The VFX Files: Captain America: The First Avenger
COW Library : TV & Movie Appreciation : Debra Kaufman : The VFX Files: Captain America: The First Avenger
[Editors Note, April 2019: This 2011 article by Debra Kaufman was the first time we'd ever seen a single story that looked at the work of ALL of the effects houses that worked on a motion picture, laying out precisely what each one did. Visual effects have grown up considerably in the years since then, but Debra's story still holds up, as indeed does Captain America: The First Avenger itself, and the work of the VFX artists who worked on it. While this chapter of the Steve Rogers story is (apparently?) turning its final page with Avengers: Endgame, we have one prediction to make: that this will continue to be one of the most popular stories in the Creative COW Library, as it has been since Debra wrote it! ~Tim Wilson, Editor-in-Chief, Creative COW]
With Captain America: The First Avenger, the latest Marvel Entertainment super-hero has joined the pantheon on screens worldwide. Ninety-pound weakling Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) becomes Captain America through the experiments of Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci) and uses his super powers to face off against Nazi renegade Johann Schmidt who becomes the formidable villain Red Skull (Hugo Weaving).
The movie comes with a lot of firepower behind the lens: director Joe Johnston previous helmed Jumanji, Jurassic Park III and The Wolfman, and brought along experienced fantasy-film cinematographer Shelly Johnson, ASC, who lensed Jurassic Park III, Sky High and The Wolfman. Joining them was visual effects supervisor Christopher Townsend, who worked on Percy Jackson & The Olympians: Lightning Thief, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Journey to the Center of the Earth.
To bring this baby to see the light of day required 13 visual effects companies plus a small in-house team at the end, all overseen by Townsend and visual effects producer Mark G. Soper. "It was an almost-impossible job to oversee 13 companies," says Townsend, who says they reviewed everything with cineSync. "We would start our day reviewing the work of companies in England, which were Double Negative, Framestore and The Senate, then we'd review with Trixter and Rise Visual Effects in Germany. After dealing with Germany, we went on to work with our American companies, Lola Visual Effects, Luma Pictures, Method Studios, Look Effects, Matte World Digital, Whiskytree and Evil Eye Pictures. Next, we'd go on to Australia and talk with fuelVFX, and then circle back and talk to our American vendors again. I would work starting at 9 am and would finish viewing at 11 pm. I had to constantly review and give feedback as quickly as possible."
The end result was 1,600 VFX shots, every one of them crucial to telling the tale of a small young man who becomes a giant hero who battles evil and saves America. Alonso pinpoints some of the challenges with the movie's main character. "How do we retain the essence of the character that Chris Evans has created--a 90-pound man who turns into a super-buff 180-pound character?" she asks. "I think we found the medium where we had him perform, not only physical action, but to have him modulate his voice so it fit within the body. In some sequences, where Chris' voice sounded really low, we had him come back and do some readings where he had a softer, younger voice so it would feel like it belongs more in the smaller body. I think we found a really good fit for what is a pretty jarring transformation."
In this shot, Captain America, with his band of evil-fighting soldiers, prepares to zip line down to a moving train over a craggy mountain pass. The train and mountainous terrain are yet to be created. FB-FX Photo credits: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Marvel Studios
Now our hero has all that he needs visually to prove his bravery to the nail-biting audience, as we anticipate his frightening descent to the moving train below.
The physical aspect of transforming Steve Rogers into Captain America is one of the movie's stellar effects. In fact, the effect involved creating a skinny Steve from the buff Captain America body that actor Chris Evans attained from months in the gym. "We knew it would be tough," says Townsend. "We needed to create a character that no one would question for the first quarter to one-third of the movie, and we wanted the audience to sympathize with that character. Joe, the studio and actor all wanted it to be Chris Evans on screen as much as possible...a performance captured in principal photography."
The team studied a variety of different techniques and spoke to numerous companies they felt would be able to do the work. They considered a digital head replacement, a la Benjamin Button, but nixed the idea. "Mark and I felt that what Benjamin Button had in its favor was that it was a bumbling old man whose lips don't move that much and who shuffles around," says Townsend. "We had a young articulate man who would be manipulating his mouth the way Benjamin Button didn't have to. We didn't want to risk taking an audience out of it if we didn't 100 percent succeed." Instead, they decided to go with a 2D approach and manipulate it frame-by-frame, thinning out the arms, reducing the squared jaw and making him 5 inches shorter.
The visual effects team also had to work within the parameters of Johnson's shooting style. "The way Joe films is very fluid," says Townsend. "He's thought about camera moves but doesn't lock it down until the day he shoots. He wasn't into motion control, didn't want green screen and also didn't want pre-visualization."
"Having said that, he was great," he adds. "I said, 'we'll work with it' and we were as low impact on set as possible -- and said yes to everything he wanted. But I also said there may be things that, once we go into post, we won't be able to make it work effectively. And he said, 'In that case, I'll cut around it.' It was a collaborative filmmaking experience."
In fact, skinny Steve, which was created by Lola Visual Effects, is entirely believable. The work began during the shoot. "If the shot wasn't showing his legs, we asked Chris to crouch down at the knees to be the correct height, to make the eyelines be right," says Townsend. "If he couldn't or wasn't able to do that, we tried to put the other actors up on boxes to make them 5 inches higher. And if that wasn't possible, we always asked Chris to look above the actor's heads, and for them to look at his throat."
First, they shot the master shot, with Leander Deeny, a British stage actor who doubled for skinny Steve, watching on the sidelines. "He would watch Chris perform, then playback the video once or twice, and we'd go back out on the set and he'd repeat what Chris had done," says Townsend. "It was our poor man's motion control with the DP, operators grips doing the best they could to make it exactly the same. And it was almost another master plate." The third pass was a clean background pass, which Lola Visual Effects would use for bits and pieces of the background. Finally they'd shoot Chris' performance, on his own or with other actors. "If the background were too complex to try to rebuild, it was easier to take a key of Chris and comp him back into the background," says Townsend. "Sometimes we would pull out a small greenscreen."
Skinny Steve was created by Lola Visual Effects. Actor Chris Evans before and photo below, after the effects are in place to produce a completely believable transformation.
Led by visual effects supervisor Edson Williams, Lola Visual Effects did the painstaking job of mesh-warping the actor to reduce his entire body and thin out his face.
Another trick was to shoot Deeny as a reference pass, to see what a small person would look like doing the movements. "That also gave us the ability to steal bits and pieces of the body," says Townsend. "We'd cut Chris at the waist and use Leander's legs or we'd use Leander's body and use Chris' head, either from the greenscreen or master shot."
Led by visual effects supervisor Edson Williams, Lola Visual Effects did the painstaking job of mesh-warping the actor to reduce his entire body and thin out his face. "Just as you'd manipulate a still frame, they did this frame-by-frame for the entire performance," says Townsend. "The work they have done is incredible. When you watch the movie, people won't think of it as a visual effect. But if you compare the bulked-up actor to his skinny version, it's amazing."
Townsend has high praise for both Marvel concept artist Ryan Meinerding and the production's costume designer Anna B. Sheppard. "How do you tell a World War II movie about two friends fighting against various adversaries, and do it in a way that's an interesting take but also realistic...when the guy is running around in a skimpy red, white and blue outfit," says Townsend. "Ryan, who has worked on the Iron Man suit and Avenger outfits, worked with the art department and the costume department to come up with great ideas for the suit. It's not a Lycra-looking outfit but one that gives it the look of the period. Again, we're basing it in a sense of reality."
Captain America's nemesis is the mad Nazi Johann Schmidt. The head is a latex mask, by prosthetic make-up designer David White, based in the U.K.
Designers thinned out the cheeks, squared up the chin, tightened up the jaw line and thinned out the lower lip in this incredible testimony to prosthetic make-up and vfx artistry. Notably, they also needed to replace Weaving's nose with the Red Skull's nose cavity.
Captain America's nemesis is the mad Nazi Johann Schmidt who, through a series of experiments-gone-awry, becomes the hideous Red Skull character. That loathsome head is a latex mask, by prosthetic make-up designer David White, based in the U.K. "It was beautifully made and went over his entire head, with a translucency to it that gave it an interesting look," says Townsend. "You were never quite sure if it was muscle, bone or blood." Because the actor Hugo Weaving has a strong-featured face with a wide jaw, the addition of a two-to-three millimeter thick mask made his head a little too big. "We wanted to try to make it look vacu-formed on his face," says Townsend. "We thinned out the cheeks, squared up the chin, tightened up the jaw line and thinned out the lower lip." Notably, they also needed to replace Weaving's nose with the Red Skull's nose cavity. "Framestore set that up and primarily did the work on the first 100 or so shots," reports Townsend. "As our workload grew and they had other work to go to, they passed it over to Lola Visual Effects which carried on with what Framestore had done."