Nearly all of Marvel's big-screen adaptations have been in some way influenced by the prolific work of artist Jack Kirby. And yet, it took nearly a decade for Marvel Studios to find the story (and filmmaker) far-out enough to fully embrace the prismatic style that was Kirby's trademark. The pairing of director Taika Waititi and the galactic outer-boroughs featured in Thor: Ragnarok made for the perfect setting to bring Kirby's vision to life.
Exactly how the production team would make that happen represented perhaps the biggest design challenge in Marvel Studios history. Waititi summed up the conundrum in an interview with Rolling Stone in November: "Kirby's art doesn't quite translate from the two-dimensional format, from the page into live-action. It's sometimes very hard to figure out what you're supposed to look at."
The effort began with physical production design, which incorporated as many physical sets as was feasible. They built plenty of interiors and streets, including on the trash planet of Sakaar, which was opulent in a colorful, DIY sort of way. Those sets, which were meant to look like they were built of found junk, were supplemented by wall extensions that towered eight meters high and were covered in hundreds of thousands of LED lights. That helped brighten the asymmetrical sets and give a sense of heightened reality, but nailing the coloring of the worlds was still key to making the difficult translation work.
Turns out the key was keeping it simple.
"Because Kirby drew such dense black and white structures, he filled them in quite a lot," Jake Morrison, the movie's VFX supervisor, told SYFY WIRE. "The colorists didn't generally put more than one main color — a character might just be a predominately red character, for example. They leave some of it negative, so you've got the white space there and then you've got his ink work. So you have three tones in there, but really only one color."
In that way, they could focus on one individual element, instead of worrying about filling each building, costume and horizon with a kaleidoscope's worth of colors. In fact, each setting took on its own color scheme, distinguishing one psychedelic scene from another.
"Each building just has one color and then this tonal variation," he added. "You see this in all of his artwork: when you start layering together the multiple characters and multiple buildings that Kirby did, then genuinely turns into this super technicolor experience. But again, each individual piece is one color."
It was helpful that the two main fictional locations couldn't have been more different. While Sakaar was a psychedelic planet filled with junk, Thor's home world of Asgard was a bit more muted, though no less splendid.
"We have a lot of natural tones in Asgard, a lot of warm tones, a lot of gold obviously, the stuff that we know they stole from around the universe," Morrison explained. "And then in Sakaar there's absolutely no gold whatsoever. We could use platinum, we could use silver, we can use all these strong primary colors, but it's all very quite cold and technical. You wouldn't see an awful lot of orange, for example in Sakaar, that would be reserved for Asgard."
By the third act of the film, there is a lot of back-and-forth between locations, which made differentiating them vital.
"As you're watching the film, you want to make sure that the audience knows they're Sakaar, then in Asgard, Sakaar, Asgard. On that first frame of the cut, you want people to know."
Thor: Ragnarok is now out on home video.