Why Creating Doctor Strange’s Dark Dimension Was So Damn Hard

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The thrilling climax of Doctor Strange sees the titular character travel into the Dark Dimension to confront the evil Dormammu. Crafting a CG creature and a suitably alien-like dimension was challenging enough for the vfx team, but director Scott Derrickson also wanted the shots to reflect the surrealist and psychedelic blacklight look by famed comic book artist Steve Ditko. As I discovered from overall vfx supervisor Stephane Ceretti and Luma’s Vince Cirelli, this was not the easiest brief to pull off.

Blacklight reference

When Steve Ditko created Doctor Strange in 1960s, some of the artwork for the comic book character entered a very blacklight feel, ie. the images were fluorescent, overly saturated and extremely contrasty. Derrickson referenced a particular 1971 Third Eye Doctor Strange blacklight poster with a colorful environment, and that is where the Dark Dimension design began.

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“It was extremely difficult to nail down,” said overall visual effects supervisor Stephane Ceretti. “You never quite know if you’re pushing too far, if you’re pushing too crazy, but we really wanted to pay homage to the visuals, the psychedelic visuals of the 1970s and to all that work that Steve Ditko had been doing. We tried to be faithful to the idea but also make it slightly more modern – to put it in our time and make it fit in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.”

A 3D blacklight poster

Translating a 2D – flat – blacklight poster presented several challenges. First, there was no sense of depth in the reference poster. Nor was there realism. By its nature the post was strikingly graphic with a limited color palette.

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“Essentially they’d given us three crayons to draw with, and somehow we need to bridge the gap between live action plates that were shot and this incredibly graphic environment that was heavily, and intentionally stylized,” said Luma Pictures visual effects supervisor Vince Cirelli, who oversaw his studio’s work for the sequence.

Luma therefore devised some ‘rule systems’ for which of the limited colors would work next to each other, how much glow would be visible, and how the blacks would be treated. One of the hardest things, said Cirelli, was implementing some depth into the scenes, which was done with “grading, volumetrics, and attenuation – things you usually take for granted in normal vfx shots.”

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The studio also had to fill out what looked like an alien world – a planetoid – with some unusual plant life and other features. “We had to create crazy psychedelic moss that grows and looks like it’s going to kill Strange,” said Cirelli, “and then this ferrofluid thing. All this life on the planetoid that make you feel like you know there’s more to it than just an illustration.”

Added to the complexities was Dormammu, which effectively was just a face; a face with an almost liquid surface. For the animation, Benedict Cumberbatch himself was recorded in a facial motion capture setup, adding a symbolic relationship between the two characters.

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Putting it altogether

Usually, live action plates and CG elements are then composited together. But because of the presence of limited colors and the need to continually refine the art direction behind the sequence, Luma did not follow a traditional route.

“What we had to do is throw away our idea of traditional texturing and modeling and go with something that was purely utility-based,” said Cirelli. “Meaning, all the entire universe that we created, every surface was created like a utility, like data sets and mattes that we could control a hundred percent in comp. We had to go through a lot of work to find that balance of color and saturation and movement and composition, and it really was like painting. Every shot we had was like painting.”

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