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The Road to ‘Zack Snyder’s Justice League’: Weta Digital’s Anders Langlands and Simeon Duncombe on Making ‘The Snyder Cut’

March 18, 2021Ben MK

FFor every rule there are exceptions. And in the case of Zack Snyder's Justice League, that means having a second chance at making a first impression. But it's not just the fans that the movie owes its existence to, it's the talented team of visual effects artists, animators and performers at Weta Digital, whose own superheroic efforts helped make Zack Snyder's grand vision a spectacular reality.

I caught up with Visual Effects Supervisor Anders Langlands and Animation Supervisor Simeon Duncombe to chat about Weta's work on The Snyder Cut and, of course, to ask the all-important question of who would win in a battle between Thanos and Darkseid.

First of all, can you tell me a bit about the complexity of working on The Snyder Cut? Deborah and Zack Snyder mentioned that they only re-used 11 shots out of over 2,500 from the 2017 version. How long did it take and how many shots in total did you complete for the new version?

Langlands: I think it was just getting on a 1,000. I came on in May and then we finished up around Christmas. So that was like 7 months from start to finish. But a large part of the first few months of that was getting the show back online from 2017. We had to restore all of the data and then sift through it, figure out where everything was [and] convert stuff to work in the latest version of our tools. Because technology here moves forward so quickly that 3-4 years difference is like a lifetime, in terms of the different tools that we use. So there's a lot of work just getting the foundations set up to be able to do the new shots and modifications to existing shots that we needed to do. It was quite a compressed post schedule once we actually got into it.

Duncombe: Definitely. It was twice as much as we did the first time around, in half the time.

Did you learn anything from you work on the 2017 version that you took special note of when coming back to finish Zack Snyder's version?

Duncombe: I don't know if there were lessons learned, but the fact that you have a second chance at something, you certainly take it to improve upon it. Every time you do a project, you don't feel like you finished — you just run out of time. Some of the artists that were involved in the theatrical version got to revisit that work that didn't make it, so it was cool to just have that opportunity to bring that stuff back and to finish it off properly. And for the shots that we revisited, we get to reimagine for the new Steppenwolf design and revisit that performance of Steppenwolf and take it further. Because the new design really influenced our approach to the character of Steppenwolf. It wasn't just a swap-out, it was, "Let's rethink how this guy behaves." So that was certainly exciting.

How about the character design for Darkseid? What went into creating him and making him as imposing of a figure as he was in the movie?

Langlands: He was actually half-built by the time he was cut out from the 2017 version. He originally appeared in the history lesson — the flashback scene — as he does now, so there's a bunch of shots that were half-finished with him in it that were cut out. His asset was already up to a reasonable level, so a lot of the work there was really just finishing him off, bringing him up to modern standards, and making sure that he had all the detail in his skin that he needed for those big hero closeups. And a lot of the character himself was developed by the performance team here, in the terms of the fight performance and those things.

Duncombe: Yeah, cuz Darkseid was featured in the theatrical version in the early cuts, but there's dialogue from Darkseid in The Snyder Cut. So once you've got dialogue coming from a character as well that really helps you shape what he’s going to be like. And, thankfully, we've got some great performers and animators that have got experience with these sort of characters, and you can easily draw parallels to Thanos in the Marvel [Cinematic] Universe as well. He's the boss of the universe, so we just drew from [that] on how he should carry himself. There's some subtle differences between the young Darkseid in the history lesson 2,000 years ago and how he looks in the final shots when he's on Apokolips with all his armies as well.

Langlands: We tried to make him more animalistic in the flashback scene — younger, more headstrong, a little more reckless. So more aggressive that way. Whereas at the end of the movie when we see him through that portal in his palace, essentially, on Apokolips, he's much more of a statesman-like figure. And much more imperious when he's staring Superman down at the end of the movie. So it was interesting to play with those ideas about what the character would be at different stages of his life within one film.

There are a lot of visually impressive set pieces throughout the movie. Which ones were your favorites to work on, and which were the most challenging?

Langlands: It was all challenging. [laughs] My favorite thing was the history lesson stuff, because there's so much going on in there, that was a lot of fun. It was cool to bring Darkseid back and to get a really big moment for him, particularly the fight where he kills Green Lantern and gets pushed back by the gods. So that was really fun to do. And it was cool to help give Green Lantern more of a performance moment, as well as see more of Darkseid, see the gods in action more, and see the effect that they have. There was just a lot more going on. It's a lot bigger of a scene and there were just a lot of fun shots to work on. But the amount of things going on in there making it a challenge, because of the complexity.

Duncombe: WETA got to do the third act fight this time around. We weren't involved in that part of the film in the theatrical cut. So we got to be involved in some pretty cool action in the third act between Steppenwolf, Wonder Woman, Cyborg and Aquaman. That was fun stuff to work on there. And the opportunity to do what we call the Russian Annex sequence where Steppenwolf is talking to the obelisk, where we've got Darkseid and DeSaad talking to him from Apokolips.

We love getting into those character moments and the facial animation. It's this really long sequence of dialogue and a performance where we get to understand Steppenwolf a lot more. And when that sequence landed for us, I was excited to get involved and just really thrilled with how it looked at the end as well, particularly with where the effects department and the lighting guys took it after animation. Visually, it's such an interesting scene, even though it's just a dialogue scene. It looks amazing, so I'm particularly proud of that one as well.

Last but not least, each of you have worked on films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as well. So who do you think would win in a battle — Darkseid or Thanos?

Langlands: [laughs] I think everybody wins, don't they?

Duncombe: Yeah, that's a fight everyone wants to pay for, for sure. We don't know much about Darkseid yet, so let's see how it shapes up. But my money's on DC for now. [laughs]

Zack Snyder's Justice League streams March 18th, exclusively on HBO Max and Crave Canada.

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