Explore alternate dimensions with Doctor Strange VFX Supervisor Stephane Ceretti
At the top of the box office for a second week in a row, Marvel‘s Doctor Strange is about to pass $500 million worldwide. Hopefully, you’ve already caught it on the big screen and enjoy our latest Strange interview, a spoiler-riddled conversation with VFX Supervisor Stephane Ceretti! Stephane Ceretti has been working with big screen visual effects for nearly two decades and has been an integral part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe since Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
Sitting down with CS, Stephane Ceretti looks back on what it took to build the multi-dimensional worlds of Doctor Strange as well as some of the effects-heavy characters like the Cloak of Levitation and even the Dread One, Dormammu! Read on for a behind-the-scenes look at the big screen spectacle and let us know in the comments below which VFX elements of Strange were your favorites!
CS: You have been involved with comic book movies for quite some time. Your first credit was an animator on “Batman & Robin.” Have you always been a big comic book fan?
Stephane Ceretti: I was not initially. I’m from France. I’m a big fan of French comics. Tintin and Asterix and tons of other things that you guys don’t know. There was one magazine in France that was published, which was kind of a mishmash of all the Marvel characters and it was called Strange. There was one issue every month and it was all over the map. That’s all I knew. I knew about Iron Man. We had the Fantastic Four in it. Thor, Doctor Strange and Captain America. But I liked them. I wouldn’t say I was a big fan, though. I didn’t plan my career thinking, “I’m going to do that.” “Batman & Robin” kind of set the tone I guess.
CS: You’ve been working with Marvel for awhile now. Does each project feel like it’s own world or does it feel like building one giant universe?
Stephane Ceretti: It’s funny. It’s one world, but it’s also many worlds. I’ve been lucky enough to explore a lot of them. I worked second unit on “Captain America,” which was setting up that character. I got to work with Joe Johnston, which was really great. I really love his old films. Then I got to do “Thor 2,” which is another kind of crazy character with Asgard and all these things. Then I did “Guardians,” which was, “Okay, let’s go completely somewhere else.” For that one, I was the main supervisor. It was really something different, but it was still Marvel. That was very exciting. Then, at the end, I was told, “Hey, Steph! Come do ‘Doctor Strange’! You’re going to explore other dimensions now!”
CS: Doctor Strange is getting a lot of notice for its innovative visuals. Where did those begin as far as realizing the look you wanted?
Stephane Ceretti: It’s been a long process. We started in September of 2014, just after I finished “Guardians.” Scott [Derrickson] was already on the project. He had started to write the script and he had a list of visual that he wanted to use in the film. Some were from other films, others were from photographs or paintings. He kind of collected together a list of things that we looked at. Charlie Wood, the production designer, came to LA and we did a kind of brainstorming bootcamp to figure out what we were going to do for the film visually. Charlie was really into creating the sets and all that stuff. There was also lots of locations. Charlie is very good at working with visual effects. I’ve done a couple of films with him. We started looking into the dimensions and the Magical Mystery Tour, which is that segment in film where he goes into astral form for the first time. Then there’s the Dark Dimension at the end. We just tried to make sense of everything from what I would call the everyday magic — opening portals, rune shields and all that stuff — to the crazy magic that is really “Doctor Strange.” Going to different dimensions and all that. The other worlds that he can go to. It was a huge effort. Initially, it was just Charlie and I and Scott. Then we guys from the storyboards came in and we realized that storyboards were never going to tell the story properly. We had to bring in the pre-vis guys very early because everything was dynamic. Scott wanted all these environments constantly moving and interacting. You see all that in the film. The Magical Mystery Tour is one long shot that keeps on changing and evolving and transitioning from one place to another. Then you go into New York and you’re on the streets where they start going up the buildings. The buildings bend and everything starts to change. You end up in a Rubix’s Cube kaleidoscope of New York. Then you go to Hong Kong and Hong Kong is getting destroyed in reverse. It’s kind of taking destruction and putting it in reverse. Then you go to the Dark Dimension and it’s always moving all the time. We had to pre-vis all of that and make sense of it. It was visual effects working with animation. Everyone was working together to try and make sense of everything while still creating some rules for the film.
CS: Do you need to make firm rules about what is and isn’t possible in the realm of sorcery?
Stephane Ceretti: That’s the big balance that we were trying to find throughout production. Even in post-production, to be honest. How much do you explain? How much do you show? You don’t want to explain everything, because then it gets tedious. You want the visuals to integrate into the story, but not to take over the story. You have these great characters: Strange, Mordo, the Ancient One and Kaecillius. They’re all these great actors and you don’t want to take over them. The title of the film is “Doctor Strange,” not “The Visual Effects of Doctor Strange.” It’s about the characters and how they live within that story. We’re just helping the story be told by making it visual. But then it’s also about the characters reacting to the things we’re doing. It’s about getting all that stuff well balance and paced correctly. We want the right level of visual candy, but it has to relate back to the characters and what they’re going through.
CS: What about the Cloak of Levitation? I’m assuming that was a blend of both practical and visual effects.
Stephane Ceretti: There’s a lot of practical cloak in the film and the practical cloak is a beautiful thing. It’s a beautiful piece of fabric. Originally, the Cloak of Levitation was just the Cloak of Levitation. It was helping him fly. Then we figured out as we were doing pre-vis that it would be great if it was actually a character. We looked at the magic carpet in “Aladdin.” There was some cool stuff there. It could be the story of a cowboy and his horse. He finds that horse in nature and they don’t know each other. The horse has never been with a cowboy before. But then they kind of get to learn each other. They form that relationship by the end. That’s the arc we wanted to do. The Cloak lives in the sanctum and it knows everything about the sanctum. Strange gets thrown into that place, not knowing what it is. The Cloak sees him and helps him. There are some very funny moments. We worked with the stunt team and they came up with some crazy ideas. It has been an evolution throughout the film, but we had the same guys that did Rocket and Groot. It’s the same company, Framestore, in London. They did fantastic work. There was such a great feedback loop. The script informed the visuals and the visual informed the script. And then the script informed the actors and back again. Everyone was really working together to get the best out of everything.
CS: What went into make Dormammu himself?
Stephane Ceretti: We did facial capture on Benedict [Cumberbatch]. That was mostly what we were using to drive animation. The voice was a little bit more of a sticky subject. I won’t go too much into detail about the voice. I think Benedict came up with the idea and pitched it to Scott and then the studio. They had to make sure that it really made sense. I think it makes total sense. You won’t know if you just watch the sequence. Dormammu, obviously, doesn’t look like Benedict. Once you know it, though, you look a the sequence in a slightly different way. Is he talking to himself? Is it an illusion?
Directed by Scott Derrickson from a script by Jon Spaihts (Prometheus, Passengers) and C. Robert Cargill (Sinister) Doctor Strange stars Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock), Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave), Tilda Swinton (Only Lovers Left Alive), Benedict Wong (Marco Polo), Mads Mikkelsen (Hannibal), Rachel McAdams (The Vow), Michael Stuhlbarg (Pawn Sacrifice), Scott Adkins (The Bourne Ultimatum), and Amy Landecker (Transparent). Catch it now on 2D, 3D and IMAX screens.