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Captain America’s VFX Avengers, Assemble!


Several VFX houses contributed to Captain America. (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Marvel Studios).
To put together a summer superhero blockbuster, it takes a “super team.” Never mind the rest of the sprawling cast and crew – we just mean the visual effects department!

Paramount’s Captain America: The First Avenger is no exception. In fact it provides a kind of “test case” for us on the reporting end of the VFX industry: How do you profile movies where so much rendering requires so many different vendors, and different supervisors at each house?

When profiling who did the effects, the answer turns out to be many “whos,” and thanks to fiber optic cables and cineSync software, they’re scattered all over the globe – sometimes more broadly than Captain America’s own trajectory, which took him from New York to the Swiss Alps, and eventually, back.

It’s also emblematic of how much rendering goes in to so many different aspects of a big, visually-driven film that it would be impossible for a single shop, or even two of them, to do all the work that needs to be done to in a normal postproduction schedule.

So, where to begin?

Well, probably with the overall visual effects supervisor, Christopher Townsend. His own background includes digital effects and sequence work in the first three Star Wars chapters (which is to say, the second three Star Wars films), supervisory work on the Lightning Thief adaptation and Journey to the Center of the Earth, and being the set VFX supervisor for X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

Did he approach this, then, as a continuation of previous superhero work? No – instead, the approach he took (in conjunction with director Joe Johnston) was that this was a “World War Two buddy film that happened to have a superhero in it.”

Of course, it also happened to have a villain named Red Skull, secret lairs, hidden technologies, and lots of battle sequences, so the vendor list approximated the scope and range of settings. He noted that vendors included venerable (and recently Oscar-winning) London-based Double Negative, which worked on many of Red Skull’s various lairs, and the secret/advanced technology (including Cap’s shield) in the film; Santa Monica-based Lola FX which helped with “de-buffing” lead actor Chris Evans and turning him into the “before” pic in a Charles Atlas ad, before his dose of “Capifying” experimental drugs; London’s Framestore, which did a lot Red Skull work; Germany’s Trixter, which helped in some of the montage/flashback sequences, and Australia’s Fuel VFX, which also helped rendering a lot of digital environments.

For this story, we caught up not only with Townsend, but three of the other vendors: The Senate, London, which was charged with turning much of Manchester into WWII-era Brooklyn; even Rok!it Studio here in L.A., which did the cartoon-style title sequence, at the end, and Method Studios (L.A., Vancouver et al) which saw the interiors of the “Stark Industry” airplane piloted by Tony “Iron Man” Stark’s father, through enemy fire, en route to Red Skull’s lair.

Additionally, Method London’s vfx supervisor, Stephane Ceretti, was loaned out to Marvel (much pre-production took place at Marvel Studios’ offices in Manhattan Beach) to supervise some of those second unit helicopter shoots n’ plates in Switzerland, used for the flight sequence.

And there are still a couple of “sub-vendors” we haven’t mentioned yet!

Chris Evans chasing villains through the streets of Brooklyn. (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Marvel Studios).
Townsend called the film a “really fascinating project,” and was generous in his praise for al the aforementioned vendors. Richard Higham supervised The Senate’s work, turning Manchester (and parts of Liverpool) into 1940’s Brooklyn, where Steve Rogers takes super soldier serum in a secret lab behind a bookstore. When the inventor of the serum is killed by a Nazi infiltrator, Rogers – and Captain America – winds up being the only super soldier America has.

But he swings immediately into gear, chasing the assassin through the streets, down to the docks. All two of the streets.

That, at least, was how many “real” streets were used (in Manchester – Liverpool provided an additional boulevard), and part of The Senate’s job was to “make them look like new streets,” every time a corner would be turned.

And while Higham notes they had “huge amounts of photographic references” – both of current and historical Brooklyn – they were trying to impart more of an authentic feel than an absolute sense of place. Johnston “didn’t want anything overly-iconic” to be seen during the chase – though background shots of the Brooklyn Bridge help anchor the topography.

But since this was the first time the Cap – pre-costume – is seen in superhero mode, he did want to see feet – Evans’ feet.

What happened is that Evans, as the newly-enhanced Steve Rogers, has to give immediate chase to the Nazi saboteurs, leaving no time for shirts and shoes. But in real life, Evans wasn’t able to run around Manchester in his actual bare feet without getting them rather slashed up.

So flesh-toned rubber boots were fashioned,though they “obviously didn’t look like feet,” Higham notes, nor do boots move and rotate “the same way feet do.”

Which means that Higham and crew found themselves not only projecting matte paintings onto 3-D geometries, and populating streets with contemporaneous digital extras and vehicles, but they were also capturing the actual toes n’ soles of the 3-D artists, who needed reference feet for “modeled feet as well as geometric” ones.

There were over 20 foot shots within the whole Brooklyn chase sequence.

Of such literal ground-up work are summer blockbusters made.

Next time: More “Method” to the madness, title influences, and what about pipelines?

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