Introducing Ultron: Trixter Builds The Avengers' Biggest Bad
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Munich’s Trixter Film has been on quite a roll. Founded in 1998, their work on Avengers: Age of Ultron was the culmination of a 5-year stretch that included a couple of Iron Men (2 and 3), a couple of Captain Americas (The First Avenger and The Winter Soldier), a couple of X-Men (First Class and Days of Future Past), White House Down, Ant-Man, Cloud Atlas, and many others. But this time is different, says Alessandro Cioffi, Trixter’s VFX Supervisor for Age of Ultron. “This is the very first time that we can be considered a main vendor, together with other big companies.”
At the same time, Trixter still considers themselves a “boutique” scale house, averaging around 80 artists working over the course of the year on this project, peaking at around 100, for 400 shots in all – so what’s different? What was Trixter’s main job on Age of Ultron?
Designing, building, and animating the introduction of Ultron.
Ultron Mark 1 in the Party Fight sequence, for which Trixter completed 140 shots of Ultron Mark 1 and the Iron Legionnaires. All images courtesy and ©2015 Marvel Studios. Click to view full size.
Yes, THAT Ultron, the titular self-constructed robot A.I. bent on saving the earth by eradicating humanity.
Trixter had other tasks on Age of Ultron, mind you, with details to follow, but primarily, it was building Ultron as we first see him. This is even trickier than it might sound, because Ultron's introduction has to accomplish two contradictory things that are equally critical to establishing the events that follow.
Which is also exactly the case. The sleeker, finished version of Ultron that inhabits most of the picture, aka Ultron Prime, is the end of the story that Trixter is the first to begin telling us.
"Simone Kraus, our Managing Director and Animation Supervisor, has always been a big fan of the Marvel world, as well as a general fan of big blockbusters. And so is every kid in the industry," laughs Alessandro. "Who doesn't want to work on these? Doing important work on blockbusters has always been our goal."
The company elbowed their way blockbuster ladder from what he calls "an effects cameo" on X-Men: First Class (2011), forward to their first major project on Iron Man 3 in 2013. Along the way, they crossed paths with Christopher Townsend, the VFX supervisor from the production side for Trixter's work on Ninja Assassin (2009) and Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief (2010).
"We met again on Iron Man 3," Alessandro says, "and we were entrusted with something much more complex." Specifically: Tony Stark's self-assembling Iron Man suit, which Trixter carried forward from concept art through execution.
Along with the specific pieces used for the suit, Trixter also created a number of assets and effects. Every bit as importantly, they designed an animation language that was used in a good deal of the movie. [Alessandro wrote an article about this for us at the time, Iron Man 3: The Trixters Behind Tony Stark's Shiny New Armor.
Iron Man 3: The Trixters Behind Tony Stark's Shiny New Armor.
Age of Ultron was another thing altogether. Counting the trailer and finished film, Trixter was responsible for 400 shots. Many of them were Ultron himself, but others included his robot minions (the Iron Legionnaires), digital doubles for Captain America and Iron Man, speed and magic effects for Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, assets, environments, and more.
Hey, what's a Marvel epic without an origin story?
"We first met the character of Ultron as an original sketch from Marvel," Alessandro says, "but not much more than a sketch, and a description of the mood of this character: a spooky, creepy creature made of mechanical parts, glowing eyes, dripping oil – very rudimentarily assembled, a crude combination of mechanical parts.
"From that we started developing the concept, giving alternatives, working on proportions, investigating single body parts, trying to find a photorealistic look that was sometimes rusty, sometimes greasy, and that held together in an asymmetrical, weird way.
"At first, this was a simple object. The interesting part happened after we built the first version of the rig, and after an initial model of the approved concept."
It happened when James Spader met Ultron.
JAMES, MEET ULTRON.
Trixter co-founder, Managing Director, and Animation Supervisor Simone Kraus brought the first version of the Ultron rig to London, to work with Andy Serkis at The Imaginarium, the motion-capture facility he founded in 2011. This would be the origin of James Spader's performance as Ultron.
Avengers: Age of Ultron Blu-Ray Feature – James Spader Motion Capture B-Roll (HD) Marvel Movie 2015
As Andy himself established with his groundbreaking work to create Gollum for Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings saga, there's more to motion capture than just pointing lots of cameras at actors who slap some VO on top of some CGI. Carefully crafted mocap can enable a performance where both the actor and the graphics influence each other to create something that couldn't have happened any other way.
Andy also locked down the idea that actors doing mocap are in fact acting. CG is in some ways doing no more or less for the performance than makeup. The performance is the thing.
And whatever else you know when you cast James Spader to play the most powerful villain yet encountered in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you know you're going to get more than just a voiceover. You're going to get a performance.
That's why talking about James as "the voice" of Ultron misses so much of what makes Ultron work as a character. The collaboration between James and director Joss Whedon was well underway, of course, starting with the insights rooted in the script Joss penned for the picture. But it wasn't until James saw Trixter's Ultron rig in motion at The Imaginarium, and saw how Ultron's movements would reflect his own, that he could start to use the specifics of Ultron's self-creation would shape his own performance.
The earliest incarnation of Ultron is a rudimentarily assembled culmination of dripping oil and mechanical parts. He is self-assembled from bits of Iron Men and Iron Man costumes and parts.
"We had done a few tests, which we showed to James to give him some inspiration about how different movements would look," says Simone, "but I also talked to him a lot about what he thought about the character and how he would communicate.
"One thing he thought of right away: with no ability to have expressions on Ultron's face, James worked on ways to translate 'facial expressions' into body language. He also had the idea that maybe Ultron's arms and legs were not yet fully functioning; he was still getting used to his body. So we did some testing using constraining devices – a sling for his arm, weights on his legs – to help him act out that his body is not working the way it should.
"By the time we were ready to begin, we then knew exactly how Ultron would be posed when we first saw him, and how he would begin to move. Then while we were capturing James, we kept asking questions about the character the whole time. This was a great resource for the animators especially later on, in the parts where we didn't have mocap and we needed to fill in parts of the performance with traditional animation."
It was, says Simone, very much a collaboration. "This is why you hire someone like James Spader, a real performer who is part of the persona behind Ultron, so it was natural for us to try to get as much of HIM as possible into our work. Talking to him was very inspiring for that."
It's easy to hear the pride in Simone's voice as she describes watching James refine the character of Ultron while interacting in real time with the previsualized version of Trixter's rig, scaling his performance with the other actors, working in a specific space.
But that really was just the beginning.
"When we brought back the mocap data and worked with a more sophisticated rig, then Ultron started to become a very interesting character for us," she says. "We worked for over a year on this asset, building his physical appearance, refining some secondary animation for each of his body parts – thousands of parts – and refining the look in compositing."
There was also considerable detail to add. There were parts inside of Ultron that were themselves in motion, independent of Ultron's own movements, along with things like blinking lights. The team also had to add cable and fluid simulations, and to make sure that the details in the character made sense both close up and from a distance.
"CG gave us a lot of nice elements and renderings, and a lot of great ideas that we could bring together very nicely in compositing," says Trixter's Compositing Supervisor Dominik Zimmerle. "We had to find a look for how he appears, how he enters the light, and how the scene is grading.
"This was a long journey. We wanted to be very careful with how he first appears, to not make it TOO theatrical. I think we succeeded in the end to create a nice, moody atmosphere."
Ultron Mark 1 is capable of rapidly rebuilding and upgrading itself.
A group of other characters in Age of Ultron required a similar approach on a smaller scale, the Iron Legionnaires. Ultron created this cadre of minions (sorry) from Tony Stark's army seen in Iron Man 3 – with a critical difference from Iron Man himself: there's nobody inside them.
"It was really important for Joss Whedon that they look and behave like robots, and not men in suits," says Simone. "So we limited their range of motion, and developed a 'robot' style of movement that was still fluid enough to be able to fight with the Avengers.
"We worked with the stunt department and tried to figure out how the fight would look, and when we might be able to use a stunt person on the set for the actors to interact with, who would be replaced by a digital character."
"We had five of them," says Adrian, "each of them a little different than the others, both in shape (geometry) and texture. The five of them enter the sequence pristine, and as the fight is going on, some of them are completely destroyed. It was challenging to maintain them in each moment of the sequence, to know which variation we were working on, and in which stage, for each shot."
Trixter Film's Iron Legionnaires
ULTRON BEFORE AGE OF ULTRON
One of the pleasures of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the way one story begins after the credits finish rolling on the one before. What this meant for Trixter is that their work on Age of Ultron was actually introduced during the post-credits sequence on Captain America: The Winter Soldier, in effects developed for The Twins.
In Age of Ultron, we learn that the twins are Pietro and Wanda Maximoff, although Marvel Comics fans also know them as Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch. In both films, Trixter was responsible for developing Pietro's speed effects, and the look for Wanda's magic. The clip below is from that post-credit sequence from The Winter Soldier.
Captain America: Winter Soldier End Scene (with Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver)
Even more important, and certainly on a much larger scale, was the introduction of Ultron at Comic-Con 2014. As the industry's Nerd Summit (spoken with love, as a nerd myself), Comic-Con is critical for establishing strong word of mouth among Marvel's most vocal, most influential fans. Their reaction would color the long months between July 2014 and May 2015 as much as anything else that Marvel themselves would be doing.
The pressure on Trixter was especially intense. This was Trixter's second Comic-Con showcase, following Iron Man 3, so they had some idea of what to expect – but this really was on an entirely different scale. "We worked on over 90 shots, and 60 of them were used in the cuts we arrived with. We had Ultron, the Iron Legionnaires, Pietro and Wanda Maximoff, and Iron Man as well."
"It was the busiest period of the year, because we had to produce a lot of work in a short time. In six weeks, from concept art we provided 2 characters, animation, compositing, and effects, using only a small part of the team.
"It's a time where you push a lot. You need to keep your work tidy and efficient, trying to optimize every effort in every department in order to get to the appointment in the best shape possible."
Wanda Maximoff, aka The Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen)
THE PASSION OF THE NERDS
This is something that Simone in particular took very seriously, not just as a VFX vendor, but as a self-described lifelong comics nerd. "I'm a nerd for Iron Man in particular," she laughs, adding that her love for Iron Man comics was what led her to found Trixter along with Michael Coldewey.
(Michael works primarily on Trixter's development of original content, with Simone focusing on work for hire.)
When I ask her why Iron Man in particular, she said, "Tony Stark doesn't have super powers, but I like the idea of THINGS becoming alive, to help him do things he couldn't do. It's the gadgets that he designs and builds. I want those gadgets! My house is full of these kinds of toys."
About the passions that converge around events like Comic-Con and the entire Marvel world, Simone says "I like that there are fans who are very serious about everything within the universe. You have to be very specific with what you do, and you have to follow the rules, or the fans will reject your work.
"Marvel also takes this seriously, and they involve fans. You can see that everyone is very careful and very serious, especially about the characters themselves.
"The fascinating part of the challenge for our work as animators is that you know that Iron Man can't fly, but I have to make it believable for you in the movie – that in this world, Iron Man really can fly.
"We tried the same with every character we touched, including Ultron."
Needless to say, Trixter's efforts to stick the landing for Ultron's introduction at Comic-Con succeeded, gaining millions of views for the Comic-Con teaser before the film was released, on its way to becoming (at this writing), the 6th-biggest film of all time.
Avengers: Age of Ultron | Comic-Con teaser (2015)
"The growth of Trixter has been organic," says Simone," coming from animation, and leading to animated characters in live-action movies. It has worked very well of us to grow slowly. We have tried to keep the core team in place since 1998, because it affects how you approach a project."
At the same time, she says, "People are always being measured by what they did last. When people see Age of Ultron, I hope it leads to more characters, more shots, more complexity."
When asked what's next, Alessandro, doesn't hesitate. "The path is clear. We are all professionally creatively ambitious, so we hope this opens doors for us.
"It's not just a matter of finding bigger budgets, but finding more complex challenges to confront. We hope next time to figure out how to do bigger-scale sequences and more complicated effects. This is what moves each and every one of us, trying to push the limits."
Limits? What limits? For a company this size to see so few limits ahead is quite a marvel indeed.