Matt Aitken interview: ‘Eternals’ VFX supervisor
“They are very demanding projects, but good fun,” reveals “Eternals” visual effects supervisor Matt Aitken. The veteran of New Zealand visual effects house Weta came aboard Chloe Zhao’s ambitious movie to help bring the director’s photographic aesthetic into the eye popping digital effects. “I think it’s a strength of the Marvel films, that they’re able to keep elements of the story alive and keep refining the story that they’re telling, late into post-production,” he explains. Watch the exclusive video interview above.
“Eternals” immediately looks different from any other film in the MCU canon thanks to Oscar winner Zhao’s focus on nature. “Chloe brought her visual style, which is naturalistic,” notes Aitken. Whereas many superhero stories are filmed in a studio, the director was insistent about filming on location. He says that one of his primary jobs was “making sure that we honored her” by matching her visual storytelling style.
The epic final battle, where a gigantic Celestial is birthed from under the Earth’s surface like a mountain, was a primary focus for Aitken’s team at Weta. They traveled to the Canary Islands to shoot the sequence, but thanks to the action-packed nature of the fight, Aitken reveals that about half the shots in this scene are fully or predominantly CGI shots. Since Zhao was filming on location, the footage would end up with a range of colors and light as the sky and sea shifted during the day. The visual effects team similarly had to present variations in how they generated the sky in order for their CG shots to meld seamlessly into the sequence.
“High end digital doubles is the hardest stuff we have to do,” admits Aitken when referencing the characters who are speeding, flying, and fighting their way through the scene. However, he notes that “the digital human is a particular area of specialty for Weta.”
When it came to the Eternals themselves, one of the main digital contributions came in the form of their powers. Each Eternal is imbued with a “cosmic energy” which energizes their unique ability. The visual effects team wanted this makeshift family to feel as if they came “from the same unifying source,” according to Aitken. So a bright gold color courses through the characters, something Aitken describes as “very finely tuned” in terms of color, particle effects, and chromatic flares.
These powers needed to not only exist as energy, but also have physical weight to them. When Thena (Angelina Jolie) conjures a glowing spear or shield, “there has to be a physical connection” as it clashes into her adversary. “I’m always going to go back to the comic book for inspiration,” reveals Aitken, who referenced Jack Kirby’s designs of glyphs and circular patterns when thinking about the energy that springs from the Eternals. “It’s a reference and an honoring of the comic book work.”
Aitken sees “Eternals” as a full circle moment for his industry. He fondly remembers working at Weta during the filming of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, a gargantuan shoot in which Peter Jackson filmed primarily on location across New Zealand. Since then, the industry has pivoted to a filming process centered around studio sets when making large scale action blockbusters. “Now with Chloe and her success, we’re going more into a location-based shooting style again,” says Aitken. He believes that the viewers are the ones who have incited this return to form. “Audiences want to really lose themselves in a world,” he states.
He is a two-time Oscar nominee for “District 9” and “Avengers: Endgame.” He has been nominated at the Visual Effects Society eight times, with five wins: “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,” “King Kong,” “King Kong 360 3-D” at Universal Studios, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” and “Avengers: Infinity War.”