Just like when an infant Jedi master became the breakout star of The Mandalorian, ILM struck social media gold once again with the reptilian version of the Norse trickster god in the hit Marvel Studios and Disney+ series, Loki. As to whether Baby Yoda/Grogu reigns supreme over Alligator Loki, ILM VFX supervisor David Seager admits the topic has been widely discussed among his colleagues. “The fun thing about Alligator Loki, which they played with so well in writing, is whether he’s actually a Loki,” he says. “It’s left wonderfully ambiguous. Is this a mental lapse of the other Lokis where they put a hat on a random alligator and called him a Loki, or is it an actual Loki from another dimension? It’s left for the viewer to decide.”
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ILM was responsible for 500 visual shots starting with Episode 101, when Time Variance Authority agent Mobius M. Mobius (Owen Wilson) escorts Loki (Tom Hiddleston) into a Time Theatre to show his past and future life if he had stayed within the same timeline. “The Time Theater hologram was one where we got the most involved visually,” Seager says. “It was a lengthy process even though we ended up using a subtle approach.” Marvel Studios VFX supervisor Dan DeLeeuw collected imagery, including footage taken from previous films, for ILM to work from. “The information we were given was different based on the film,” Seager continues. “Some films we were just able to get the final image. Others, we could get the stereo left and right eye. We had to find this common denominator as far as trying to find the look. Kate Herron [director] from day one wanted it to be dimensional. It was a lot of clips.”
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Conceptually, the hologram had to be grounded in physics. “Dan didn’t want things to be magical,” notes Seager. “There is also this notion that the TVA aesthetic has this retro 1950s and 1960s vibe. We looked at a bunch of holograms from the day where you had to turn the photograph to get the effect. It is a big character point. This is Loki having a moment watching his mother die, and his own death. You grab him at the height of his ego from the first Avengers film and take him, in a short amount of time, through this whole experience. We kept it 2D. If we tried to restore actual 3D data or compositing layers from the final composites for each of those films, the look would have varied. In end it was a lot of roto extraction of characters and match animation to project onto to create a sense of dimension. When Loki is fast forwarding through parts of his life, there are about 20 clips [that needed roto].
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One of the series’ breakout stars was Alligator Loki, a completely digital character. According to Seager, “Early on in production, we did sculpts for Alligator Loki based on reference, and once we landed on his size, the measurements were sent to set. The blue stuffie they used was roughly based on those dimensions.” In the show, Alligator Loki has no lines of dialogue. “He growls and people translate for him,” Seager continues. “Alligators are not terribly active but can be extremely fast when they do move. A question we had to answer was ‘How fast does an alligator walk?’ Tom Hiddleston and Richard Grant have normal strides and are moving at a good clip, but then you go to an adolescent American alligator with legs that are six inches long. There were a handful of shots, if you look closely, where Alligator Loki teleports. Some of those travelling shots were challenging as we tried to put him in a place that, in theory, looks like he’s walking with them through the Void, when in fact it would have been hard for his little legs.”
Determining how naturalistic and intelligent the character would be proved a delicate balancing act. “In the comic moments he is the straight man,” Seager says. “We did explore the more active portion, but it opened the door for your brain to say, ‘That’s not real.’ The more you can keep it naturalistic the better.”
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Seager’s team faced considerable challenges conveying a sense of shape and form for Alioth, the trans-temporal monster made of smoke. “During hiatus, we are able to do a slow burn development cycle on Alioth,” he describes. “There are the demands of any character as far as the performance, the story point that is trying to be achieved, and shot composition; that’s the domain of animation. We also needed it to move realistically. So, we had to find that balance. We built some basic rigs and shapes that the animators could work with and let them go through iterations of animation. It was basic spheres and tubes that had a smoky texture. A big challenge for the effects artist was to encourage a natural simulation to follow the performance. It became like, ‘These are your marks. Alioth needs to go from here to there as this type of shape.’ There were times when effects artists started a simulation, pushed it into a certain direction, and used the natural pyroclastic expansion and rolling effect to get that final solution.”
ILM has a GPU-based fluid solver called Plume which is wonderful and enabled us to create Alioth,” Seager explains. “It’s all within a GPU for the actual simulation portion of the pyroclastic cloud motion. We did some test shots using Plume and were able to produce quite rapidly prototyped shots of what Alioth might look like. The big advantage of Plume is its speed and the number of simulations someone can do in a given day. It does pyroclastic flow well, and he’s a pyroclastic monster, so it was a match made in heaven.”
In creating the Void, a point in time where Alligator Loki everything pruned by the Time Variance Authority, or TVA, is deposited, Seager’s team worked from an extensive library of “intentionally dreary and ambiguous” concept art. “Kate was inspired by Simon Stålenhag, who creates foggy grey worlds in his artwork,” he shares. “In her interviews, Kate has laughed and said that she asked us to make England! The word ‘moor’ was used quite a lot as we created this world. The characteristics were rolling hills, overcast, foggy, timeless, and infinite. You can walk in any direction for days and it will look exactly the same. It makes you realize how much you rely on special features like rivers and forests to make environments look real and alive. We found a language for the pieces we used, whether for the size of rocks or the skeletal trees. We had a lot of shots where scale was a problem, and trees were our answer. We put them in midground, background or deep background.”
The Void was stocked with Easter eggs from the real world and MCU, appearing as anything that could be sent from alternative timelines. “We had real-world oddities like a nuclear-powered tank proposed by Chrysler during the Cold War, the Lighthouse of Alexandria, and the USS Eldridge from The Philadelphia Experiment. Then you have the MCU. Dan is working on Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania and said, ‘Lets put a giant Wasp helmet in there!’ The team had a lot of fun.