From ‘Inception’ To M.C. Escher, ‘Doctor Strange’ VFX Supervisors Lay Out Their Visual Inspirations

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Oscar nominated for their labors on Marvel’s Doctor Strange, visual effects supervisors Stephane Ceretti and Richard Bluff are emblematic of the magic their craft can bring to big screen endeavors. Injecting magic into the Marvel Cinematic Universe with the Benedict Cumberbatch-starring film, the pair had an important part to play in the future of the studio, creating the looks for several mystical dimensions that may appear in future Marvel movies.

A previous Oscar nominee for the visually audacious Guardians of the Galaxy, Ceretti oversaw Bluff’s creation of a kaleidoscopic, VES Award-winning New York action sequence, which was a highlight of the film. Speaking with Deadline, Ceretti and Bluff discuss the disorienting nature of the film’s visuals, and the ways in which they kept their orientation amongst them.

What were the initial steps taken in your process with Doctor Strange? And what creative opportunities did you foresee with the project?

Stephane Ceretti: I’m the visual effects supervisor for Marvel. I was finishing Guardians of the Galaxy, and then [EVP, Physical Production] Victoria Alonso introduced me to [director] Scott Derrickson and we talked about the film, and everything he had in mind—and that was already blowing my mind up. It was really interesting, and I wanted to just dive into it straight away. It was going from Guardians, where we went into the galaxy, and this one was about going into new dimensions. So that was really exciting for me, trying to go into a new part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Richard Bluff: I’d had a past relationship with Susan [Pickett, visual effects producer] working on The Avengers—I was responsible for the digital New York in that particular movie. So I was involved early on, helping ILM kind of just bid the work. At some point early on, Stef and Susan gave me a call to start to discuss the work.

I think at that point, it was very obvious to me, the type of work that I really enjoy doing, which is realistic, digital cities. This was certainly taking that idea to the next step by taking something that’s supposed to look completely real, and making it otherworldly and surreal, following the designs of M.C. Escher.

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What do you find compelling about the continuity that comes with working on Marvel projects?

Ceretti: I’ve done about five Marvel films—I’m starting on my sixth one, I think, right now. It’s interesting to see how the stories are kind of interconnected, but at the same time, kind of on their own, especially when you start a new franchise. The production [team] at Marvel is a bit like a family—you always try and stick together, and it’s a very small studio, actually. Each story has its own character, but it’s all interconnected, so it’s kind of a gigantic puzzle that they’re part of, and that’s quite fascinating to witness from the inside, actually.

Bluff: Something I like is that, speaking as someone that’s on the outside of Marvel, working for ILM as a vendor, Marvel doesn’t leave anything to chance.

What we’re involved in is part of a big multiverse. There’s something bigger going on than the sequence you’re working on at any one point, or that particular movie, and that’s really impressive because obviously, we’re not privy to what future movies Marvel’s making. But when you look back after a few years, I think it’ll be interesting to see what they do with the character, and how small changes and design elements meant a great deal, and actually had a big influence on the following movies.

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What was your approach in bringing magic to the Marvel Cinematic Universe for the first time?

Ceretti: It’s quite complex—there are lots of dimensions that are put in place. We have the mirror dimension, with its very specific properties—it’s filled with mirrors, and inside that mirror dimension, you can bend space. We started from very basic ideas—optical illusions, and Escher, Inception, and a video game called Monument Valley. We wanted to start from that, and then try and push it as far as we can.

So we did that, and then we had the Dark Dimension, which was the world at the end where Dormammu is, which was very much inspired by the psychedelic colors, and all that we found in these comics done by Steve Ditko. That was all the base for our world.

But, as always at Marvel, there’s many layers to what is seen here. In the Magical Mystery Tour, we also go back to the Quantum Realm, which was introduced in Ant-Man. I have no idea what’s going to happen in [future] films, to be honest, but I know that we’ve opened a lot of doors, and obviously everything we’ve done in Doctor Strange will be used and modified, and made better in the next films.

Bluff: The thing I like, as well, is that Stef helped craft and create the world for Guardians of the Galaxy. For me and a lot of us at ILM, this was the first Marvel movie in a while that required so much design work. A lot of other movies are able to lean on multiple characters from previous movies, and the environment that they reside within. Obviously, there is always new work to develop and design, but of course with Doctor Strange, they are very much a step beyond worlds that have already been created for Marvel movies. That was very unique, and almost every scene required a new design language that would help launch this character.

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Beyond the influences you’ve mentioned, did visuals associated with drugs or spirituality enter at all into the conversation?

Ceretti: We looked at a lot of 3D fractal simulations. We also looked at a lot of kaleidoscopic work, some optical illusions that we’ve seen in commercials and other films. Scott created a visual bible at the beginning of the film, where we looked at light painting, and paintings from Escher, and looked up the guys he has influenced throughout time. We looked at 2001, obviously, and movies with a lot of time travel and tricky stuff, like Contact. So it comes a little bit from everywhere, but we also made it our own.

The kaleidoscopic New York sequence is a beautiful sensory overload. How did you keep yourselves oriented and on point while creating such unusual and detailed imagery?

Bluff: I’ll be very honest—I think the average cinemagoer’s reaction to that sequence is exactly the same reaction that we had at ILM when we first saw the amazing pre-vis from Faraz Hameed at Third Floor, and obviously the work that Stef and everybody at Marvel had produced. It was overwhelming for us—it really was.

It took us a number of weeks, if not a few months, to really digest what we were looking at, and then almost dissect all the different elements and layers that it was going to require to build those shots.

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At this point, Stef was working with his second unit visual effects supervisor, Geoff Baumann, to plan the principal shoot in London, so once we had all those elements, we were able to bring them back to ILM, and then start to layer them up to reproduce what it was that Scott and Stef and everybody had created with the pre-vis.

We were using more recognizable New York buildings and blocks, and we started layering everything in a very simplistic form, first of all, even though we knew that it needed to be more complex. For example, we didn’t do a lot of lighting. We didn’t do any texture on anything, or any colors. We presented everything in grayscale, in black and white, so we could very quickly understand form, and function, and composition, which would allow the filmmakers to understand if the shot was working in the cut.

It was the most important thing, and at the same time, we would present three versions. We would present the simple version, the medium and then a far more complex version, so the filmmakers would have confidence in whichever version they’re going towards.

Ceretti: We were always very cautious about not losing the audience throughout the sequences. Because we’re going really crazy, we’re trying to pace the rhythm of the sequences, in terms of editing, and the amount of visual effects, and going back to the actors and making sure that the audience would connect with the actors all the time. We really tried to pace the visual effects to make sure that the audience would be engaged, but not lost.

It’s all about getting the actors to be really engaged—to really be there—so that their reaction is actually selling the story and the effects to the audience. And we’d always come back to shots of them reacting to what’s happening to them—it was that pacing and that balance between the big, wide shots that are crazy and making sure we always go back to the actors and their performance that sells the story.

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 Among other visual devices, the manipulation of time is prominent in the film.

Ceretti: That was another sequence that we did in Hong Kong, where we reversed time. That sequence required a very specific and precise pre-vis, because obviously, shooting it was a big, big challenge. We created that street in Hong Kong at Longcross Studios in London—we knew from the get go that all the filming would have to be dynamically animated. The only catch was that everything was being played backwards, so we had to shoot pretty much the entire sequence almost two times—one time, going forward, for the main action of our actors and other layers, with the background action, the people in the street, and some level of destruction being shot backwards, using motion control for a lot of these shots. It took a lot of planning to figure out what to shoot every night—it took about 23 nights to shoot that sequence, which is actually a long time for a sequence like that. It was extremely complex, and ILM was there on the set constantly.

And then everything in post-production, doing the simulation for the destruction, and making sure that the animation would match their performance was also a bit of a challenge, but it was an interesting one.

Bluff: It was another sequence we received from Stef and Faraz that was pretty overwhelming when we first saw it. What was interesting, once we were executing the shots was, making a building fall over, and then simply reversing that building, isn’t quite as simple as it may sound. What we ended up finding was that we needed to make sure there was a certain rhythm through the entire sequence, to make sure that not every shot had something reforming and completing. We needed to make sure there was overlap through all of the shots, and again, that was something that Stef and the editors were able to help us with, and understand the cadence of the sequence, and how the reverse destruction was feeling across the whole body of the work, versus the one or two shots we may have been focusing on at the time.

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Derrickson has said that your work on the film pushed the art form of visual effects forward—high praise, indeed.

Ceretti: I think nowadays, there’s always a technical challenge in what we do, but I think that the big challenge is making sure that our visual effects are relative to the story, and also in this one specifically, Doctor Strange, there’s a lot of the story that’s being told with the visual effects, and I think the symbiosis between the story and the visual effects is actually pretty good. I think that’s why people are interested by it, because they feel like there’s a real connection between the visuals, the story and the characters. I think in the long run, you can do all the biggest technical achievements, but it’s more and more about the design, and about how you use all these tools to make something relevant. To me, that’s the key to good visual effects.

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