For The Marvels, the new superhero adventure from Marvel Studios, Rising Sun Pictures was tasked with creating a vast city on the planet Hala, home to the Kree Empire and its artificial intelligence ruler, the Supreme Intelligence. Artists created both a representation of the futuristic city at the height of its power, and as a devastated ruin. The studio also produced the film’s awe-inspiring opening and closing sequences showing the luminous implosion and miraculous rebirth of Hala’s sun.
The sequel to the 2019 blockbuster Captain Marvel, The Marvels marks the return of Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) who has reclaimed her identity from the tyrannical Kree and taken revenge on the Supreme Intelligence. After traveling through a wormhole, she finds her powers entangled with those of Jersey City super-fan Kamala Khan, aka Ms. Marvel, and Carol’s estranged niece, now S.A.B.E.R. astronaut Captain Monica Rambeau, who join her in saving the universe.
First appearing in a flashback, Hala’s capital is a densely packed urban environment of towering skyscrapers and elegant homes arrayed along a crystal blue ocean. “The skyline suggests Manhattan as it might look in some distant future,” says RSP VFX supervisor Jamie Macdougall. “It’s filled with beautiful architecture and surrounded by lush forest.”
The studio developed the look of the city from concept art provided by the production. “We extrapolated on the drawings to produce a cityscape of thousands of buildings,” says computer graphics supervisor Prema Paetsch. “Our first task was to define the city’s superstructure and then fill it with a logical distribution of office buildings, elevated roadways, residential structures and landmarks. We also added human scale detail such as doors and windows, rooftop gardens and trees. The challenge was to sell the size and scope of the city, and to make it stylistically consistent without repeating patterns.”
“It’s one of the largest environments we’ve ever built,” says Macdougall. “And it has enough detail to be viewed from any camera angle or perspective. It’s seen in flyovers. The camera also drops down to street level so that you can look into individual homes and offices and see things like lighting fixtures and furniture.”
Particle effects were used to further bring the city to life. “We designed systems that could be attached to tiny vehicles to make them move along roads and skyways in a logical manner,” says comp supervisor Neill Barrack. “A similar technique was used to make birds fly gracefully past camera.”
The flashback ends with Captain Marvel destroying the city including an immense green building housing the Supreme Intelligence. “We see her attacking the Supreme Intelligence, which appears as a giant, anthropomorphic computer,” Macdougall explains. “It explodes with the blast spreading across the city. The next time we see the city, it’s a smoldering ruin. There is no water. The atmosphere has turned to poisonous smog. Its sun is dying.”
Artists added subtleties to suggest that the city has decayed over several decades. “Buildings are weathered, grimy and dirty,” says Paetsch. “What used to be clear glass is smudged. Metal objects have rusted. We added skeleton trees to rooftop gardens, withered plants to balconies. Smoke lingers in the air. Everything is dark and gloomy.”
Paetsch adds that working with an asset so large was challenging. They addressed that issue by making the city modular. “We had a large team working on the environment together,” he explains. “We managed the load by distributing sub-assets and sub-structures to individual artists across several departments. The environments team focused on the procedural, rule-based design, while the assets team focused on bespoke hero structures that are seen close-up and needed very specific designs. We ultimately had hundreds of sub-assets that could be checked out as modules and checked back into the master system. The core of it all was a distribution logic that placed individual structures into the larger expanse in a defined order.”
Near the end of the film, Captain Marvel uses her powers to restore the city to its former splendor. “Massive winds blow through bringing fresh air and pushing out the smog. Water is pumped in,” says Macdougall. “The buildings are still destroyed, but it’s evident the planet is on the mend.”
Equally impressive are the solar collapse and restoration that bookend the film. Macdougall notes that the production had a science advisor who provided insight into how stars die. “Quite a lot of thought went into how it should happen,” he recalls. “As the star dies and loses its fuel, it grows bigger and bigger before gravity kicks in and it implodes. This process occurs over vast timeframes, but since the imminent death of the sun is an important story point, our task was to take this concept and imagine it in a way that conveyed urgency. It provides weight and drama to Captain Marvel’s mission.”
At the end of the film, the process is reversed. Captain Marvel uses her expanded powers to restart the sun. Paetsch says that it was important that this spectacular transformation also appear convincing. “It took a lot of conceptual work and experimentation with different approaches to three dimensional simulations,” he says. “There were multiple layers, complex details, and structures within structures, all of which are moving.”
He adds that they also had to integrate Captain Marvel into the scene. “She disappears into the sun, which is heated to millions of degrees, and our job was to make the audience believe that she is causing its regeneration to happen,” says Barrack. “You see her energy beams emanating through the gaps and rippling across the solar surface as the crumbling structure fixes itself. It becomes smooth and beautifully bright. The team did a marvelous job in creating something that has never been seen before.”
The restoration of the sun gives way to a climactic view of the Hala capital once again bathed in light. “Hero shots like these are a wonderful opportunity for our team to shine,” concludes Macdougall. “Both the cityscape and the solar sequences were massive in size and scope. They challenged our ability to solve problems and gave us a chance to flex our creative muscles. The results look fantastic.”
The Marvels is directed by Nia DaCosta and stars Brie Larson, Teyonah Parris, Iman Vellani, Zawe Ashton, Gary Lewis, Seo-Jun Park, Zenobia Shroff, Mohan Kapur, Saagar Shaikh and Samuel L. Jackson. Rising Sun Pictures worked under the supervision of production visual effects supervisor Tara DeMarco.