‘Moon Knight’ continues the impressive Marvel tradition of seamlessly incorporating CG costumes
The VFX behind Moon Knight’s impressive armor.
If you watched the MCU / Disney+ Moon Knight series recently, then you would have seen Oscar Isaac starring as both Marc Spector and Steven Grant, as well their personas Moon Knight and Mr. Knight, the former featuring a mummy-like wrap and the latter a three piece suit-like armor.
While real armor costumes were designed and worn on set by Isaac and his stunt doubles, the visual effects teams on the show–led by visual effects supervisor Sean Faden–often augmented or fully replaced the costumes where required. This included: fight scenes, transformations and hero moments. Faden breaks down the digital costuming for befores & afters.
b&a: For Moon Knight’s armor, where did you start in working out the visual effects approach to that?
Sean Faden: Well, actually, the Moon Knight costume changed. There was a version of the Moon Knight costume that we were all working towards that was actually even more mummy-inspired than what we ended up with. What we ended up with, I think, was a good compromise and a better look overall, because it still had elements of Egyptian mummy details, but also had a little more of a superhero kind of vibe and felt a little stronger; it gave Oscar more presence. Oscar actually had a lot to do with adjustments made with Meaghan Kasperlik, our amazing costume designer, from the original Marvel visual dev.
In terms of how the transformations would happen, I had initial discussions with Grant Curtis, who was our main Marvel producer point of contact and with our director Mohamed Diab. I pitched letting everything be bandage-based, and feeling the material wrap and reach over his body to form a strong armor, following the form of the final design.
This actually drew upon some of my Power Rangers experience. There we had the suits manifest themselves on the kids in an organic way. I wanted to do something that was similar to that. We weren’t going to show anything in that macro kind of photography the way we did on Power Rangers, but we wanted to feel that the suit is manifesting itself out of Egyptian magic as if it’s part of Marc Spector, and not too mechanical or poppy. It needed to flow as it materialized. We didn’t want it to just come from thin air. We’d have it come from behind him or from under his clothing, use the photography, use the nooks and crannies of the footage to hide where it was coming from.
In early discussions with Meaghan and seeing early material samples, I was thrilled to see how much texture she was giving to the bandages and it inspired the idea to use the gauze-like sub structure of the material as a kind of building block for the suit and in turn a building block for the transformation FX. She thankfully agreed and when she would propose design ideas for the costume, it was already based on conversations that she and I had had, where we said, ‘Hey, if you incorporate some of this gauze into it, then it gives us something to build on when we’re actually doing the transformation.’ We had really amazing concept work from the Marvel vis dev team, and then Meghan’s team built the suit for real.
b&a: How did the transformations get visualized?
Sean Faden: We were always talking and trying to figure out what could inspire the best transformation ideas. When we did early tests with Framestore, who developed the whole transformation techniques, there were lots of bandages wrapping around. It was cool looking, but it was a little distracting. We were joking it kind of looked like a bunch of CVS receipts–these notoriously long receipts that you get at this pharmacy here. But it was just distracting, seeing this many things wrapping around.
So what we ended up doing was speeding things up and keeping the elements closer to the body so you would see the last bit of it was wrapping and forming against the body. There is a growth of the bandages in length and width, with a transitional edge of just pure gauze that gets filled with material as the bandages wrap into place.
Then you’ve got all the other parts, the chest plate which has a moon imprinted on it, and then lots of hieroglyphics and these metallic pieces. We decided to have them form almost as if they were molten metal, just filling a space, filling a mold. But we didn’t want to show that too clearly, instead we made sure there are bandages being displaced and stretched over these solid pieces as the metal bits expand.
The other main elements of the suit were the cape and the cowl. In Mulan, we did transformations of the witch whose flowing costume would transform into a hawk. What we found worked really well was that any sort of transformation, if it was driven by some kind of a cloth simulation motion, it would look better. So the cowl didn’t just go and ‘appear’ in place. Instead, if you imagine Moon Knight just tossed his cowl onto his head it would look better because there’s motion to it. Same thing with the cape. Imagine a cape unfurling and as it’s unfurling, it’s growing, or as it’s unfurling, it’s forming. It would’ve looked really odd to have it just kind of appear in place. It’s much more interesting to see it actually appearing while it’s in motion.
b&a: In Marvel films and shows, there’s obviously a long history of the costumes being a mix between CG and real. What could you shoot here and what was the mix of digital and real?
Sean Faden: Well, the suits were very complicated and we only had two or three Moon Knight suits that we could ever really use. So I would say in shots when it was Oscar and he wasn’t having to run around too much, we could have him in the full suit with the cape, with no cowl. We had some shots where we had the cowl and had the face mask, which basically left a raccoon eye area, which we always knew we were going to have to enhance. The intention there was to create a version of the skin around the eyes that felt like his skin and that gauze texture had almost bonded together.
There were some shots where our stunt guys were running around and they would wear a shorter, ‘stubby’ cape, just to kind of see something, and then we’d have to remove it and replace with a full length CG cape. In those shots, it was useful to have something flopping around there because it gave valuable lighting reference as well as showed how it needed to attach to the shoulder area.
If they were doing any kind of tumbling, a lot of times they had to go without the chest piece on. But we’d always push for, ‘Hey, can you give us the vambraces on the arms?’ So we’d have gloves and hand interaction and elbows, all that hitting the ground. We’d have the boots, which were super important in terms of adding believability. They reached up to his knees and gave us real interaction with the sand and dirt.
So, we still had to replace his chest in a lot of those shots and add the cape in most of those shots and add the cowl and everything. But having something was definitely better than nothing. For other sequences like the running along the rooftop in episode two, when the Jackal was chasing him, that was a stunt person for most of the shots without a cape. We’d add the cape because he had to tumble and of course hit cool cape poses throughout despite stunt wires and tuning fork rigs which would have obstructed any cape movement.
As the cape is such an iconic part of Moon Knight, there were a few moments where we wanted to hit poses from the comic books. I went through a bunch of comics, found a couple of shapes, and then painted over what Framestore had done and said, ‘Here’s the reference, we don’t have to keep this shape the whole time but all I want you to do is just try to animate so that we hit this key frame right here. And after that, let it just unfurl and do what it’s going to do.’ That seemed to be a good approach in general, whenever we wanted a hero pose.
b&a: Did that mean Framestore and the vendors roto-animated the live action performance? You didn’t shoot any motion capture or even faux capture on set or anything like that?
Sean Faden: We had times where Oscar would be in costume and we would roto-animate to add what we needed to add. Whenever possible we would preserve the stunt performer or Oscar’s performance, however there were some shots that required a full CG replacement and animation. Thankfully, we did do several motion capture sessions with our stunt team in Budapest at DIGIC Pictures. And some of that was used to help these moments such as run cycles, parkour moments, punches, tumbles and landings The shot where Moon Knight is walking towards the Jackal away from the bus was something we figured out that we needed later. So we didn’t have motion capture for that, but Framestore did a fantastic job mixing what mocap they had with great animation.
For the most part, it was augmenting what was there. I should also say that the Mr. Knight fight in the alleyway with the Jackal involved a lot of replacement of the entire suit because it got so dirty. So, imagine a white suit and a road that has been wet down. It was all these dirty cobblestone set pieces that the stunt guys were running around and tumbling on. So after take two or three, the suit was brown. The costume team was great and did their best to clean it between takes but in the end we had a lot of work there–those are interesting befores and afters.
b&a: It sounds like Framestore was the design and lead vendor, but I’m just assuming, because there’s so many episodes, that other vendors got on board too? How did that work and how did you keep a consistency amongst them?
Sean Faden: For Moon Knight and Mr. Knight, Framestore definitely took the lead on building their digital equivalents. They also developed the look for Moon Knight and Mr. Knight’s eyes as well as the cleaned up mask for Mr. Knight, whose real costume (as planned) required an access zipper and had wrinkles that would need to be smoothed out. That was then handed off to MARZ, who did all the sequences in episode three for the fight at Mogart’s mansion. And then of course, it was also handed off to Weta FX, one of our other major vendors. And Weta FX had a bunch of Mr. Knight and Moon Knight shots as well.
Weta FX focused on the transformation into the Mr. Knight outfit, taking the development that Framestore had done in terms of how the bandages would do their thing. We thought it’d be cool if, almost like a misdirect, the bandages that you think are going to be forming Moon Knight are getting closer and closer together and then the seams between the bandages would disappear and you’d be left with the Mr. Knight three-piece suit.
Image Engine and Base FX also worked on Moon Knight and Mr. Knight shots, with Base FX handling some major transformation effects in episodes five and six for us.
b&a: I remember seeing the trailer and thinking, ‘Oh my God, there’s going to be a lot of cloth sims in this series,’ which is quite a bold thing for a streaming show.
Sean Faden: Yeah, and when you think about Khonshu–he’s a walking cloth sim, right? All of his robes and bandages and everything. And it wasn’t like, ‘Hey, just if he’s standing there, just let it be hanging.’ Instead we wanted it to have some sort of otherworldly flow to it. Then we have all of the Moon Knight capes and cowls to deal with and the CG Mr Knight shots as well.
Then there is the giant Ammit / Khonshu fight. Ammit has a really complicated beaded dress that was based on an actual Egyptian dress artifact that Meghan had come across and Weta FX did an awesome job of replicating the subtle movements of the beads and the shimmer looked great. We have probably 500 shots out of the 2,400 shots in the show that had pretty significant cloth sim animation.