Marvellous Multiverse

The other day, I went to see Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness with a friend. She’s one of the few people I know who enjoys watching Marvel films as much as I do. This may be because she works as a visual effects artist who creates the “special effects” (as they were once called) we now see in so many movies.

My friend works at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), the company George Lucas formed to create the visual effects in the original Star Wars trilogy. She’s just finished working on Abba Voyage.

Having recently joined ILM, my friend was telling me about her work induction. I wondered whether people who worked at ILM were Marvel fans or whether it was just a job. During the induction (on Zoom, naturally), she could see another new joiner’s room. It consisted of posters of Marvel films and other comic book memorabilia. For that new joiner, it was a dream job.

I don’t go to comic book conferences or dress up as Marvel characters in my spare time. However, in my childhood, I used to enjoy the Marvel comics long before the films were ever made. I remember reading Spiderman, The Incredible Hulk, X-Men, Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Captain America, and the Silver Surfer. I no longer read the comics but enjoy watching the films without following the interplay between the films (the “Marvel Universe”) too closely.

As a teenager, I also had the Marvel Top Trump cards. With these cards (unrelated to the former US president), two or more people play rounds. For each round, one player calls out a trait and the person with the highest value wins that round. You carry on until one player has all the cards. If I remember correctly, the list of traits for the Marvel cards included special powers, strength and weapons of each Marvel character. So, for example, if someone called out “strength” and my value for strength (from one to ten) was highest, I would win the round and get to pick the trait for the next round.

Before seeing the new Doctor Strange film, since it was a sunny evening, we walked to a nearby park and had a picnic. This was pleasant apart from the occasional dog trying to join us. My friend mentioned that The Guardian review for the film was not so good. Marvel films have a habit of dividing people. Many of my friends have never seen one and The Guardian review seemed to be by someone who’s not a big fan.

If you are a fan of Marvel films, you’ll love the new Doctor Strange movie. It is visually creative, beautiful and breathtaking; it’s definitely worth seeing on the big screen. The story had the right mixture of humour and excitement to keep us thrilled for the whole film.

Even though Marvel and ILM are owned by the same company (Disney), visual effects require so much time and effort that, when a film is made, the visual effects are created by many companies. ILM don’t have the capacity to create the visual effects for all the films made under the Disney umbrella. That is why, at her previous company, my visual effects friend worked on some Marvel films, including Avengers. One of the reasons Marvel films look stunning is that, according to my friend, Marvel are perfectionist. They keep having work re-done until they get exactly what they want. And they’re not afraid of scrapping work that has taken a long time to produce. Of course, Marvel can do this because they have deep pockets.

In the past, if a film had five minutes of computer-generated imagery (CGI), that was quite an achievement. George Lucas once described how a two second sequence in the original Star Wars films took six weeks to create. Now CGI is much more sophisticated because hardware and software have significantly improved. However, my friend was once working on creating a shot of the universe for a Star Trek film and that took her many weeks — and she wasn’t the only person who worked on it. That explains why films with visual effects are expensive to make.

Another reason films are so expensive is the sheer number of people who work on them. When the credits rolled for Doctor Strange, I saw the number of people who had worked on the film. It is a modern miracle that films made by thousands of people can be so coherent or even be made at all. It is a great feat of project management!

When CGI started, I remember seeing a TV programme in which someone said, “We’ll never be able to create CGI of people walking around; human movement was too complicated”! How that has changed; not only can CGI create realistic human characters, it can create realistic animals and practically anything the imagination can dream of.

The first time I was impressed with CGI was the original Jurassic Park movie. It was an astounding moment for everyone in the cinema when the first dinosaur, a brachiosaurus, appeared. Steven Spielberg had asked several teams to create the effects he wanted but once he saw the CGI version, he knew that he was going to use CGI to create dinosaurs. The dinosaurs were so realistic that you believed they were actually walking around on an island and someone had pointed a video camera at them to get some footage for the movie.

If aliens were to see some of our films, they would think Earth is inhabited by strange and magical creatures.

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