Hanzhi Tang is a visual effects producer and director known for his work on Avatar, Warcraft, and Guardians of the Galaxy. In an exclusive interview at the 35th Toronto International Film Festival, he discussed how he got into visual effects, how he came to work with Marvel, and what it was like working with the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
A few years ago, I got a call from Marvel. On the line was Hanzhi Tang, a vfx supervisor at Digital Domain. He told me that the company had an interesting idea: what if they could do what no one else has ever done before—make a fully functioning movie set that could actually be a functioning movie set? Tang told me he was pushing for a set that would be a fully functioning movie set. I said, “What’s a movie set?” He then told me that the company had just finished building an ultra-high-tech space station, and that it was now time to build a movie set. I said, “What’s a movie set?” He
Marvel movies are often called comic book movies, but that’s only a small part of the story. The real story is the behind-the-scenes work that goes into making these movies. In this interview, I’ll discuss how I got started in the industry, some of the challenges of working on Marvel movies, and the collaborations I’ve had to date.
The newest installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Widow, includes many action scenes and visual effects work. Digital Domain, a visual effects firm that “creates transportive experiences that amuse, educate, and inspire,” was one of the film’s major contributors. Working on Black Widow’s Red Room, the secret stronghold in the sky that Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) sets out to destroy in the film, was one of Digital’s Domain’s most recent projects. I recently had the opportunity to speak with VFX Supervisor Hanzhi Tang, who discussed Digital Domain’s collaboration with Marvel Studios and how they assisted in the creation of the Red Room’s devastation.
COLLABORATION WITH MARVEL
(Photo by Shanon Christianson/Marvel Studios)
: How does Digital Domain’s visual development team work together with Marvel Studios’?
Tang Hanzhi: We’ve been working with Marvel Studios for over a decade, on a number of feature films and now episodics. They put their faith in us to meet the high expectations set for projects in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and we don’t take that confidence lightly. We start all of our projects, including Black Widow, by working with Marvel Studios’ Visual Development Group. They provide up the still artwork as well as any reference materials they’ve created for the director. This provides a solid foundation for our asset builds and allows us to control the lighting and cinematography approach. When you start working on a project, how far along are you in the process? Every Marvel Studios production is different, but with Black Widow, we were engaged from the beginning. At the previz stage, we started constructing the Red Room nearly simultaneously. We fleshed up the asset using art department artwork and a basic model from previz. Following that, we returned to Marvel Studios a post-viz version of the Red Room so that new shots could be more precisely framed or created. What’s the greatest difference between working on Marvel movies and Marvel TV shows? Is there anything that prevents one from doing the other? Digital Domain worked on WandaVision, Loki, and a few more MCU films in addition to all the MCU films we’ve worked on. While the method may vary somewhat, the final product must be consistent. Marvel Studios comes to us for episodics because they demand the same level of care and attention to detail in their series work as they do in their feature films, and it shows in the end product. The work we’ve done so far for the MCU episodics, as well as episodics for other clients, meets audience expectations in the theater. Episodics, on the other hand, have a shorter delivery period. We must be very efficient in our planning, or make smart choices to add additional resources when required, in order to achieve our deadlines without compromising quality. Working with a big vendor like Digital Domain has a number of advantages.
How much do things alter as the process progresses? Parts of the Red Room had to be altered to make sense when Black Widow was developed and the sequence of events in the final act was fleshed out. That required altering things like landing pads, structural elements, and so on. We worked closely with the filmmakers on this and spent a lot of time thinking about how to keep the various parts of the Red Room connected so that the damage could be tracked in between frames throughout the collapse.
THE BLUE ROOM
(Photo by Shanon Christianson/Marvel Studios)
How long does it usually take to create something like the Red Room? Without tweaking with lighting and surface, the original asset creation took at least two months. When you factor in the effects department putting it up for destruction – and then entering a feedback loop with modeling – the timetable becomes a lot longer. In the end, it’s more of a living asset that will last the duration of the production.
What was the total number of individuals that worked on the Red Room? We had almost 200 people working on Black Widow overall, but for the Red Room, we began with a modeling team of 5-6 individuals and a texturing team of 3-4 people, all of which worked on it for months from the beginning. As the item evolved, other artists stepped in to provide patch adjustments and changes. What kind of study went into developing the architecture of the Soviet era? Marvel Studios’ art department supplied the majority of the references for the Red Room, including 1960s and 1970s Soviet architecture. The Ostankino Tower in Moscow was one of the main references. It was built in 1967 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution and to serve as a functioning television and radio tower. It was a fantastic combination of form and function, with an outstanding antenna and an office stack in the center. To help us with the stains and texturing of a 40-year-old rusting building, we looked to oil rigs and ships that are continuously exposed to the weather. The complex layers of pipes and latticework that provided scale to such a huge structure were inspired by those same oil rigs and refineries. How did you go about deconstructing the Red Room? Because the size and level of detail in Black Widow were so large, we had to change our current destruction process. We wanted to make use of Redshift’s ability to instance geometry, which enabled us to keep adding geometry and intricacy to the layout, which contributed to the Red Room’s enormous size. We wanted to take advantage of the additional efficiencies that instancing may offer. We were able to render more geometry quicker and go through more iterations once we changed the destruction process.
Were there any particular aspects that were particularly difficult to create? We spent a lot of time working on a smooth pipeline to handle multiple exterior destruction shots, but we also worked on a few one-off interior rooms, such as the holding area where Natasha releases Taskmaster and the room splits in half, or the hallway she’s running down that shatters and turns into a vertical ramp. Those were one-time bespoke constructions, but I believe they were the most time-consuming.
(Photo by Shanon Christianson/Marvel Studios)
There are many effects in the film, but your attention was drawn to the Red Room and its devastation. Is there a particular emphasis that Digital Domain prefers?
We have no preference for the kind of work we perform as long as it is of excellent quality. We’ve been in business for almost 30 years, so we’ve probably done a little bit of everything. Our digital human work is probably the most sophisticated in the world, and our game cinematics just received an award. We’ve also had a lot of success on smaller-scale projects like commercials, but we have a lot of experience with complicated effects, particularly destruction. Our cinematic history, which dates back to Titanic and includes films such as The Day After Tomorrow and the Transformers flicks, demonstrates this. As a result, it, along with character animation and fully digital figures like Thanos in the Avengers movies, may be our most well-known calling cards. How difficult is it to maintain consistency in such a fast-paced environment? Is there anybody who is exclusively accountable for ensuring that the continuity is maintained? The composition of our crew, as well as how we handled these scenes, was heavily influenced by maintaining consistency. Someone had to think about how it all played out, whether it was the Red Room itself, the numerous pieces of debris falling during the skydiving, or the cloud patterns throughout the sequence. Those team members were the defenders of the status quo. They’d look at low-resolution renderings or proxies of everything early on and move and correct things before we went too far into the following stages, such as destruction and lighting. Is there anything more you’d want to say regarding the procedure that hasn’t been mentioned yet? Both Marvel Studios’ art department and previz teams put in a lot of effort up front to give the Red Room scene structure. Before we began working on the picture, we had already mapped out a lot of the topography and shot design. The shots are often recreated as the sequence progresses, but the essence of what the previz team produced remains.
The film Black Widow is currently showing in theaters and can be purchased via Disney+ Premier Access.
At a time when Hollywood blockbusters are chock full of computer-generated imagery, Marvel may be the last to embrace it. In 2014, the studio used computer-generated characters in the first two Captain America films, but it was a small part of the overall package. The studio is now looking to do more with the technology, partly because studio executives think it is necessary for Marvel to remain competitive with other franchises.. Read more about where is the red room located marvel and let us know what you think.
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