors with a giant sheet in the sky suspended by a crane, but everything beyond that shadow they created was almost entirely replaced. They had people fighting out there in the sun in the background of the shot, and we replaced every single one of them digitally. It was too hard to grade the sun out digitally, so we just replaced everything.

Production of a fight scene against a green screen backdrop in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
Image used with permission by copyright holder
A fight scene in the village of Ta Lo from Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

What’s the shot you’re most proud of working on in the film?

There are two, actually. I love the shot of the dragon pulling up to look at Xialing after she removes all the demons. It’s the shot we worked on earliest on, and the one I was most proud of as far as the dragon was concerned.

The other one was the post-credits scene. We worked on that long scene and we got it a little bit later. It was very sort of abstract, this idea of what they were seeing: A beacon inside the rings. So it was getting down to the wire, and we were struggling a little bit with conceptualizing it. At a certain point, we just grabbed two effects artists and two compositors and said, “We don’t really know what we’re doing here, so I just want you to use all your imagination and creativity and stick together and come up with something.” And they did. There’s this big zoom-in shot that goes all the way down to the beacon, and in the end, it took about three days to pull that together from nothing. It blew my mind.

That was one of my proudest moments for the team because we just organized a little squad to stick together and deal with this one particular shot. And I thought it was a beautiful effect in the end. It was one of those moments where, if you just trust your artists to come up with something and give them the flexibility to do that, they’ll come up with something epic.

Well, there you have it: The anatomy of a post-credits scene.

Right? Sometimes that’s how it works.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Action, Adventure, Fantasy
Simu Liu, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Awkwafina
Directed by
Destin Daniel Cretton
Watch on Disney+
Marvel Studios’ Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings | Official Trailer

Marvel’s Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings is available now on the Disney+ streaming service.

This article is part of Oscar Effects – a five-part series that puts the spotlight on each of the five movies nominated for “Best Visual Effects,” at the 94th Academy Awards. The series explores the amazing tricks filmmakers and their effects teams used to make each of these films stand out as visual spectacles.

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