Welcome to Thanks, I Love It, our series highlighting something onscreen we’re obsessed with this week.
A wombat, a dog, and a mythological god of chaos walk into the production offices of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Thousands of hours of work later, out toddles Morris — the six-legged, four-winged, faceless sidekick currently charming Marvel fans the Cinematic Universe over.
“It’s crazy, right?” VFX supervisor Christopher Townsend remarks to Mashable in a Zoom interview. “How do you build something like that? And make it not grotesque, but adorable?”
“How do you build something like that? And make it not grotesque, but adorable?”
Between Baby Groot for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Goose for Captain Marvel, and more, Townsend has taken on his fair share of make-it-cute challenges for the MCU. But approaching Shang-Chi director Destin Daniel Cretton’s vision for Morris, he says, was uniquely daunting.
Although the critter is mostly based on “Hundun” — chaos-fueled creatures from Chinese folklore whose mythological nature shifts from tale to tale, but who generally share a consistent physical description of multi-limbed facelessness — it took a combination of influences for Townsend to bring Morris to life. First, came the wombats.
“We were shooting in Australia, so we actually used a wombat as one of our initial gauges for size,” the effects master says. “We bought some big stuffies of wombats, and we had one which was about 18 inches long or something. We sort of held that and said, ‘Yeah, that feels about right. If you imagine a wombat with wings and with an extra pair of legs and no head, it’s kind of like Morris.’ So that was a starting point.”
Then, came the dogs. Chief among Morris’ canine inspirations was Townsend’s own Charlie, a four-year-old miniature goldendoodle whose gleeful goofiness guided much of Morris’ physicality.
“We were shooting in Australia, so we actually used a wombat as one of our initial gauges for size.”
“We were studying how [Charlie] moves and how puppies move and how they show their excitement — how they move their whole bodies because they just cannot contain themselves,” Townsend explains. Treating Morris’ four wings as stand-ins for dog ears, the Shang-Chi VFX team helped the Ta Lo native, ever-sensitive about his lack of face, communicate using his body instead.
“We actually did versions of Morris with eyes as a test,” Townsend recalls. Big eyes, as anyone who lived through the Golden Age of Baby Yoda can attest, are a practical cuteness silver bullet. “But eventually we said, ‘No, no, we want it to stay true to the mythological origins of the character.'”
Authenticity was central to the creation of Shang-Chi and, in turn, Morris, Townsend says. Not only was it important to accurately and thoughtfully represent the aspects of Chinese culture Marvel was bringing to its story, but it was important to present those elements as believably as possible.
To help lend credibility to Morris’ interactions with his human stars, Townsend shared a variety of animation tests with the cast on set so they could visualize him while performing. Then, Shang-Chi’s props department created a series of green, cushion-like conduits to physically represent Morris during filming.
“It had some heft to it purposefully,” Townsend says of the surprisingly bulky props. “Weight is something that I’m very keen on. Making actors try and act like something is heavy is much harder than just giving them something heavy to pick up.”
“And he’d say, ‘No, I need it! I want it! That’s Morris!’”
Ben Kingsley, reprising his Iron Man 3 role of Trevor Slattery for Shang-Chi, did much of the literal heavy-lifting with Morris — often at the Academy Award-winning actor’s own insistence. Kingsley, Townsend recalls, regularly referred to the heaping green mass as his “co-star” while filming.
“Sometimes I would say, ‘Hey, do you need the stuffie or can we do without it?’ And he’d say, ‘No, I need it! I want it! That’s Morris!’ To be working with this incredible actor who is so, so good and have him totally believe that this character was real, that really helps.”
After Shang-Chi wrapped filming and began post-production, Townsend, his team, and collaborating artists from Trixter (an animation studio from Munich that’s worked on Marvel movies since Phase I) collectively began the grueling multi-month process of rendering Morris and his many details. Getting Morris’ feathers just right, for example, was a time-intensive task that required not only the footage that ultimately appears in the film but countless hours of reference videography too.
“In post, we’re having to track the camera to figure out exactly where the cushion is relative to the actor’s hands, and we have to track their hands,” Townsend explains. “So we have ‘witness’ cameras pointing at the actors, as well as the main picture.”
“I can’t say because I don’t know. But it seems like it would be a missed opportunity, right? If we didn’t?”
By cross-referencing these images, Shang-Chi’s VFX team was able to ensure Morris’ feathers appeared realistic in all situations — be it rough-housing with Fu dogs or playing dead with Trevor — and against all kinds of touch.
“That’s something I think I’m most proud of in the film with regards to Morris. Not only making him a cute character, but also giving him some physicality so that the fur and the feathers all react appropriately to the hands as they’re very slowly sort of rubbed through or stroked or patted or held.”
That innate cuddliness, paired with our faceless friend’s lovable demeanor, has created a demand for not just Morris merch or Morris toys, but simply more Morris. With Eternals and Spider-Man: No Way Home just around the corner, plenty of movie-goers are hoping for another glimpse of his not face soon.
When asked whether Morris will return to the MCU, Townsend replies, “I can’t say because I don’t know. But it seems like it would be a missed opportunity, right? If we didn’t? He is pretty adorable.”
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is in theaters now, and streaming on Disney+ Nov. 12.