Last year, Chloe Zhao made the leap from indie films to Marvel with “Eternals,” which is now streaming on Disney Plus.

For Zhao to bring the story to life, an important person in his journey was visual effects supervisor Stefane Ceretti. Even before Zhao had filmed the Oscar-winning “Nomadland”, Zhao had met Ceretti.

For “The Eternals,” she continued to shoot on convenient locations, working in natural light, and using the magic hour instead of being in a studio working on a green and blue screen. Zhao explains, “Planet Earth is such a big part of the emotional story arc that we wanted to go out there and capture it.”

After seeing “The Rider”, Ceretti understood the director’s love for nature and light. “It was a shame not to push in there. When you’re on a set, you’re limited by space and it becomes constraining. Whereas on the beach, you have all the real estate and you can move around.

The film was shot across London and the Canary Islands. Ceretti explains that he found benefits in being there. Ceretti says, “Doing nature scenes, you use up so much space.”

For the film’s opening sequence, which takes place on a beach, the initial area they had found was former army ground and proved unsafe to shoot. Cameraman Joshua James Richards eventually found another spot near the beach and the scene was moved. Coming from independent cinema, Zhao used to move the team at the last minute. According to Zhao, “It was impressive to see the VFX teams making calls to update them. It was a privilege and an incredible experience to learn how an idea comes to fruition, and then we post where I can see it come to fruition. Because this stage is just an empty field with actors in. What you see is the magic of what Stef and his team have done.

Ceretti appreciated Zhao’s cultural richness, enhanced by his work in the independent world. “Chloe’s mind is very complex and detailed. Everything that was put into the film was explained and thought through,” he says. Zhao adds that it was important to bring a multicultural element to the film in the production design, costumes, and visual effects. “We brought in elements and symbols from South America, Asia, and Western culture.”

Much of the film pays homage to Jack Kirby, who in 1976 created the characters – a group of aliens defending Earth with superhuman powers. It was all tied to Kirby’s designs, Zhao says. “Even Sammy Sheldon’s suits. When we were building the world, we looked at what the Celestials looked like, the World Forge, and what the Domo spaceship looked like. But it all reflected on Jack.

Chloe Zhao worked against convenient locations for natural light

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Jack Kirby’s Influence Filtered Into Eternal’s VFX Designs

When it came to filming in natural light and capturing the magic hour, Ceretti says it was about learning to let go as a visual effects artist. He says, “All the shots looked different and a tendency we have as visual effects people is to replace the sky and they all look the same and are continuous. Chloe said, “No, we have to work on the plans and how they look.” We went there and embraced the natural feel of it all. Every shot is going to be different and that’s okay. This is something that we have imposed on our suppliers and we have made sure that they understand this. I think it paid off and he felt grounded.

A big learning curve for Zhao was in building the World Forge. In the film, Gemma Chan’s Sersi talks to Arishem and learns how she was created, and the World Forge environment appears behind her in the vacuum of space. Its interior was made up of thousands of individual sets, dressed in layers of detail such as crystal stalagmites and gold filaments. Zhao recalls, “It took us a long time to put the story together. Gemma Chan is also the only one in it, but when you don’t know what you’re looking for, it was hard for me to let her know what to do.

For her design inspiration, Zhao says she looked at sea creatures such as jellyfish. “We wondered what this place was for. It takes energy and builds Eternals and powers them. So there was this form of tentacles like a jellyfish and it absorbs energy.

Again, Kirby’s designs echoed as Ceretti and his team worked to get the rhythm and geometric shapes right as Sersi moved from place to place, transitioning through the environment. They came up with the idea of ​​a domed place, inspired by the idea of ​​jellyfish.

The design of the memory wall in the World Forge is reminiscent of Zhao’s first throw. “The idea was that it was this macro version of the inside of a sheet with the cells,” Zhao explains. “When you have unlimited choices and the freedom to find all of Jack Kirby’s design inspiration, but also to use inspiration from nature and minerals, that’s what helped us build that.”

Zhao notes that the World Forge sequences have always had sunshine. “We like to backlight our actors in the real world, so in this sequence, everything is backlit.”

Another challenge was in the texture and design of the skin of the Deviants, the mysterious alien creatures. “Chloe was so specific. She said, ‘I want them to be colorful and different from anything you’ve seen before. They needed to feel foreign, but common to Earth in their shapes,’ says Ceretti. Ceretti was inspired by his love for manga when designing them.

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The VFX team learned to work with natural light.

Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) in Marvel Studios' ETERNALS.  Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios.  © 2021 Marvel Studios.  All rights reserved.

Chloe Zhao wanted a monster the audience had never seen before.

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The Deviant design was one of the hardest to find.

Working with Ceretti from inception through post-production of the film made Zhao fall in love with visual effects. “It was an incredible learning process. It was scary at first. One of the first things Stef showed me was an “Ant-Man” sequence just to help me figure out how to break down a sequence [in VFX] and go as far as editing and the operation of the post-visualization. Zhao adds, “We used to talk about it all the time. Why don’t we study visual effects in school and how it could improve our process.”

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Preview for the World Forge

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Gold filaments and ancient symbols have been incorporated into the design of the World Forge.