A version of this story about “Eternals” first appeared in the Below-the-Line Issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
As a longtime visual effect supervisor at Weta Digital, Matt Aitken has spent his career scrupulously tinkering over the many “tasks” (or VFX elements) in a single movie shot. “My previous two projects were ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ and ‘Avengers: Endgame,’ which you can imagine were pretty complex,” he said from his office in New Zealand, homebase of Weta Digital. “But on ‘Eternals,’ we had about 50,000 tasks to complete, so roughly about 100 tasks per shot. It was a great job and a really, really big one.”
In the visual effects industry, Aitken credits include Robert Zemeckis’s “Contact,” the “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” trilogies, and “Avatar.” He has received two Oscar nominations for his work on “District 9” and “Avengers: Endgame,” and this year “Eternals” is among the 10 films shortlisted in the Best Visual Effects Oscar category.
Part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, “Eternals” introduces us to a new band of superheroes. These once synthetic creations, played by actors including Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, Kumail Nanjiani, Brian Tyree Henry, Gemma Chan, and Richard Madden, were spawned to rid the world of Deviants, which are animalistic creatures bent on demolition.
The film was directed by last year’s Oscar-winner Chloé Zhao (“Nomadland”), who segued easily from the arthouse to the MCU, according to Aitken. “There was no learning curve with Chloé,” he said. “She had a huge background in watching manga and watching other superhero films and I got a sense that there were always going to be effects-driven films in her oeuvre. She is the same artist, but it’s just that she has multiple canvases she operates on.”
Aitken had been immensely moved by “The Rider,” Zhao’s 2016 film set in South Dakota. “‘Nomadland’ came out while we were working on ‘Eternals’ and I thought that was a profound film. For ‘Eternals,’ she was a great choice because it was a completely new project. It isn’t building on established MCU characters or or effects and it couldn’t look too much like ‘Doctor Strange’ or ‘Iron Man.’ It’s the classic thing where you know what it’s not supposed to look like, but it takes a bit of thinking and brainstorming to find out what is it supposed to look like.”
Along with effects house ILM, Aitken and Weta labored over the design of the Deviants. “They might have recognizable animal forms, like a wolf or a bear,” said Aitken, “but up close, you see they’re not made of skin on top of muscle and skeleton. They’re made from lots of tendrils, and the rigging team built controls into the Deviants so that there was secondary motion and those tendrils would ripple against each other.”As they acquire energy, the Deviants evolve into more advanced physical forms.
The most developed of the race is Kro, a hyper-intelligent being whose appearance was extensively brainstormed by Zhao and the effects team. “Kro has a humanoid form but we really focused on his face,” said Aitken. “We had up to 30 different models of his face mocked up, and those were for Chloé and the filmmakers to pick aspects from, in order to give us notes on how to build him.”
Getting certain details just right was crucial. “Kro’s got four eyes,” Aitken said with a chuckle. “And I remember there were some particular notes about shaping his brows, since the brow brings so much to bear in the range of human expressions.”
But Kro’s not human, a challenge in bringing the character fully to life. Bill Skarsgård (well remembered for another inhuman creature, Pennywise the Clown in “It”) performed the voice of Kro and was on the set to provide a baseline of facial motion capture. “Bill was wearing a head-mounted camera rig to film his face,” said Aitken. “And then we scrutinized the footage to replicate what Bill was doing, but we also had the option to keyframe (select snippets of footage to animate), which we felt was the best way to honor that performance and that character.”
Though Kro only has a couple of scenes in “Eternals,” his presence mixes sheer malevolence with a touch of woe.
“He’s a formidable opponent, but we knew he couldn’t be just a simple monster,” Aitken said. “The Deviants are kind of a failed experiment, so Kro needed to be subtle and sympathetic as well. Which, of course, is emblematic of Chloé’s style.”