The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a lot bigger after the first season of Loki, which opened the door to plenty of new storytelling opportunities with some help from the titular Asgardian trickster god.
The first season of the Disney+ series sent Tom Hiddleston’s Loki and other variations of the character — including one named Sylvie played by actress Sophia Di Martino — on a wild journey through alternate timelines in the MCU. In the third episode, Hiddleston and Di Martino’s Loki variants found themselves stranded on Lamentis-1, a moon orbiting an exploding planet, before embarking on a frantic attempt to escape the moon’s surface via a massive spacecraft dubbed “The Ark.”
Visual effects studio Digital Domain — which previously worked with Marvel to bring Thanos to life in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame — was tasked with bringing the destruction of the planet to life in both the background of the pair’s hectic journey across Lamentis-1 and all around them as they sought a way off the doomed moon. We spoke to Jean-Luc Dinsdale, Digital Domain’s VFX supervisor on the episode, to find out more about the artistry that goes into bringing down a planet around the episode’s stars. (Note: Events from episode 3 of Loki are described in this interview. Consider this a spoiler warning.)
We: Jean-Luc, this episode sometimes feels like one massive visual effect with the pacing of the story and how much is going on at all times. How many VFX shots did you create for it?
Jean-Luc Dinsdale: At the peak, I think we were working on just under 500 shots, but after recuts and going through the editorial process, we ended up at just under 300 shots for the episode, I think. By the time we were done, episode 3 had 29 minutes and 15 seconds worth of effects, in an episode that is only around 37 minutes long.
That’s full-on, feature-film level of visual effects …
Yeah, pretty much!
The concept of Lamentis-1 — an inhabited moon orbiting a planet in the process of exploding — is really wild and probably went through some evolution as far as its look and the story behind it. What can you tell me about how the basic ideas for the moon and planet changed over time?
Well, the concept was always amazing. We were approached by the production team with a large amount of concept art they had done. [There were] stills of the planet, stills of the moon surface, what the moon’s supposed to look like, the silos, and the kind of general feeling of the environment, among other elements. From there, we quickly put together a concept team to work on a lot of the elements that were presented in the concept art.
The planet itself, Lamentis, went through multiple iterations. The production team had an initial idea of what they wanted to see for the planet before it exploded, but we went through a couple of rounds of concept work with them. We looked at what the planet would be like if it had an atmosphere, or what it would look like if there were clouds and it was a “live” planet. There was a version we did with oceans and trees on the planet. But after multiple iterations, we eventually rested on a planet that’s been strip-mined. There’s almost nothing left of it when we see it.
That obviously took it in a new direction. The core of the planet had died, which then explained why it basically self-destructs. The planet’s been mined so much that there’s no internal structural integrity left to it. So the force of gravity just tears it apart.
Working with the production team and doing a lot of concept work, we ended up on that look for the planet, but the moon they’re on, Lamentis-1, was always intended to be a mining environment with no life on it — no trees [and] no vegetation. So the moon’s surface didn’t go through a lot of iterations, but what the planet looks like and how it gets destroyed did.
There were some distinct chapters to the episode, visually speaking, as they travel from the quarry on Lamentis-1 where they arrive, to the interior of the train car, to the neon-filled city of Shuroo. What were some of the visual directives you were given for these environments?
The production team came to us with very strong ideas about what each of the sequences should be. The opening was kind of this Michael Bay-esque sequence, with them appearing in this tent and then, all of a sudden, they’re dodging asteroids in this barren quarry. That was a high-intensity scene.
Another scene that was really, really well-defined by the production team was everything happening in Shuroo. The production team was very clear on what they wanted to see for that scene, with its weird buildings and strange, neon colors and signs.
What wasn’t necessarily as defined by the production team were some of the intermediary scenes when they’re walking through the landscape. It wasn’t totally clear what they wanted the landscape to look like so, for example, what you saw outside the train window wasn’t totally defined up front. When they’re walking out of the quarry, past all the mining equipment, that wasn’t as defined either — so that had us working with their production team and the director to find out what worked best for them and what tied the whole story together.
The concept of blowing up a planet is probably an appealing, exciting scenario for a visual effects team, as it really lets you go wild with destruction and chaos and such. Is that the case? Does it present some unique challenges, too?
Absolutely. The biggest challenge with this project was the oner — what seemed like one continuous take for almost three-and-a-half minutes — when Loki and Sylvie run through the city. As you can imagine, working on a shot that long presents all kinds of challenges. Typically when you shoot a oner on set for that long, you don’t necessarily do one giant piece of film. You break it up into little sequences that you then transition between seamlessly, which makes it more practical on the production side to shoot, and also more practical for us to work on. However, one of the challenges in doing that is maintaining continuity and the look between all those different pieces of the shot.
For example, when they shot that oner, there’s a lot of smoke and atmosphere wafting through the city, but because of how it was shot in multiple chunks, there was a lot of inconsistency in the amount of smoke in the air. This was shot outside, so the production team would put atmosphere in the air, and right before the take happened, wind would blow through and wipe out all the atmosphere. So the footage that was provided to us had different amounts of atmosphere in each shot, which meant that, on top of building all the visual assets and having the meteors coming down and having buildings collapse around them, we also needed to make sure the amount of smoke and atmosphere remained consistent from minute to minute throughout the scene.
There’s so much to keep track of in that scene …
There is. And there are a lot of other continuity challenges, too. The camera is basically doing a big circle in that scene, and you’re running with the actors around the city a couple of times, only to end up looking at their backs as the Ark gets destroyed. One of the challenges in doing this oner was making sure there was continuity in the set dressing from when you first see it, all the way through the three-and-a-half minutes. The buildings that collapse earlier in the shot need to be maintained throughout the rest of the shot, for example. When we were first approached by Marvel, that sequence was the most exciting sequence for us, but ultimately, there’s a lot of satisfaction when you’re putting the finishing touches on the shot and it works so well technically and artistically.
There’s so much satisfaction to seeing the episode end on this really big cliffhanger. The whole episode, they’re trying to get to the Ark, and in the last few seconds of the episode, you see the whole thing collapse. Their chances of escaping are destroyed in front of them. Emotionally, it’s a huge, huge moment, and we really got a lot of satisfaction from making sure that came through.
And it did. You have this big, climactic moment that suddenly turns around on them …
The look on Loki’s face when the camera comes around? And Sylvie? Sylvie’s just done. She walks away, but with Loki, you can see him feeling like everything they’ve worked for is gone. Tom [Hiddleston] and Sophia [Di Martino] are tremendous actors and their chemistry together was really amazing. Seeing their faces at the end of this monumental sequence, it just gets you.
Is there anything people might be surprised isn’t a visual effect? Something that was done practically or merges digital elements and in-camera elements in ways we might not realize while watching it?
Getting back to the Shuroo sequence, with the city falling apart around them, the production team went to great lengths with their practical effects team to have explosions happen on set and have parts of buildings actually collapsing around the actors and extras. When you look at the raw footage, it’s amazing the amount of work on the production side that went into destroying the city.
But when production goes to the lengths of doing that on set, it’s kind of a mixed bag for us, technically, because on one hand, if we’re replacing all the background and the production team puts in all this smoke and debris, it makes our job a lot harder to replicate that in the background.
Because you have to replicate all of that chaos in your work, right?
Well, first, you have to get rid of all of it in order to do your work. You have to clear the screen so you can put in the background layers, then you then you have to put it all back in, and then you have to enhance it.
But it gets amazing reactions from the actors. It really gives the actors something physical to react to — and same with the extras. So the amount of work that goes into dealing with the footage pays off in terms of the action and and the actors’ reactions. That’s when you really get to see the actors reacting to something real, and you get that sense of reality from them. It really ties in with the photo-real aspect of all the work that’s gone into it.
So it’s a combination of the best kinds of reactions from the actors with the best visual effects that can be produced for that sequence. And it all comes together to be this really amazing sequence that holds up pretty well.
Season 1 of Marvel’s Loki series is available on the Disney+ streaming service.