Home Bittersweet Home: How Shang-Chi’s VFX shaped The Mandarin’s Compound.

Home Bittersweet Home: How Shang-Chi’s VFX shaped The Mandarin’s Compound. 10

Note: This interview contains heavy spoilers for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Please read at your own discretion about the film’s locations, post-credit scenes and story elements. The interview was slightly edited for clarity, length and flow.

A young Hanzhi Tang sat closely with his parents, soaking in the dark surroundings of a movie theatre. For the first time, his eyes were fixed on the glow of a gargantuan silver screen.

Like other audiences watching Star Wars Episode VI in 1983, Tang was also a witness to Hollywood’s dawn of animation. This was a pivotal step, fuelled by the green streak of Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber. Boba Fett soaring through the air. Even the Emperor magically shooting lightning from his fingers. Return of the Jedi’s special effects were love at first sight for Hanzhi Tang. He gazed at the works of Richard Edlund and Dennis Muren, two VFX supervisors at Industrial Light & Magic who brought Star Wars’ puppets, spaceships and lasers to life.

But The Force wasn’t enough to push Hanzhi Tang into becoming his own VFX supervisor at Digital Domain. That credit goes to a pack of Brontosaurus’ in Jurassic Park, which sealed his career choice. Along with an imposing T-Rex that devoured a goat and a bloodsucking lawyer.

“Yep, CG. I think I’m gonna do that,” Tang said, recalling that moment in his first year of university.

Tang spoke with a mix of relief and excitement. A certain feeling that comes from creating VFX for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Then bracing for more work to come in Spider-Man: No Way Home and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.

But building the world for Marvel’s first Asian superhero came with a sense of familiarity for Hanzhi Tang. He connected the dots back to his own experiences in Hong Kong and China for the VFX crafted scenes in Wenwu’s (Tony Leung) compound. Tang started with blending the styles of a Chinese siheyuan courtyard and a home fit for a Marvel villain. But this unique Marvel location reflected Wenwu’s complex life. Like a character on its own, Tang would hope audiences could understand The Mandarin’s compound. All while hoping they couldn’t tell reality and effects apart.

CGMagazine’s Clement Goh sat remotely with Digital Domain VFX Supervisor Hanzhi Tang, who broke down the process of The Mandarin’s compound and its ever-changing secrets.

CGMagazine: When you think about all the work that you did for Shang-Chi, what’s the first frame from the movie that comes to mind?

Hanzhi Tang: When they first came to us, it was gonna be like the opening shot of the movie. Like flying over a landscape and revealing his compound. And then that later got moved slightly, just because they want to establish more backstory to Wenwu’s character. That’s where the prologue happened with fight scenes in the past with the Ten Rings. But I think that shot of us coming around over the mountains and the trees, and then seeing his compound for the first time (in 1996). I think that kind of captures a lot of the work that we did at first and then later on, there was more work that was added to the underground car chase the characters escaped from the compound.

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CGMagazine: And to kind of paint the picture a bit, what was running through your mind when you found out that you were going to be working on this movie?

Hanzhi Tang: I was excited. The movie itself; it’s something I’ve been waiting for a long time. With the kind of first Marvel movie with Asian actors, I was like “oh, this is cool, I got to jump on this,” at least take part in that. Everything about it really was good. I think I knew from the beginning that this is going to be a good one. When I saw this in theatres, I thought to myself, “this is really good.”

CGMagazine: With Shang-Chi being steeped in this Asian identity, did you feel a personal connection working on the film?

Hanzhi Tang: Absolutely. I’m familiar with this style of a house (siheyuan). I’ve been with my parents to exactly this kind of style of a building when I was in Hong Kong and China. So it all felt like “you know, I think I know exactly what this is supposed to be.” I mean it might be maybe the one time I’ve done – in my visual effects career – I felt like “I remember this.” (laughs).

Home Bittersweet Home: How Shang-Chi’s Vfx Shaped The Mandarin’s Compound.

CGMagazine: When you finally got to watch the movie, did you go in with the eyes of a VFX designer or the eyes of an audience member?

Hanzhi Tang: I think the first time I watched it I just wanted to see it as a good movie. I think I did see it more than once. Like the second and third time. Just checking our work and taking a look at the VFX we were shown. But I think overall, it’s very consistent and the VFX doesn’t really take you out of the movie at all. So I think that just means the work is really nice, high level and it’s consistent through the movie.

CGMagazine: Going into the movie of course, the whole Shang-Chi movie stretches across The Mandarin’s compound. As far as other locations and set pieces that you worked on from other Marvel movies, where does this one fit in scale?

Hanzhi Tang: It sort of grows in size. I previously worked on Captain Marvel. There’s a big ship in that. And also, we’ve done an entire terrain for Captain Marvel flying through a canyon and stuff. So for this, I think we do everything from just the CG version of this little house. With the Chinese kind of courtyard house (Siheyuan). And then it gets expanded out to a fortress, which is like, you know, this massive fortress wall. And he’s like, built out this kind of militaristic training compound, and there’s helicopter pads and stuff. So I think overall, the scale of the work is as big as any of the other stuff we’ve done. Maybe a little smaller than Black Widow, because we did the Red Room. But this sort of fits somewhere in between that.

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CGMagazine: So The Mandarin’s compound uses a mix of CG. And then some practical sets were used for the actors. As a VFX studio, how did you decide which scenes got that practical set? And which scenes got the CG one? What was the criteria there?

Hanzhi Tang: I think they built the immediate part. With the front of the house where any actors are going to be shooting a lot of scenes. They built that set. And it’s built up to just the first floor, so anything above that – we’d have to extend in CG anyway. And this set is on a small soundstage, so if you have to do a helicopter shot or somewhere you couldn’t get the camera high enough, we have a replacement.

We built a CG version of the entire house. So you could do a fly-in from further away and see the whole thing. And it can either blend back to the live action set, or just replace it completely. Which I think you see in the post-credits scene where we pull out when Xialing’s taken over the Ten Rings. As you pull out, it’s transitioning from the plate of the physical set, and then it enters into the CG one.

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CGMagazine: There were over 250 shots that your team worked on as well. Which were some of the shots that took longer than others to produce?

Hanzhi Tang: I think mostly the terrain. I think the terrain flyover shots. And the big wide shots of the compound took the longest, just because there’s so much to build and extend. There’s the mountain scape. There are the trees and the rocks and all that has to be done. And then we had to build a small library (collection) of trees and rocks just to do that. And then there’s the compound itself, which I think we took on some of the design for. Some of it was a kind of concept. There were like two pieces of concept art and had to elaborate from that and kind of use our imagination to build out the rest of it.

I think those took the longest out of all of it.

From the Marvel art department, they gave us some paintings that kind of established the mood. But there wasn’t much of a detailing. Like “okay what texture is that, concrete?” We looked through a whole bunch of references and just picked and chose some materials that we think fit in with the style of that artwork.

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CGMagazine: Were there any prouder design choices that you hoped audiences really got to notice in the movie?

Hanzhi Tang: I think for us it’s when we come into his (Wenwu’s) compound. Like the helicopter landing. Ideally, the audience member doesn’t think twice. It doesn’t pull them out of the movie that they’re thinking “this is a CG house and helicopter.” I mean ideally, we were kind of hoping to go unnoticed. I think about most of those. And it’s just part of the story and you’re not looking at an effects-driven shot.

It helps when you have really good photography from the set. And you are able to blend a mix of the two. I think there’s always the best looking visual effects shots where there’s enough original photos that you can confuse the eye. Kind of blending where the CG and some of the live action stuff is.

CGMagazine: Obviously, this movie starts mainly at The Mandarin’s compound, but then the place later jumps back and forth through different flashbacks. Now what were some of the challenges to making each version of the compound look different?

Hanzhi Tang: Well I think it follows a story. He’s gone from this warlord and then he meets his wife. There’s that period of time and then there’s everything that happens after. So the design goes from kind of this traditional Chinese compound. It’s just kind of on a dirt road up in the mountains. After he meets his wife, it gets beautified. It’s gotten painted. The roofing is painted green and it’s kind of a classic garden. The whole thing is kind of lush.

And then after the gangsters come in and the incident happens with the wife, Wenwu is now angry. I think that kind of home goes away. Everything goes grey. Both the landscape itself goes from like a lush, forested landscape shown through fly-over initially and then later on it’s just like the mountain is basically bare. The overall look is desaturated. It’s barren. There’s a lot of concrete everywhere and it’s just hostile. It kind of just fits with the mood of his character and the progression of the movie.

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CGMagazine: So what would you say was the tougher step, designing the base itself from the ground-up or having to change it up to fit these different times?

Hanzhi Tang: The toughest part was just building the expanded compound. Because you’d have to do much more to the hillside. You’re adding antennas, satellite dishes and building new roads and making it look much more developed. You know, I think initially it was just a little house on the side of the hill. And then we had to expand it out and make it look impressive. This is the Ten Rings, a crime organisation that is capable of committing all these types of acts around the world. They’re very swiftly established and organised so that had to come with a nice, big compound.

CGMagazine: The compound does tell a lot about a person. I wanted you to elaborate this a lot more and when you designed the compound and how it was always changing and evolving, did it feel like making a character in itself?

Hanzhi Tang: I think so. I mean it’s a reflection of what’s going on in Wenwu’s life. So it’s really an extension of his personality. If it is a character, it is probably an extension of him and how he’s feeling about the world. I think because as he builds up the fortress walls, it’s very tied into him being kind of just feeling defensive and just angry at the world.

I think that starts from his post-wedding honeymoon period. And it’s like the whole courtyard’s been changed. There’s a pond, all these things being planted out. And then later in the movie, it’s like just everything’s ripped out. It’s all just dirt and guys training.

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CGMagazine: When you were bringing some of that identity towards like the VFX and the sets, what kind of movies from your own life did you think back on? Any movies you thought about from your childhood that kind of made its way into your thought process?

Hanzhi Tang: I’ve watched so much. Like basically every visual effects movie. I think back to everything I’ve seen from Goonies and onwards after. I reference all these movies, all day long whenever I review stuff. It’s hard to pinpoint like specifically.

To give you an example: In the car chase that we did, one of the bike flips after Shang-Chi throws one of the swords down and it goes into the motorcycle wheels, the bike goes straight up and I’ve seen something like that. When we were talking about it, we looked at Indiana Jones. In The Last Crusade actually, there’s a moment like that where the bike flips straight up in the air.

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CGMagazine: Obviously a classic there. And when you were working on Shang-Chi and other Marvel projects as well, are there any of your favourite VFX-ridden movies that you always think about when you’re working?

Hanzhi Tang: That’s a tough question.

I try to avoid taking too much influence from films I’ve seen. There’s movies with really good work that I kind of aspire to have as well integrated in the movie. Seamless style VFX and I think that’s kind of where the influence lies. On where they’ve (other studios) held that bar and asking “do we need that?”

CGMagazine: Going back to that Indiana Jones-esque chase sequence as well: How did it feel to go from designing this complete interior that was The Mandarin’s garage, only to completely destroy it afterwards in that scene?

Hanzhi Tang: They filmed a chase around the garage that we basically needed to extend. Then turn it from just a parking garage into the working, underground part of Wenwu’s compound. We just added server rooms, a power generator room and just made it a lot cooler than just a parking garage.

Well, it doesn’t get destroyed as I was just figuring out your original question. We just had to make it like a space where they could easily drive around. But also fit in and be dangerous as far as them trying to escape. And with the timing of the escape as they come down one ramp and have to escape through the gate on the other side, whilst being chased by bikes and ATVs, so that was pretty cool.

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CGMagazine: What were some of your favourite parts of this project?

Hanzhi Tang: Probably getting feedback from Destin, the director. I think later on, he really liked the fly-over. There’s a moment in the movie where they’ve captured Shang-Chi and his and his sister and brought them back in the helicopter, and they kind of fly over a saddle in the mountains. Then reveals his fortress.

There’s an Easter egg in there, because Destin asked – I think maybe as a joke – in one of the reviews, for us to add a goat. Wanted to add a mountain goat at the top of this mountain. And we did it! If you look closely, it’s a tiny Easter Egg I guess. But as we fly it would crest over the saddle of the mountain between the two hills. Just right on the crest of it, this little white mountain goat (laughs).

CGMagazine: Just a mountain goat… Chilling there?

Hanzhi Tang: I think he looks up at it.  We animated it. I think he looked up at the helicopter as it passed (laughs). But I dare you to find that, when it gets to Disney Plus. Freeze frame it.

CGMagazine: Without spilling too many details, are there any kind of new CGI tricks or solutions you picked up from working on Shang-Chi, that are going to help you out for Spider-Man: No Way Home and Doctor Strange 2?

Hanzhi Tang: I think a lot of this work is our bread and butter in areas like environments. I think we did more GPU rendering to show. I think everything was GPU rendered, so that’s the one kind of technological thing that we’re pushing forward on. Mostly other stuff you know, it’s very traditional VFX like modelling, crafting, mountains, trees, buildings. That’s kind of in our wheelhouse already, so I wouldn’t say that’s new technology. But we definitely like pushing on the rendering of things and how much faster GPUs are at doing traditional CPU rendering for us.

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CGMagazine: So as a supervisor, by working on already two – maybe even three movies – at the same time. How do you kind of juggle everybody and how do you decide which Marvel movie gets more time to work on than others?

Hanzhi Tang: I mean, hopefully not more than two. I think Shang-Chi already started filming before we were really finishing on Black Widow. So there was a little bit of overlap between those two films, but we try not to let the workload get much worse than that.

At the start of the pandemic, we already got everyone working from home. I think literally in the middle of the Black Widow delivery, like everything had to stop. We’re supposed to finish that movie and that’s when the pandemic worst hit. So we got everyone home and got their setups working again. By the time Shang-Chi was really coming, like everyone was already working from home. So we already had established workflows and how we’re going to run reviews remotely. So I think it was more to do with the release dates. Which kept changing because all the theatres were closed.

The problems in our schedule was more to try and figure out when we were actually finishing the movie. That also gave teams a little bit more time to kind of polish any rough edges on the movie. Which I think worked out because the movie was released and everyone loves it. It’s one of the highest scoring movies. I think all the little tiny extra time they had because of the extensions, gave them a lot of time to really smooth out anything.

Home Bittersweet Home: How Shang-Chi’s Vfx Shaped The Mandarin’s Compound.

CGMagazine: So if Shang-Chi did come out at the original release date, would that version of the movie be much different from what we got today?

Hanzhi Tang: I saw – even from the first version – the movie was very strong even from the beginning. And so the adjustments that have been made to the movie along the way, have been really minor.

I know Marvel movies tend to be tweaked quite a bit on the way through. But the small things, like giving Wenwu a little bit more backstory, with him in the past. Those are small things. I think overall, the beginning, middle and end there basically have been the same all through the movie. And I think that’s why it did turn out to be such a good product since it was really well thought out.

CGMagazine: When you think about movies, like Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, if you’ve got to go back in time to any kind of project you want to work on. What are some dream movies that you would love to be a part of?

Hanzhi Tang: Oof.

For me, it begins with the first movie my parents took me to was Return of the Jedi. So I was too young to go to the theatre to see the first Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back. But man, that would be like a completely different kind of work with just straight-up models and modelmaking that I mean, it would have been cool (laughs). I think I will be able to do that – in that year of VFX (1983) – and less of the CG I’m doing now. But like, model making and camera operating? For me, that sounds like something that would have been really cool to be involved in. Like at its peak. Stuff from Star Wars or even Poltergeist.

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CGMagazine: A lot of 80s hits there.

Hanzhi Tang: Yeah, that’s my peak (laughs).

CGMagazine: No, I’m kind of jealous. I mean, I was born in the late-90s (laughs). Right, so I got to miss a lot of that “peak” when Hollywood was first dipping into those effects that you’re working on today even. When you were sitting watching Return of the Jedi. I mean, was that kind of like the first real moment you fell in love with VFX?

Hanzhi Tang: I think I was too young to really know. I think I loved the movies. I was really too young to know what I was looking at, technically. But you know, I didn’t really think I wanted to do VFX until Toy Story and Jurassic Park. Thinking “oh, yeah, computer graphics. I want to do that. Like how do I do this? How do I get into that?” I think that’s what gave me that first spark of like, “yeah, that’s, that’s something really cool.” I didn’t get into it for over like five or six years after I got my first job. After I got out of school.

CGMagazine: Were there certain scenes you just couldn’t get enough of that CGI or remembered those moments when you were sitting there?

Hanzhi Tang: Okay, there’s two moments for me I remember.

The Brontosaurus reveal in Jurassic Park and that’s the first shot in the movie where you see full screen dinosaurs. Just a little peek. And later on, you know, the T-Rex in the paddock and knocking the car over the edge. Now in those scenes, everyone still knows those so well. When you see those in the theatre for the first time, it was like, jaw-dropping.

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So yeah, I think after that, I was like “yep, CGI. I think I’m gonna do that.”

I got to finish school. And then I want to go do that. It was just sort of figuring out how I was going to get there. Because I was a physics student. How do I get from being a physics student in London, U.K. to making VFX on a Hollywood movie? So I think that whole career turn was kind of stressful. And to figure out how to break in.

Hanzhi Tang and his Digital Domain Team have worked on various Marvel properties, including Black Widow and the aforementioned Shang-Chi. He is currently overseeing visual effects for Spider-Man: No Way Home and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. You can read our review of Shang-Chi here.

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