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Doctor Strange director Scott Derrickson on creating those jaw-dropping visual effects

Screenshot: Doctor Strange

Whether you loved every aspect of Marvel’s Doctor Strange or, like our critic, were somewhat underwhelmed by the origin story at the heart of the film, there’s no denying the film’s visual effects are a marvel of CGI artistry. Wizardry of the technological kind broke the film out of the mold of the standard Marvel movie and turned the tale of Doctor Strange’s supernatural awakening into a breathtaking spectacle, ranging from ever-shifting urban geographies to a high-speed multidimensional flight that can leave audiences almost as short of breath as the film’s protagonist.

Credit for this innovative visual storytelling belongs to director Scott Derrickson, who tackled the massive comic-book property after a pair of indie horror flicks, Sinister and Deliver Us From Evil. It’s actually the second time Derrickson has gone from two smaller horror films to a big-budget studio tentpole: He did the same thing in 2008, following up Hellraiser: Inferno and The Exorcism Of Emily Rose with the troubled production The Day The Earth Stood Still. Prior to the digital and Blu-ray releases of Doctor Strange on February 14, The A.V. Club spoke with Derrickson about the differences between these two filmmaking experiences, the profound changes in CGI technology, and being starstruck by Tilda Swinton even after bonding with her during filming.


The A.V. Club: This is actually the second time you went from making a couple of lower-budget horror films to a massive Hollywood spectacle. Could you talk about the difference in your experiences making these two projects?

Scott Derrickson: They were night and day. Part of that is because of the studios I was working with, and part of it’s because of where I was at as a filmmaker, and part of it’s the story I was telling. I think the biggest difference is recognizing the need to vet things as early as possible and as harshly as possible in preproduction, and get as much work done as possible, and get the script in the best possible shape that you can, but then to be very, very flexible in the process of making the movie, and to be very fluid. I carried a Bruce Lee-symboled notebook for all my notes, and the little thing that says “Be water.” Just to remind myself to be very fluid in the process, and not to be too rigid. I’m overly prepared all the time, and I’m constantly finding myself needing to jettison my ideas for better ideas.

I think a lot of it is Marvel, to be honest. I learned it’s no coincidence they’ve made such an unprecedented string of really well-reviewed hit movies. It ultimately comes down to their incredible passion for movies themselves—that it’s all about the movie first, not anything else, and that there’s no ego involved. The best idea wins. So if you, as a filmmaker, check your ego at the door, everybody always wants someone else to have a better idea. You’re always looking for a better idea, wherever it can come from. And that process just became very synergistic and thrilling to do. They were so supportive of the vision that I came in with. I wanted to make a mind-trip action movie about one man overcoming himself through these spiritual ideas. They were just 1,000 percent supportive of that vision all along, and they never shied away from any of the boldness, whether it was in the visuals or in the ideas. That’s why it was such an amazing experience. And—I think—why it turned out to be a decent movie.


AVC: You mentioned Bruce Lee and being fluid. Is part of it just the fact that this was your second time around, where you didn’t have to go through as steep of a learning curve?

SD: On The Day The Earth Stood Still, there were so many reasons [there were issues]. We had a writers’ strike right before, four or five weeks before we started shooting. So a lot of the problems on that movie were the result of the fact that we couldn’t continue to work on it. We suddenly got locked into a script that we all knew wasn’t ready. But the train had left the station. It was really kind of a strange situation. A bit of a perfect storm. Nonetheless, I think it still did prepare me for how to integrate my passion and my vision for the movie with the interest and desires of the studio.

But in this case, there just wasn’t conflict, there wasn’t that. We were all swinging for the fences on the movie. I expected more pushback on how weird I was trying to make things, and to my surprise, the only real pushback I would get from Kevin [Feige, executive producer] would be like, “This can be weirder,” which was just wonderful. I loved it. And I think also, recognizing how the visual-effects pipeline works, and having a better idea of how to creatively manage the logistics of a production like that. You kind of have to—it’s a trial by fire the first time you do it, and you learn a lot of things the wrong way. I learned a lot of things by making a lot of mistakes on The Day The Earth Stood Still. For that reason, of all the movies I’ve made, that’s probably the movie that I value the most as a filmmaker, because it’s definitely the one I learned the most from.


AVC: In taking on a huge CGI-heavy film—which, by the way, congratulations on the Oscar nomination for Best Visual Effects—what did you experience that struck you the most in terms of what had changed, effects-wise, in the almost decade-long gap between these two movies?

SD: So much, you know? What can be done, it’s growing every year. I don’t think we could have made Doctor Strange five years ago, maybe not even three years ago. The progressive leaps are happening all the time. But I did have enough experience with effects, not just on The Day The Earth Stood Still, but, you know, when you work in horror, you end up doing a lot of visual effects. A lot of them are more subtle, but you’re dealing with effects all the time. So I do think I’ve developed a really good visual-effects eye.

For me, for this movie, it was always my mantra—spoken repeatedly, to the visual-effects crew and the production designer—that the visual effects needed to reinterpret magic in a much more tactile way. I didn’t want amorphous light, I didn’t want amorphous smoke. I didn’t want the kind of signature imagery that usually tells an audience we’re dealing with the mysteries of magic and mystical powers. I wanted to get away from all those things, and create surrealism, magic as surrealism through physically tactile, recognizable textures. So the audience doesn’t feel like they’re looking at CGI, they feel they’re looking at something that’s really physical, even though it’s bending and moving and doing things that are impossible, because it’s so textural. And I think that that was the philosophical approach to the effects.


Victoria Alonso, the head of Marvel post-production, one of the producers of the movie, she said—talking about the major vendors, Luma and Industrial Light And Magic and these big vendors that were working for us—that they want to be inspired, they want to be inspired to innovate. I really went out of my way to build my connection with those vendors personally and inspire them and push them to come up with better ideas. I had a lot of visual material that I presented everyone with, in terms of concept art and even YouTube videos about fractal movements and stuff like that. But I was always telling everybody, “Bring me ideas. This is the time to innovate. There are no boundaries. The whole goal is to create a new type of visual-effects movie that is not about destruction, but that is about magical creativity.” I think they all caught the fire, because I think they all got behind it. And I think seeing the cuts come in, and how good the actors were, I think that everybody got an extra dose of inspiration, and everybody contributed so much to it. And that’s why it earned the nomination, because of how much all of those people tried to push the boundary.

AVC: You mentioned the philosophical bent behind the effects. It seems like the material you were working with almost forces you to think of new and inventive ways to utilize visuals. In coming up with the story, was there a feeling of needing to break the mold, spectacle-wise?


SD: Oh yeah. Before we broke the story, a starting point for me was that, no matter the number of set pieces we’re going to have in this movie, I don’t want any of them to feel like set pieces we’ve seen before. Every set piece in this movie should feel like the weirdest set piece in any other movie. And that was the starting point. I remember saying things like, “I want a finale where you’re fighting forward in time but reversing time, and instead of trying to close a portal, I want to go through a portal into another dimension. Turn some of those Marvel clichés on their heads. The mirror dimension chase, I want to be inside an Escher painting.” I say “I,” meaning the audience. It was the starting point, coming up with these super surreal, maximum-weirdness set pieces. My biggest rule of thumb was originality and to not just create destruction and on-screen stimulus, but to have it be magical creativity.

I think that audiences, they get stimulated by typical big-budget visual effects, but they’re so often variations on the same kind of explosions and gun fights and mass destruction. A Doctor Strange movie just has to be something different. The material cries out for it. The comics were like that. The comics were the bible. It all goes back to Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. The incredible imagination of some of those images—which in my opinion are still state-of-the-art when it comes to comic panels and visual design—they’re still progressive.


AVC: With that as your source material, were there any worlds or characters that you took as inspiration from that and wanted to take a crack at bringing to life early on, but that didn’t make it to the final script? It’s such an open universe that Ditko and they made.


SD: No. I mean, I think that we landed pretty early on the big ideas. Those basic set pieces are present in some form, I think all of them, from the very first draft. You know, the astral fight comes straight out of a later graphic novel of Doctor Strange called The Oath. When Strange is on an operating table with Christine Palmer trying to save his life and he astral-projects out of his body and tries to help her, it’s not a fight scene, but I wrote that scene and storyboarded that scene before I was hired for the movie. That was one of the scenes where I demonstrated, “This is the kind of thing that we can do.” It’s straight out of the comics. That one was essentially realized before I even got the job. The other ones came through a lot of concept work that turned into storyboards that I would do and discussions with John Spaihts, the first writer, and Stephen Broussard the producer, and Kevin and Victoria and Louis D’Esposito. It was all a group effort to try to push boundaries and get out there as far as we could go. It was hard at first. I kept feeling like I was running up against limitations of imagination. And then, it was almost like we collectively started doing some things that were so outrageous that we became un-handcuffed and just went for it. That’s when the movie started to work.

AVC: In terms of source material and inspiration, you’ve talked about the comics as the bible, but in terms of cinematic inspirations—people obviously reference Inception and The Matrix and other similarly innovative special-effects films—but what other sources of creative inspiration did you personally draw from? 2001 seems like it was probably in the mix.


SD: 2001 was in the mix. Jodorowsky’s movies, I watched those a few times when I was working on it, not for specific imagery but for just psychedelic boldness and tone. Enter The Void for the same reason. German expressionism. Dr. Caligari. That movie and the physical weirdness power, that movie is still shocking when you watch it. But there was also a lot of surrealist photography that I looked at, modern surrealist photography, really interesting and bold things being done with that, and kind of the usual suspects of the art world—Escher, Dali, and even Goya in places. Probing through YouTube looking for fractal work and looking at a lot of commercial technologies. The cutting edge of visual effects is really usually broken in commercials. I did a lot of research there as well, looking for textural possibilities that I could then integrate into storytelling in these visual-effects sequences. The end scene is all inspired by a single 1971 Doctor Strange blacklight poster that I keep over my desk. I was just like, “I want the Dark Dimension to look like this!” It was a hodgepodge of inspiring sources, really.

AVC: Are there specific commercials or videos that stand out, in terms of something that really did start breaking new ground, that you drew on?


SD: Oh gosh, I don’t remember any of them. That was over two years ago that we collected a whole bunch of material and got together and watched them all together. I remember a car commercial that I saw was dealing with optical illusions and part of the mirror-dimension chase is a more ambitious, actual visual optical illusion, which I had not seen in a film before. Monument Valley was even a source of inspiration for that. When you see that bridge, there’s a giant tracking shot across the street where suddenly the world separates, and that was very inspired by Monument Valley. Because that kind of motion has not been in a motion picture before. It seemed like it was suitable to that chase scene.

AVC: Could you pick out a memory, a day on set that personally stands out when you look back on the actual filming?


SD: For me, it’s always performances. It’s always watching great actors bring something to life, especially when it’s something that you’ve written, and watching actors breathe life into it that goes far beyond even what you envisioned. As a director, that’s always the most satisfying thing to see, because in the end—there’s all these bells and whistles and visual effects and stimulation and imagination and magic—but in the end, people watch people. They watch characters, and your movie is only as good as your characters. So for me, the argument scene between Stephen Strange and Christine Palmer, that fight scene in the apartment—even to this day, every time I watch the movie, it feels like, “How did I get this scene from this gritty little indie film into this Marvel movie?” [Laughs.] Because they’re so committed, and he’s such an asshole in that scene. We dared to let him be that awful. To my surprise, people appreciated that and respected that, because we’ve all been there, we’ve all lashed out at people we love when we’re in pain. It’s just a human thing to do. And then also the death scene of the Ancient One. Filming that and seeing Tilda bring real soul to very wavy lines and making them work, that was really rewarding. Those are the moments that I carry with me the most, for sure.

AVC: So you definitely had the “Holy shit, Tilda Swinton is saying these words that I wrote” moment?


SD: Yeah. That happened a lot. Because she’s so unassuming, and she’s in costume, but she goes out and she starts performing, and it’s just electric. She’s the person I became personally the closest to, probably, in the making of the movie. But then, when we were out on the press tour, and she’d come in with her glamorous fashion weirdness, I’d be like, “Oh my God, it’s Tilda Swinton!” I’d definitely be starstruck even though I’ve been on set with her. She just kind of has that effect on you.

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