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 they 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 its vfx work. 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."
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."
Double Negative created cars, planes, and trains in a stunning retro-futuristic design.
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.
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.
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.
"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, which had worked on Thor, built three steam boats and a small fishing boat
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.
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.
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.
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."
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 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.