Wed 8th May 2013, by Paul Hellard | Production
“These are always incredibly challenging shows to work on,” says Overall VFX Supervisor for the production Chris Townsend from Los Angeles. “Marvel is famous for chasing the very best movie it can right up to the last minute. So, this is one of the hardest shows I’ve ever done, because of that. The crews had a very compressed schedule, a huge amount of work and this is very complex stuff. We had over 40 suits to build. All digital characters within all digital environments.”
In amongst it all, shooting was delayed when Robert Downey Jnr (RDJ) broke his leg during a shoot day and that put the schedule into a tailspin for six weeks. It was during this time that VFX studios very much came to the rescue. “Together with face replacement and full body doubles, somewhere there was a solution to the problem of not having Robert Downey Jnr on set for the time,” explains Townsend. “The collective VFX Supes and unit leads ran into a room as soon as the incident happened to try to ascertain what sequences could they shoot.” There were locations that were locked in that the first unit had to go to. The final sequence on the beach was shot with a body double.
They accepted it all, knowing they would be doing face replacements, as well as full body replacements in some instances, and so the scenes were shot with that in mind. “It was also very important with regards to VFX that they were able to collect background plates, data, lighting and lens info, and the rest of the crew were incredibly obliging with regards to that,” qualifies Townsend. “We were able to reconstruct RDJ as Tony Stark onset, with the help of that body double and the facial captures we’d collected afterwards.”
Townsend approached Weta Digital after the leg recovery from RDJ with the shot pieces and they began creating a digital double of him which was used non-stop. Weta is known as one of the very best houses to create digital doubles and the results of their toil is shown to have been successful in the final movie.
There were 17 VFX studios working on Iron Man 3, including an in-house group. Producer Mark Soper has worked with Chris Townsend on Marvel shows around the world and CineSync is still used between them as a communication and collaborative system for dailies. One of the things the duo aimed to do was to keep the lines of communication open at all times. “This was one of the rules when we went in at the very beginning, that we need to be sharing techniques and looks and everything, good or bad, along the way on this journey,” he explained. “In this global environment for VFX, you really need to be like this. It used to be that you could play things close to your chest but not now.”
Townsend says there were two key assets being created across many facilities. One of them was the hero suit, and there were six to eight companies working on it. “They all needed the suit at the same time, and built their own versions as they went, based on the photographs we provided,” explains Townsend. “The job on our end was to coordinate and orchestrate the construction at our end, to make sure each suit looked the same from each vendor.”
From January 2013 through to when the show wrapped only a month ago, Chris Townsend says collectively there had been one day of downtime over the entire crew of studios. “It really was a grueling show to work on, but the result I believe is tremendous,” he says. “Seven day weeks and 14 to 18 hour days and its brutal. It’s just what you have to do. You can only do it with the right group of people, and we had a phenomenal group of people working on this movie.”
There was a point in the Iron Man 3 movie that actor Guy Pearce playing what was called the Lavagod, was called back for a reshoot on one of the key sequences he worked on. By this stage he’d grown a beard. The challenge was to either replace half of his face with a digital replacement or just recreated him as a CG model and lip-sync to his voice. “Because of the beard, the Mocap data that was captured in the reshoot wasn’t really useable,” says Aaron Gilman, Animation Supervisor down at Weta Digital in Wellington on Iron Man 3. “From past experience, we knew we had an incredible facial and digi-double pipeline. So, in the end we could 100% of the face on Guy Pearce as the Lavagod is hand-key animated. The only motion capture is in the body performance.”
Weta Digital worked on 500 shots and completed 36 suits and digital doubles. They were put on the Iron Man 3 show in October and the whole swag had to be done in three months. In fact the team in Wellington built an entire seaport in CG. The whole thing needed to be completely photorealistic. Six different variants of the crane were created as well, including the damage that occurs over the course of the battle along the top of the structure. And of course, there was also a ship. A bloody great tanker. Guy Williams from Weta Digital says that the only way Weta could work on the show was to exercise massive economy of scale. “We could only take short cuts only when we really had to and we could make no mistakes with the assets from DD and other vendors” he says.
The only role animation would have had in the Extremis effect is to assure the quality of all of the match-moves and to make sure the application of the effect comes off as realistically as possible. “Whenever we get into complex motion like the crane destruction, the first thing we do is look for reference,” says Gilman. “We scoured Youtube, in fact anywhere we can find real-world reference of crane destruction. There’s quite a library out there too. There’s a ton of it.” Gilman and his team found that seaport cranes collapse in very specific ways. When one thing goes, there’s a particular pattern that these structure go through when they fall apart. All of that animation they create using this reference is then built onto an animation puppet. They had to be very careful about how to allow the puppet to be built as it all depended on how the crane would be collapsing during the production sequence itself. They didn’t want to have to go back and forth with the creatures department.
“What we did was we basically gave the hero model of the crane to Julia Chung, an amazingly talented animated on inorganic things like machines and robots that need to be overcome with gravity,” explains Aaron. “She was the perfect person for that.” In concert with Guy Williams and Aaron, she had full control of telling the story of how this crane was going to fall apart. This was handed off to Marvel for signoff, and that then was the guide for the puppet that was created to bring the model into existence for the sequence. Aaron Gilman cites the amount of trust instilled by Marvel on the Weta team. He was Animation Supervisor on The Avengers as well.
“They love it when we offer up solutions to issues in the art and storytelling arena,” says Gilman. “Things that we bump into in the process, we can suggest and put forward. They are very open to ideas.”
The Weta Digital team didn’t build the animation as a custom shot-by-shot performance. The shot was built as a 500-frame full animation from start to finish, so it ran through its life, right up to its impact with the ground. This could be plugged into the various models, so the FX team didn’t have to be creating custom animations for each crane, from shot to shot. The Weta animation department pushed through 422 shots in just less that three months. “Obviously, not only a lot of work, but the complexity in these shots was huge,” Gilman adds. “It was definitely a very intense project, having just seen the final final film for the second time just last night, and I still marvel [no pun intended, I am sure] that the fact we got as much done, at that level of quality, in such a short period of time.”
Trixter started with a very small team doing pre-production work, designs, assets and concept animation. They also managed an inhouse test shoot; matchmoving an actor and have a digital concept animation over to prepare the production flow.
This sequence shows Tony Stark in his laboratory testing his new suit. Throughout ‘IRON MAN 3, there are various sequences where the suit flies across to him and connects with Stark’s body. Four major sequences involve this coupling with the suit and Trixter was instrumental in working on the suit. The differences in previous Iron Man movies to this one is that when Tony Stark used the ‘suitcase suit on the Grand Prix track in Iron Man 2, he didn’t move. He was anchored to one spot as the suit grew around him. In ‘Iron Man 3’, he is running, jumping, in mid-air, as the suit finds him, flies to him and wraps around him.
“The Physical suit hadn’t been finished, and in order to create the visuals for that trailer, we attached those concept animations I spoke about earlier,” Kraus explains. Trixter had to work in parallel in order to get approval of how the connections worked. “There were connecting piece inside and outside of the jacket, legs, gloves and arm covers, several stages, as well as a full suit.”
“There was a classic situation where somebody called me and said, ‘I have two news for you, one is good and one is bad,” explains Alessandro Cioffi on the phone from Munich. I could feel the twinkle is his eye. “The good news is that you have been selected to do the Comic-Con trailer for Iron-Man 3, and the bad news would be that you have only six weeks to deliver.” The terms of this deal was that Trixter was going to be delivered the assets to work with. The simple model. No rig, no shaders, no textures, just like, an empty suit.”
Trixter also had a quite complex previz to work from, generated and shared from Third Floor in Los Angeles. The very first task for Alessandro was how to organize the work and it was clear to him that they couldn’t go with the suit as it was. “We were designing, modeling, rigging, compositing all at once. Our best efforts were made and in July the 24 shots in the Comic-Con trailer, which was a lot of labor and we were exhausted and happy. The suit had to be connected, and the connection had to happen starting from ‘idle items’,” explains Cioffi. “These were parts of the suit that didn’t need to look like final parts of the configuration. While flying to Stark, these parts needed to transform into parts of a suit. We had to split the suit into sections. Chris Townsend worked closely with us on the look of the gloves, boots and other elements, designing plenty of possibilities of the style the suit was going. Connecting parts would not be the same rigging system as the connected parts, for instance. Many iterations were tried, even resembling kitchen tools, even some small furry animal life configuration. The Comic-Con trailer production was a bit like a birth for us, and we were so very exhausted.”
There were so many different aspects of the attack vision," says Brian Grill, Scanline VFX Supervisor. "In fact the original animatic of the sequence is so close to how we matched it when we did it for the final movie." The combination of the animation, not only of Iron Man but the SuitConnect as well, was difficult. The SuitConnect is an effect that goes on all throughout the movie. When it goes onto Pepper, (Gwyneth Paltrow), saving her from the initial explosion, the effect was in slow motion, so there was nowhere to hide. Then there was the explosion itself and the destruction, so that shot took the longest for the ScanlineVFX crew.
"As we were hiring a base of animators who were Maya friendly, we made sure to be all set to go for them with the Autodesk Suite. We actually changed our pipeline to be a Maya/Max and V-Ray pipeline. It allowed us to do all kinds of stuff," adds Grill. "Where there were so many parts of the suit being shown doing so many thing, the scripts we had in Maya just made it so much easier to put together. Trixter set the pace of how many pieces there were in these suits with their initial trailer for Comic-Con. The difference was Trixter had the suit all laid out on the table, while in this sequence we had them hanging there in the living room, and it activates, peels off and wraps around Pepper," says Grill.
Proline, Scanline's inhouse software to manage smoke and fire, and all the rigid body dynamics are run through Max, while all the smaller particulates when generated with thinkingParticles. "We had some pieces of debris hitting Pepper in the shoulder and the knee, just to show that she was immersed in the explosion before the suit got to her," explains Grill.
The Point Doom environment and the cliff house environment is quite real, but the house model which was destroyed was based upon the art department's take. The ScanlineVFX crew had to build the house from scratch with the knowledge that it would be destroyed in the end. "We had to create every internal post and grill, so when it fell apart, you saw everything. And when we rendered the collapse and the attack, the lights of the west coast dipped just a little," quips Grill. "It's got to be more than a petabyte of CPU and storage, and we used Vancouver and LA studio on the same render farm."
Water sims are another leg to this sequence. The timing was taken from some broad-stroke hand animation. Running that through the simulation would give the crew all the force requirements and details. What's interesting is the balance between studios. ScanlineVFX worked on about 50 shots, getting in assets from other studios. They would bring the models into their camera and bring the detailing up, to compare with what ScanlineVFX shots were.
In Iron Man 3, the collapse of the cliff house carried a lot of debris into water. Using a 3D model and showing very little, the use of light and shadow was a challenge underwater. Once underwater, Stark finds himself trapped, as a mountain of debris buries him alive. He deploys the Mark 42 suit arm, which disconnects and pulls Tony safely from the rubble, then assembles around him quickly. Tony proceeds to launch himself out of the water, into the sky above. The underwater work, with its pyroclastic silt, bubbles and volumes of debris raining down from above were all simulated with a heavy emphasis on real world physics, in keeping with Chris Townsend’s insistence on realism throughout.
VFX supervisor Bryan Grill was aided by Scanline co-supervisors Darren Poe and Stephan Trojansky. Scanline Vice President and VFX Supervisor Danielle Plantec lent a hand as well, helping oversee effects work in Scanline’s LA and Vancouver studios. Scanline President and co-supervisor Stephan Trojansky notes. “When we were first asked to look at the previs of that sequence, I fell in love with it and could not resist! It just had everything in it that our artists love to do. I’m grateful Victoria, Chris, and Mark trusted us on this first Marvel collaboration that is now continuing with Captain America: The Winter Soldier.”
This was the first foray into the Marvel universe for Cinesite. I spoke to the studio’s VFX Supervisor Simon Stanley-Clamp in London. Cinesite came in nine weeks before completion and finished off 104 shots, with 99 shots making the final movie cut, and two which were awarded on the final day of delivery. “This was a rolling kind of show with changes and some 911 VFX shout outs. With 17 facilities, Chris Townsend’s job as overall VFX Supervisor shielded a lot of us from the wild changes but we had constant contact with the busy man himself, almost every day,” says Stanley-Clamp. “There were two 2K dailies run every single day of production.”
Weta’s seaport sequence was shared out to Cinesite as well. The job of bringing the green-screen elements together from turnover takes on the location was coupled with placing the Weta seaport crane models, straight onto the LiDAR ground scans. Some elements had to be moved so they were matte painted out and recreated in CG, textured and placed in the new spots. “A sequence like that went quickly through our environment department, about ten days,” he continues.
The sequence was complex for not only Weta but also Cinesite, as they were nesting the green-screen elements back into CG environment. It was a moving view, based on a helicopter aerial view, and many elements required a measured amount of repositioning, warping and resizing.