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In the magical multiverse of Doctor Strange, it’s the cloak that makes the man. After setting foot in New York’s Sanctum Sanctorum for the first time, Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) comes face-to-face with the Cloak of Levitation, a mystical object that will become an essential part of his arsenal. This flowing red overgarment has been part of Doctor Strange’s wardrobe since the 1960s, helping him fly from dimension to dimension and protecting its wearer from bodily harm.
But the movie version adds an extra wrinkle: this cloak has a mind and will of its own, something that hasn’t been made explicit in the comic book. In fact, the film makes it clear that the cloak chooses Strange as an ally rather than the other way around. Furthermore, it functions as a kind of mentor to the inexperienced sorcerer, assisting with battle tactics and, at one point, helping him through an emotional moment.
Once the decision was made to make the Cloak of Levitation an active participant in the action, the task of turning this cape into a character fell to Doctor Strange’s visual effects supervisor, Stephane Ceretti. A veteran of Marvel productions — he’s previously worked on Thor: The Dark World and Guardians of the Galaxy — Ceretti says he drew his inspiration for the cloak’s personality from another piece of fabric brought to life through the magic of animation. Read on to discover the source of his inspiration, as well as the moment where he knew the Cloak would be a star. [P.S. Our chat includes discussion of events in the movie, so if you haven’t seen it and don’t want to know anything about what happens, stop here.]
Due respect to Benedict Cumberbatch, but I think it’s fair to say that the Cloak of Levitation is the real star of Doctor Strange.
[Laughs] We definitely approached the cloak as if it was a character in the film. Initially, that wasn’t the case. When we first started working on the pre-visualization, it mostly just flew him around. But the more we played around with the cloak in pre-viz, we thought it was a good idea to make it a character. We approached it like a horse and rider relationship. The first time they meet, they have to learn to work together; the cloak knows more about running the sanctum than Strange, but the more they collaborate and work together, Strange takes over and becomes the master — though not completely. By the end of the movie, they’re going to work together, but they’re still two separate characters.
Once you realized that the cloak was going to be a full-fledged character, how did you go about building its personality?
We wanted to make it clear that the cloak’s attitude to Strange was: “I know a lot about magic, and I can help you fight the bad guys, but I’m not your servant.” We play with that throughout the movie, even after Strange becomes the keeper of the New York sanctum. There’s a nice moment when Stephen cries [after the death of the Ancient One], and the cloak wipes the tears away. It’s a very nice, touching moment that always gets a reaction from audiences. And we looked for those sorts of occasions to have fun with the relationship. The cloak’s a little bit like the magic carpet in Aladdin; it’s a character you get a lot of expression out of without arms, legs, or eyes.
Yeah, Aladdin’s magic carpet came to my mind right away.
Exactly. That was the best-animated carpet we’ve ever seen, and now this is the best-animated cloak we’ve ever seen. [Laughs] But we also tried to make it our own, and have it fit with our story. And we knew we had to have the right animation team, so we worked with the Framestore, a visual effects house in London. They had already done Groot for Guardians of the Galaxy, so we knew we could get great character animation from them.
How much of the cloak’s big dramatic and action moments were already in the script, and what did you create in the moment?
It was really a collaborative process in terms of ideas for the cloak. We tried stuff in pre-viz, worked things into the script, and did a lot of work with the stunt team. For example, they came up with that idea of the cloak holding Strange back when he was trying to reach for the axe in that first fight with Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) in the New York sanctum. Originally, there were a lot of cloak moments in the chase sequence through the streets of New York, but it was running pretty long, so we couldn’t [include] too many of them.
Was Benedict Cumberbatch aware of the extent to which he’d be acting with the cloak?
During the pre-viz process, we made sure to finish the cloak animation very early so we could show him what it would be doing. Whenever you have actors working with a digital character, you have to really explain to them what’s going to happen so they can be prepared and react accordingly. For the scenes where the cloak would be moving, he would wear a collar around his neck with a little bit of the cloak draped on his shoulders. That would be our reference for the visual effects. Our costume designer, Alexandra Byrne, also designed a real cloak for him to wear in other scenes. It’s a beautiful costume, but was difficult for us to replicate in the computer, because it’s so heavy — there’s a lot of weight to it. But it gave us a great base to work from.
What was your favorite cloak moment to bring to life?
I like the scene in the New York sanctum where the cloak wraps itself around the head of Kaecilius’s henchman and just keeps punching him. That stunt guy did such a good job getting thrown around the room! He had a helmet around his head, but it was still pretty violent. It reminded me of the scene in Guardians where Groot grabs the guards and throws them against the wall.
I’m sure you’re aware of Edna Mode’s “No capes!” rule for superheroes. Doctor Strange seems willing to defy that advice.
Well, this cape would never get sucked into a jet engine. It’s much too clever for that! [Laughs] I think there will be a lot to play around with for future movies in terms of how the cloak and Strange work together. We generated a ton of ideas making this. We could make a whole movie just about the cloak!
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