As of the time of this writing, Captain Marvel only needs to make another $50 million or so more for its global box office haul to cross the $1 billion mark, an impressive feat considering it was only released three weeks ago. The film, an origin story about Carol Danvers’ transformation into one of most powerful heroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, will very likely hit that number next week — and possibly even as soon as this weekend, if current estimates pan out.
You can make a case for any number of factors playing a part in helping this 21st installment in the expansive MCU continue to crush it at the box office. Besides the obvious things like the writing and Brie Larson’s turn as the titular hero, the film’s stylish visuals and superhero-worthy effects — including everything from its battle and chase scenes to the transformation of the shape-shifting Skrulls — made the film a treat to simply look at and are also worth singling out for praise.
That’s partly because such visual trickery is getting harder and harder to pull off (more specifically, to pull off well) for effects professionals like Dave Hodgins and Hanzhi Tang, Captain Marvel’s VFX supervisor and DFX supervisor, respectively. Both men say that in terms of their profession, when it comes to a film like this the bar keeps getting set higher from one year to the next, and one movie to the next. Fan expectations keep ratcheting up, which in turn prods filmmakers to see how far they can keep pushing their effects teams, which serves to wow fans and keep setting their expectations even higher still.
Hodgins and Tang both work for Digital Domain, an LA-based visual effects and digital production company that Marvel has leaned on often for its ability to wow us on-screen with dazzling visuals. For Captain Marvel, specifically, the team worked on sequences including a canyon chase scene and the escape from the Mar-Vell ship, both towards the end of the movie. They also worked on Skrull transformation sequences scattered throughout the film, such as the moment when we see Skrulls arriving on a beach. One of them looks at a surfer and then transforms into the surfer — a scene that, funnily enough, was shot in El Segundo, California, about 10 minutes from Hodgins’ and Tang’s office.
“The Skrull transformations were definitely creatively the most difficult thing that I’ve done in a couple of years,” Tang told BGR. “For most of our work, there’s an end goal that’s fairly clear from the outset. For these transformations, we did rounds and rounds of discussing what the looks call for, what’s physically possible, if it made sense, and if there was a logic to the way they were transforming.
“We also had to figure out what to do, not just with their body surface, but what to do with their clothes. Like, do the clothes disappear, do they turn into dust or are they part of the character.”
Picking up from there, Hodgins adds that not only were the Skrulls technically and creatively difficult to get just right, “but then it’s just the challenge of time, right?”
The way the process works: “You get concept art and a nudge in a direction, then you start exploring that, get feedback, and then you might shift gears and pursue something a little different. It’s not one of those effects where people come in with clear ideas. You kind of have to polish it and make it look fairly complete before anyone can really start to comment on it.”
And, of course, the team only has a limited timeframe to work within. As they polished and perfected the look of the Skrull transformations, the phrase they kept hearing from the Marvel side was “more physical.” As in, they wanted it to look like a physical change, with a dramatic sort of cause-and-effect kind of moment, rather than something too polished and quick.
For everyone working on the movie’s effects, it was one of those you’ll know it when you see it kinds of things. And not only were the transformations tricky to get right, the Digital Domain guys said it also points to how increasingly sophisticated audiences are getting — and how their expectations for visual effects keep getting reset, the bar climbing always higher.
“Every vendor has their own strengths, and ours is digital characters,” Tang said. “A lot of studios will come to us with that kind of work in mind to see how we could help them. We’re seeing more movies with just larger, more epic-scale environments. The stuff you thought was difficult in, like, Avatar — there’s an expectation that this stuff now should be easier.
“The bar has been raised in terms of the scale of shots people are hoping to get and that are possible in a reasonable amount of time. It’s hard to keep up, for sure. It’s like, every year is groundbreaking.”