In the signature sequence of Marvel’s “Doctor Strange,” arguably its most visually compelling film so far, heroes Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) are pursued by Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) and his Zealots through a New York cityscape fragmented in the Mirror Dimension.
Here, the filmmakers walk us through that mind-bending, visually stunning fight scene, along with script excerpts by Jon Spaihts and Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill.
EXT. NEW YORK CITY – CONTINUOUS
Writer-director Scott Derrickson: The idea became, “What would a chase scene be like inside an M.C. Escher world?” Not just to present it as an exterior canvas, but to actually be inside of it, in motion. It started with pulling a bunch of experimental, fractal videos from YouTube and giving them to my visual-effects supervisor.
Visual effects supervisor Stephane Ceretti: We looked at a video game you can get on your phone, “Monument Valley.” It’s based on stuff Escher has done, a pretty tricky puzzle game. We looked at [Christopher Nolan’s] “Inception” and kaleidoscopes, Escher, Mandalas and all that fractal stuff. Every single shot was, “How are we going to shoot that?” We had to shoot the actors — if you make it all CGI, people kind of disconnect.
They look back as THE CITY SINKS DOWN A HOLE, then FRACTURES. THE WHOLE WORLD IS SPLIT APART!
Cinematographer Ben Davis: Strange and Mordo arrive at an intersection where the world starts to break apart into Escher forms. The initial camera height was 130 feet, on top of a cherry picker. It zooms out. We shot the original image of Benedict running into place at the intersection but we couldn’t get a camera to move from that height to street level in the time we needed … so the next piece of that shot, it was synched, then there was a takeover from a 75-foot crane arm. Then we cut straight in to Benedict on the street. All those things had to be one piece.
The twisting landscape turns upright, casting Mordo and Strange over the railing, down into the abstract space below ...
Production designer Charles Wood: We looked at rooftops, a swimming pool on a rooftop that reflected an aircraft above you. We looked at taking the Hudson and turning it into a series of inverted waterfalls, yeah? We looked on Vimeo at strange things people were doing with liquids. We looked at magnetic forces. We spent months and months and months looking at how you could approach things like that.
EXT. FRACTURED CITY — CONTINUOUS
They land on the side of a building.
Strange begins to open a sling-ring portal — but the ground ROTATES, and Strange and Mordo fall into a Mandelbrot world of a cathedral, brownstones, fire escapes and high-rises.
Davis: My favorite is when Benedict creates the portal and then Mads twists the world 90 degrees and they fall off and land on the bus.
Stunt coordinator Jim Churchman: The bus sequence — Stan Lee’s cameo — Benedict and Chiwetel land on the window face-first. We did that practically [with no CGI]. We had them up on wires, built the side of a bus with a window, and we dropped them on glass. No padding. It’s your lead actors.
Derrickson: Strange and Mordo are running up the side of the building and Kaecilius slams his hand down and creates this wave on the skyscraper. One of the visual-effects vendors rotated the image 90 degrees and the shot just took on an extraordinary dynamism. I remember shouting, “Oh my God, that’s so cool!” and the vendors were on the phone and they cheered.
Churchman: When Kaecilius makes it ripple, how do you have your actors run on that? So I came up with the idea of mounting treadmills on motion bases so they were angled, constantly moving surfaces they were running on.
Editor Sabrina Plisco: It was longer too. We had a previs roadmap [they all credit Faraz Hameed for his previsualization work, which helps plot out complex scenes before filming] because they were so complicated to shoot, especially with all the different layers of people running on all the different [surfaces].
Derrickson: When we would screen [the long version], the audience couldn’t take it. In “The Bourne Identity” or the “The Bourne Ultimatum,” those chase scenes go quite a bit longer because you’re not in the middle of an Escher painting.
Editor Wyatt Smith: It had to go under the knife many times. What we learned was some things were so complicated, it didn’t matter how cool it was, it scrambled your brain — which is kind of an uptown problem to have, to have something so cool it was too cool.
Once it got complicated, thankfully, we had a bright red cloak [to follow], but it was always, make sure we kept track of Strange — with screen motion and placement and where buildings would rotate and where lights were placed, making sure your eye would go to him.
The swirling space compresses even more, the chase devolving into a disorienting Escher-like nightmare for Strange.
Ceretti: The big wide shot when New York splits and the church is kaleidoscoping and they’re all in different directions, the stairs are forming in front of him; he falls through a subway train — it was really hard to get, to shoot, to post. But I like that moment.
Derrickson: The camera follows him as he falls and you can see passengers on the side, flying by. Every time I see it, it’s so satisfying because that’s probably the part that’s most surreal.
Churchman: When they’re on the bridge and it rotates and they come flying off it? I flew both of them practically, about 60 feet across the stage. Camera went right by Benedict; it was pretty cool.