Breaking down the real and mythical inspirations behind ‘Shang-Chi’s’ mystical creatures
The first Marvel solo-feature about an Asian American superhero, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” which hits Disney+ on Friday, is an origin story that introduces plenty of new characters as well as a whole new realm.
Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), through his mother, can trace his heritage to Ta Lo, a magical village located in an interdimensional plane. And after a dramatic family reunion, Shang-Chi must head to Ta Lo with his sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang) and best friend Katy (Awkwafina) in order to stop his delusional father Wenwu (Tony Leung), an immortal crimelord.
Helping them get to Ta Lo is Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley), an actor imprisoned by the Ten Rings, and Morris, a curiously adorable creature with wings but no face.
“Morris — who is a key character in the film — is a six-legged, headless, faceless, winged, furry creature,” said Christopher Townsend, the visual effects supervisor on “Shang-Chi.” “He’s based on Hundun, which is a mythological character in Chinese folklore, sometimes considered the God of chaos.”
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Ta Lo, it turns out, is filled with different kinds of mystical creatures based on those found in Chinese folklore.
Besides Morris and his fellow Hundun, Ta Lo is home to “horse-like characters based on Qilin … nine-tailed foxes based on a character called a Huli Jing … phoenixes and there’s also a pair of huge Fu Dogs, which are based on the creatures you’d see guarding a gate,” said Townsend. “The creatures inhabit a somewhat fantastical world and because of that, we wanted these creatures to show that element of fantasy. And we really wanted to lean into Chinese mythology and approach things in terms of their design based as closely as we could on specific characters.”
Townsend explained that “a tremendous amount of work” goes into developing these creatures, even if they’re only seen a few shots in the film.
“When you’re dealing with the fantastical, it’s always a big challenge to try and make these things look real,” said Townsend. “So you’ve got to try and echo reality as much as possible and lean into that so that there is enough familiarity there that the audience sort of buy it a little bit more easily.”
When Shang-Chi, Katy and Xialing are taken to Wenwu’s compound, they stumble upon Slattery, an actor being held captive for impersonating the leader of the Ten Rings, and his companion Morris, the Hundun-inspired creature from Ta Lo.
Townsend explained that when he saw an early draft of the script mention a “faceless character called Morris,” he couldn’t help but wonder how on earth they were going to pull it off.
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“One of the things in terms of trying to [make a creature] emote and create any sort of characterization is a face and eyes,” said Townsend. But “we were given this challenge of not being able to use that at all, so we needed to find ways for this character to emote.”
For Morris, one of the particular challenges is that he is introduced in the more grounded world outside of Ta Lo and interacts with other characters such as Slattery and Katy. In order to make him a character that audiences could believe is actually real, the “Shang-Chi” team tried to reference real animals as much as possible.
Among the animals they studied are ostriches, cassowary birds and wombats.
“Morris is a six-legged, headless version of a wombat, really,” said Townsend.
But most important in bringing Morris to life was figuring out his character and emotion and the ways he walks and moves. This involved numerous animation tests so the animators could learn how he “lives and breathes and reacts, to understand everything about him.”
“We studied a lot of different animals and their behavior, particularly dogs and puppies” for Morris’ movement said Townsend. (If you found Morris cute, that’s probably why!)
The Great Protector
As explained by Shang-Chi’s aunt Ying Nan, when Ta Lo was attacked by a giant, soul-consuming beast thousands of years ago, a dragon called the Great Protector saved the village.
“The Great Protector was based very much on the Chinese-style [dragon],” said Townsend. “She didn’t have wings. She has a flowing mane and she silkily swims through the air. … it was interesting to try and figure out a way for her to move and to fly without it feeling too magical.”
According to Townsend, one of the biggest challenges in creating a believably realistic dragon is that because it is a dragon, audiences innately understand that the creature can’t possibly be real. This means leaning into elements that actually do exist for both her look and her movements.
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To help inform how the Great Protector could move, the team studied sea snakes and eels. Horse’s manes and reptilian scales are among other details that helped inform her overall design.
Another challenge was her size.
“One of the ways to try to portray scale is to slow things down,” explained Townsend. The logic “when you’re working in any creature design, [is] that if you make it slower, it feels bigger.”
But the “Shang-Chi” team wanted to avoid making the Great Protector look lumbering and slow as she’s meant to be more graceful in her movement.
“We tried to find that very fine line between being fast enough and elegant enough and dangerous enough, because she’s the Great Protector, but also maintain that sense of huge scale,” said Townsend.
When Shang-Chi and friends finally make their way into Ta Lo, they are greeted by a herd of creatures Slattery describes as “weird horse[s].”
Inspired by the Qilin from Chinese folklore, Townsend describes these creatures as “iridescent, reptilian-skinned, horse-like characters with sort of dragon heads and hooves.”
The closest real-life analog the team could look at for reference were horses, which they studied for movement. They also looked at animals such as parrot fish and various snakes to help inform the Qilin’s scales and its iridescence.
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“Originally, we had the Qilin really bright and garish and beautiful, but they stood out in such a weird way,” said Townsend. “So we then did various look [development] tests of different skin colors [and] whether it was furry or hairy, different-colored manes and different tails … to figure out how far could you push [the color] where you could still believe that these things could exist in this world, rather than them being too cartoony.”
Perhaps a couple of the more familiar-looking of Ta Lo’s creatures are the Guardian Lions, also known as Fu Dogs or Stone Lions. These creatures are based on the stylized stone statues that are generally seen guarding gates or entryways to buildings.
Although they appear in only a few scenes, Townsend explained that they initially thought the creatures “were going to be in a lot more of the film.”
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“Fu Dogs always come in pairs,” said Townsend. “There’s one that’s male and one that’s female, traditionally, in Chinese mythology. They also tend to do the opposite things. When one is breathing out, the other one is breathing in. They’re yin and yang.”
These were elements the “Shang-Chi” team tried to incorporate into the film.
“It’s very, very subtle, but there are things,” said Townsend. “There’s a lighter one and a darker one in the film and they offset each other just ever so slightly. When one is roaring, the other one is still and vice versa. It’s these kind of subtleties that we tried to put in the film.”
A creature that had some audiences believing there could be Pokémon in “Shang-Chi” is the nine-tailed fox inspired by the Huli Jing from Chinese mythology. (The Pokémon character, called Ninetales, in inspired by similar creatures from Japanese folklore.)
“We actually had a few more moments with the nine-tailed foxes, which unfortunately were cut while trying to move the story on,” said Townsend.
Townsend explained how even characters that are only seen briefly, like these foxes, require a lot of work to bring to life.
“There’s one particular shot where the bad guys turn up, Wenwu and his army come [to Ta Lo], and the Qilin scatter and the nine-tailed foxes are there cowering on a rock to the left,” said Townsend. “It’s just such a throwaway moment, but the attention to detail is just so much fun to go back and look at. Bringing these characters to life, almost as much work goes into it as a hero character. It’s beautiful stuff.”
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