Marvel knew exactly what it was getting with director Chloé Zhao, whose naturalistic aesthetic for “Eternals” was demonstrated in her Oscar-winning “Nomadland.” Crucially, this had a significant impact on the VFX: Zhao eschewed green and blue screens for shooting on location in the Canary Islands and England, where the natural light (particularly Magic Hour) and her anthropological visual style had a direct bearing on full CG shots.
Additionally, the epic world building, the cosmic energy of the superhero Eternals, and the CG character design of the antagonistic Deviants and Celestials were influenced by manga, anime, and Marvel comics. But Zhao ultimately tied them all to the metaphysical theme of nature as the ultimate superpower.
“We went on location more than we normally do for a Marvel movie, and Chloé wanted everything to be in natural places,” said Marvel VFX production supervisor Stephane Ceretti. “She also wanted to work with Ben Davis, the DP, but Joshua James Richards came along as her usual camera operator. She pretty much shoots with one camera attached on a Ronin [stabilizer] rig: very floaty, always moving, rarely on a crane or dolly. So it was all about capturing the moment and being as fluid as possible.
“We had to adhere to the aesthetics of shooting in an almost indie way, which was refreshing,” Ceretti continued. “This created challenges. Every time we would be on location, we would shoot 360 degrees, so people had to hide around, we couldn’t have all the witness cameras we wanted, or maybe had to paint them out.”
However, for a series of battles on the beach, Weta Digital had to change its methodology to accommodate Zhao’s shooting style, including the look of the environment from shot to shot due to constant weather changes. “Production shot with the new ARRI Signature Prime Lenses, which are clear spherical lenses that don’t tend to have much lens flare and aberration: they’re almost clinically clean and clear,” said Weta Digital VFX supervisor Matt Aitken. “So we were working in a visual style that was very clean with little haze or atmospherics.”
A key characteristic of Zhao’s visual style is that she shoots with wide-angle lenses, which means there is depth of field and not a lot of shallow focus. “She likes to use grounded cameras that move naturally, and production didn’t use any extra lights on location; they just shot with natural light,” Aitken continued. “These were all aspects of visual language from the live-action photography that we took care to match in our CG work.”
When it came to the cosmic energy for the Eternals, the director wanted a golden glow to be the driving graphical element. “These shapes were influenced by [Jack] Kirby comic book frames and ancient geometry: circles, triangles, arcs, and lines,” Ceretti said. “For example, when they all do the Uni-Mind of shared energy at the end, that was her idea.”
Ceretti looked at images of beautiful gold renders and collaborated with London-based FutureDeluxe on the initial design of the lines. “Phastos [Brian Tyree Henry, the tech and weapons master] creates all these diagrams for his inventions, and it’s a mixture of golden energy lines that solidify and become 3D objects [animated by Luma Pictures],” Ceretti added.
For the design of the Deviants, which were animated primarily by Industrial Light & Magic, Zhao requested inspect-like aliens with furry faces and vibrant colors. “They have iridescent surfaces. which made it really hard because they were intricate with tendrils and muscles and bones mixed together,” said Ceretti. “It’s really hard to read sometimes, and when you put the iridescent nature in a real background, it became a challenge.”
The Deviants actually undergo an evolutionary change, going from quadruped to simian to biped. The eventual four-eyed humanoid Kro was done by Weta Digital for the final battle. “Kro’s hero rig is complete with a skeleton, muscles, and multiple layered tentacles that have individual motion, with a destruction element built in to deal with his eventual dismemberment,” said Aitken. “His solid chest-plate structures meant animators had to find a way to make Kro dynamic while restricting the deformation of the chest-plate so that it didn’t seem too flexible.”
Kro’s lower legs, meanwhile, had the same anatomical structure as the hind leg of a wolf, a hint that Kro hadn’t yet realized his fully evolved form. His tentacles were animated individually using keyframe animations supplemented with procedural wave deformers. Additionally, actor Bill Skarsgård provided the reference performance for Kro’s more dialogue-driven scenes. “He stood in for Kro on set to provide a foil for Angelina Jolie’s Thena, and wore dual head-mounted cameras to capture his facial performance,” Aitken said. “Kro’s alien face with his four eyes meant using a facial motion solve wouldn’t make sense, so we used the footage as visual reference and created the facial performance entirely through keyframe animation. The challenge here was to make the eyes feel independent of each other, while still reading as one cohesive emotional performance.”
The Celestial Tiamut was both a character and environment because of its massive size. As a result, Weta leveraged the same workflows they used for “Mortal Engines.” “We created Tiamut as a creature bake that was passed on to matte painting,” added Aitken, “who incorporated the animated bake into their matte painting environments and rendered it as a dynamic environment.”
Ceretti said the naturalistic aesthetic carried over to post-production as well. “It’s all about the light, it’s all about the emotion of the moment. She didn’t want to push the color of the sun. Or she didn’t mind that the sky didn’t match in scenes because that’s how they would shoot a non-VFX movie.”