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    CGSociety :: Production Focus
    27 July 2011, by Trevor Hogg


    “There was an awful a lot of work involved to make our main visual effect, ‘Skinny Steve’, the pre-rebirth Steve Rogers, before he is transformed into Captain America,” says Visual Effects Supervisor Christopher Townsend of the central character who appears in the first third of Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). “We talked about using a CG head similar to what they had done with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button [2008].” The idea was subsequently aborted.


    “It wouldn’t have served the purpose of the film and the purpose of the film is to get our actor, Chris Evans in this case, up on screen. We all wanted his performance to be there as much as possible. After much R&D we ended up with a 2D solution where we are literally mesh warping Chris Evans’ body and slimming him down, reducing his shoulders and arms, making his face more gaunt, thinning out his nose, making his chin more pointy, not quite an all American square jaw, and also making him shorter by about five inches.”

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    Courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Marvel Studios
     
    Courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Marvel Studios
    Courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Marvel Studios
    Courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Marvel Studios
     
    Courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Marvel Studios

    The iconic shield which Captain America wields both as a defensive tool and a lethal weapon is shown in various states of disrepair; it consists of four types: metal, fiberglass, rubber, and CG. “Chris Evans would practice swinging the practical shield so he knew the arc and the speed at which he should move,” says Christopher Townsend. “We would take the shield from him and shoot the scene with him miming it. Then we would add in a CG shield. There were a few shots where he’s close to camera, he’s holding the shield, runs into frame, draws his arm back, the shield goes out of frame, he drops the shield in reality and throws his arm forward. Then the CG shield would take over.” Portraying the shield as a realistic flying object that could hit people and rebound off walls was no easy matter. “We were trying to find the balance between making it a heavy dangerous object and a lightweight Frisbee type thing. We gave the CG shield shakes and vibrations as it moves through the air so you can really feel it as a physical object.”

     

    No comic book movie can be complete without an arch villain. Selected to portray the Red Skull was Hugo Weaving who wears a latex mask conceived by Prosthetic Makeup Designer David White. “It looked beautiful because you weren’t quite sure whether it was bone, skin, muscle, or blood,” enthuses Christopher Townsend. “We realized at the beginning of its production design that we would have to manipulate his face considerably because physically when you put a quarter inch mask over a human you can never get it smaller than a human and that’s what you want. We wanted to make it look like tight skin as it’s wrapped around a very boney structure. Hugo isn’t a really gaunt guy but we had to make him that. We had to thin out his cheeks, hollow out his eyes a little more, remove his eyelashes, and thin out his lower lip to make him more like the Red Skull character. Not too mention, remove his nose too.”

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    Courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Marvel Studios
     
    Courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Marvel Studios
    Courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Marvel Studios

    Producing the nearly 1,600 visual effect shots featured in Captain America: The First Avenger was no small task. “There were 13 different companies that we worked with, as well one that was in house,” says Christopher Townsend. “We tried to split the work up so there were individual sequences that each company was working on.” British VFX facility Framestore initially developed Red Skull, Luma Pictures did some digital background work, Matte World Digital created full CG environments, Whiskytree recreated New York City in the 1940s with the Brooklyn Bridge, LOOK FX in L.A. and New York helped to float a car, and the German VFX company RiseFX was brought in at the last minute to finish some complex simulation work.


    Double Negative in England served as the main vendor for the movie; it handled about 700 of the visual effects which included designing and incorporating planes, trains, cars and tanks. “Everything was built from supplied Art department models with the exception of Schmidt's six wheeled car which we lidar scanned,” explains Visual Effects Supervisor Charlie Noble. “We visited a few aircraft museums, principally Duxford, where we took a load of reference stills for detail and textures. Whilst there, we also hired a couple of tanks for the day to provide motion studies for our Landkreuzer.”

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    Dneg was also involved in the creation of several sequences: The Crypt (Schmidt finds the cube), Schmidt's Office (testing the cube, gunfiring, Nazi deaths), Hydra Factory (interior and exterior), Train, Commandos Attack on Schmidt's Office, Hangar and Runway, Bomber and Podfighter Aerials (exterior and interior, including the shots where the cube goes nova) and the Arctic Crash. “One of the biggest challenges was the sheer scale of everything, and selling that scale; a bomber with a 165m wingspan, a vast underground hangar and runway, a tank the size of a house and a factory large enough to make them.” Overseeing the Hydra Factory Sequence was Vanessa Boyce who says, “the approach we used for the exploding factory lighting setup was to provide Trevor Young [composite lead] and his team with enough variety in lighting passes and control over individual lights within the passes so that they could achieve the chaos and randomness that you'd expect in an exploding weapons factory.”


    Lola VFX, situated in California, was given the pivotal assignment of turning Chris Evans into a 98-pound weakling. “The biggest challenge for creating Skinny Steve was maintaining consistency over all the shots,” states Visual Effects Supervisor Edson Williams, who applied a method called Digital Plastic Surgery to make the character a cinematic reality. “Over the last six years, we have developed a unique process and review methodologies that make consistency possible. A lead artist will create an approved look for a sequence, and the look will be rolled into subsequent shots. We use digital measurements and cyberscans to help stay consistent.”

    Courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Marvel Studios
     
    Courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Marvel Studios
    Courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Marvel Studios
     
    Courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Marvel Studios
    Courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Marvel Studios

    The VFX facility was given a second significant job. “Red Skull was much easier for us than the Skinny Steve sequences. Framestore had already gone thru the development process, and an approved look had been developed. It took us about a week to match the lighting and textures from Framestore; once that was complete, we used pfTrack to 3D track Red Skull's face, and Flame for the composites.” Williams adds, “The major issue we had with Red Skull was matching the constantly changing lighting of the scene. Our 3D department had to set keyframes for every muzzle flash, electrical spark, and head turn in the shots. Our sequence included a lot of hand to hand combat, and it really slowed down the 3D lighting crew.”


    Responsibility for creating the Kruger Chase Sequence involving the newly transformed Captain America pursuing a German saboteur was given to The Senate. Richard Higham, a Visual Effects Supervisor at the London-based VFX facility, digitally augmented the 1940s period dressing, devised by the film’s Art Department, by painting out air conditioning units, altering fire escapes, and morphing buildings. The setting, which consisted of a couple of streets in Manchester and Liverpool, had to be extended so it looked as if the two adversaries “were really making their way through a bustling Brooklyn.” The deployment of different camera lenses during the principle photography resulted in various levels of distortion. “In some cases we had to cheat our perspective and our horizon line because it didn’t feel right.” The buildings were not the only things being modified as the prosthetic boots wore by Chris Evans were replaced with CG bare feet. “Luckily we had a nice cutoff where he had a trouser leg that came roughly four or five inches down his calf and then stopped.” The Senate multiplied the crowd featured in the United Services Organization Sequence. Fifty to 100 movie extras were recorded in different camera positions; the resulting images were altered and blended together to form a massive audience of soldiers gathered to hear Captain America speak.

     

    California-based VFX facility Method had two and a half months to assemble the Parachute Jump Sequence where Captain America leaps out of a Stark Industries aircraft while surrounded by the chaos of war. “The interior shots were a gimbal set of a plane interior against the green screen with the actors,” reveals Visual Effects Supervisor Sean Faden. “Then we comped in the background. We had real plates of the Swiss Alps that were shot in the daytime and we did a day for night on them. We layered in CG clouds in pretty much every shot to add additional depth and to get a sense of speed. We also had to create a lot of reflections in the windows of the plane.” A camera was mounted on a techno crane to capture the necessary images. “One of the big challenges was getting the motion of the background right relative to the plane,” reveals Faden. “We would pre-match exactly what the gimbal was doing and exactly what the camera was doing but it would feel like the plane was moving too much. So we had to go through and reanimate the digital version of our plane, [and make it] a little more subdued but with the bounces still happening at the same time.”

    Courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Marvel Studios
    Courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Marvel Studios

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    Courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Marvel Studios
    Courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Marvel Studios

    German VFX facility Trixter handled the Red Skull Origins Flashback Sequence. “The first idea was to give it a sort of awkward, almost disturbing, atmosphere,” says Visual Effects Supervisor Alessandro Cioffi. “We were asked to come up with a few ideas for grading the sequence, and adding different lensing artifacts while layering multiple elements in an artistic but almost retro way. For the grading, we've gone for the look of the ‘three strip Technicolor Process’, color corrected each channel individually in terms of hue, contrast and saturation and then recombined with the other two. The final effect of aged footage sits very well in the movie.” Reflecting on the assignment, Cioffi states, “The biggest challenge has been definitely the schedule! We only had six weeks to accomplish over 100 shots. We had to seamlessly ‘plug’ into other vendors' work on the same sequences, which meant that we had to duplicate some of their effects along with creating our own, but in the same style.”


    Australian company Fuel VFX was chosen to look after 'key VFX intense environments'; the Frozen Wasteland in the opening of the movie, the Motorcycle Chase, Submarine Sequence, Arctic Discovery of the Cosmic Cube, and Radio Music City Hall. “The biggest challenge would have been creating the wet for wet scenes of the Submarine Sequence,” states Visual Effects Supervisor Dave Morley. “As everything was filmed underwater we had a great base to start with, but the real issue was getting the feeling of speed required for the sequence. The submarine was supposed to feel like it was traveling at about 40mph and Cap was swimming faster than that to catch up to it. Obviously, not very achievable in camera, so we had to add millions of underwater particulate and matter to cheat the feel of speed. This meant removing in-camera bubbles that broke the illusion of speed. We also added a massive wharf wall to the sequence and a docked boat to add to the confinement of the space and to help sell the notion of speed traveling through the water.”
     

    rok!t Creative Director Steve Viola made sure that the integrity of the 1940s propaganda posters incorporated into the main end title sequence remained intact. “We took the posters, broke them down into all of the different elements, painted them out, brought them into Maya, and had a whole 3D team dimensionalize and model all of the different pieces so to establish each poster as an entire environment. Then we would fly through it and seamlessly connect poster to poster.” A subtle stereoscopic approach was purposely employed as Viola didn’t want “to have things popping out at you but to instead feel more like a window to the world of each poster.” Viola’s involvement with the movie went beyond the two minute and thirty second sequence as rok!t collaborated with sister VFX facility Method to create stereoscopic trailers and TV spots. “We did all the graphics for the marketing campaign as well, which is a unique thing. There are not a lot of companies that have done that,” he proudly tells me. “It’s a nice feeling to be able to work on so many different aspects of the film.”


    “I’m very pleased with how it looks as a 3D experience,” states Christopher Townsend, “of Stereo D’s stereoscopic conversion process for Captain America: The First Avenger. “It’s not a gimmicky film with things flying out at you. It’s a film with a lot of interesting intricate sets with some really interesting volumes that you can just feel a part of.” Townsend believes, “Ultimately, you have to make a good movie. Have a good story. We are trying to incorporate the look, the costume, the shield, and the Red Skull faces from the comic book which will hopefully satisfy the fans. Then it’s a matter of trying to make a really fun movie that anyone will enjoy.”

     

    Related links:
    Captain America: The First Avenger
    Marvel
    Framestore
    Luma Pictures
    Matte World Digital
    Whiskytree
    LOOK FX
    RiseFX
    Double Negative
    Lola VFX
    The Senate
    Method
    Trixter
    Fuel VFX
    rok!t

    Writer: Trevor Hogg

    Courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Marvel Studios
     
    Courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Marvel Studios
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