Elastic’s opening title sequence to Iron Fist – the fourth of Marvel’s gritty street-level superhero dramas to hit Netflix – introduces the titular crimefighter one punch and kick at a time.
The sequence offers up a dream-like vision of Danny Rand’s tenacity and raw power, chronicling his years of rigorous training in the cloudy peaks of K'un-Lun and ongoing fight against evil in the back alleys of Manhattan. The superhero’s limbs move with the precision and grace of a calligrapher’s brush. Blocks and strikes slice through the night air, leaving dark trails in their wake. Forms are repeated and repeated again, hands and feet soon sparking with untapped power. Iron Fist is a living weapon.
The opening of Marvel’s Iron Fist introduces viewers to a superhero whose powers derive from having punched a dragon in the heart (yes, really) in a way that’s accessible to anyone with even a passing familiarity with martial arts. Rand is incredibly good at kung fu – and that’s pretty much all you need to know going into this.
Although nothing obvious connects the title sequences of Marvel’s current roster of Netflix shows (aside from the fact that studio Elastic created three of the four openers to date), the common thread is that these openings are meant to evoke the title characters and the worlds that they inhabit. Despite living only blocks apart in Marvel’s cinematic version of New York, how each Defender views their city is drastically different – and that's something these title sequences are excellent at conveying to viewers. Where Daredevil’s Hell’s Kitchen is a city shaped by blood and violence, Jessica Jones’ Big Apple is a shadowy, voyeuristic nightmare. Luke Cage, the Hero of Harlem, on the other hand is inseparable from his neighbourhood, an integral part of it whether he likes it or not. In Iron Fist, circumstances have made Danny Rand an outsider wherever he goes, and so whether he’s in the Himalayas, a public park, or a penthouse, he trains and he fights. It’s all he knows and all he knows how to do.
A discussion with Creative Director PATRICK CLAIR, CG Lead ANDREW ROMATZ, and Animator SAM SPARKS of Elastic.
So I want to start by talking about Elastic’s ongoing creative relationship with Marvel. The studio has now worked on openings for three of the four Marvel Netflix shows to date. What does that sort of relationship mean for you as a creator and as a studio?
Patrick: What’s exciting about Marvel for us is that it’s creatively different every time. Marvel make a real effort to involve new key creatives on each project, so that that means it doesn’t get stale. It always feels really fresh and really exciting. And at the same time there’s a great continuity where there are some producers that we interact with who are common across all the projects. We have a wonderful, supportive, and collaborative relationship with them and with each project that just kind of gets stronger. You’re able to get to know each other, get to know each other’s shorthands and know each other’s style. It makes communication very easy. It doesn’t really feel like a client-vendor relationship, it very much feels like a genuine team collaboration. Marvel have obviously been very successful at setting up a big production pipeline. There’s a real efficiency about working between coasts and getting materials. We all just kind of feel like one big family at this point.
Do you feel like that continuity between the projects – not just on the production side of things but also because the show’s share a universe – informs the design process?
Patrick: Yes and no is probably the right answer. We try to do something completely new and different every time, but at the same time we’re aware of what’s come before. There’s a couple of rules we stick to – we occasionally break those rules of course – but that helps us to have some sense of continuity.
Sam: Just like the shows themselves, each sequence must be able to exist both independently as a standalone property and also within the same universe of the previous titles. Similarly, each character and show lives in a different neighborhood in Manhattan. The feel of the neighborhoods are definitely unique, but they are ultimately part of one big city.
Andrew: Obviously with each sequence the rules change based on the character, story, look, and focus, but having a history and some muscle memory creating within the universe was helpful for sure. Knowing the backstory and the dos and don’ts of the previous projects with Marvel was informative going into the Iron Fist project.
Patrick: It’s exciting in the sense that you want to try to do something that builds on what you’ve done before, in terms of pushing deeper into the same territory but also striking into new areas.
So what can you tell me about the initial brief and some of the conversations you had with the producers?
Patrick: We got involved really early in the process, which is great because it gave us the time to build something out and not feel rushed. But it also meant that we were getting involved while they were still figuring out the look and feel of the show, the tone of how this character’s story unfolds. So we started off not really knowing where Iron Fist was going to go, but knowing that it was a little bit more youthful and very music culture centric. So we dug into some references that were really cool from sneaker culture and street art – in terms of some some very specific painterly type references – and some really bright illustrative directions.
Sam: Initially, we explored some bold and vivid colour options inspired by the energy and power of Iron Fist. The ThunderCats intro from the '80s was a source of inspiration for some of the more colourful tests.
Patrick: The ThunderCats opening sequence is one of my all-time favourites. That has some amazing cel animation where people were drawing light rays frame by frame. We got to have just a hint of that kind of stuff in there to add a bit of emphasis to Danny’s hits. We built out some frames that I really loved, but then as we got to the point where the show was starting to roll cameras and they were starting to figure out their film language. We looked at some footage and quickly realized that this direction we were heading in - even though it showed a lot of promise for something – it probably wasn’t for this. We kind of had to pivot at that point and really readdress the look and feel to be something that suited the world of the show a little bit better.
The difference between the original concepts and the much darker look of the final sequence is quite striking. Could you talk a little bit about how you got there?
Patrick: There was this strange creative evolution where we pushed really strongly in one direction that was super bright, super colourful, set up a pipeline that would deliver on that, and then we pivoted towards this darker look, but we were able to keep some of the things that we set up for this pipeline.
Patrick: Our team is pretty used to doing dark! [laughs] We do dark across a lot of projects so there’s a certain muscle memory on the design and production teams for swerving things into darker environments. We drew on that since it’s certainly an area we feel comfortable in. I did like having little dashes of colour, but a lot of it is this shallow depth of field, really smoking environment. That glossy, gleaming noir 3D look which we really love.
Was that original direction an effort on your part to stretch your creative muscles a little more, to get away from the darker stuff that Elastic has become known for?
Patrick: Yeah, we always love our occasional diversions into the brighter world, like the stuff we did for MTV a little while ago. We’ve just been working on American Gods which has also got more neon, colour-saturated elements to it. I do love the chance to dig into some bright colours, but we like working across all things! I equally like black and white, really minimal things. In fact we have a couple of projects we’re working on right now which are all in a completely monochromatic world, which is equally fun.
So let’s talk about the nuts and bolts of production. Could you walk me through some of the steps here? The concept gets approved and you come back to the office. Typically, what comes next for you and the team?
Patrick: Well, there’s certainly a pause where we let the relief just wash over us. The pitch is always a desperate and pressure-filled time where we’re just trying to figure out what we could possibly do with this. But then you get to that point where it’s like, “OK, we get to make it!” and shortly after that there’s a moment of panic where you realize you actually have to make it a reality. From there it’s really just a case of getting down to work in terms of trying to give the sequence a shape. Often when we do a pitch we try to push really hard in lots of directions. We usually have too many ideas in the pitch to make a good sequence. It’d just be kind of mess. So that’s when we have to start killing some babies.
We have to start figuring out what’s going to work in 70 seconds? What’s enough? What’s too much? What can we afford to do? What do we have time to do? Most often it’s about either sitting with our design team or bringing in a storyboard artist like Lance Slaton, and we start to figure out what the sequence looks like. Sometimes it’s a boardomatic that we sit down with an editor and try to time out the sequence. Sometimes our animators dig into it a bit. After that we come back and we have a document full of speculation, possibility, and ideas, and the next step is to do something concrete. That is always a more specific idea of the sequence. Either a run of frames that we think is going to last for 70 seconds in this case or it’s going to be a video that goes for 70 seconds. That video will be storyboard frames cut together or design frames cut together. It’d be something very basic and very primitive, but that gives us a shape for what we’re building.
Was that the process on this project as well?
Patrick: In this case we started with the motion capture session we did with the martial artist. Then we playblasted that out through a bunch of 3D cameras and cut that into an animatic. That was our starting point.
Andrew: The initial motion test Patrick asked us to create was a test of what it would look like if we generated a sculpture by leaving behind trails from the limbs of a martial artist. The design team had done a lot of 2D concepts and look development of the trails at that point, but when we got to the motion test, Patrick and the rest of the team were pretty excited about what we were creating. From that point on the kung fu trails sculpture was the conceptual backbone for the project from my perspective and the look evolved around that.
Motion capture seems like it was pretty integral to this project. What was the reason for deciding to do things that way?
Patrick: We actually started by creating a 10-second test sequence where we animated a very specifically choreographed move. I was really happy with it. The animation team here did an awesome job and it was a really perfect 10 seconds. But in making that 10 seconds we realized that making that 70 seconds would be a nightmare. The way the human body moves is so complicated and so nuanced. I don’t even think we debated it. We just looked at it and said, “Well, we need to make 70 seconds of this so we need to get someone to come in and do it.”
Motion capture is not something that we often have the need or the time to dig into. So much of the main title process can end up being a virtual process for us, but we’re always looking for ways to do things in the real world because you get such great detail out of it. We spent a lot of time on a stage mo-capping all these great kung fu moves. Then we’re able to bring that back and use that as the basis for the animation.
Andrew: The capture session itself wasn’t hugely different from a live action stage shoot. Patrick had worked out a general sequence of moves that he wanted to include in the final title sequence, so we set up a capture session at House of Moves in Playa del Rey and went over and recorded through the full sequence of Patrick’s moves and also had our martial artist do some improvisation. We had spent some time prepping our animation rig to be capable to flip between keyframe and motion capture animation data so once we had all the mo-cap data back from HOM we were able to drop everything in right onto our rig.
Patrick: For me it was realizing a long term ambition to look at how you can explore really complex human choreography – be it for dance or kung fu combat – and use that to build really sculptural shapes. So for me the really exciting part of the process was going and doing this very physically thing where we got this martial artist to do a bunch of stuff. Then taking that into the digital world and giving it to the fluids team at Elastic and A52 and getting them to explore ways that we could turn them into these big streaky living fluid kind of sculptures. From there it’s all about figuring out how we could make that look and feel of a tone that would introduce Danny’s story.
What were you looking for when you put out the call for that martial artist? Was there a specific style that you wanted or that Marvel had asked for?
Patrick: Yeah, they had a very deep and sophisticated idea of the style of kung fu from the show, so we went through their team. The team put us in touch with some people out here on the West Coast that specialized in the styles that they were after. The stunt coordinators from the show briefed the martial artist on the kind of style we were after, so he had a good idea of the specific moves and also the more general style cues. We had some of the guys from Marvel on set with us and we were able to workshop that on the day and find moves that were iconic to Danny that we felt would echo across the series.
The sequence hints at Danny Rand’s superhuman powers, but you don’t actually see his glowing iron fist at any point. Was there a reason for that?
Patrick: You never want to be too literal with these things. It’s more intriguing and evocative if you just give a hint to it. And yeah, I guess we didn’t want to reveal anything too specific in the title sequence. Everyone knows the lore of Danny and how his powers manifest, and part of the pleasure of the show is revealing how that’s going to play into the telling of the story.
Even with the motion capture data was it difficult to have the martial artist’s complex moves come off convincingly as a piece of character animation?
Patrick: That’s certainly where having the motion capture was a great asset. You have so much density in the motion capture that you can get that human nuance. It’s more about going through that process of having to get someone in, do it for real, select that material, and then clean it up. The good news is that we get all the nuance and training and humanity that the real martial artist brought to it in the box. I’m not sure exactly how much footage we pulled, but it was only a few minutes worth of moves. We tried to be as restrictive as possible at that point. Some of those would have needed a fair bit of manual cleanup, as motion capture always does, but we knew what we were working with.
Andrew: [We did review] lots of reference all the way through the show. Any time we had a question about how something was working we’d look for reference.
Sam: We were definitely referencing vintage kung fu films for the camera blocking. Those references also informed other stylistic choices such as the heavy film grain and light leaks.
Andrew: Ip Man was a big reference for us.
Patrick: At this point you sort of have dual challenges. You’ve got a filmmaking challenge – virtual filmmaking but still very similar to being on set where you’ve got a character doing a thing. You can create a camera, give it a lens, give it a move, and try to make it feel cinematic like a fight scene. At the same time you’ve got a design challenge because you want to be able to lay this out in a graphic design way that can work for a title sequence.
Patrick: You’ve literally got two teams: you’ve got a CG camera expert building cameras and trying things to see what works, and then you’ve got designers in another room looking at the poses that get struck across it and trying to figure out how that can graphically work to tell the story. Those two processes kind of inform each other and bounce back and forth until you have a bunch of creative decisions that you feel might work. And that’s when you start re-cobbling that together into a motion sequence. You're cutting it together as flat shaded grey playblast stuff in one world with lots of motion, and then simultaneously doing design frames to figure out the aesthetic and the look and feel.
Is motion capture something you’d like to do more of?
Patrick: I think whenever it’s appropriate. It’s definitely time intensive and expensive to do that, but it’s nowhere near as expensive as it would be to animate it all and it just gives you really exciting material to work with. I thought it was a real thrill. I’ve only done it a couple of times before.
I’ve had human figures in my title sequences in the past, but they’re moving in such slow motion that you don’t need to go get real motion capture. We did a piece for Ubisoft years ago that was like a firefight and we did a motion capture session. This was when I was still based in Sydney and we had a bunch of Australian special forces guys running around this motion capture stage that was actually shared with a little girl’s dance studio. So you can just imagine these three tough special forces guys in head-to-toe blue jumpsuits, holding brooms they were pretending were M-60s, firing from behind a rubbish bin with a Dirty Dancing poster and inspirational quotes on the wall behind them. It was quite surreal.
Patrick: Then you look at it a month later after we’ve done everything else and here’s a Ghost Recon future soldier firing off volleys of high-powered machine gun fire inside a combat space station. That’s a very strange evolution, but there’s something quite thrilling about it. It’s deliciously weird.
Was there a specific part of this project or maybe a shot or moment in the sequence itself that you’re particularly fond of?
Sam: I particularly love the orbiting camera shot at about 16 seconds. Danny does one final combination of kicks in the middle of a foggy Himalayan landscape before moving to the next phase of his training.
Andrew: When the energy trails build up and Iron fist raises raises his arms up, I like that moment.
Sam: Seeing the development of Danny's energy trails by Phiphat Pinyonsophon and the FX team was really exciting and inspiring. The simulations just came out looking so cool.
Patrick: For me it was watching the combos that they did [during the mo-cap session]. The way that they flow the momentum of a fly kick into the follow-up punch. As someone who doesn’t have a lot of sporting prowess I find it really amazing to see how people swing that momentum. It was also really interesting for me witnessing the connection between things like kung fu and ballet. In some ways they’re totally different arts, but in some ways they’re really similar. So that’s really cool getting that sense of choreography and dance out of the way this flows, but then you also get this punch of violence. That was always the balancing act on this one. You want to get some of that gracefulness, but you also want to get that raw impact and power.
What software did you use to put all this together? Why were those the most appropriate tools for this job?
Sam: We used After Effects for the compositing and 2D animation. For a design heavy sequence like this, the vast library of third party plugins available for After Effects provides a lot of control over the look and environments.
Andrew: For the CG we used Maya, 3ds Max for the FX trails, We did our modelling in ZBrush, some Mari and Photoshop for texturing and rendered in VRay.
Elastic is putting out a huge volume of title design work for television these days. As title designers are you at all concerned that viewers are eventually going to burn out on these big, high gloss title sequences?
Patrick: I just want to keep trying to make interesting work. We’ll just keep creating whatever sequences showrunners let us make. I certainly don’t want us to get stuck on a style, but at the same time people are always guided by their own biases, so I guess we end up with something of a style. But we’re just really interested in doing something as new as possible every time and doing something that suits the world of the shows. That’s what is important to me: to play a role in the storytelling. So we’ll keep doing it until the phones stop ringing, but certainly we don’t want to keep treading on the same ground. I’m always excited when we get to do something new.
You’ve also reached the point where your title sequences are being parodied. The VICELAND series Nirvanna the Band the Show recently did a spoof of Elastic’s Daredevil opening. Have you had a chance to see that yet?
Patrick: I did! They do a different title sequence every time and the Daredevil one was just awesome. I loved it. There was also the Key & Peele True Detective parody.
Patrick: It’s so cool when people parody your work. It’s only happened to me a few times, but I live for it. That one and Daredevil are gems.
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