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How Chloé Zhao’s Unique Approach to ‘Eternals’ Impacted the Film’s Visual Effects

TheWrap spoke with the film’s VFX supervisors to get the inside story on everything from creating Celestials to the late addition of Pip the space troll

Marvel’s “Eternals” feels completely different from every other Marvel Studios release, and much of that has to do with writer-director Chloé Zhao’s unique approach to the material – largely skipping green screen sets in favor of natural locations, favoring outdoor lighting, and a generally more philosophical approach to the material and characters that is mostly missing from other Marvel Studios productions. Watch any five minutes of the movie, and you can tell how unique it is – both in the Marvel Studios ecosystem and in big budget filmmaking in general.

And this approach can be felt in the visual effects as well, which somehow have an earthier texture too. TheWrap recently spoke with Stephane Ceretti, the VFX Supervisor on “Eternals,” and Matt Aitken, WETA Digital VFX Supervisor (he previously oversaw the end battle on a little movie called “Avengers: Endgame”), about how Zhao’s approach shaped the visual effects, what it was like bringing an ancient god to life, and everything you wanted to know about Pip the space troll but were afraid to ask.

What was it like bringing Chloe into this world? Because she comes from such a different background. And obviously is someone who, I’m assuming, would want to take charge of these kind of things.

Stephane Ceretti: And she did. She really did. It was great. I mean, it was challenging because she had never done something of that scale. But at the same time, she had a pretty clear idea of how she wanted to approach it from a story point-of-view, from a visual point-of-view, from how we would shoot it.

She wanted to make it the way she does our smaller indie films. She wanted to shoot it with one camera, on location mostly. She wanted to shoot it at the right time of the day, so we would have to wait, and play around the light all the time, and the wind, and the clouds, and all that stuff. And even in post-production, she was very involved in the process of designing every single part of the film. Everything was a very profound discussion about every element we added to the film. It was very, very involved.

And does that complicate things?

Stephane Ceretti: Yeah. I mean, it complicates a few things. To deal with ever-changing light, for example, is not easy for us because every shot is bespoke. They usually are, but in that level it was kind of pretty intense. And also, not being able to bring all the equipment we need necessarily on location, or the stunt work that we usually would get, or things like that made it a bit more challenging.

But in the end, we have made the technology advance so far now that we can deal with these things. Things that we might not have been able to deal with years ago. Now we’re more flexible in that sense. And we really wanted to serve Chloe not only in our vision, but also in our process. It was important for us to not take over and prevent her from doing what she wanted to do.

Matt Aitken: To make it essentially, the visual effects and other things transparent for her. WETA worked on the third act battle, the big fight between the different Eternals on the beach and Kro when he turns up. And necessarily always with these battles, there’s a component that gets created after the shoot, and through post-vis, and animation, and all CG shots.

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Photo: Marvel Studios

And we had an added challenge, which was to be able to achieve those in a way where people still felt like they were on this amazing wild, natural location. The plates that were shot with only natural light. None of our usual fallbacks in terms of not just beauty lighting the characters, but lens flares, and Dutch [angles] on the camera. We had to tell Sidney Kombo-Kintombo, our animation supervisor, that there was going to be no Dutch on the camera. And Chloe’s rig that she shot with, the Ronin, didn’t do Dutch. But he was like, “This is one of my tricks. This is what I rely on.”

Stephane Ceretti: Because Josh [James Richards] was our operator, and he’s Chloe’s operator. I mean, he’s Chloe’s DP on the previous films. And he was our camera operator.

I kept saying to Matt, “Use your camera as if you were Josh. Think that he’s holding the camera with the Ronin, and he cannot Dutch. He cannot do a lot of tilt. He cannot do a lot of moving around real quick. Think as if you were him holding the camera.” And Chloe was really pushy about, “I want my wide lenses. I want my long shots. I don’t want shaky cam.” It’s an action sequence, but I don’t want shaky cam. I want to show everything. Everything needs to be in the frame.” And what happens in the frame is the excitement. It’s not the camera moving around like crazy that makes it feel like it’s action. What it is in the frame is the action. So that was all challenges that WETA had to deal with.

Matt Aitken: The camera has to become invisible, really. It’s not like another character. It just has to melt away. And it’s what’s in the frame that’s doing all the heavy lifting which is great. It’s a great space to work in.

At the end of “Eternals,” there’s this wonderful, beautiful and horrifying moment when a new celestial is being born out of the earth. Could you talk about what went into this sequence?

Matt Aitken: He’s like a character. And we inherited a design from Scanline, one of the other facilities working on the show. We had that as a really solid starting point. He was a character, but we had to approach him with our environment pipeline. He’s kind of like a layout with 3D digital matte painting work, but in a kind of context where he could be animated as well, because he’s constantly moving as he emerges. So that was a novel challenge.

Stephane Ceretti: I mean, it was the big challenge of the end of the film is just bringing… It’s something that Chloe talked to us about really early. Even in our pitch that she did to Marvel, she was talking about looking at life through a grain of sand. Where you’re looking, I think, very little, but you’re a really big thing, and when you squint, you see all the intricate detail of everything that’s happening at that very small level. And that’s what the end of the movie does, because we are with the Eternals fighting amongst each other while there is that big planetary thing going on at the same time. It is that thing of like the very tiny, these Eternals that are an ant on the surface of the planet really, fighting amongst themself, and then finally getting together to stop that threat. And then at that point, when the Emergence begins, it’s another level. And we gradually, gradually bring it to… We go from the beach, and to the sky, then we go on the palm, then we go bigger around the hand, and then we finish on the edge of the atmosphere.

And we’re at that scale. And every time is its own little challenge in terms of simulation, and look, and what is it to be so high up? The layer of cloud becomes a little thin far away from us. But that hand is way above it, and almost touching space at that point. And it’s all simulations and things that WETA had to deal with that were extremely complex, because at a time very physically correct, but completely artistically driven.

Matt Aitken: And that was the balance. We’re telling the story of this Emergence, but in a way that visually is supportive of the story. Because I think if we played it for real, it would’ve just been totally chaotic. And I don’t know what it would looked like actually. We had to use all the tools in our toolbox, and some very long running complex, large, large-scale water simulations, and some really clever stuff that the effects team did in terms of creating those whirlpools and cloud formations.

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Marvel Studios

You talked about the camera. Are you saying, well, what is the lens that is being attached to a satellite, looking down on this?

Stephane Ceretti: We did have this discussion. I think we were on a 35 mil initially, and we ended up on a 12, because Chloe was always, “Make it wider. I want it to be so wide that it feels like we need such a huge lens even at that scale. We’re out in space, but the lens still needs to be big because it’s big.”

And it helped actually. She had that constant vision of thinking, you see the world with your eyes, and your eyes are pretty wide lenses. And then, you see everything, you focus on the face, but you see everything, nature, the relationship between your characters and nature. It’s all very important for Chloe, all of that. The way she films everything is very related to that. And you’re amongst the people, but you see them in nature. And one of the reasons why she wanted to be on location all the time is just to get that feeling of a movie that is completely crazy, but very grounded in nature.

And that was the challenge for us to have these very crazy events, and action sequences, and monsters and powers. All of that mixed in within nature and still make them sing together in a way. And that was really challenging because you’re always on the edge when you deal with these things, when you’re so natural with the light, so natural with the element, with the ocean, with the forest. I did the sequence in the Amazon forest. When you are on location, there’s nowhere to hide, especially with the way she was shooting. So mixing these CG elements with the real photography is always more challenging, especially when you do long shots and all of that stuff.

Can we talk about Pip the space troll?

Stephane Ceretti: We can.

Matt Aitken: Well, yeah, what can we say? Patton Oswalt, who is somebody I’ve followed for years and years, who’s a friend of the visual effects community, as he host the VES Awards every year for us, did the onset reference performance with knee pads on, on his knees, so that his head was the right height.

Stephane Ceretti: And we shot that during the additional photography. It was a different ending.

What was the other ending?

Stephane Ceretti: It was still with Harry Styles actually, but it was in the spaceship with all the other Eternals. It was a little bit more sad, and not as exciting in a way, so it didn’t kind of resonate. Chloe had that idea of bringing Pip, the troll, as his sidekick for the end of the movie. We did that pretty quick at the end.

Matt Aitken: Yeah.

Stephane Ceretti: Let’s be honest. But it was a bit challenging to get that done in time, but we did what we could. It turned out okay. It’s…

Matt Aitken: Another new thing to the MCU

Stephane Ceretti: Yes.

Matt Aitken: And so, just try trying different things out. And I think I might have said to you at one point, Steph, we’re getting close to our hard out. We need this much time. If we’re going to change the design again, and build the facial rig, and get all the nuances of the facial performance, we’re going to need to have that approval of the design right here. And then I think we went way past that.

Stephane Ceretti: We were way past that. I was like, “Guys, we got to go. We really got to go. But what if we try this. We got to go. Try this. Okay, we’ll try this.” We’ve all been there, but I mean, in the end you’re putting, for the first time, a CG character next to Harry Styles. And you’re thinking, “Hmm, Harry Styles is going to be hard to beat.” It is what it is. I still think it’s a fun moment. I still think it’s a lot of opportunities for fun stories later down the line. I hope it’s a character we’re going to see more, because he’s hilarious. What’s hilarious is that Patton has agreed to do it. And I think the best thing, there’s so many good possibilities because of that. And Harry doing that too is just freaking cool.

Matt Aitken: There was pretty good rapport between the two of them, right?

Stephane Ceretti: Yeah. I wasn’t on the shoot because I was kind of busy with you guys. But I’ve seen a lot of takes. It was very fun. And I know that they had a good interaction as well with Angelina, and all this stuff. It was a good moment that they did at the very end of the additional photography.

“Eternals” is on Digital HD and Disney+ now.