Posted on Tuesday, May 2, 2023

How Digital Domain Went Full CG to Create M.O.D.O.K. for ‘Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania’

Since the moment he was revealed in the second Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania trailer, people have been fascinated with the MCU’s MODOK. And that’s understandable, since he is one of the most unusual characters ever seen on screen.

To build MODOK for the screen, Oscar-winning VFX studio Digital Domain recreated actor Corey Stoll as a fully CG character. After capturing his performance down to the most nuanced detail, the VFX team used a combination of machine learning (an advanced version of the tools it used to create Thanos) and the talents of some of the best artists in the world to bring him to the screen.

Ron Miller, CG Supervisor on the film for Digital Domain, recently spoke with us about creating M.O.D.O.K. and how they created an entire film in the quantum realm.

PH: Can you describe a bit about your professional history and how you got into visual effects?

Ron Miller: I’ve worked 23 years in VFX, with a short stint in games mixed in there. Like many, my career started out very mercenary with a lot of hard work. I eventually grinded my way to Weta Digital where I was on the facial team for eight years. Then I decided to take my talents to Digital Domain to help them with hero creatures and character work.

PH: How do you go about selecting a project to work on? Do you have a certain criteria you follow?

Ron Miller: Any show that comes in with a hero character like a She-Hulk, or Thanos-level asset I’ll be involved.

PH: What is Digital Domain? Can you share some of the projects you've worked on up to this point?

Ron Miller: Deadpool, Beauty and the Beast (2017), Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, She-Hulk, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, Spider-Man: Homecoming and Spider-Man: No Way Home.

PH: How did the Digital Domain team become involved with Ant-Man and The Wasp: Quantumania?

Ron Miller: There are many variables, but Digital Domain has had a long history of creating realistic faces for films from Benjamin Button to Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War. So when Marvel needed to create M.O.D.O.K. for their movie, which is a five-foot-tall floating head, it seemed like a solid investment.

PH: How did you land on the look for M.O.D.O.K.? What were pre-production conversations around this character like?

Ron Miller: There are hundreds of different versions of M.O.D.O.K. out there, but the director was determined to leverage as much of Corey Stoll’s likeness as possible, even though it was obviously distorted. The eyes, nose and mouth even though proportionally different and shifted around the face are still 100% Corey. All his memory wrinkles on the forehead and crow's feet are 1:1 with the actor. The director wanted to avoid any versions that came off as too extreme or scarred as he really wanted to ensure that the actor's likeness would still be recognizable.

When it came to the costume, the initial development of M.O.D.O.K. made him appear more like someone that was sitting in a chair, rather than being a part of it. A lot of effort went into determining how man and machine should look when fused together.

PH: How many iterations of the character did you have to go through before landing on what audience members witnessed on-screen?

Ron Miller: Because M.O.D.O.K. is such a unique asset, there was quite a bit of searching for what works and what doesn’t. We tried versions with the scarring of a battle-hardened warrior, as well as versions pushing towards the more grotesque. We also experimented with different hairstyles, which added a whole other level of hilarity to the character. But ultimately, Peyton wanted to make sure that audiences were able to easily recognize the actor.

PH: What were some of the challenges you encountered and how did you address those? Such as the unique movement limitations of the character.

Ron Miller: Movement limitations were a big factor with the character. Finding that balance of constraining the face in the costume, but allowing the facial performance of the actor to come through as naturally as possible was a big challenge. Certain animation rules had to be established, and a deformer system had to be developed to help the face interact with the costume and feel as naturally constrained as possible.

Another challenge was the scale of the face. It is over five times the size of Corey's, which means his facial structure, pores and details need to be refined to hold up to a camera coming within inches of his face. We switched over to using V-Ray 5 for the random walk SSS. We felt like random walk gave us the best chance for success because the rendering handled facial curvatures better, which made it easier to see the base forms. Also, random walk helped preserve the fidelity of the fine details on the face from various distances.

PH: Can you dive deep into some of M.O.D.O.K's characteristics and how they married with the location of the quantum realm?

Ron Miller: If you’ve seen the movie, you will see there are all types of crazy characters, even a broccoli one. I think M.O.D.O.K. with his baby arms and legs, and his strange facial proportions fit in well.

PH: Can you talk us through the new blood flow pipeline you developed and how it worked?

Ron Miller: Our blood flow and animated displacement pipeline got an overhaul on this show as we switched to a more machine learning approach. This system leverages the scan data acquired from the actor for the different facial poses. It then gets ported over to the M.O.D.O.K. asset taking into account the proportional differences. All this data is then put into a library for machine learning. This library of data is then triggered by Digital Domain’s proprietary WPSD system that uses a feature graph to calculate edge strain differences. Essentially when an area of the face comes close to what’s in the library, those color and detail differences are blended into the neutral.

PH: In your opinion, does this film really step it up in terms of VFX?

Ron Miller: Absolutely. The film is nearly all VFX as it takes place in the quantum realm. It’s definitely a feast for the eyes.