Avengers: Infinity War - Thanos, Titan, and Weta Digital
COW Library : TV & Movie Appreciation : Hillary Lewis : Avengers: Infinity War - Thanos, Titan, and Weta Digital
With $2 billion grossed worldwide, Marvel Studios Avengers: Infinity War has slayed the box office.
This third feature under The Avengers banner in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has hulk-smashed through countless records and won bragging rights for the fourth biggest overseas grosser of all time, following Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Titanic, and Avatar.
Add a Cinemascore grade of A from audiences and 83% Fresh at RottenTomatoes.com to a US opening weekend of nearly $258 million, and yeah...they knocked it OUT. THE. PARK.
And with Marvel’s recent announcement that Avengers: Infinity War will be released digitally on July 31 and on Blu-Ray on August 14th for Avengers: , you can expect some exciting, exclusive features like a 30-min roundtable interview with 8 MCU directors, featurettes on why some Avengers were teamed up with others, a deep dive on Thanos's history, and deleted and extended scenes.
With such high anticipation and following tremendous pressure to deliver a box office hit, Creative COW sat down with Weta Digital’s Matt Aitken, VFX Supervisor of Avengers: Infinity War, to find out the secrets of creating a film that goes down in the history books.
Matt Aitken, Weta Digital
Matt has a long history of working on legendary films, such as Avatar, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Iron Man 3, King Kong, District 9 (for which he received an Oscar nomination), X-Men: The Last Stand, and so many more.
He boasts 24 years at Weta Digital in Wellington, New Zealand, and has been pushing the boundaries of CG animation ever since his first break-through as CG Supervisor for iconic director Peter Jackson on the film The Frighteners.
Weta Digital has been responsible for giving CG characters like Gollum, the Avatars, and now Thanos a human-like presence on screen through innovative performance capture.
Through cutting-edge technology and new technical strategies including intricate pore stretching and stubble detail, new jaw rig and eye animation, and new support for muscle flex shapes, Matt and the Weta Digital team brought an astounding new emotional range to Thanos as part of over 400 visual effects shot that Weta delivered for the film.
Thanos displays fear, excruciating pain, wonderment, surprise, frustration, amusement, sorrow, satisfaction and pride – human emotions clearly visible in CG animation.
Creative COW: How did you make sure Thanos’ emotions would hold up in front of the audience?
Matt Aitken, Weta Digital: In approaching Thanos as a digital character, we draw from a long history of performance capture all the way back to Gollum from Lord of the Rings. He was our first real intro doing digital performance work and we’ve been building our knowledge ever since. From King Kong to Avatar to the Planet of the Apes trilogy.
Weta brings a real depth of experience and we just continue to develop that tool set and approach.
In the past, we would compare the on-set performance to our digital character, which is like trying to compare apples to oranges. But for the first time, to create Thanos, we got more rigorous in accurately capturing Josh Brolin’s performance, and introducing a new intermediary stage into the old process.
Building the performance of Thanos on top of the performance of Josh Brolin
What we do now is have Thanos as a preliminary digital version of Josh Brolin, and get it as close to Josh as we possibly can. We end up with a very high-end digital double of Josh.
From there, we create the Thanos performance on the digital copy of Josh first, then validate digital Josh against live-action Josh until we're very confident that we've got a close take of his performance. After that it's quite a straightforward process, we just copy from our digital Josh to our digital Thanos.
Josh gave an amazing performance of Thanos and we were very keen to replicate that.
What’s your personal favorite sequence in this movie?
That's a tricky one because it was all a lot of fun.
There’s a scene on Titan where Thanos has temporarily dispersed everyone except Doctor Strange and they square off against each other. Thanos is just learning how to use the power of the stones so we had to dream up new weapons that he was able to use.
We created golden lightning for the first time and wherever that lightning hits, it melts into splashes of lava. Thanos throws a black hole at Doctor Strange who traps the black hole and converts it into a flock of butterflies. Strange temporarily clones himself until Thanos uses a combination of the power and soul stone to identify the real Doctor Strange and destroy the others. It's a fast pace to and fro between these two very powerful characters.
They're using new weapons against each other and it was fun to come up with novel ideas for that scene. We worked up a variety of concept artwork to Marvel, they selected the ones they liked and then we converted that into CG.
Some of the fight between Thanos and Dr. Strange on Titan, courtesy Weta Digital
How has Weta Digital evolved since those Lord of the Rings movies, which still has relevant VFX that holds up in today’s world?
It’s nice that you say that those VFX still hold up today. Because there's a lot of heart in that work which will never die.
At the start of Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of The Ring, we had 20 people, by the time we finished the whole trilogy we were at 500 people, and now we're at around 1,500 people.
We’ve matured into one of the top visual effects companies in the world and I don't think that's an overstatement. We're not in multiple locations around the world. We've only ever been in Wellington, New Zealand because this is Peter Jackson's hometown and he likes it there. So we've collected a great team of creatives from all over the world doing amazing high-level work.
We have to organize ourselves at a high level as well. We’re split into pre-production and production; pre-production consists of our modelers and picture artists who build the characters and environments and get them ready to go, production consists of our animators, lighters, compositors, and simulation artists who are more shot focused.
We'll do reviews throughout the day. In the morning I’ll be looking at the shots that we’re targeting for completion that day. We'll see how the work is going with the characters and environment, and in the afternoon we do one-on-ones with artists.
So I'm really just the figurehead for a full army of people. The production staff, the coordinators, the assistant coordinators keep this whole machine running and they do a great job.
As an industry leader, are you still relying on off-the-shelf tools, or are you continuing to create your own software as well?
We currently use Maya for modeling and creature creation and Nuke for 3D compositing.
But more and more of our software is being developed in-house. We get such a great level of control over the the functionality of the software that way.
We created a program called Mari which we wrote to do our 3D texture painting. We needed something for that job that wasn't commercially available so we developed Mari to fulfill our in-house requirements. We have since partnered with The Foundry to make it more broadly available. It's become the standard 3D texture painting software in the industry.
I think we naturally remain an industry leader in visual effects as a byproduct of our goals, which is to continue to do the highest quality work that we can. We're not limited by the constraints of the approaches we were taking on past films. We’re focused on continuing to refine our approach and acquire new technology or create technology ourselves.
What an epic movie and such an enormous positive response worldwide – how does it feel to be finished with the film, and is the next installment in the works?
[Laughs] Still kind of decompressing.
I think I was on the show for 18 months, and the last two months of it was very complicated work. We were very happy with the final product, and Marvel was very appreciative so we finished on a real high.
But yes, I would love to work on the next one. I don't think that we’re formally engaged on that project yet, but I would jump at the chance to do that. It would be fantastic to be involved.