CGSociety :: Production Focus
The head-up displays (HUDS) used by Tony Stark have always been one of the most fantastical elements of Iron Man, Iron Man 2 and The Avengers. Ultra-futuristic and yet somehow believable, the virtual interfaces inside the helmet of his character’s armored suits have helped the wise-cracking genius, billionaire, inventor with everything from communicating with his allies to navigation and armed combat.
The effect never fails to impress, but for Iron Man 3 Marvel wanted to take the technology further with a whole new generation of elaborate HUDs. Not surprisingly, they chose Cantina Creative for the job. The Culver City, Calif.-based VFX and design studio created HUDs for both Iron Man 2 and The Avengers. And this time, using Maxon’s Cinema 4D, they provided around 100 2D and 3D visual effects shots for the film. “We definitely got to push things more creatively this time,” says Stephen Lawes, Cantina’s co-founder and creative director. “These HUDS are quite different from the original versions, and they’re really the best ones we’ve done so far.”
Cantina Creative was tasked with designing the elaborate 3D head-up displays (HUDs) – a virtual graphical interface that Iron Man sees from within the helmet environment of his armored suits that communicate essential data and statistics ranging from his physical condition to weapon and navigational diagnostics – with an emphasis on the new ultra-high-tech Mark 42 suit.
In this direct reverse of the HUD POV, Tony Stark checks out his suit diagnostics and other data after booting up his new Mark 42 for the first time.
To create the HUDs for Iron Man 3, Lawes and his creative team—Cantina’s co-founder and VFX producer Sean Cushing and VFX supervisor Venti Hristova—worked closely with Marvel Studios’ VFX supervisor Chris Townsend. While the HUDs were in some ways similar to those seen in past films, their content was more elaborate and advanced in keeping with the evolution of Stark’s newest Iron Man suits.
C4D was used to deconstruct the elements of Stark’s Mark 42 suit for its initial boot-up.
Most noteworthy is the Mark 42, Stark’s primary suit, which he designed to be capable of wrapping itself onto his body piece by piece almost instantly. The suit’s new boot-up technology can be seen during a dramatic sequence involving a missile attack on Stark’s home. The sequence is one of Hristova’s favorite. And the hologram of the suit, seen within the HUD, was created by Cantina’s C4D artist, Johnny Likens. “Jonny explored a collection of animation variations of the initial boot-up hologram for this,” Hristova explains. “We were very excited about the final outcome as the suit model generated elegantly from a base platform, mimicking the physical suit that was attaching itself to his body at the same time.”
Townsend wanted the new HUDs to have a more photo-realistic look, so instead of graphics in 2D space, the new interfaces needed to be more holographic, offering genuine 3D depth. The team used Cinema 4D for all of the 3D elements, including the miniature version of the suit seen in the film and the holographic helmet.
Stark’s Mark 42 HUD allows him to see a visual representation of the people falling to earth following an attack on an airplane and formulate a plan to use an electrical charge to save them.
With the Mark 42, Stark had external HUD capability when wearing a specially designed headpiece that holographically projected the graphics he would have see inside his helmet if he were wearing it. “Two lights on either side of the headpiece are the source of the hologram, so they create light interactions themselves and the graphics were also multi-faceted so it’s very immersive,” says Hristova.
Building a Technical Foundation
To meet the technical demands of the project while staying on track with deadlines, Cantina’s creative team developed an advanced stereo rig much like the one used in The Avengers. Created in After Effects, the rig is essentially a handful of nulls that center on Robert Downey Jr.’s head with the 2D and 3D graphics positioned in 3D space.
Cinema 4D’s built-in stereo tool made it a simple task to export both left and right eye renders.
“We had to make sure we could swap out shots and re-track in an efficient manner,” Lawes explains. Though 3D tracking is very accurate, it can be time consuming, so Cantina chose a 3-point, 2D tracking approach that was faster but still had the accuracy they needed. “We tracked Robert's eyes and nose and using some simple math, we could figure out where the center of his head was, enabling us to match his head movements accurately,” he adds.
When going beyond graphics calling for 2D planes in 3D space to create true 3D, the team exported their 3D rig into Cinema 4D from After Effects. Once inside C4D, it was a matter of importing the 3D elements that were sent to them from production, which ranged from a model of the Mark 42 suit to missiles, and positioning and animating them based on the shot.
Stark’s POV as passengers fell from a plane took six weeks to accomplish, and set the standard for every other POV in the film, Lawes says.
“With the same rig inside Cinema, we knew exactly where to position our elements and had confidence that, once rendered, they would line up with the equivalent elements within After Effects,” Lawes recalls. Following animation, Cantina used a variety of shaders within the standard C4D renderer, as well as Sketch & Toon, which was used to vary line weights in space to communicate more depth and dimensionality than in previous Iron Man films. Multiple passes were then rendered out of Cinema 4D and composited in After Effects.
“Cinema’s built-in stereo capabilities let us work fully in three-dimensional space so we always knew how far the HUD graphics needed to be from Stark’s head to successfully push the boundaries of his point-of-view (POV) beyond the helmet,” Lawes says. This time, rather than having the rig tracked to Stark’s head, Lawes and his team built out the POV to give it its own 3D space and created a camera move to give it parallax.
“All of a sudden, our 3D elements really stood out and the graphics in space felt they were 3D so the float on the parallax made it all come together,” Hristova says, explaining that the idea was to make it look like Stark’s point of view with slight head motion left to right. In addition to being able to import left and right eye cameras into Cinema 4D from After Effects, Cantina created multilayered lighting and textural HUD effects that could be rendered out quickly in various passes.
Stark’s elaborate headpiece serves as his external HUD and projects all of the graphics he typically sees while inside his suit.
“We had really high expectations for how the visual language would work with these new HUDs,” Hristova recalls. “This time, it’s a lot less about the numbers that represent flight power and weapons capabilities and more about light reflections and just the sheer beauty of the HUDs themselves.”
Other artists and designers who worked with Cantina Creative on Iron Man 3 include:
Meleah Maynard is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor.