Framestore continues its striking work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with the studio’s latest Disney+ series – the critically-acclaimed Ms. Marvel. Our work spans a wide range of creative disciplines, from unique animated sketches and title designs through to note-perfect VFX work. This work showcases not just hero Kamala Khan’s unique power, but also how she sees, understands and inhabits the world around her.
Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani) is a teenage Pakistani American from Jersey City, New Jersey. An aspiring artist, Kamala spends her time drawing and writing fanfiction about superheroes. When she discovers her ability to harness cosmic energy, she adopts the mantle of Ms. Marvel, in tribute to her idol, Captain Marvel.
Animation and design: handcrafting Kamala’s world
Kamala struggles to fit in among her peers. Her unique worldview is captured in a series of animated sequences, layering her sketches on top of the real-world shots. Brought on from the start of the project, Framestore’s Creative Director, Ian Spendloff and his team of artists and designers delivered a series of bespoke 2D animated sequences seen throughout the show, creating a unique and charming animation style for the main character which is threaded through the series. The sequences are over live action or appear from transitions to and from live action. As trusted custodians they worked alongside the directors and showrunners to develop the sequences, as well as storyboarding and designing everything in the scenes.
For the opening sequences the team takes the viewer into Kamala’s world as we see her create an Avengers battle scene using paper cutouts assembled in her bedroom before uploading it to her Sloth Baby Productions YouTube account.
“The show kicks off with our hybrid 2D and 3D animation which is not the kind of animation you see often, it’s quite an old school method but because it's done in CG it brings a nice twist to the mix.” said Framestore’s Lead Designer, David Lochhead.
“By using such a raw method, we effectively became Kamala's hands, creating her art and writing style to build the fanart and fanfiction she is making.” added Ian Spendloff.
The team ended up creating 128 individual cutout characters for the sequence along with 84 props. To achieve the characters seen in the opening sequence the team used a stop motion technique in CG and using Houdini created a bespoke pipeline which would process 2D artwork into a fully rigged 3D asset.
“Using this method meant that the characters had the appearance of a nice stop motion filming technique,” said Matthew Thomas. “We filmed it with all of the stop motion mentalities including non-motion blur and stepped stoppy frame rate, and although it’s all executed in CG it was a nice mix of 2D and 3D artists working together.”
The brief strictly required a handmade feel which meant the team had to adjust their work to fit the style required. It had to look contemporary, but also look like it could have actually been created by a teen in her bedroom. They built a suite of rigged objects that Kamala might use as tools to aid her animation including Blu Tack, paper clips, pins, chopsticks, and sticky tape and combined them based on the challenge of a particular scene. This provided limitations, but also creative ways of overcoming them. They also took the same approach when it came to lighting the scene – limiting Kamala’s lighting equipment to whatever she’d have in her bedroom, like her desk lamp, fairy lights, and mobile phone.
“At times our camera moves would be a bit too slick, so we’d deliberately tone down our work, which could be disheartening for the artists, especially when they had animated something beautifully, and we needed them to take it back to just two or three frames of animation,” said Ian Spendloff. “By doing this though, I think we achieved something playful and organic but still believable and in keeping with Kamala's character. We really got inside her head to explore how she would approach making these animations.”
“We had various techniques in CG to try and make this feel as though it had been created by a 16-year-old. Whether it be intentional mistakes in the animation, having characters fall over or even ‘forgetting’ to animate certain characters on stop motion frames,” added Framestore's CG Supervisor, Philip Robinson. “Our bespoke character generator in Houdini even added some additional offset to the animation, giving us unexpected errors or happy accidents when viewing the renders for the first time.”
Another scene the team worked on depicted Kamala and her friend Bruno cycling through Jersey City passing buildings with large murals that would come to life and start to animate, reflecting what the two friends were discussing.
“The mural sequence is long shot with lots of fantastical work,” said Ian Spendloff. “All the characters that come to life are all created using different styles – we had different artists doing different sections which culminated in a nice mix of methods and looks. It was important that the art supported the dialogue and the scene, rather than being a purely aesthetic device.”
In some sequences the script required mobile phone footage with social media overlaid on the characters’ screens. Framestore’s Design Studio used its graphic design skills to create a fun and energetic way to display Kamala going viral.
“For the TikTok style sequences we broke frame and experimented with some more bizarre and flamboyant styles, and as these scenes ran across three episodes it was a nice way to keep some consistency with what we were producing.” said David Lochhead.
“Because Marvel has a massive fan base, we slipped in as many jokes and Easter eggs as we could, knowing people would analyse everything in intense detail. So, we’d make references to the comics, or to the MCU in general,” said Ian Spendloff. “It was great to have Marvel let us run free with adding our own gags and details. They even let me put nipples on Iron Man.”
“The client got us involved as a creative partner to generate ideas and try out various approaches at a very early stage in the process and with mutual trust, confidence and appreciation, we worked together to find the chosen style for Kamala,” added Framestore’s Line Producer, Hong Yane Wang. “It was a very fluid and organic experience which took great management, monitoring and forward planning.”
The VFX: environments, armour and an all-new superpower
Three separate studios worked on Ms. Marvel’s VFX work: Framestore’s studio in Montreal, as well as the Method Studios teams in Vancouver and Montreal, who are now part of Framestore. These latter teams were tasked with figuring out what Kamala’s powers would look like. “It was quite a challenge,” comments VFX Supervisor Christian Emond, “Marvel wanted to find something new that they had never done before, and they came up with the idea of the 'hard light'. After trying different ideas, we ended up developing the look of this light-based power for her platforms and her armour, including the full-size armour from Episode 6.”
The artists also created digital doubles for Kamala’s two costumes, as well as multiple environments throughout the series. “The largest environment we did was the mosque in Episode 2,” adds Emond. “The actual building already existed, so we recreated it, added towers, and augmented the building’s qubbas – the elegant domes on the roof. In some shots we only had to add the towers and the domes to the plates, and in other shots we went full CG.”
The team also built the surrounding streets with cars, street props, and a human crowd in Golaem. The shots were finished with digitally painted skylines and surrounding buildings. “These environments required many levels of detail for the wide shots and the close ups,” comments Emond. “We also had to add cloth banners moving in the wind for the front side of the mosque.”
Creating the titles
Ian’s team also created the distinctive and colourful front titles for the show including 98 individual title cards, ending with an animated version of the logo in the form of Kamala’s hard light powers. Like little teasers, they made each episode different, but relevant to what’s coming up in the episode.
“We knew the title should be short and sweet, so I came up with the logo burst idea, rapidly flicking through the Ms. Marvel logo depicted through various styles and techniques,” said Ian Spendloff. “We like to think the titles reflect her overall story, so we started with her fan art of her favourite superheroes, and ended with one based on her own superpowers.”
“It was a privilege to be trusted with the work and a joy to be given the opportunity to have the freedom to really run with our ideas, and follow our guts,” continued Ian Spendloff. “We all loved working with Sana and the rest of the Marvel team, and it was a pleasure to be the real life ‘Sloth Baby Productions’.
“We brought together best in class artists from around the world, each with specific skill sets that made the perfect combination and who completely backed our vision for the show,” added Framestore’s Executive Producer, Niamh O’Donohoe.“The detail and love poured into this is truly visible, her inspiring outlook on life and fabulous personality are making waves across the Marvel community.”