In Marvel Studios’ Avengers: Infinity War, the visual effects department was tasked with creating unique worlds, characters, and effects unlike those previously seen on film.
For overall visual effects supervisor Dan DeLeeuw, Russell Earl, visual effects supervisor at ILM, and Digital Domain visual effects supervisor Kelly Port, the challenges were multifold, but working for Marvel Studios had inherent advantages. “Even before the script, they know the story they want to tell,” said DeLeeuw of the studio, adding that the directors, Anthony and Joe Russo, were collaborative. “They’ll pull you in and start pitching the story. It was so massive and some of the ideas were so out there, it was necessary to get as many minds on it as we could.”
After a crucial script breakdown in which DeLeeuw and his team listed out all of the shots and sequences, he worked with Marvel Studios to lock in leading effects houses so that he had a place to send all of the shots: Infinity War mandated 2600 effects shots across 14 visual effects houses. DeLeeuw then ‘cast’ the different effects teams. “With Digital Domain we had seen what they had done on Beauty and the Beast,” he explained of the facial capture executed for the Beast character. “WETA is great for environments. Russell and his team at ILM are great with effects, fire, and water. Wakanda is the big massive battle – they were perfect for that. Casting is the appropriate word for it.”
For Port, at Digital Domain, one unquestionable hurdle was mastering the technology behind capturing Josh Brolin’s performance for the character Thanos, an assignment which encompassed 300 shots. “We had a pretty good idea from early on based on the initial discussion about the Thanos character,” he said of Digital Domain’s major requirements. “We’d be on set for [Thanos’ performance], and technically be able to deal with that material later. The sequences typically grow in scope — it’s always tailored to the story.”
Capturing Brolin’s bodily performance utilized motion capture technology similar to what has been done on many previous projects, with one key caveat. “The mo-cap cameras were integrated within the built set itself,” Port revealed. “It’s beneficial to the actors to interact with set pieces.”
For Brolin’s facial performance, the effects team implemented a technical innovation for capturing the actor’s nuances. “It starts with dots on face,” Port described. “Taking those dots and processing into a machine learning system that outputs much higher facial resolution than has ever been used before.”
DeLeeuw elaborated on digital information incorporated by Digital Domain artists. “Dots would drive a rig on the face, relying on animators to get nuances,” he said, noting the innovations on Infinity War for facial capture. “For Thanos, the performance is intense and subdued: localized motion on his face. At Digital Domain, we call it Direct Drive: machines interpret the actor’s face and drive it to the place to recognize Josh’s performance from the dots, producing hi-res.”
Next, Earl knew what Infinity War’s critical sequences entailed, including their scope. “Individual beats within the sequences changed a little bit,” he reflected, adding that ILM has 40 years of experience in this realm. “I always prepare everyone for change. You will start a sequence and we don’t just build to the shots; we build to the sequences.”
In point, production shot the Wakanda sequence at a horse farm in Atlanta, taking place on a set created by Charles Wood. “We needed to go wider and get more scope to see more of Wakanda,” said Earl. “From the get-go, we needed to be able to build the environment from the ground up; allow filmmakers to tell the story they want to tell.”
At ILM, Earl had 300 artists working at offices in London, Singapore, and San Francisco. “In terms of the technology, it’s always changing,” DeLeeuw reflected. “One of the things that keeps the work interesting—trying to put better imagery up on the screen. In the case of Wakanda, we scrutinized every blade of grass and simulated riders in that environment.”
For a groundbreaking scene in the final moments in the film, a memorable effect occurs when various characters are decimated into dust. “Early on, we knew it was going to be one of the more important effects for the film,” DeLeeuw noted, “showing that they are leaving existence. It became more about how we layered that in and controlled the animation. Each hero had a subtly different way that it happened — tailoring the effect, and making it better.
As effects shots came in from all 14 visual effects houses, DeLeeuw’s team would ‘auto source’ the shots into the full structure of Infinity War, an unconditional global smash with an obvious follow-up in the works. “We are starting to turn over shots while we are still shooting—we get a head start on that,” DeLeeuw stated. “We wrapped in August-September of 2017 and had to be done in March of 2018, so we had six months after wrap to get everything done.”