Published on May 20th, 2011 | by Biz Books

The Biz Interview: Shane Mahan and Lindsay Macgowan of Legacy Effects for Thor

Shane Mahan and Lindsay Macgowan met on the set of the James Cameron film, Aliens, some 25 years ago. In the ensuing years – which were comprised primarily of a long association with effects pioneer Stan Winston – they were involved with many high profile films like Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Jurassic Park. Since Winston’s passing, Shane and Lindsay formed their own company, Legacy Effects, and have since collaborated on Iron Man – which earned them an Academy Award nomination, and now Thor.

They spoke with us about their visual contributions to Thor and the keys to making an unbelievable effects sequence feel believable for film audiences.

Can you start by giving us an overview of what creative elements you contributed to Thor through Legacy Effects and what will we see on-screen that’s yours?

Shane Mahan: We were asked to do the race called the Frost Giants – which was to help in the development of the design creation and also the actual practical physical make-ups, which are large, full-body prosthetic make-ups that are then enhanced sometimes to look larger – the digital magic where they kind of increase the guys or they replicate larger hordes of the [Frost] Giants – but for close-ups and interactive moments where the scale is correct, it’s practical physical effects on actors. And then we did a large-scale version of the Destroyer, which is Odin’s destruction tool. And then we did some frozen ice – encased frozen effects on Heimdall… I think we made five or six body replicas of Frost Giants that the actors could jump over and run around and things like that. But it was a massive undertaking. I think it was, all told, between stunts and hero make-ups, I think we had 18 to 20 characters to do on a daily basis.

Can you talk about the collaborative process when you put these elements together? In other words, when we’re seeing it on screen, how much of the final vision is yours vs. Kenneth Branagh’s input vs. the original comic book and so forth?

Lindsay Macgowan: From a design standpoint, it took a long time to get to the final design of the [Frost] Giants. In the comics, the giants are actually huge – 20 feet tall. When we started to do the design work on it, that’s what we thought we were designing to, but as we got into it, we realized that – in production meetings – that they actually weren’t going to be that tall. They were only going to be 8 or 9 [feet] tall. So the design process was extremely long but you had to make sure that the Giants – that they still looked human and so that the audience could still sort of relate to [them].

Shane Mahan: I think it’s fair to say that we come from the world of fantasy and horror and things where our brains go a little further past the point of where we start from. It’s sort of a place of the extremes and so then we start reeling things back. I think it’s also interesting that I think the original concept – the early, early conversations with Marvel – was, even before we got on, that the [Frost] Giants would be purely digital creatures much like the (Na’vi) because Avatar had not come out yet at that point. There was talk about it, but Wes Sewell – the visual effects supervisor – really felt and Kenneth Branagh really felt that this is an actor’s piece, even though it’s a big swashbuckling fantasy epic, you’ve got classically-trained actors working against each other to make it feel real as a contrast. So they felt having actors in make-ups were essential to make it believable. We actually took a lot of pride in the fact that we could help on that level… It’s everyone’s vision. I mean, the great thing about Marvel is it’s a very roundtable, knights of the realm kind of feeling there. It really is. You’re not being dictated to. You’re being asked to bring what you know and Kenneth Branagh’s great. Kevin Feige and all the producers really listen and understand what the elements are, so in the end, I think it’s a collaboration of about 15 people that that’s the work you’re seeing on-screen.

You touched on the idea of giving things a realistic feel. For any visual effects sequence, what are the keys in making it look believable to a viewer?

Lindsay Macgowan: Just try to ground it in reality as much as you can. We try to bring as much physical stuff to the sets, so that when it goes to the digital side of production, they have something to have to match to… We always try and work together with visual effects. I guess that’s really the main thing is try and get both worlds working together, so you have a seamless effect that the audience aren’t too distracted.

Shane Mahan: We’re asked to do things that are very extraordinary. So it’s like it seems commonplace to guys like us, Lindsay, our other partners and all the artists who work here because that’s what we do every day. But we have to take into consideration the audience who is going to go in and be asked to believe the world of Jotunheim exists and that these characters are real. At some point, you want it to be as organic as it can be within that parameter so that people can just sit back and enjoy the movie and not think about a distraction like an effect, you know what I mean? You should just kind of buy into it and enjoy it and maybe think about it after the fact.

Our thanks to Shane Mahan and Lindsay Macgowan for speaking with us.

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