In an era where costumed superhero properties are sought after by studios as franchises, their seamless transfer from four-color comics pages to the big screen is taken for granted in the digital era. Whether the crusader is from Marvel or DC’s line, or somewhere else, the costumes, explosions, supervillain gear, et al are all expected to be rendered with complete suspension-of-disbelief believability. So how is it in another year full of superhero offerings, Captain America managed to stand out?
In part, according to VFX supervisor Christopher Townsend – who’d worked on a Wolverine film in the X-Men franchise, and is currently supervising the third Iron Man installment – it’s because the production was treated as a “World War Two buddy film which happened to have a superhero in it.”
“It was a really fascinating project,” he continues, as much a period piece as anything else. And if those period pieces fit together particularly well – a walk through a World’s Fair, a chase through Brooklyn, a dangerous night flight in a military prop plane, and more, Townsend is quick to credit the other personnel and vendors he worked with.
He credits post-house The Senate with doing great work in converting parts of industrial Manchester (England) to a believable 40’s-era Brooklyn, Rick Heinrichs’ production design with help in converting so many facades for period use, Santa Monica-based Lola FX for the head replacement and body shrinking that allows Chris Evans’ “Captain” to morph from the proverbial Charles Atlas-esque “weakling” to the inevitably hail n’ buff superdude he becomes, Double Negative for their CG environments, and Framestore for the look of uber-Nazi Red Skull.
He also credits prosthetic deisgner David White, for the look of Hugo Weaving’s villain, but notes that much of the “skull” was also done in Photoshop, as a “manipulated image,” to make it even “more scary.” The prosthetic was the base off which the digits riffed, as it were, to give the character an even more other-worldly look, the face being “altered in nearly every shot.”
Lola also helped with the Red Skull work, as well as a the aforementioned night flight, wherein the Captain, gal pal Peggy Carter, and the Howard Hughes-like Howard Stark, take a Stark plane over the Swiss Alps, to Red Skull’s lair, which was shot on a greenscreen gimbal, and later finished with as many period artillery explosions harrying the plane, as research and time would allow.
One of his biggest challenges, understandably, was coordinating everyone – including director Joe Johnston. Most everything came in QT files (though there were DPX’s and other formats as well), which was in turn managed using cineSync. Townsend describes it as a “tool of choice,” especially as it “allows you to interact on screen.”
There were additional vendors in San Francisco, Australia, and other places. But Townsend found himself mostly in L.A., posting and reviewing work on the Avid as it came in.
Speaking of the year in effects in general, Townsend recently commented that “when the visual effects become the main event, and really the sole reason to go and see a movie, the work itself has to be outstanding so audiences still care about what it is they are looking at.”
How much better then, for a project like Captain America, where the effects can take a back seat to the story, and the period in which in it takes place.