ComingSoon Editor-in-Chief Tyler Treese spoke to Jake Morrison, the VFX Supervisor on Thor: Love and Thunder, about what it’s like to bring Marvel’s visuals to life. The film is now available on digital and.
“The fourth installment finds Thor on a journey unlike anything he’s ever faced — a quest for inner peace. But his retirement is interrupted by a galactic killer known as Gorr the God Butcher, who seeks the extinction of the gods,” says the film’s synopsis. “To combat the threat, Thor enlists the help of King Valkyrie, Korg, and ex-girlfriend Jane Foster, who — to Thor’s surprise — inexplicably wields his magical hammer, Mjolnir, as the Mighty Thor. Together, they embark upon a harrowing cosmic adventure to uncover the mystery of the God Butcher’s vengeance and stop him before it’s too late.”
Tyler Treese: As the visual effects supervisor, you’re managing so much of the project. With Marvel films, you take a look at these credits and the number of people involved is mind-blowing. You’re working with so many great people, but what is it like steering a ship like that?
Jake Morrison: Yes, it’s a thing; there’s no question there. You start off with a relatively controllable number of key visual effects companies that are going to be like … for example, we knew that Weta [FX] were going to do our final battle. We knew that Method [Studios] were going to do the Moon of Shame. So you start with those lynchpin pieces and then … honestly, you try and keep it as sensibly contained as possible. But because of — I wouldn’t say it’s [a] Marvel factor — I think it’s just [a] making movies factor. As you’ve shot the film and you start putting it together, opportunities start to show themselves in terms of what the story is. A particular actor’s performance might be stronger in this, or you might suddenly decide, “well, what if we do this?”
And then we get additional photography, so you start adding more pieces. And so, to not overload those vendors, you end up bringing in more vendors. I think we peaked at 25 different vendors on this picture. So from a practical point of view, and God bless you for asking this, because it’s like … it’s definitely a thing for my team, because we’re actually a relatively small team. It’s myself and my visual effects producer, Lisa [Marra] — the sort of key partnership there — and then we have a small team of coordinators, probably 10 or so. And then each of those coordinators has one or two vendors. So what I do from a practical point of view is I start the morning, because we’re based in Los Angeles, start the day and talk to Europe and chase the sun. Go from Europe to London, to New York, Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Los Angeles.
Then you head down into New Zealand in the afternoon. We had Adelaide, China … I mean, basically, you sweep the globe, is how you do it. And then you finish the day at whatever time you finish, because there are other things to do afterward as well. Then you get up, and you do the whole thing again. You get used to different time zones because you get international datelines, so certain vendors will drop out because it’s their weekend or it isn’t, or suddenly Sunday becomes much busier because it’s actually a Monday over in New Zealand, and at a certain point there’s no weekend. And why would there be? You just work.
You mentioned having the final battle scoped out. So much goes into those, but what are some of the smaller elements in a film like Thor: Love and Thunder that wind up being difficult to nail that viewers wouldn’t really think about?
Trying to come up with new things to do with the hammer — that’s number one because we’ve done a lot of things with the hammer. Trying to make lightning look better,I think I’ll say that because this is my fourth Thor film, bizarrely enough. So you tend to get a ton of effects-looking lightning. So you try and basically make each battle sequence the coolest that it can be. The fact that Natalie’s hammer could split into multiple pieces gave me like another thing to play with from an action point of view. We now had … as somebody once said, if all you got is a hammer, everything looks was a nail.
All of a sudden we haven’t got a hammer, we’ve got a laser-guided machine gun that only kills bad guys. So that’s kind of fun, coming up with different ways to do that. The bit that most people wouldn’t take away from the film, because hopefully it’s just done naturally, is … Taika [Waititi]’s edict from the beginning to me was “I’ve got these huge set pieces, I’ve got one in the golden temple — so we’ve got all of the gods — we’ve got every single god you could imagine.” Then we’ve got the shadow creatures. The shadow creatures, Gorr cast them, and aside from a couple of key ones that everybody liked that we repeated a little bit, I’d say 98% of both of those huge categories have no repeats, which from a VFX point of view is almost impossible because there’s always some sort of efficiency. If you’re doing like a football crowd, you’re going to have mostly bipedal humans in a variety of outfits. You basically roll the dice and you get a number of different variations.
With this, Taika was like, “I don’t want to see the same one again. I want to see big head gods, small gods. I want to see gods that are 18 feet tall. I want to see gods that are just made of eyeballs.” It was basically a challenge, he just was like “okay, you guys are going to come up with that.” So I think from a casual point of view, from an audience point of view, you wouldn’t know that, say, if we take the shadow creatures — here’s something that nobody would know about the shadow creatures — every single shadow creature is born from a shadow, but its form is created based upon the thing that cast the shadow.
So if, for example, like in the kids’ bedroom, the first one [in] Molly’s bedroom, the light source cast a shadow and it’s a spiky pop plant or something like that. The resulting creature will be spiky. Or if you’ve got a soft shape, like a bicycle tire or something like that, the resulting creature will have tentacles. So we put this huge amount of backstory and development into this stuff that is never explained. There’s no point in movie that the actors sit down and talk about like, “well, these shadow creatures sure are scary. Well, I wonder they look like this.” All they wanted was wave upon wave of demented Avengers, but it was crucial to the team Marvel and to Taika that we have some sort of form following function. There’s a reason that they do this stuff. It’s not just a bunch of clone-y monsters.
So stuff like that … there’s just a million of those. If I told you how many rounds that we did on Jane Foster’s little transponder that she uses to look at the pieces and get readings, you probably wouldn’t believe it. It’s just so many. It had solid dials, it had this, it was an iPad-type thing, it had waveform readouts. All this stuff is the invisible work that we’re just doing every movie. It’s really fun — super fun stuff to do — but I guess the only way it works is that people don’t even notice it.
You’ve worked on all four Thor films. What it was like seeing his journey in this film. By the time he becomes a dad at the end, I felt so satisfied as a viewer. So how’s it been seeing that growth on screen?
Oh, it’s been lovely. The thing is, you see it on screen, and then you are also working with the same actors. I worked on the first Avengers picture, so I’ve worked with Chris [Hemsworth] and that gang, with Tom [Hiddleston] and those guys for years. So you grow up as people. It’s probably, I don’t know, if I say it’s 12 years or something since I started working on the first one, it could be true? Probably is. That’s an awful lot of life to share with this. Nobody was more surprised than all of us when Taika took Thor Ragnarok and really just tore it down and went with the new playbook. Broke his hammer, cut his hair off, stuck him on a planet where everybody else is a superhero already, so there’s no advantage to being Thor.
[He] basically cut the teeth out of the whole thing, which I think was great. You couldn’t do that story again because that’s like a straight downbeat story. So coming up with “what’s the thing that he fears most?” It’s commitment and it’s people that he loves being hurt in ways. [It] was a really attractive and interesting angle for Taika to come at this one. It’s ultimately going to be a sad story because the heroine dies at the end. That’s how that goes. But the journey itself, I think there’s enough emotional complexity in there that along with the jokes, there’s enough room for Chris to really let the character grow. For me, it’s been great. It’s great.
These things come along every four years and it’s been a privilege to be working on them. There’s one thing I can tell you that’s cool about the Thor films: it’s that there is no set playbook, in terms of what you can put on the screen visually. If you’re dealing with a geopolitical thriller or a film that takes place in a train, you pretty much know what you’re going to be doing as your day job. When you sign on for a Thor film, the only thing that you do know is it’s going to be absolutely anything. Space dolphins were not in the pitch meeting. Just coming up with that environment, like you’ve got the space boat that’s traveling through and then what does space look like?
We went through hours and hours and hours of collecting. I wanted space to look more like the super cool Doug Trumbull stuff, like from the 70s. They were doing oil and water, like the original Star Trek movie — stuff like that or 2001: A Space Odyssey, where they used all this really strange chemistry, like literally physical chemistry, to see space. So I wanted to get some of that into this film. Some of that and that liquid, frozen Aurora Borealis thing that the goats’ boats go over. At the same time, if you told me at the beginning of the project [that] I was going to have to work out the engineering … “okay, there’s going to be a boat and it’s going to fly and it’s going to be pulled by mega goats that scream, but we’re going to have to make a rainbow bridge and that we’re going to take the axe that we gave him in the last Avengers picture and fire the Bifrost down, creating a solid bridge that the goats’ hooves will then smash into, kicking up crystalline shards and ultimately destroying the bridge as the keel of the boat just cuts through the bridge. And by the way, we’re actually going make it a full rainbow this time. We’re not just going to muck around, like we did on Thor 1 with the Loki vs Thor fight on the bridge. It’s actually Roy G. Biv. We went full rainbow.” You don’t get to do that on most films. It’s pretty random.