In one of the final sequences in Marvel Studios’ Black Widow, the title character Natasha Romanoff [Scarlett Johansson] confronts her demons. Her ‘family’ discovers the flying fortress from her past, soaring high among the clouds. The Black Widow stages this massive airborne struggle with heroes and villains dodging flaming wreckage as they approach terminal velocity, all on the way down to the ground. It’s one of the most visually complex and technically demanding scenes ever seen, made possible by Marvel Studios’ longtime collaborator, Digital Domain.
Digital Domain, whose work recently won an Oscar for Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, is also working on the upcoming No Time to Die, James Bond feature directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, is also expanding into Vancouver with an estimated 500 new employees across their Canadian studios.
The Red Room
Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff, aka the Black Widow was introduced to the Marvel movie story more than a decade ago, initially with minimal reference to any background. But in Black Widow, Romanoff’s history is finally revealed. The brutal Red Room is revealed as part of the fortress network, a training ground for world-class assassins that Romanoff thought was destroyed. After discovering that it is still active and hovering in the sky, the Black Widow puts her strength into bringing it to ground. The Red Room makes a spectacular, short-lived and visually stunning debut.
Digital Domain created this flying Red Room and the surrounding environments entirely in CG, collaborating closely with Marvel Studios and their visual development group. The massive Red Room base features airstrips, walkways, a central tower and several engines that keep the structure aloft. The CG build was designed to appear both functional and intimidating, with Marvel artists choosing a style that referenced Soviet-era architecture.
Digital Domain’s artists used an integration of Maya for animation and Houdini effects for each piece of this immense puzzle. The Red Room and the surrounding environment were entirely digital. Swirling in a monstrous free-fall, the fortress becomes unstable, melting in the heat of explosions and losing many girders, sections, engines and passengers. And the entire contorting, broiling of matter was only part of the drama. The heroes were falling through this and fighting foes along the way. Each shot features dozens of pieces of wreckage at any time, all leading to one of the most intense skydive sequences ever seen on film.
The filmmakers used a combination of practical techniques to capture the principals, including shooting talent on wires and mechanical arms against bluescreens, recording performers held aloft in an indoor vertical wind tunnel and filming trained stunt people through multiple skydives. The footage was then sent to Digital Domain, where artists created a layout that tracked where the characters and the major pieces of debris were at any given time.
While Digital Domain worked out how the scenes would progress, so many different elements were introduced that it was a jumble of smoke, half destroyed jets, and pieces of building. One particular window panel is used to stage a confrontation [see imagery] between the Black Widow and the Taskmaster. The DD artists massaged every shot manually, rendering several iterations to assist creative decisions. They turned to GPU rendering, along with Maxon’s GPU-accelerated renderer, Redshift.
“Rendering one cloud is easy, but rendering 100 clouds – along with dozens of pieces of big and small debris – is very complex, to say the least,” said Dave Hodgins, Digital Domain VFX supervisor. “GPU rendering allowed us to do more in a shorter period of time, and create something that we’re not only proud of, but opens up a new world of possibilities.”
GPU rendering took on the bulk of the wreckage and debris work, while traditional CPU rendering was reserved for digital characters and volumetrics. Although a relatively new technique for achieving photorealistic effects on a large scale, Digital Domain previously tested the technique with Marvel Studios’ Captain Marvel, very successfully. In that production, GPU rendering was employed to create several digital explosions, each leading to multiple, smaller explosions that created a sea of debris. The work done on Black Widow builds on that experience, but elevates it to a much higher level.
As soon as the primary falling characters make it to the ground they continue their fight of course, with a rain of broken burning fortress parts thumping into the pastures around them. As each piece hits the ground, DD artists contort the pieces further, to accentuate the impact and force borne of the terrific falls. In the background, the massive hulk of the Red Room lands heavily in the forest behind, sending a blinding cloud of dust, smoke and flames.
“Digital Domain has a long and proud history of creating amazing destruction on screen, from iconic ocean liners to entire cities, but the work we did in Black Widow is on another level,” said John Fragomeni, global VFX president at Digital Domain. “Marvel Studios’ latest blockbuster challenged us to look at the debris as if it were a moving, fluid environment in its own right. That allowed us to rethink how we approach CG destruction in films, and it will help us go even further in the future.”
Digital Domain created almost 320 shots for the film, with the work spread between its US and Canadian offices. The award-winning studio’s work on Black Widow marks more than a decade of collaboration with Marvel Studios, including multiple feature films and television series. Digital Domainrecently completed work on Loki, and is currently working on Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Spider-Man: No Way Home, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and more.
Black Widow is available to stream on Disney+. For my money, it was well worth the Premium fee to watch the spectacle.