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Interview: Going Behind the Scenes of 'Thor: Ragnarok' with Visual Effects Supervisor Jake Morrison

February 13, 2018Ben MK

As anyone who’s seen director Taika Waititi's contribution to the Thor series can attest to, Thor: Ragnarok boasts not only some of the most impressive visuals of the franchise, but of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe thus far. But what does it take to bring such a fantastical-looking movie, full of such colorful characters, to life?

I caught up with someone who's no stranger to the MCU, visual effects supervisor Jake Morrison, to discuss the films and comics that influenced Thor: Ragnarok, how much the humor of the movie relied on the VFX, and more.

You've worked on several films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, including the two previous Thor movies, Ant-Man and The Avengers, as well as Spider-Man 1 and 2 and The Matrix 2 and 3. What set Thor: Ragnarok apart from those other projects?

Morrison: The nice thing about working on all three Thor films is that you get a perspective. The first Thor film is really sort of a Shakespearean drama, if you look at it; it has that Ken Branagh feel to it. And the second one, which Alan Taylor directed, has that gritty Game of Thrones feel to it. But Thor 3 is such a fresh coat of paint on the whole thing that, to me, it feels almost like a reboot.

It's the third film in the trilogy, but it feels almost like the first in a new one. And a lot of that's down to two things: One, we were working with Taika Waititi, who's a really interesting director and a really fun bloke to be around, and the second thing is that I think instead of making Thor 3, we were actually making Flash Gordon 2.

Coming from the previous Thor movies, how did you approach the vastly different visual style of Ragnarok?

Morrison: So we knew we were going to go back to Asgard. And it's always fun to have a chance to rebuild Asgard and try and make it better. But having the chance to go to Sakaar, to the alien world, which is, frankly, as inspired by Jack Kirby as Asgard is. Asgard is this medieval city that still has this weird, sort of slightly warpy sci-fi vibe that is natural but feels strangely advanced. Same is true for Sakaar — it's a planet that's built from 50 wormholes that all point accidentally in the same direction in the middle of the universe, and each one of them is sucking space junk together that it builds this planet that grows to where you actually get an atmosphere.

Those two things are actually not super different. Like, Asgard from space, it looks like some spinning toy, and if you look at Sakaar from space, it's this crazy, warped tennis ball sort of thing. But the two things have one thing in common, which is Jack Kirby's vision. If you go back to his work from the late '60s and you just look at how incredibly vivid and incredibly creative and how absolutely unbound all the vision that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had, it gives you the confidence as a filmmaker to go and make things that people haven't seen before that are really kind of weird.

So to answer your question directly, you're standing on the shoulders of giants. Like every film that you do, you learn a lot, but it also gives you confidence to make bigger and stranger things. And in the case of Thor: Ragnarok, really strange.

You mentioned Jack Kirby and Flash Gordon. Were there any other movies or comics that served as inspiration as you were coming up with the visual design of the movie?

Morrison: Planet Hulk was part of the storyline, so there's that. The honest truth is that I'm not a big comic book person; I went through a stage for two or three years when I was in my early teens, and I think there's an incredible springboard for your imagination to be had with that stuff. And so when I was given the Planet Hulk storyline to read when we were prepping the film, I was struck by just how mature comics are and how strong the storylines are. And in reading the Planet Hulk book, I actually shed a tear at one point. It's emotive stuff; it's really strong storytelling.

So that was a touchstone that we looked at a fair bit, and as usual took all the things that will translate to the screen the best. Because if you do a literal comic book translation, A to B, it doesn't necessarily work. I'd say we did that when we did 300. Zack Snyder's thinking on the whole thing was, "We've done all the storyboards already, Frank Miller's already painted the pictures, we should just color them in." More or less, that was the idea.

That works sometimes. It works when you have an artist who's drawing with a very cinematic vision, which Frank Miller always has done, but the storylines don't necessarily translate. It's very magpie like; you take bits and pieces from here and there. The references [include] everything from Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure to The Blues Brothers to Spirited Away. These are touchstones, so you look and see what's been done before and what inspired you, and you pull from the bits that you think are going to be the most interesting, visually.

Speaking of translating the source material to film, the evolution of VFX technology makes it possible to achieve things with visual effects that weren't possible 15, 10, even 5 years ago. Did you experience anything like that on Ragnarok?

Morrison: I think I've experienced that throughout the course of my career. What's possible to put on the screen has fundamentally changed over the years. The prop master makes things that actors touch, the production designer makes things that actors interact with, then we make things that people see, which is almost anything. And 10 years ago, there were things that you physically couldn't do; the technology hadn't caught up to the point at which you could realize some of the things that we're seeing now. And I would like to think that every time we do something we try and push a little bit further and you try and bring the audience something that they haven't seen before.

And there are stumbling blocks along the way and there are things that's done better or worse than other things, but fundamentally I think the only cap right now is imagination. Which I think is what the audiences demand. When they go to see a picture, they go to see both an emotional journey but also to be sort of somehow physically transported, to see worlds that they've never seen before. I'm not saying I don't think that there's anything we can't do, but there's nothing we shouldn't try at this stage, simply because these advancement exist to try and get the vision of the filmmakers up on the screen.

It just so happens that we, in visual effects, are on a lot longer. We're on from the very beginning and we're on till the very end with post-production, so it's easily about 2 years for us, where as the other departments are on for a lot less. But I think it's a golden age for visual effects, and I think it's going to be very hard to be put back in the box, when you look at the work that was done, say, in Blade Runner [2049], bringing Rachel back, or even the stuff that we did at the beginning of Ant-Man, where we took Michael Douglas from 73 or 74 back to his late 30s or early 40s. Once you start doing that stuff, it gives the filmmakers a lot more tools to be able to tell different stories.

What was the most challenging scene in the film to work on, and how long did it take to complete?

Morrison: From a physically challenging point of view, the third act battle on the Rainbow Bridge is the biggie. Not everybody knows this, but the entire third act battle was originally supposed to be on the Stone Arch Bridge, which is a beautiful bridge that was built with these great dragon head sculpts that sort of overhung the entire thing. And we shot the entire battle over about 3-4 weeks, with about 500 extras, I think, and then at the end of the day in post, it was decided it would actually be more interesting if the battle took place on the Rainbow Bridge.

So frame by frame, every single person of those 500 extras was cut out of the digital negative, and they were placed onto a reflective bridge, because you didn't have shadows, didn't have reflections to start with on a mirror surface, and recreated from scratch. Hopefully the audience didn't notice that, but that's an amazing undertaking. In that scene we also had an 8' 6" green character that didn't exist fighting a 35-foot-long mega wolf in the Niagara Falls rapids. But I would think that the real burden of visual effects on the film went down to the comedy.

Because if you look at, say, the Hulk — we had to turn the Hulk into kind of this extraordinary dumb philosopher, and to actual deliver these really funny lines that would actually make the audience laugh. Or Korg, the giant rock monster, which was played by our director, Taika Waititi, who really was the comedy heart of the film. And as everybody will tell you, drama is hard, but comedy is much harder. People say that the film is funny, and one hopes that the film is funny because the visual effects worked. If it didn't, we would have broken the film.

What about your future projects? Will you be working on any more MCU titles?

Morrison: I hope so, because I love working with the gang there. Right now, I'm in pre-production on what promises to be an amazing film, which is Disney's Jungle Cruise, with Dwayne Johnson. In the same way that they made a movie out of the ride Pirates of the Caribbean, which of course everybody's familiar with, we're doing that with Jungle Cruise.

And it's a really fun film. We've got an amazing director, Jaume Collet-Serra, who did The Shallows and Non-Stop and Run All Night with Liam Neeson. Really a great, visionary director, and we're in pre-production right now in Atlanta. And it's looking like The Rock meets Indiana Jones. An amazing, fun piece.

Thor: Ragnarok is available on Digital HD February 20th, and is available on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray & DVD March 6th.

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