Warning: This post contains spoilers for Thor: Ragnarok!
Every war has its casualties, and the apocalyptic conflict at the center of this weekend’s box-office champThor: Ragnarok is no exception. By the end of Marvel’s latest blockbuster, mighty Odin (Anthony Hopkins) is pushing up Norwegian daisies, the Warriors Three have been fatally disbanded, and Asgard itself is no more, reduced to rubble by the destructive combination of a goddess of death (Cate Blanchett) and a fire giant. But it’s the passing of Mjolnir, the trusty hammer belonging to Thor (Chris Hemsworth), that arguably delivers the movie’s biggest emotional blow. Across six years and five movies, the Thunder God’s signature weapon has taken down frost giants, puny gods, Dark Elves, and one very homicidal robot. And during that time, Mjolnir has endeared itself to both Thor and his various allies, who have given it cute nicknames when they’re not trying to lift it themselves. So when Hela casually obliterates the mighty hammer with a squeeze of her even mightier hand, it’s like watching Bambi’s mom get killed all over again. (Watch our “In Memoriam” tribute to Mjolnir above.)
If you shed a tear for Mjolnir, than Ragnarok visual-effects supervisor Jake Morrison feels he has done his job. Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment, the veteran of such Marvel spectacles as Ant-Man and Thor’s two previous solo adventures, confirms that he wanted the hammer’s passing to carry a certain, um, weight, which meant that his team worked hard to imbue Mjolnir with a real personality for what proved to be its final outing. It’s not unlike the way that Doctor Strange‘s visual effects supervisor, Stephane Ceretti, made the Sorcerer Supreme’s Cloak of Levitation an almost living and breathing character, and Morrison points to that film as a reference point. “Mjolnir is really kind of his pet or familiar in the same way that Doctor Strange’s cape is. So the key [to the death scene] is that it’s got to be a weirdly emotional moment: the audience has to go, ‘That really just happened!'”
With Mjolnir’s death looming relatively early in the film, Morrison wanted to make the most of the hammer’s limited screentime. So early on in the previsualization process, he laid down two hard-and-fast rules: “One is that we wanted to show that this is Thor at the absolute height of his powers. And two, we wanted to make sure that anybody who’d ever wanted to see Mjolnir do really cool stuff was satisfied. We wanted to take the hammer to 11, so to speak. We wanted to give it all the powers you’ve never seen before, so in that moment where it gets crushed, it would be like, ‘Oh my God—what’s he going to do now?'”
Those rules resulted in one of the Ragnarok‘s single best shots, which Morrison accurately (if a little inelegantly) has nicknamed the “roundy roundy shot.” That’s the scene in Surtur’s lair in the beginning of the movie where Thor hurls his hammer at the fire giant’s fiery soldiers and the camera follows it as it makes a circular arc around the action, mowing down bad guys while its owner fights hand-to-hand in the background. Contrary to what you might think, that really is Chris Hemsworth in the frame, and not a digital doppelgänger. “We knew we wanted to see Thor in the shot the whole time,” Morrison explains. “The only way to do that was to stick him right in the middle of the lens.”
Before any effects were layered on, cameras captured Hemsworth shadowboxing a small team of stunt guys while standing on an oversized turntable that was being spun around at high speed. “It’s one of those things where the behind-the-scenes footage is absolutely hysterical,” Morrison says, laughing. “Chris is just standing there in the middle of a turntable! But you kind of have to do that to get the finished shots.” Once the F/X team had that shadowboxing footage, they added all the Mjolnir-accented bells and whistles. “We wanted to make sure the hammer was the biggest thing in the frame. Then we had it smash into all the fire demons, which created embers and sparks and cool lighting things. That’s one of the things about visual effects: you have to make an investment in how you’re going to shoot something early on, so you’re often like ‘This will probably work.'”
Watch the destruction of Mjolnir from ‘Thor: Ragnarok’:
Fortunately for Morrison, Ragnarok director Taika Waititi embraced a semi-improvisatory style in all aspects of production, encouraging each department to pursue its boldest ideas, no matter how seemingly outlandish. Sometimes that resulted in a bravura moment like the “roundy roundy shot.” But Morrison owns up to a few epic fails as well, one of which involved Mjolnir’s big death scene. “We worked on that shot for quite a long time. There were discussions up until three weeks before the release date about what happens when you break Mjolnir. This thing is made of the metal from the heart of a dying star. So when you smash it to pieces, what does it do? Does it sink to the ground? Does it cover the dirt and the grass?”
Morrison remembers one early pass resembling “ice cream melting,” which, naturally, wasn’t the Viking’s funeral they wanted for the character. “We were like, ‘Mjolnir wouldn’t die like that!’ So we focused on making the pieces really strong when they hit the ground. We also added a little bit of the arcing lightning, and just a bit of smoke.” Morrison points to a moment later in the film — one that features comparatively few visual effects — that speaks to the impact of Thor’s loss. “In the scene where Thor first arrives on Sakaar, the scrappers come out and he reaches out his arm to call for Mjölnir. But then it doesn’t arrive! It’s like, ‘Lassie’s not coming home, son.'”
Thor: Ragnarok is currently playing in theaters everywhere.
Watch: Director Taika Waititi reveals origin of shirtless Chris Hemsworth scene in ‘Thor: Ragnarok’:
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