What went into the casting & pre-production of the cutting-edge VFX of Marvel’s ‘Doctor Strange’

Suits and battles – Check. Entire CG-based characters – Check. Characters flying – Check. Space and wars – Check. Shrinking and enlarging – Check. Blasts and destruction of property – Check. What remained to be explored by Marvel in visual effects and special effects got covered in Marvel’s Doctor Strange. The extremely VFX-heavy movie explored an entire new dimension (literally and figuratively) in the VFX space. The movie was a fresh take on magic and brought in a refreshing perspective when compared to other Marvel movies. Young, intelligent and a tad bit arrogant surgeon Stephen Strange’s life turns upside down after a car accident and he is thrown into the world of magic and sorcery, which may seem supernatural or absurd as some may call it. As the definition of reality changes in Stephen’s life, he learns to accept and master the powers that were once beyond his purview of comprehension and acceptance. As he delves into the mysterious world of dimensions and mystic powers, he encounters the evil Kaecilius and is forced to choose between going back to his world of status or staying back and fighting the villain whose powers can alter reality. As complicated as the story sounds, the execution meets its complexity equally well. The film recently won an Annie Award, VES Award for its path-breaking visual effects and was nominated for a number of other awards including the Oscars. A number of studios like Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), Luma Pictures, Method Studios, Framestore, Lola VFX, Rise FX, Crafty Apes and SPOV contributed to the visual effects of the film. When it came to casting, director Scott Derrickson and his team were sure of whom they wanted as Doctor Strange. “Benedict was always our first choice for the role,” said Derrickson. Benedict Cumberbatch was then finalised for the role and the shoot began. In between the schedule, Cumberbatch had to go for the practice of the stage-play Hamlet and the makers had to wait for six long months to resume the shoot with him, because “eventually it became clear” that only Cumberbatch could pull off the role of Stephen Strange. The production pushed the entire shoot and re-arranged the schedule accordingly. The actor’s commitment showed through on every single day of the shoot that he was present.
Cumberbatch’s shoot and training for the fight sequences were happening simultaneously. Executive producer, Charles Newirth said, “Benedict threw himself into this role and went through months of physical training.” The team told Cumberbatch to let the stuntmen perform the stunts but he did not agree. “He has been game for everything.” Talking about performing this kind of role, Cumberbatch said, “You have to be incredibly fit.” He trained so that he could take knocks and multiple takes of fighting over five days in a row. He got whipped about three times while doing one of the training sequences with Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays the role of The Ancient One’s disciple, Mordo. “It’s a great moment in the film in terms of the relationship of Mordo and Strange where he is introducing him to all of the different fighting methods that they can use,” said Ejiofor. He then explained how Strange learns to fight as well as deal with his internal struggles.
The film is swathed with VFX shots. Shots done so wonderfully well that you’d say “Wow” in almost every scene. Some of the most VFX-heavy sequences were the opening scene where The Ancient One is changing the building structure while fighting Kaecilius and his followers, the car crash, Stephen thrown into various dimensions of the multi-universe by The Ancient One, the cathedral sequence, Kaecilius and his followers chasing Strange and Mordo inside the mirror dimension, restoring the destruction on the street in Hong Kong and Strange meeting Dormammu at the end. Out of around 1450 VFX shots, the Hong Kong fight sequence was the most challenging one. Derrickson was interested in making movies where visual effects are always used to do something new and unexpected and something that is never seen before. Destroying property is common and nothing new. What the studios had to do here was to destroy it and then restore it. The restoration had to happen in such a way that it would not take away attention from the fighting. While creating this, the team had to “create a feeling that time is either stopping, slicing or reverting,” said executive producer/EVP physical production, Victoria Alonso. It required a lot of work as they needed to set up the shot as well as decide how the VFX would work. For this, the VFX and the art department had to come together and plan it out. “There’s a lot of visual effects obviously in all of this but you’d be surprised how much we do in camera as well,” explained production designer, Charles Wood. “It’s a very elaborate process.”
The team made several trips to Hong Kong to study the architecture and how people lived on a commercial level. Hong Kong had a massive set of about 600 feet where they had incorporated the feel of the entire place, with all kinds of shops, buildings and workshops. The pre-production was as much as post-production. What was interesting was how the power of the Time (Infinity) Stone taking effect was shown. Playing with time using the stone, and evoking the power of how to use the stone to control time were done flawlessly using VFX.
With Doctor Strange, the studios took VFX to a new level. How it can be used to bring alive everything that a film demands became clear with the work done for this Marvel feature.