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The VFX Files: Captain America: The First Avenger

COW Library : TV & Movie Appreciation : Debra Kaufman : The VFX Files: Captain America: The First Avenger
Another challenge was the creation of so many digital environments and digital set extensions. "We needed to make them look as real as possible, which is difficult when they're unbelievably big," says Townsend. "Double Negative handled most of that and did a wonderful job in terms of creating cars, planes, trains. They created some really good-looking stuff in a retro futuristic design."


Photo credit: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Marvel Studios
Double Negative created cars, planes, and trains in a stunning retro-futuristic design.


Photo credit: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Marvel Studios
Whiskytree provided the digital background of this burned out factory.


Double Negative wasn't alone in creating digital environments. The Senate, which created over 170 shots, took on responsibility for the Kruger Chase sequence, in the beginning of the film, right after Steve Rogers has been transformed from a 90 pound weakling into a super soldier. Steve chases Heinz Kruger who has stolen the secret serum. The sequence, shot in Manchester and Liverpool, England, had to be transformed into 1940s Brooklyn.


Whiskytree created this fully CG establishing shot of 1940s Manhattan as seen from the Brooklyn Bridge.
Whiskytree created this fully CG establishing shot of 1940s Manhattan as seen from the Brooklyn Bridge.
Photo courtesy of Whiskytree, Paramount Pictures and Marvel Studios.



Although the art department did a magnificent job of dressing the few blocks appropriately and filling it with period cars, the chase needed to extend beyond the existing set to create the illusion that it took place all over the city. The Senate spent time on set during the shoot to document the buildings, textures and artwork with stills; the team--which was headed by visual effects supervisor Richard Higham, VFX executive producer Sarah Hemsley, sequence lead Anton Yri, 2D lead James Etherington--had also assembled hundreds of images of actual New York streets.



Click to see enlarged view
Click above to view larger images.




The background changes are subtle to create a smooth transition into the distance. The chase needed to extend beyond the existing set to create the illusion that it took place all over the city.



The removal of entire buildings is subtle -- too distant to have great visual impact in the original versus the treated scene -- but their absense creates a cleaner line of site and draws the viewer into the action. Viewers are treated to a convincing 1940's Brooklyn.


Richard Higham - vfx Supervisor, The Senate
Richard Higham - Visual Effects Supervisor, The Senate

"The main challenge was to make sure there was a genuine progression and distance traveled," says Higham. "We fleshed out a little map by following what was going on in the edit, so we had an idea of how many different views you'd get in the foreground. It was always the background we'd be ripping out and replacing with our street extensions." From this meticulous mapping, The Senate broke down the street extensions into about 20 different views and used the collated photographic elements to create a master digital matte painting for each view. After the angles were adjusted, the matte paintings were sent to the 3D department, which projected the images onto simple geometry.

"Once that's done, the 3D artist dimensionalizes it, by resetting and pulling out windows and ledges," Higham says. "Then the compositors start to blend in textures in the sky and rotoscoping in people from different plates. We also generated a Brooklyn Bridge with a bit of artistic license and put that into 15 shots. Joe didn't want it to be overly iconic, but rather discreet. You don't want to detract from the chase by passing all kinds of iconic buildings."

The Senate also did one more, very different task in this sequence: Steve Rogers runs barefoot after the villain, and the actor was wearing a pair of flesh-colored rubber boots, which The Senate had to replace with realistic digital human feet. "They had the look of feet but he moved like he was in boots," says Higham. "We had to look at how real feet move and created our own proper bone structure down to the knuckles in the toes, adding in muscle that would flex."

"It was outside our comfort zone but the artists we employ have a background working in different areas," he continues. "Although our company strength is recognized as environments, we weren't afraid to take on the challenge. There was a bit of to-and-fro but once we got the model properly articulating and had good reference, it became easier and easier."



Steve chases Heinz Kruger who has stolen the secret serum.



Steve Rogers runs barefoot after the villain, and the actor was wearing a pair of flesh-colored rubber boots, which The Senate had to replace with realistic digital human feet.


The Senate's other environmental work included turning 80 extras into a vast crowd for the USO party sequence and extending the background of an alley where a bully beats up skinny Steve. For the latter effect, the company built a one-story building up several stories and replaced a green screen background with a New York street.

Luma Pictures, which had worked on Thor, built three steam boats and a small fishing boat. "In order to integrate the ships into the environments, we simulated water, layered with foam, and boat wakes that matched the scale and wave frequency of the ocean water filmed in the plates," says CG supervisor Richard Sutherland. The scenes were rendered in Arnold, which Sutherland calls a "brute force raytracer." "Within Arnold, we can set our real world light source, matching that of the shot," he says. "And because of its unbiased rendering we can avoid a significant amount of time-consuming light positioning."


Luma Pictures
Luma Pictures, which had worked on Thor, built three steam boats and a small fishing boat


Luma Pictures
In this action sequence, Skinny Steve has just been transformed into the genetically perfect man. His new-found strengths are immediately required as a Nazi spy wreaks havoc and agony upon his friends.


Photo Credit: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Marvel Studios
Once again, the changes are subtle in these two before and after shots, but Luma was required to build an entire digital dock, replace background elements, add in sky with clouds, CG buildings, and Liberty Island.


Photo credit: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Marvel Studios
The toughest scene was when Steve leaps off the pier.


The toughest scene was when Steve leaps off the pier (to be replaced by a stunt double) as he dives into the water between the pier and the boat. Luma received the A side and B side with very different camera angles so, to solve the shot, the team built an entire digital dock and then re-projected the A-side plate onto the geometry. That allowed them to skew the camera and line it up with the B-side camera. They also added some background replacement elements including a sky with clouds, CG buildings and Liberty Island. Because the skies were blown out in the photography, casting bright light wrap around foreground objects, Luma artists touched up the areas around objects frame-by-frame to match the background.

Sean Faden, Visual Effects Supervisor
Sean Faden, Visual Effects Supervisor,
Method Studios

Method Studios, which did 28 shots for the movie, used its expertise on the sequence when Captain America jumps out of the Stark airplane behind enemy lines. The visual effects company did all the plane interior shots, including adding backgrounds outside the windows, as well as the exterior shots of the plane. That meant changing from day to night and adding all the tracers, flak, clouds and matte painting adjustments. Visual effects supervisor Sean Faden, CG supervisor Doug Bloom, VFX producer Tony Meagher and compositing supervisor Patrick Ferguson worked with a team of 12 to 15 artists, using Side Effects Houdini (for all the explosions rendered via Mantra); rendering with Vray rendered out of Autodesk Maya for Captain America, the parachute and interactive light for the plane; and The Foundry's Nuke and Autodesk Flame for compositing.

Faden says the team studied World War II reference footage--especially what little they could find in color--to nail the feel and color of tracers and flak. They got the plates knowing which ones would go with which interior shot, which gave them a good head start on the work. "For 70 to 80 percent of the shots, that saved us--and them--a lot of time," says Fade. "Then our communication becomes about important things like the look rather than the timing."

The challenge with flak was to make sure that they blew up in a way that was threatening but not hokey. "The further away we put them, the harder it was to show a sense of speed to the plane," he says. "If they were too close to the plane, it just looked like a giant bomb going off. If they were too far away, you would see them in the window but they didn't seem to travel very much. Then there was the sweet spot." Adding clouds helped the overall sense of movement. "We wanted to play up the sense of depth and motion and adding the extra clouds helped to tie it all together," he says.

One tricky shot was when the camera looks out the plane's open door. "It feels too clean...your eye doesn't necessarily buy it," says Faden. "In this case, we added a mist element like a jet stream flowing along side the plane. It was a noisy volumetric pattern that broke up what you were seeing. It helps to sell the fact that they're flying fast." The believability was in all the details. "We modeled a version of the Beechcraft plane they shot and match-moved it in the shot," he says. "Originally the intention was to track the motion of the airplane and not do a simple day-for-night, which was the original brief. We tracked it and then rendered an element of a plane reflecting a moonlit night environment and then moved that back to the original plate. You could never get that moonlight reflection with compositing tricks. It needed that extra 3D touch. With match-moving the plane, we could also get reflections from the flak. They asked us to put the Stark Industry logos on the plane and our Flame artist stabilized it all."

Victoria Alonso, Co-producer of all Marvel films and head of visual effects and post production
Visual Effects Supervisor, Christopher Townsend
With so many elements coming from so many visual effects companies, Townsend also faced a formidable challenge of creating a continuity of the look. "Splitting the work up sequence-by-sequence helped," he says. "We'd always place the effects in the Avid and see it in context of the movie to see if it fit. They had to look similar enough shot-by-shot even when four or five companies worked on a particular asset. On the other hand, if everything looks too similar, it becomes visually boring. We strived to keep everything a little organic looking." For example, Townsend and Johnston discussed the fact that the blue bolts from the weapons need not always look identical. "Each weapon isn't the same and therefore the bolt wouldn't be the same," says Townsend.

The World War II theme continues until the Main On End Title Sequence, which was created by Rok!t, which used a series of American World War II war effort posters with dynamic camera moves. Rok!t creative director Steve Viola and art director Kaya Thomas had some great iconic images: Director Johnston played an active role in choosing posters that ranged from Uncle Sam Wants You and Rosie the Riveter to less familiar posters. The Rok!t team organized the posters into a visual timeline and then broke them up into foreground and background elements. The 3D design team painstakingly modeled, recreated and dimensionalized all the elements of each poster to work in a 3D environment while preserving the original artwork. Animators then created the camera moves and transitions to create the flowing motion from one poster to the next and a stereoscopic camera rig finessed the proper stereo depth before the compositing team assembled them for the final 3D render.



Rok!t Main On End Title Sequence images
Rok!t used a series of American World War II war effort posters to create the Main-On-End Title Sequence.


Captain America was shot in 2D and then converted to 3D, a decision that Marvel initially made for Thor. "We were very happy at the outcome of converting Thor," says Alonso. "When we started Captain America, we also did tests but decided that because of the way the movie was conceptualized, we would benefit from having the director and DP shoot it in 2D and then add the stereo layer later to have more control over doing it." Stereo D in Burbank did the conversion for both Thor and Captain America. "Stereo D came in and saw the rough cut and then we had weekly reviews of every shot," says Alonso. "At times, the DP was available to supervise, but sometimes he wasn't so we did it with the director and us."

Looking back on his exhausting orchestration of 13 VFX companies, Townsend calls it "a great experience." "I've really enjoyed working with Joe, who comes from a VFX background but is first and foremost a filmmaker, and the whole Marvel team," he says. "Everyone is passionate about making the best film they can, and it's clearly shown with what Marvel has produced thus far."






"Everyone is passionate about making the best film they can." says Townsend.


Will Captain America: The First Avenger be the beginning of a Marvel franchise? It's too early to tell, says Alonso. "Let's see what kind of legs it has," Alonso says. "We always hope for these movies to have a long life. I think this is one of our best origin pictures and we're excited about it. Now it's in the hands of the fans."


The trailer and all images courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Marvel Studios; also Luma Pictures and Rok!t where noted. All rights reserved.

 


 

Debra Kaufman

Debra Kaufman
Santa Monica, California USA


Debra Kaufman has covered numerous feature films in which the effects were created by multiple houses. But Captain America--with its 13 vendors--was a classic example of the challenges in orchestrating the work of VFX houses around the globe. Though she never read the Captain America comics, Debra loved the adventures of the skinny boy turned hero as seen on the big screen.





Comments

Re: Behind the Lens: Captain America: The First Avenger
by Debra Kaufman
Thanks, Matt. I am also a fan of invisible effects - and nearly every movie has them nowadays!
Re: Behind the Lens: Captain America: The First Avenger
by Matt Short
Great article, Debra. The subtle FX are always the best because you don't even realize they're an effect until it's pointed out to you. I too thought the skinny Steve was a head replacement. Amazing artistry by these companies.

http://www.9Gfilms.com
http://9gfilms.blogspot.com/
Aerial Cinematographer / Editor
Re: Behind the Lens: Captain America: The First Avenger
by Debra Kaufman
Yes, John - "lensed" does mean shot...All my years of writing for the Hollywood Reporter, I still have the habit of using Hollywood trade publication lingo, though I promise not to use "ankled" for fired!
Re: Behind the Lens: Captain America: The First Avenger
by Debra Kaufman
Ronald - So glad my article inspired you and Kathlyn to go see the movie. The "skinny Steve" effect is particularly impressive! Enjoy! Debra
Re: Behind the Lens: Captain America: The First Avenger
by John Pirtle
Does "lensed" mean Director of Photography?
Re: Behind the Lens: Captain America: The First Avenger
by Ronald Lindeboom
We have been so busy, Debra, that Kathlyn and I didn't have plans to go see Captain America. But reading your article, I think that we have to go see it now. Thank you for another great look behind the lens.

Best regards,

Ronald Lindeboom
CEO, Creative COW LLC
Publisher, Creative COW Magazine

Creativity is a process wherein the student and the teacher are located in the same individual.

"Incompetence has never prevented me from plunging in with enthusiasm."
- Woody Allen
Re: Behind the Lens: Captain America: The First Avenger
by Debra Kaufman
Yes, Frank - towards the end of the article, I talk about the work of Rok!t that created that cool end title sequence...
Re: Behind the Lens: Captain America: The First Avenger
by Scott Roberts
Another awesome article! I was wondering how they made Evans look skinny as I was watching it. I assumed it was a digital head on another body, but it's way cooler the way they actually did it. The tedious frame-by-frame reduction paid off pretty nicely. They should be very proud of that.

The subtle reduction of Red Skull's face is something I didn't notice/think about when I was watching it, I thought that looked pretty good as well.

Nice collaboration with a whole lot of effects companies. Very good job with all the subtle stuff. Makes me appreciate the movie even more (which I liked plenty to begin with).

And what, is Chris Evans too dainty to actually run through the street without flesh colored boots on...? Actors...! :)
Re: Behind the Lens: Captain America: The First Avenger
by Frank Stearns
I was blow away with the special effects in this movie. Does anyone know which company created the end credit sequence animation?
@Frank Stearns
by Stefani Rice
The Main On End Title Sequence was created by Rok!t, now known as Method Studios.



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