Movie Magic

How the VFX studio behind WandaVision is changing sci-fi television

Ahead of its Marvel debut, MARZ reveals the tricks behind their special effects work on sci-fi hits like Umbrella Academy and Watchmen.

The stigma of a bad job can last a lifetime, but VFX industry professionals know they’ve succeeded when their work isn’t noticed at all.

Remember the tomatoes lobbed at Dwayne Johnson’s scorpion monster in 2001’s The Mummy Returns? That’s what visual effects house MARZ (Monsters Aliens Robots Zombies) is trying to avoid with their work on streaming hits like Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy, Amazon’s The Boys and The Expanse, and the upcoming WandaVision on Disney+.

MARZ’s specialty is VFX for TV, and the amount of times their work hasn’t been acknowledged is proof of their talent.

“Whenever we tell someone about our work, they say, ‘I didn’t even realize that was VFX!’” says MARZ co-president Lon Molnar. “That is exactly the type of reaction you want. You know you’ve succeeded in making something photoreal when the audience doesn’t even question its existence.”

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Founded in 2018 in Toronto, MARZ prides itself on feature film-quality visual effects for cable and streaming television. Unlike movies, which have the benefit of more time and money to work with, television operates under tighter budgets and deadlines. As the “golden era of television” meets the age of The Mandalorian and Marvel TV, MARZ is more in demand than ever.

“TV was the lesser medium for VFX ten, maybe even five years ago,” Molnar says. “That has changed a lot. The gap between the quality of visual effects in film and TV is shrinking, but the needs are still different. TV requires the same quality as a feature. That’s what we do.”

To get a sense of MARZ’s unique abilities ahead of the studio’s biggest challenge yet, the Marvel series WandaVision, the studio broke down some of its greatest VFX hits from shows like Watchmen to What We Do in the Shadows. Keep these in mind while watching WandaVision, and you might just catch some computer-generated images you weren’t supposed to notice.

MARZ vs. The future of VFX

MARZ's latest project is visual effects for WandaVision, streaming January 15 on Disney+.Marvel Studios

When MARZ launched, it did so using Redshift, a 3D renderer that uses GPU (graphics processing units) over industry-standard CPU (central processing units). While gamers historically beefed-up their GPU to play the latest high-fidelity PC games, the VFX industry has leaned towards CPU until recently.

“It was a big break from a CPU-based industry,” Molnar says. “We did an internal bake-off to see how the speed and quality [of Redshift] measured against a CPU-based render engine. It blew the [speed] time at the same quality by a factor of 10. We are talking 20:1 compared to the traditional way in terms of speed.”

Another seismic shift for the VFX industry MARZ has participated in has been the rapid growth and adoption of A.I. machine learning. “This industry has gone from manually inputting individual pixel information to neural nets that require minimal user input,” Molnar says.

“Machine learning is a powerful way to increase speed and reduce cost without sacrificing quality,” adds MARZ’s Managing Director, Matt Panousis. While machine learning is “still narrow,” its “implications for the future are significant.”

MARZ isn’t sold on every new toy. Virtual Production, the eye-popping tech used for The Mandalorian still has “too many logistical issues” to make it viable for every production, says Panousis. “There are scenarios that lend themselves to Virtual Production, but at MARZ, our focus is on technologies that enable efficiencies on a broad spectrum,” he notes. “Unreal 5 is a step in the right direction. As the cost of LED screens decrease, that may open VP on a broader scale. [But] our interest in Unreal is solely on real-time rendering. We’ll see what the rest of the 2020s bring.”

Watchmen

The VFX process of Looking Glass in the acclaimed HBO series Watchmen.MARZ VFX

In HBO’s Emmy-winning Watchmen, crafting the appearance of Looking Glass — a superhero/detective named for the reflective mask he wears at all time — posed a challenge. Simply wrapping foil around a Halloween mask wasn’t going to cut it. (Besides, an actual reflection would reveal the cameras.) So HBO turned to MARZ.

“In the medium or close-up shots involving the mask, the actor is just wearing a grey or green fabric,” says Molnar. He explained that the actor, Tim Blake Nelson, also wore a 360-degree headrig MARZ developed. “The mask itself and the reflections on it are all VFX.”

The effect was led by supervisor Nathaniel Larouche, who oversaw a team of artists and engineers. The first major instance of the effect working is in the first episode’s interrogation scene, where Looking Glass and his target are surrounded by television screens. That means all kinds of reflections.

“There was an entire repertoire of software and technique used to create the mask,” says Molnar. “The material itself referenced denim, chrome, the wear-and-tear of leather. The reflections on it weren’t physically accurate, but subtly displaced and art directed. All the while, the actor was wearing a camera rig on his head to capture the reflections we needed.”

What this means for WandaVision If and when WandaVision zooms into a reflective CRT television, it’s very possible that WandaVision is applying a similar technique to create surface reflections without revealing an actual camera going in.

What We Do in the Shadows

Norman the Troll, in What We Do in the Shadows Season 2, Episode 7.FX

In the second season of FX’s hit vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows, a giant troll confronts energy vampire Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch). Creating the towering beast was “completely unlike anything we’d done before,” says Molnar.

The team has experience with monstrous giants reminiscent of an old school kaiju movie (the effects of Nacho Vigalondo’s 2017 film Colossal was also MARZ handiwork), but creating this effect had to be done in the middle of Covid-19 shutdowns.

“The strict timeline meant we had to animate this within three weeks,” Molnar says. “Facial animation can be really difficult to pull off convincingly in CG.” Luckily, MARZ only had to match audio and not an actor’s face. This gave them more creative leeway.

“With some CG creatures, like Thanos or the Hulk, you have to match their micro-expressions and movements to sell the shot,” says Molnar. “Without that, we had a large amount of freedom to do what we felt looked good.”

Still, having only three weeks to make the effect meant playing to strengths. Working with the show’s Senior VFX supervisor, Bob Munroe, “we decided that the troll wouldn’t be moving a lot and we would keep actions to a minimum,” Molnar says.

The team admits they got carried away and sent Munroe a bunch of passes. “The troll was making hand gestures, shrugging, making faces, doing more than was expected. This helped bring the character to life.”

What this means for WandaVision Could Wanda accidentally bring to life an oversized monster to crush her suburban sitcom home? Could Ant-Man’s “Giant Man” make a surprise appearance? Unlikely, but there is still bound to be plentiful action that calls for something big.

The Umbrella Academy

Vanya's powers, in The Umbrella Academy Season 2, Episode 7.Netflix

MARZ works on many of the VFX shots for Netflix’s superhero drama The Umbrella Academy. “About 275,” MARZ’s VFX supervisor Ryan Freer tells Inverse. The bulk of the work was Vanya Hargreeve and Harlan Cooper’s superpowers, “which essentially harness sound and energy” and “manifest in pulses of white, blue, and yellow light.”

“We relied on our compositing team to create this effect,” Freer tells Inverse. The work began with a test shot for Umbrella Academy’s own VFX supervisor Everett Burrell, “to show how we visualized Vanya’s powers emanating from her chest.” The showrunners were so impressed, they enlisted MARZ to craft Harlan’s powers as well.

“Those two effects were done purely in compositing,” says Freer. “We used the 3D engine within Nuke, which allowed us to make sure the walls of light in this effect never looked flat. It was important for us to make sure the whirling lights weren’t too thin as they wrapped around the edges. There needed to be substance.”

Another scene MARZ did for Umbrella Academy was an explosion in a forest in episode five. Explosions are typical for superhero TV, yet they still pose a challenge given the unique environments and context for the story.

“The first thing is to put the viewer in the moment, so it feels like there’s a camera right there,” says Molnar. “An explosion is an overwhelming event. So the sound, the feeling, the sight, all of these senses need to be stimulated. Part of that is imagining the turbulence and how violent that would be.” MARZ studied the physics of an exploding watermelon to understand “how a physical, liquid-filled body would shred to pieces.”

What this means for WandaVision WandaVision is a superhero show. Something is going to blow up. Whether that something is also a body remains to be discovered. Luckily MARZ has experience in this realm.

The Expanse

Zero gravity whiskey, in The Expanse Season 5, Episode 1.Amazon Prime Video

For the acclaimed science fiction series now on Amazon Prime Video, MARZ says the show lives and dies by its tiniest details.

The Expanse isn’t like Star Trek—everything isn’t pristine,” says Ryan Freer. “Elements are floating in the air, shrapnel and particles move in the zero-gravity environments, and there needs to be dirt on surfaces to sell the shots. These dirt passes, the interaction of VFX with on-set lighting and other details help make the spaces authentic and lived-in.”

But the biggest challenge for The Expanse is the show’s depiction of zero gravity. “The production team has a very high standard for accuracy of physics, and we happened to handle a lot of blood and other liquid effects.”

A scene involving Shohreh Aghdashloo pouring whiskey (“She was acting with an empty decanter and cup,” says Freer) was daunting for MARZ. “It was our job to convincingly put that together with how liquid reacts in that environment. We have never seen footage of astronauts pouring drinks in the lunar lander before space walks.”

To achieve the effect, the team comprised between physical accuracy and what actually looks good for the screen. “When we accurately simulated the force, it didn’t look right, so it was all about finding the sweet spot between what is right and what looks right.”

What this means for WandaVision Wanda’s telekinetic powers will absolutely be seen in WandaVision, confirmed in the trailer when a certain bottle of wine is poured. The difference is that WandaVision won’t feature characters in zero Gs (at least we think, though the presence of the space-based S.W.O.R.D. might change our minds).

The Witch

One of the few VFX shots in the 2015 horror film The Witch was the creepy hand of the dark witch, played by Sarah Stephens.A24

Prior to founding MARZ, Molnar worked on a few visual effects for the 2015 horror film The Witch, about a family succumbing to a dark power in rural colonial New England.

“There was no digital witch,” Molnar says, “the only thing we really did for the character in VFX was alter her hands and nails in the shot where she has her hands around the boy.”

What it means for WandaVision — The acclaimed cult movie has a different “witch” than Elizabeth Olsen’s superheroic Wanda in WandaVision, which MARZ is also at work making the VFX for.

“We would definitely consider WandaVision to be a witchy story, but certainly not in the same ways. We can’t wait to show you what we mean on January 15!”