Iron Man 3: The Trixters Behind Tony Stark's Shiny New Armor
CreativeCOW presents Iron Man 3: The Trixters Behind Tony Stark's Shiny New Armor -- MAYA Editorial

Alessandro CioffiAlessandro Cioffi
Munich, Germany All rights reserved.

Alessandro Cioffi
Alessandro Cioffi
Seventy artists at Trixter worked for a year on 208 VFX shots on Iron Man 3 -- work that began before a single frame of principle photography had been shot. Their very first task was to create Iron Man 3's opening sequence. Trixter VFX Supervisor Alessandro Cioffi adds the punchline: "This very sequence was selected by Marvel to be shown at Comic-Con, and we had eight weeks to do it. In addition to the short turn-around, another problem was that all we had in our hands was the main suit design -- that was it. At the start, we didn't even have a model for the suit. Oh, and principal photography hadn't started yet either." In the end, they had 30 shots to turn around in this narrow window.

Trixter worked on two key sequences in particular. One of them is among Iron Man's most distinctive ingredients: Tony Stark's Iron Man suit's assembly. This third movie in the series made things considerably more difficult because, unlike previously, actor Robert Downey, Jr. was in motion the entire time. "We had to perfectly match-move his body to make it look real," says Alessandro. We shot passes in the studio to see what happens if someone is moving that frantically. A human body is very flexible, whereas the suit is rigid, a hard surface geometry. We had to think how to combine these two things."

Alessandro refers to the second sequence as "The Glove and Boot Fight," but we'll let him fill you in on the details.

Alessandro Cioffi, who lives in Munich, joined TRIXTER at the end of 2007 after a conversation with Trixter co-founder Simone Kraus about how to evolve that company's pipeline from pure animation to end-to-end VFX. Cioffi first worked on the compositing pipeline before tackling lighting and rendering. "After one year, we had a full workflow from A to Z," he says, "and we could start taking jobs." The first job, which came from sister company Trixster Productions, involved creating a small CG dragon that interacted with live action footage in Lilly the Witch. In that project, Cioffi worked as compositing supervisor. By the end of 2008, Trixster began bidding on more complex live action shows and got Ninja Assassin, where they met that film's visual effects supervisor Christopher Townsend and developed a professional relationship.

That relationship led to work on A-list films, starting some smaller jobs on Iron Man 2 and Percy Jackson and the Olympians. The first big feature Trixter took on was Captain America: The First Avenger, in which they worked on a considerable number of shots. The company was invited to bid on The Avengers and ended up doing Item 47, a short movie on The Avengers Blu-ray. In addtion to Marvel's Iron Man 2 and X-Men First Class, Trixter also contributed to Cloud Atlas, The Raven, Green Lantern, The Green Hornet and Narnia 3: Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

In addition to Alessandro, Trixter team leads for Iron Man 3 were CEO and Animation Supervisor Simone Kraus and VFX Producer Mihaela Chifor. We were glad that he was able to take some time from Trixter's current -- and of course top secret -- project to speak with Creative COW.

One day, Simone [Kraus, Trixter co-founder/co-CEO] called me and said, "I have good news and bad news. Which do you want to hear first?" The good news was that we were invited to bid on a sequence for the upcoming Iron Man 3. Wow, that was great news. The bad news? This very sequence was selected by Marvel to be shown at Comic-Con and we had eight weeks to do it. In addition to the short turn-around, another problem was that all we had in our hands was the main suit design -- that was it. At the start, we didn't even have a model for the suit. Oh, and principal photography hadn't started yet either. This was in April 2012, and principal photography didn't start until the next month.

Delivering Iron Man's suit from previs to full action.

Every Iron Man movie has something new and slick in it and, in Iron Man 3, one of those is how he puts his suit on. In the sequence, Tony Stark is in his lab, experimenting with this new 'connecting' technology that allows all the parts of his suit to connect without any additional device or machinery. Every single part of the suit flies onto Tony's body, propelled by blue energy technology. Third Floor in London had done a pre-visualization so we saw that the action was pretty hectic. All the pieces fly towards Tony Stark but the technology isn't quite ready so the pieces get out of control and hit him. It's a piece of comedy and pretty fun.

Even before we animated a frame, our task was to design every single part of his suit. The brief was that the elements of the suit, lying on the table when he enters the lab, should look amorphous, not obviously elements of his suit. They are red and gold, the colors of the suit, but when they fly off the table, they transform, and then connect to Tony's body. So our first job was concept and design. We dissembled and separated every part of the suit -- I counted something like 24 parts -- and every part had to be designed and disguised into a different shape. When Marvel gave a greenlight to the look, we immediately started animating, in late April.

One of the things we realized that was quite different from previous Iron Man movies, where Tony Stark stands almost still when the suit is assembling, in this movie, he had to perform. Robert Downey Jr. was brilliant simulating that his body was getting hit; he mimics interaction with these nonexistent pieces. We had to perfectly match-move his body to make it look real. We shot passes in the studio to see what happens if someone is moving that frantically. A human body is very flexible, whereas the suit is rigid, a hard surface geometry. We had to think how to combine these two things.

Then [the movie's VFX supervisor] Christopher Townsend told us that Downey Jr. preferred to be freer to move this scene; he wouldn't enjoy wearing hard props. We had to figure out how to mark his body in the least intrusive way. It was better to have as many markers on his body as possible; for an arm, for example, we had at least 10 pieces between markers and marking stripes. It was a bit of a hassle later on to clean it up, but it was calculated collateral effect.

With regard to how we animated the suit connecting to Tony Stark, our briefing from Chris was to be faithful to the Iron Man tradition and keep the mechanical integrity of the assembly process -- but to bring it to the next level, so everything would look more complex, like part of an advanced technology. We started doing animation on a dummy, a steel model, in pre-production to anticipate a bit of the work. It was a leap in the dark because we didn't know what angle the sequence would have been shot from. Although this was a little bit overdone in the beginning, it became an advantage as we could re-use entire parts of the animation we created in more than one angle and more than one sequence. It was a pretty solid work done.

Making everything look like part of an advanced technology went for the animation as well as the design. We also had to use a new animation language that was different than previous movies. We wanted to be coherent with the other movies, but Marvel wanted it to look more advanced, slicker. The way the suit connects on Tony Stark had to preserve the mechanical integrity of previous movies, but also look brand-new.

Once we had the plates and match-moved them, we could reference it to the previously processed animation and could buy some time, which was pretty important given our time crunch. They started shooting mid-May and Comic-Con happens beginning of July so we had just six weeks to crank out 30 shots. We delivered all the shots and were exhausted, but happy: we were made it and it felt like a great achievement. Then we got a telephone call from Chris who said, "Great guys, Marvel is happy -- now let's bring it to the next level." We wondered, is there a next level? We started working then on the shaders to make it look more realistic. We tweaked some animations and the sequence was extended. If I compare today's version to the Comic-Con version, they're very different. After Comic-Con, we could refine the entire sequence, with more calm.

It was an unusual production for us, though to start with an incredibly challenging deadline. The peak came in the beginning with a bumpy take-off but then we had a pretty smooth landing in the end. By the time we got to the last sequence we worked on -- the Glove and Boot Fight -- we could have a lot of fun. The schedule was more relaxed -- it's never relaxed completely, but it felt much easier.

We worked on five sequences and some littler pieces, for an overall number of just over 200 shots. The next major sequence we did was "Tony Busted" which presented very different challenges. First, I should say there is a spoiler alert coming! In this sequence, Pepper comes back home and finds Iron Man sitting on a sofa. The fireplace is lit, there is a beautiful sunset and everything feels so quiet and peaceful. He gives her a shoulder massage and she's trying to kiss him on the mask.

How does Iron Man behave in such a situation? How does he sit and walk? These were all very unusual tasks for Iron Man, and we had to try many different characters: more heroic, more tender, more casual. There were many possibilities we could go for and there were no references.

Iron Man is always acting where there is some sort of danger or jeopardy, so he always acts heroic. Here, he is a domestic Iron Man and there is no reference for it. We came up with our own proposals and plenty of versions, constantly tweaking, fine-tuning, and always bearing in mind that it's supposed to be a human being inside heavy armor. It has to look believable but we have to give him an attitude we've never seen before. Towards the end of the sequence, you realize the suit is moving autonomously without Tony, because he's downstairs in the lab. When the camera goes downstairs and we realize what's happening, then Iron Man doesn't behave anymore like Tony Stark -- it becomes a robot, a mute servant. It was also fun to animate this. He has a mute dialogue with Pepper and we had to work on the subtlety of animation to make the two characters interact. That was interesting.

The third sequence -- Glove and Boot Fight -- is a bit similar to the scene in the first movie, when Tony tries the flying boosters inside the garage and destroys a bit of everything. The director's intention was to recall this imagery.

Tony only has one boot and one glove and can't entirely control what he's doing. He has a shoot-out with the foes keeping him in captivity and the boot and glove free him. This sequence was very much about VFX such as smoke trails behind the jets propelling him.

We created the blasts he shoots against the bad guys, some explosions, and then feathers, plenty of feathers when Iron Man hits a pipe wrapped with insulation material. Of course we also animated the boot and glove.

Towards the end of the sequence, the remaining parts of the suit finally, with a couple of minutes delay, fly to him and connect to form the complete suit.

We could re-use entire parts of the animation we had prepared before, but his suit is completely destroyed at that point, so we had to heavily work on textures and shaders and modeling around the suit.

For software, we used Autodesk Maya, The Foundry's Nuke and Mari, Renderman, with FumeFX and Autodesk 3ds Max for effects, and Adobe Photoshop on PCs with Core I7 CPUs and 64GB RAM, as well as dual-CPU render blades with up to 128GB RAM. We didn't create any proprietary software, but we had to tweak our pipeline heavily, customizing some internal tools to better handle this complexity of assets. Towards the end of the show, we introduced Katana, switching from lighting done in Maya to The Foundry's Katana, which is an amazing new tool.

By working on Iron Man 3, we added a lot to our repertoire. Taking on such complex assets was a steep learning curve. The Iron Man as just a suit wouldn't have been that difficult. But the connecting sequence of how the suit went on him involved thousands of moving parts, and the artillery of assets grew a lot. We had to grow together with the project. We didn't just grow our knowledge pool; at some point, the company grew physically grew. We are now covering double the number of square meters we were before. Every company needs to grow slowly and smoothly in this hard time in the industry but the show gave us a boost in that direction. Being faced with these creative challenges, we started thinking differently. We were looking for alternative solutions to what we were supposed to accomplish, even the process of creating animations and rendering/finalizing sequences. We grew altogether, as individuals, as professionals, as a company.

Thanks also to Debra Kaufman for coordination and additional editing on this piece. Follow her on Twitter @MobilizedDebra