Images courtesy of Pixomondo

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny’

Pixomondo on the Netflix Original's standout VFX

Martial-arts enthusiasts and couch potatoes, rejoice! Elegant warrior, Yu Shu Lien and the legendary, sought-after sword have returned after more than a decade – on demand. Mahmoud Rahnama of Toronto's Pixomondo describes how his agile team skillfully executed on those sweeping, watercolor-inspired landscapes and weightless martial-arts moves in Netflix’s Sword of Destiny follow-up to Ang Lee’s, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.


 

How did you land ‘Sword of Destiny’ and what kind of work did you do?
After we finished working on Season One of Marco Polo, Netflix approached us again with this. They were very happy with our output and the type of work needed here was very similar: Massive set extensions, lots of environments. We created frozen lakes, forests, big cities and did a lot of character work, too, including cloth and hair simulation. Everything was handled in Maya.

Still from Sword of Destiny
Still from Sword of Destiny



How long were you on it and with how many?


Roughly a year, I’d say. We had approximately 30 people on it, all out of our Toronto location. We use the same pipeline across our worldwide ‘Pixoverse’ so we share projects often but everyone was under the same roof for this. It made it feel special.

 

“We had to make sure that our digi-doubles looked as though they were hanging from wires like the actors. If we ignored that fact...it wouldn’t have the look that made the original stand out.”



What were your main challenges?


The big environments and the amount of geometry that we had to deal with. The foreground elements for close up shots were shot in China but all the wide shots and set extensions were done digitally so, in other words, small sets, huge CGI set extensions. There were a lot of dynamic simulations, like the fight on a lake where we simulated breaking, shattering ice. We also had digi-doubles that had to fight, jump on roofs and so on.


What’s the secret to those distinctive, fighting-in-air scenes?


We had to make sure that our digi-doubles looked as though they were hanging from wires like the actors. If we ignored the fact, it would look too digital – and it wouldn’t have the look that made the original stand out. We worked closely with the choreographer and sent animation playblasts to them. They’d guide us on what to do or what not to do.

Sword of Destiny VFX breakdown
Still from Sword of Destiny, VFX breakdown

 

“We mimicked how shots were framed, how characters moved, the environments and so on. The feel is quite consistent to the original.”



What made this project unique?


The ‘painting in motion,’ super-stylized look made this one unique, for sure. Normally we go for a photoreal look but the director, Woo-Ping Yuen, really wanted a storybook, Chinese watercolor feel. When you look at elements like the frozen lake, for example, it has a very magical, almost otherworldly quality.


It’s been 15 years since the original but it doesn't look visually like that much has changed.


We referred a lot to the original, yeah. The art direction is very much the same. We mimicked how shots were framed, how characters moved, the environments and so on. The feel is quite consistent to the original.


How long have you been in VFX?


Almost 15 years.


You were entering the field about when the original came out. How do you think your experience was different from that of the original VFX team's?


Obviously, we enjoy far superior tools now so the timelines were likely much shorter for us (laughs).


“What you can do with computers, being able to create whatever you can imagine is what I love about visual effects.”

 

Sword of Destiny VFX breakdown
Still from Sword of Destiny, VFX breakdown



What made you want to get into this business in the first place?


The Terminator
(1976) did it for me. What you can do with computers, being able to create whatever you can imagine is what I love about visual effects.


How do you feel about the steady rise in demand for on-demand content?


It’s the future. Netflix, Amazon – there are so many channels now demanding more content. They're generating a lot of work for us and other visual effects companies like us. It’s a really exciting time.


What’s your favorite shot that we should look for?


There is some really nice scenery near the beginning of the movie, an expansive valley where two characters are fighting on a cliff. The entire environment is CG and I’m very proud of it.

Sword of Destiny VFX breakdown
Still from Sword of Destiny, VFX breakdown

 

“Maya was our primary package and we used it out of the box. We never had the need to go outside it for any third-party tools...”



Was it the challenge behind that shot or simply the final result that makes it stand out for you?


It’s the final result that makes me like it so much. It looks so vast, magical…it's reallybeautiful.


Is there anything we might find interesting to learn about your pipeline?


Maybe that Maya was our primary package and we used it out of the box. We never had the need to go outside it for any third-party tools or to incorporate any of our own propriety, in-house tools. That was just amazing for us.


What makes you the most proud overall with 'Sword of Destiny?'


The incredible amount of work we did and the amazing quality that we pulled off with just 30 people. For some feature film projects, we have teams in the neighborhood of 80 or so people, so I’m very proud of what this team achieved.


One of the film's themes is duty. Tell us about your duty as a VFX Supervisor.


My duty is to deliver the quality that we promise, on time – and to keep the team happy. Everyone worked really hard and there were lots of very long nights invested to pull this off. If they stayed late, I stayed late to make sure they have whatever they need. Being there for them is important for me and if I can get my hands dirty, I will. When everyone is busy or something last-minute comes up, I help by jumping on the box to handle it. I lovethat.




Mahmoud and the Pixomondo crew expertly performed their VFX duties by arming themselves with skillful, all-powerful Maya and pipeline-master tool, Shotgun.

For more on Pixomondo, watch Creating VFX for Game of Thrones with a Global Pipeline Fueled by Shotgun.

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