Marvel Studios has about a month remaining until its next theatrical release with Eternals, although the MCU is still going strong in theaters thanks to the efforts of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. As the first Phase 4 movie to explore a post-Blip world after Avengers: Endgame, this new adventure brought the perfect mix of the MCU's past mixed with promise for the future.
Simu Liu's titular character went on an emotional journey of self-discovery as he left his dark past with the Mandarin behind, finding himself neck-deep in the superhero world upon leaving San Francisco. While most of the excitement came from the post-credits scene featuring Captain Marvel and Bruce Banner, Shang-Chi also played spectator to the long-awaited cage match between Tim Roth's Abomination and Benedict Wong's Wong.
In a movie that brought stunning visual effects simply from its own new adventure, Abomination and Wong opened the door with updates and revivals to past VFX work that brought excitement in past movies.
A new interview even revealed exactly how Marvel looked back to their past work from movies like Endgame to bring these characters into Phase 4 for the first time.
Marvel VFX Artist on Shang-Chi's Returning Characters
In an interview with befores & afters, VFX supervisor Dominik Zimmerle explained how Marvel Studios revisited and recycled past visual effects work for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Specifically, he touched on using past models for the Abomination and Wong's magic and referenced that work for the characters' 2021 return.
For Tim Roth's villain from The Incredible Hulk, the VFX team used "the model of the original Abomination" as a reference along with the more recent models with adjusted height and proportions. This led to working with "internal concepts from Marvel," which helped to show how the monster would change for his second MCU outing:
"We received all the material that has been produced in the past. We received the model of the original Abomination from 2008. That was really cool to have this. That’s amazing that they still have this stored. We only used it as a reference. It was one of several references. Then we received all the latest Hulk models so that we see how they’ve change the height, how the proportions are now that we could use as reference. We also got some internal concepts from Marvel again, which were super helpful at the beginning."
The process then moved to Abomination's specific features like his horns, fins, and skin, while the team also tested to see "how much of Tim Roth" was needed to make the new model look the way it needed to:
"We then looked at his horn structure, where the plates are protruding outwards from the skin, how the fins looked, how the skin structure looked. Then there was a test where we tried to see how much of Tim Roth we needed to get in there."
The technical demands for Abomination were quite challenging, with the character's "protruding bone plates" and "sub-dermal bone plates" both playing a key role in his build. Multiple teams had to join forces to make sure Emil Blonsky's internal structure and outer appearance all meshed together to form one cohesive being:
"From a technical point of view, we invested quite a lot in the skin sliding setup in Houdini. One of the technical issues or demands for us was that he has not only the protruding bone plates, but there are also sub-dermal bone plates where the skin is sliding over these and encapsulating these. This was something that was a joint effort between shader development and Houdini simulation to create a convincing representation of that."
As for the magic portals making a return from Doctor Strange, Zimmerle again "received the original setups" from the solo film along with Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame to help recreate the Sling Ring-based gateways in Shang-Chi.
This time around, the most prominent hurdle was figuring out how "to do the slow down effect" on the portal and still make it feel like the portal exists and works. This came during the cage fight when Wong used the portal to make Abomination punch himself in the face in slow-motion:
"We also received the original setups from Doctor Strange and from the Avengers movies so that we could repurpose those. The challenge was here to do the slow down effect with the portal and still maintaining the feeling that this portal is working."
The image of this portal is dependent on "the motion of the sparks," and it was a challenge for the team to make this effect work not only in slow-motion but once the action sped up to normal speed again. That work along with figuring out how to mix those effects in and "see the arm coming out" was a key point of focus during that fight:
"The portal look is very much relying on the motion of the sparks, and basically to underline the slow down effect, we took this motion blur out and had it then basically go into sparks for the slow down effect when accelerating up again. We also had to work out, how much do they need to be rotated to the audience to understand this is a portal and not some kind of glowing line, and how we can stage this to read the portal and to see the arm coming out?"
Recycled MCU Action Helping For New Movies
It's becoming clear that the Abomination vs Wong fight was one of the biggest challenges in Shang-Chi, particularly with so many visual effects and a completely renovated design for a villain from 13 years ago in play. Throwing high-octane action into a sequence with effects from both Doctor Strange and The Incredible Hulk certainly proved to be a tall order, although the VFX team was up for the challenge.
Combining the use of real-world stilt work with Marvel Studios' mastery of VFX in the editing room, this scene came as one of the movie's highlights while Shang-Chi got a taste of the hero life in Macau. Some of these effects helped bring one of the movie's biggest moments in the final pre-credits scene as well when Wong used the Sling Ring to bring Shang-Chi and Katy to Kamar Taj for his semi-initiation with the Avengers.
As Marvel Studios continues to unveil new Phase 4 projects with ties to the Infinity Saga, the team will certainly be looking to methods such as this to recreate and improve on classic VFX shots. Particularly with blockbuster outings like Avengers: Endgame setting the mold, Phase 4 will have plenty of inspiration to take from going forward.