VFX supervisor Chris Townsend talks dragons, the ten rings and more.
In a movie that includes a fight club for wizards and monsters, a henchman with a machete for a hand and a freaking dragon, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings' undisputed standout is Morris, a faceless lump with wings, six legs and the heart of a champion.
Morris is an unwitting expat from the realm of Ta Lo, who finds himself on a buddy adventure with Ben Kingsley's Trevor Slattery. Though unlike anything you've probably seen onscreen, he is based on a being that has existed since ancient Chinese mythology. Which doesn't make him any easier to include in a Marvel movie.
Enter senior visual effects supervisor Chris Townsend, who previously worked on such MCU entries as Captain America: The First Avenger, Iron Man 3 and Avengers: Age of Ultron. Shang-Chi offered him the chance to explore a completely new world. "It was [Destin Daniel Cretton's] first time working on a big visual effects movie," he explains, "but he came in with so many brilliant ideas and was so passionate about making this story and keeping it as authentic as possible to Asian culture." The idea that most excited Townsend?
"Well, I think when he first said there's a dragon in it," he says, "I was like, 'Whoa, there's a dragon.'"
Zooming with ET, Townsend answers every question I had about how Morris came to be, plus he dives deep into the behind-the-scenes secrets of Shang-Chi's dragons, the titular ten rings and more.
ET: We need to talk about Morris. Did you know Morris was going to be as big a hit as he is? Did you have an idea everyone was going to fall in love with him?
Chris Townsend: I think so. I go back to when we did Guardians 2, we had Baby Groot and immediately, you said, "Ah, that's the one!" The last film I did was Captain Marvel, and there was Goose the cat -- or the Flerken. You knew that these characters were going to be a hit. I think a headless, six-legged, winged, furry creature, it was just like, "Oh yeah, that's adorable. If we can make it adorable" -- that's the thing. It was the challenge of you don't want to make it gross and like, "Ew! It hasn't got a face!" You want to make it this fluffy, adorable thing without going over the top. You still have to feel that it's a physiological, realistic sort of creature. The company we went to, Trixter, who have got an amazing animation team, they really brought their A game to the table to bring this character to life.
What was the biggest challenge of bringing him to life?
I think making it so that he looks and feels believable as a character. He doesn't have a face, so you have to get over that. And you want the audience to not be questioning it. I think one of the interesting things is you don't really question ever that he's got six legs. People don't even think about that, that he's got six legs! How does that work? What we really tried to do is to make him as physiologically accurate as possible, trying to figure out how the skeleton would work on a six-legged creature. How do you make that make sense? You're designing a creature literally from the ground up. I think you have to put that work in to make sure that an audience doesn't question that and can very quickly get over the "whoa, weird" and then "OK, cool."
And in terms of performance, trying to create an animal which emotes and is approachable and cute but at the same time weird, you have to look at real world reference. I've got a small dog, and I would use my dog as a reference. The animators would use their pets. And obviously, there's a huge amount of stuff online of just cute animals. So, trying to nail down what it is about the way an animal will move that will be endearing and appeal to people.
You said you had to make sure he didn't skew grotesque. Was there ever a grotesque version of Morris where you were like, "No, no, no. We have gone astray"?
[Morris] was in the script, and you think, "What? That is ridiculous." Like, it hasn't got a head? And then you look it up and realize it's actually based on a real mythological Chinese character, Hundun. Traditionally, he's the god of chaos and has no orifices -- that's the line I can remember reading. You're like, "No orifices?! How does he eat?" The visual development department at Marvel did the initial sketches, and there was an infamous meeting we had where one of the key executives said, "He needs a face. He needs eyes. He can't possibly not have eyes."
So, we did versions with and without eyes and then sort of took a vote. I said, "Look, come on. It's based on a mythological character that is faceless. So, if we're going to be true to the spirit of the culture, then we've got to just embrace it." I think we all agreed. Once we had the illustration, we took it to the visual effects company and said, "We need to see it moving to see if we can make it look cute." They did some beautiful animation tests of him rolling over, him chasing a ball, him trying to jump up onto somebody's lap, all these different animation tests just trying to figure out who character is and how the character would react and how the physiology and actual body itself would work.
What did you actually use on set for this guy? I'm thinking of Alligator Loki being a cute puppet with the googly eyes. What was on-set Morris?
We had a few things. We were shooting and prepping and things down in Australia, and one of the props people found online a stuffed wombat. If you've ever seen a wombat, it's very much like Morris. If you took a wombat, added a couple more legs, took off the face and added some wings, that's Morris. It was really interesting. So, we had this stuffed toy that we brought in. And then from that, we had the props department build some green stuffies shaped like Morris without wings and legs, just something that our actors could touch and hold. And one of the things that I really wanted as well was it to be heavy enough. I'm always very aware watching films when people pick up a suitcase and there's nothing in it. You're like, "Oh, come on." And it would be a heavy, heavy creature. It's got a lot of bulk to it. So, we put sandbags inside to make it nice and heavy so that when the actors lift it up, it had some weight to it. So, we did it with this green cushion, basically.
You also have these other fantastical creatures in Ta Lo. There's phoenixes and nine-tailed foxes and I think Trevor calls it a weird horse. Do you have a favorite?
All those creatures were done by the same company that did Morris, Trixter. We wanted to reference towards the mythological characters out there, so the horse is actually based on what we call a Qilin. The fox is based on a mythological character [Huli jinh]. The Fu Dogs are obviously based on the statues. The phoenix, the same. Everything was based on real creatures in this Chinese mythological world, and again, trying to find a way to make everything feel as real as possible.
The horse-like creatures, the Qilin, were incredibly difficult because you have to make them feel like a horse but you want to make them iridescent and have scales on them and have these strange horns and strange hooves. So, it's all this slightly dragon versus reptile versus horse sort of feel, and then trying to make it feel as real as possible was the real challenge. But I think they're fun, fun creatures. And they don't exist for very long in the film! That's the problem. You have to put just as much work into these character designs and the building of them as you do in the hero things that last for a long time.
It all culminates with dueling dragons, which is a Marvel first. When it comes to a massive dragon-on-dragon battle, where do you even start?
The third act is always the challenging bit in these films. There's an expectation from fans and a general desire to have these big end battles and you're building to that moment. This film was certainly one where we felt we'd earned the right to get to that point. I think trying to find a way to tie it all up but have something fitting as an ending was a challenge. Having dragons and beasts in it was always going to be fun, right? And we've seen lots of [movies] that have these kinds of things in a big epic battle, but like you said, it's a first for Marvel.
The interesting thing with our dragon was it was based on a Chinese dragon. It doesn't have wings and it doesn't breathe fire. It doesn't have the same Western sort of things that we've seen in a lot of other movies. So, how do you make this thing move through the air in a way that you can somewhat believe? We ended up saying, "Well, it swims through the air, similar to a sea snake or an eel swimming through water, and it's able to manifest the water or to control the air in a way to support it." There's lots of logical things in the background that we're trying to figure out that hopefully, when you see it on the screen, you don't necessarily think about it or question it too much because there's a set of rules that we've created in the way we built things.
Amidst these dragons, you also have, of course, the ten rings, which have their own powers and have to be identifiable when they switch users. How were the colors chosen, that when Wenwu is using them they'd be blue and when Shang-Chi is using them they'd be gold?
We went through every color. [Laughs] One of the strange things working with Marvel is you say, "Well, this one needs to be a different color than we've seen before." This is my sixth movie and it's Marvel's 25th. We've used all the colors up! There are no other special, unique colors. So, trying to find colors that were unique enough, particularly, we wanted to go into the golds with Shang. We wanted the warmth. He comes from a very good place in the way he uses the rings so we wanted it to be gold, but we didn't want it to look like Doctor Strange. We wanted to be slightly different than that. We didn't want it to be the red of the wiggly woo of Wanda. It was trying to find that right hue, and I think we landed on something pretty good.
Then with Wenwu, he had used blue a lot in his costume in his earlier years, and so it felt like that was a good way to go. Again, we went looking for blues and you know, Tesseract blue, OK, we keep away from that. And you go a bit more purple and you get into Black Panther world, so you try to find something in between. It's trying to find those unique color tones, but having it based on the cool, angry, lightning power of Wenwu versus the warmth of Shang-Chi. And one of the things that I was very keen on was you don't want this stuff to become effects-y. You want to try and give it some logic and sense of grounding as much as possible. We ended up trying to use elemental forces -- lightning, aurora borealis, solar flares, all these kinds of things -- as a touchpoint that we referenced for all of these effects. And a lot of this stuff has to play with the actors. You've got a performance that Tony Leung brings which is often so powerful but quiet and controlled. Having big, effects-y stuff around him just didn't work, so you had to try and find that middle ground of it being powerful enough to work within the MCU and also grounded and not have it take away from the actors.
Are you able to say what you're moving on to next?
I'm afraid I can't. I don't actually know quite yet. [Laughs] So, that's one of the reasons, but I can't really talk about the future. It's so much fun working with Marvel. We get to play in an amazing sandbox and get to do such disparate movies. So, hopefully more of this!
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is now in theaters.