When special effects studio Digital Domain was approached by Marvel to work on an episode of Loki, there was one sequence in particular that was exciting: the chance to destroy an entire planet.
The third episode of the series is set on the moon of a planet called Lamentis, which is about to collapse on itself, taking the moon with it. As Loki and Sylvie wander the desolate, purple landscape, meteors pound the ground around them. This all leads up to a crescendo when they reach a small town, which is battered by debris as the planet rips apart.
Even before he had any idea about the rest of the show, or how the story would play out, VFX supervisor Jean-Luc Dinsdale knew that this would be an important moment for Loki. “It was pretty clear from the start that this was a huge sequence and a big milestone for the series,” he tells The Verge. “Technically, it’s a really challenging sequence.”
Prior to that point, most of Loki was set inside the retrofuturistic hallways of the Time Variance Authority, which made the shift to Lamentis all the more jarring. When Loki and Sylvie first step outside on the moon, viewers are greeted to a grim, dirty landscape that looks like nothing else on the show — though that wasn’t always the plan. According to Dinsdale, the teams at Marvel Studios and Digital Domain played around with a few ideas for the planet and its moon, including a lush world covered in greenery, and another dominated by massive oceans. At one point they considered having a planet with a molten core that would create quite the spectacle when it finally imploded.
“We explored that for a bit, but after a while the decision was made to make it more of a dead planet, a planet that had been mined to a crazy extent and basically had died through all of the exploitation,” Dinsdale explains. “So we ended up literally with this dead husk of a planet, that, as you can see in the final footage, has mining holes all over it and has really been ravaged to the point that there’s nothing left to it. Which I think explains why it imploded; the core of the planet got mined, and there’s no structural integrity so it falls apart.”
That decision ties into the way Dinsdale likes to approach VFX, which is to base them in reality. Sure, none of us have ever seen a planet explode and take a populated moon with it, but the idea is that, with a grounding in real physics, this outlandish visual can be more believable. In addition to looking at lots of reference material, the team used software called Houdini to simulate how the explosion would happen, right down to the amount of dust and debris that would appear. “In my experience, the best way to approach visual effects is to base it on reality,” says Dinsdale. “What is the reason for this planet to be exploding? We always walk this fine line of what makes sense and what looks really cool.”
This also ties into some of the world-building going on in the episode. The purple-hued moon of Lamentis is not a very welcoming place, and viewers learn this largely through the visuals. The miners left on the planet wear shabby clothes, and the few buildings look weathered and beaten. The team at Digital Domain was able to expand on this not just through the landscape, which is largely barren, but also the equipment seen in the background.
“The production [team] really wanted to give the sense that they had been mining for a while,” says Dinsdale. “The mining equipment on this planet is dilapidated, it’s been used for a very long time, and it’s not like it’s super high-tech. To me it was similar to James Cameron’s Aliens, the design aesthetic where there’s nothing fancy about this planet, therefore it’s dirty and used and dusty.” Much of this involved the labor-intensive process of adding lots of extra detail to everything, whether it’s dents in a spaceship or layers of dirt on some mining equipment. “You don’t necessarily see all of those individual details, but just this buildup of detail creates the sense that this thing looks real.”
The effects studio worked on the show for about a year and a half, and eventually contributed more than 300 VFX shots. One of the challenges was that, despite lasting just 43 minutes, the episode cycles through many different and varied tones. At the beginning it’s like a chase sequence, as Loki and Sylvie run to escape the meteors raining down on the surface. Later, things are much more subdued as the pair have quiet, heartfelt conversations while the world is crumbling around them. This all culminates in that big final sequence when the town is destroyed. And all of these moments required something different in terms of special effects.
“We need the meteors to be scary, we need them to have a lot of velocity and huge impacts, debris flying everywhere, to create that sense of jeopardy,” Dinsdale says of that early chase sequence. “But later on in the show, as they’re walking towards the mining town, the filmmakers wanted the threat of the meteors to still be there, that’s why you’re always seeing them in the background. But a different look was created to give the sense that, yes the meteors are always there, there’s always a bit of jeopardy, but it’s not the big Michael Bay moment where they’re about to be crushed.”
These sections also proved to be challenging from the VFX side because of how they were filmed. During the action sequences, real debris was thrown around on set in order to give the actors something to respond to. It made for more true-to-life acting, but as Dinsdale explains, “that makes work for us a lot harder, because we have to go in and remove the stuff that was dropped on set, replace the backgrounds, and then layer back in debris to bring that sense of danger back. Even though it’s more work for us on the backend, the results are much more satisfactory. You end up with a pretty amazing look.” He adds that “the amount of cleaning up that had to be done to the footage was extensive.”
The amount of work involved was similar to that of a feature-length film, and the result is arguably the most visually striking of Loki’s six episodes. From its harsh color scheme to its desolate vibe, Lamentis really doesn’t look like anything else in the series — which is what makes it so memorable. “We basically got to create our own little world separate from the rest of the show,” says Dinsdale.