Without visual effects, the Marvel Cinematic Universe would be six-packed actors in spandex suits punching one another. Instead, we also get talking racoons and anthropomorphic trees, superheroes the size of insects and mystical wizards and ancient god-like aliens. And to quote the late, great Iron Man, "We have a Hulk."
This year, two Marvel movies earned Oscar nominations for Best Achievement in Visual Effects: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Spider-Man: No Way Home. A.frame spoke with the nominated team behind the former to reflect on their favorite VFX-fueled moments throughout the MCU. Below, they share their top five.
Creating Skinny Steve:
That was the first Marvel movie that I worked on, and "Skinny Steve" was a big challenge, to try to create a skinny version of Steve Rogers before he becomes Captain America. There were many ways that we had discussed of how we would do this, and the most obvious would be to cast a skinny guy and then do a head replacement. But one of the things that Joe Johnston, our director, and Chris Evans really wanted was they wanted it to be his performance onscreen.
We did an awful lot of tests and came up with this technique where we effectively photographed Chris Evans and then frame-by-frame manipulated him and shrunk his body down and skinnied him down. We painted out any shadows that were cast by his incredible buff body, or whatever else, and smoothed out wrinkles in his shirt or added more folds. It was an incredibly painstaking approach to do it. But what it what it gave us was this performance which is exactly Chris Evans but as a small guy, which was pretty phenomenal. That opened the door, particularly for us at Marvel, to do a lot more of the de-aging that we've done and the youthening, as we call it. That's happened in a lot of Marvel movies since then and it uses a similar sort of technique of manipulating the face as a two-dimensional comp element. It's something I'm very proud that we did back then.
The close-quarters elevator fight:
It's such a beautifully choreographed scene in this little space, and to be able to do that is really difficult thing to pull off. The first thing that comes to mind is, where is the camera and how is the camera there? If you watch the sequence with that in mind now, you actually realize that all the walls have to come out, the set has to be completely built, the entire world is digital. A lot of the times the elevator itself is entirely digital. If you have a shot of the actor doing a stunt, if it's actually him doing the stunt, you need to make sure that he's safe, so there's the wire and rig work [that needs to be digitally removed]. Or is it a stunt person, so is it therefore a face replacement?
There's a lot of little things that you don't really think of while you're watching that sequence and when you actually start breaking down each shot, you realize how incredibly difficult it is to do and to do flawlessly. And then people go, "Oh, that was pretty cool," and they don't really wonder how they did it. So that sequence is stuffed to the brim with visual effects, and if you don't really notice it and you think it's just a stunt sequence, then the job was done The best compliment you can ever give visual effects is, "I didn't realize there was any in there!"
The Hulk takes center stage:
I really like The Hulk, and that's VFX. But I chose this one because when I watch a movie, I like to be entertained. and Thor: Ragnarok, to me, is just incredibly bright and colorful and beautiful. And the fact that there's some drunken characters and some craziness in it, it's pure escapism.
Bringing Thanos to life:
Thanos was a character that has been around for so long—like, we first see him at the very end of the first Avengers—and the buildup and the anticipation to finally see him [in Infinity War] as this properly realized, articulate, beautifully animated and acted by Josh Brolin character that we got to be a part of was amazing.
It was the first time we'd done a few unique things in the way we approached the animation for a character like this, where we created an actor puppet as well as the character puppet. That meant that we had a digital Josh Brolin rocking around and we were able to transfer his exact performance onto Thanos almost all the time. There were also two vendors who were working on Thanos, so there's always the challenge in making sure that you're both finding the same character and that the performances works across the full film. It was probably the most challenging, but definitely the most rewarding at the same time.
—Sean Noel Walker
The battle at Avengers Compound:
That is a really, really good example of just pure chaos when it comes to visual effects. It has pretty much everything—you know, it has simulations and character work and explosions and magic—but it's all really just a backdrop for these amazing character moments, which is what we are really trying to do in visual effects, anyway. We're there to support the story. We're there to really bring all of these moments together. Even though there's all this chaos going in the background, you have Peter Quill [Chris Pratt] and Gamora [Zoe Saldana] meeting for the first time, you have Tony [Robert Downey Jr.] and Spider-Man [Tom Holland] reunited. There's so much going on in the background, but it's so much more interesting to have that chaos contrast with these serene foreground moments. I think that's where visual effects really shine for us.
—Sean Noel Walker