Academy Award-nominated visual effects supervisor Sean Faden joins Awards Daily to discuss his work on the Oscar Issac-starring Moon Knight.
Unlike other Marvel projects streaming on Disney+, Moon Knight debuted without a previous theatrical tie-in. And COVID restrictions made it near-impossible to bring large crews to London or Cairo where much of Moon Knight takes place. Thus, the challenge for the VFX team behind the series became two-fold—create never-before-seen monsters and an expansive underworld AND trick increasingly CGI-savvy audiences believe that the Pyramids and other iconic landmarks in the foreground are real.
Here, VFX supervisor Sean Faden details how he and his team worked to bring Marvel magic to the small screen.
Read more below:
Awards Daily: How did you come to work on Moon Knight? And how was this experience different from your previous work for Disney?
Sean Faden: Good question. I was finishing Mulan, a Disney project, but the Disney and Marvel teams know each other very well. My VFX producer and friend Diana Giorgiutti had done a bunch of Marvel projects, so she introduced me to the Marvel team. She said, ‘You need to meet these guys,’ and she said to them, ‘You need to meet Sean’. So, it worked out really well. I had one interview or maybe two, and got the job.
It was always a very exciting project because of the idea that it was an origin story within the Marvel streaming world, it seemed like it was the first one. The other Marvel streaming shows up to that point had been spin-offs of characters established in the theaters. Moon Knight felt the way Iron Man was a way to introduce the world to the depth of that character, and I felt like this was a similar opportunity. So, I was excited about that.
In terms of how it differs from other productions I’ve done, I feel like it’s a mix between the last two big ones I worked on, Power Rangers and Mulan. It’s a mix between the two because, with Mulan, we needed to ground that in real China environments and real landscapes. We didn’t shoot our main unit team in China. We only shot it in New Zealand, so in the same way, this project was supposed to take place in London and Cairo, but we never shot with our main unit in either of those places. We shot them in Budapest, and then we were able to shoot in the deserts of Jordan.
Having the mandate be, ‘Make us believe that this was all shot in London’ and Oscar Isaac ‘Make us believe that it was all shot in Cairo’ with everybody was a similar challenge. To use visual effects to create something that—if you could go out and shoot it, do it. But logistically, especially in COVID, we couldn’t just pick everybody up and shoot in these places. It wasn’t like we were creating a far-off planet that no one’s ever been. We were creating something that you could search ‘What does Cairo look like around the pyramids?’ or ‘What does the Thames River look like?’ or ‘What do buildings look like from the Thames?’ So that was a challenge that I was very excited to get into.
Then, of course, the superhero aspect of it, I was excited to do the massive fights and things like that because that’s also something we touched on at the end of our Power Rangers project. We had 200-foot-tall characters fighting each other. I learned a lot from that and wanted to apply some of that to what we did when we had Ammit and Khonshu fighting. It was a very challenging project, but the most interesting thing was how different each episode was from the other. We have episode five, a fantasy episode, which is all flashbacks that had to be blended tastefully. However, you’ve also got the Egyptian underworld, which is total fantasy but still has to feel somehow grounded. Then you’ve got the London episodes, one and two, with the Cairo episodes in three and six.
AD: I’ll dig into some of those elements further, but as you said, with Moon Knight, you didn’t have an established world you are building on. So how did you decide what you wanted certain elements to look like? Of course, you have the comic, but in some areas where you’re inventing something new, what was your approach to that visual world?
SF: A good example of approaching something that had never really been seen before would be The Duat, the Egyptian underworld. For that, we had some great concept work from Stefania Cella, our production designer. Her team had done a lot of really beautiful stuff. I think what we ended up with looks a little different from what they had done because as we started working with Framestore and developing that world, we were continually updating the concepts as we went. On a scout in Jordan, I remember I had a moment when I went swimming in the Red Sea and Mohamed, our director, was on the beach, but he was sitting in a chair, just taking it all in. We had just gotten to Aqaba that night, and I got out of the water, saw him sitting on the beach, and we just sat down and had a meeting. We just started talking, and we said, ‘What if the underworld felt like it was underwater?’ I remember when I was swimming, and as I was going out of the water, I could see the dappled light coming through the surface, and he loved the idea. We had this basic idea that the underworld could be this kind of underwater look. Then it was like, ‘How do you make clouds look like underwater?’ I didn’t want to literally have a reflective surface of the water on the ceiling. I wanted it to feel like storm clouds or something.
One day, I was at the Origo Studios in Budapest, and I looked up at the sky and saw these really weird cloud formations. Two days before, I had just seen on Instagram that these are called Asperitas clouds. They look like otherworldly, completely bizarre, stretched-flowing clouds. It just so happened that day in Budapest, they were in the sky, and I took a video of it to show to Mohamed and Grant Curtis, our producer. Everybody loved it like this is cool and different. We had never seen them before in a movie or a TV show. So we gave that to Framestore, and we developed our cloud sky based on these Asperitas clouds, and then it continued to develop because that was just a version that we kept going over and what we needed to make this even crazier. Mohamed was definitely driving it; he wanted it to be even more insane in terms of colors, the sky’s motion, and what the sand would be doing. So we kept pushing and pushing it until it got to a point where we said, “Okay, this feels like something completely different than anything else you’ve seen in the show.” It is amazing that it fits in the way it does because it’s a very stark contrast from the white halls of the hospital to when he opens the door, and suddenly you’re in this super colorful but dark and scary place. But again, it was not something that seemed like a lot of minds, a lot of ideas came together, it was almost like a Ouija board, you know, we just kept trying things. Then we tried it over here or over there, and what we ended up settling on, I think, is the best version of The Duat that we could have had. So I’m happy with how that all turned out.
AD: I’m glad you were able to collaborate, and I felt that the effects would be a little bit more isolated because after the project is over, everyone goes home, and you still have to keep working. Do you check in, or are you on your own? Do you have to evolve your idea and say, ‘Okay, well, the footage looks like this, and I originally had this idea, but that’s not going to work?’
SF: Marvel is pretty extraordinary in the way that they bring the VFX team into the fold. I was on from the very beginning, and I was one of the last people off the show. We were developing the looks of these things during production, so we were presenting it to our directors and producers, Kevin Feige, Victoria Alonso, Lewis Zito, and Brad Winterbottom. Everybody is seeing the stuff, developing and giving their notes. We’re all sort of taking those notes and trying to sort of shape, you know, we’re zigging and zagging to hit what they’re asking for, but we’re also coming out with stuff on our own, and then saying, hey, what about this? Sometimes they say, we like that better or No, let’s stay the course. That same paradigm worked in post-production, but it was just more often. So now we’ve got actual edits and shots in progress, and we’re presenting those as works in progress every week. Then in the last probably three months, we presented four or five times a week, for an hour or two hours every day, presenting the shots and progress, talking them through with all the filmmakers. Marvel definitely treats the visual effects efforts as part of the filmmaker process. We’re not a service entity that’s just like, you know, we’ve asked for this, we’re going to put it in a box, we’re going to send it to the VFX team, we’re going to wait and then in two weeks they’re going to give us what we asked for, it doesn’t work like that. Thankfully, it’s more of a free-flowing exchange of ideas.
AD: I’m curious because audiences nowadays are so smart to CGI, whereas ten or fifteen years ago, it was easier to trick us. Now things are different, and many of these CGI-heavy action movies exist. You’ve worked on many of them. How do you ground your work? How do you sort of trick the eye and trick audiences? What is your approach to CGI, particularly in these larger worlds?
SF: Audiences are definitely more sophisticated right now, for sure. My approach to CG is that I dislike overdoing it or putting too many things into the shot. I sometimes think about a shot with so many different things to look at; you lose your focus. It ends up, I think, taking away from the actual visual effects. For example, in the scenes when we have Khonshu and Ammit battling with each other, I think it becomes distracting if we had had at the same time a bunch of birds flying around or helicopters flying around them. So by focusing on what we should assume is real, the audience will watch that and go, Oh, they didn’t have a three-hundred-foot-tall crocodile goddess or a three-hundred-foot-tall, Khonshu standing there. They would hopefully believe that maybe they went out and shot drone footage of the Giza Pyramids, or they shot a ton of photography of that, and then we’re using that as their base. In our case, we had to create all that out of materials gathered from internet photography.
We had a very short photo tech survey in Cairo, but we couldn’t shoot in Cairo. We didn’t get to go to Cairo to do a full LIDAR acquisition, so all that had to be created. Keeping it grounded, not overlit, because that’s another tendency to put lights everywhere and make everything lit up so well. The reality is that the Giza complex does not have a lot of lights on, and we’re already cheating by putting a few in a few places just to give us something to kind of ground the eye. It tends to get a little crazy, so we try to keep that within reason. The other thing that I like to do is, in terms of camera work, trying to keep the camera at something that feels like it could have been photographed. If you have a camera that’s moving too dynamically, I don’t care how good your CG looks; the audience is going to go, whoa, I’m on a roller coaster right now. It doesn’t feel real. Again, you can have the best-looking CG, the best animation of characters, the best shaders, and all kinds of stuff, but if the cameras are moving in a way that’s not matching real dynamics, it’s going to feel fake. So I was trying to do that, and we previous a lot of these shots and all CG shots. That was part of the thinking was to keep them in a grounded state.
Stuff like the Duat, which is a fully CG world, any shots of the boat, the barge, we try to say, this is like a helicopter shot, or this was like a boat to boat shot. We try to think of it that way so that the camera was not moving in a way that felt that would kind of break the scale, and that I think also helps. But yeah, we had a lot of references on set that we would use to look for as lighting references. So like I said, we had for all of our characters, we always had an actor standing in the outfit performing. So we had that as a reference. We had a full-size Khonshu skull, a three-foot Khonshu skull, and an Ammit on a stick head. So all these things help that you know, even if it’s going to be fully CG, it’s based on something so real that you can always point to and go, okay, I’m not lost, I have my touchstone for this shot, I know what it should look like.
AD: To close our time together, thank you so much. You know, the two things you mentioned, you mentioned that based on your previous work, there were lessons that you brought in, and I was curious about that. Then if there are any sequences that you want to highlight that, that you haven’t had a chance to, you know, to tell me about those and how you did apply those lessons that you learned?
SF: One of the big sequences that were challenging was when we had a daytime Cairo chase. They’re running across rooftops in Cairo in episode three, and they’re running through the marketplaces. It was challenging because it’s daytime in Cairo; there’s nowhere to hide on this stuff. Image Engine did a great job of putting all these shots together. The challenging thing with all this is that you have all this detail but can layer it so that, sometimes, if you see too much stuff, it ends up feeling fake. So it’s sort of having just the right amount and balance. I learned that from Mulan, we had a lot of set extension work in Mulan, and it was about putting just enough background information out there that you bought it, but not so much that it would distract the actors in the foreground. Another thing, the sequence when Ammit and Khonshu are fighting at a 300-foot scale, I learned a lot from when I had the Megazord fighting the massive gold monster from Power Rangers and the speed of their movements. We did a lot of tests back on Power Rangers and just tried to find what felt big and what felt right. So when we got into that with Khonshu and Ammit, I felt like we got there pretty quick in terms of what speed felt right. I think a lot of that credit goes to Weta for getting there quickly, but also kind of happened in my mind, like, what was going to feel right. I didn’t feel lost when we were starting to sequence. In other words, if they could hit somewhere in the zone of what we hit in Power Rangers, we would have good scale and still be able to get a lot of force in the punches and the hits. You could still get that without feeling like slo-mo or cheated.
AD: That’s fascinating! I think there are a lot of details that audiences just don’t know, so to get to hear about all those minute little things that you don’t consider, but it’s such a big part of your job, I think it is really enlightening. Thank you so much for your time. I hope we get to meet again.
SF: Thank you, Shadan!
Moon Knight is streaming now on Disney+.