Harrison Abbott chats with Avengers: Endgame Visual Effects Supervisor Stuart Penn…
Having contributed to the dazzling special effects of Guardians of the Galaxy, Iron Man 3 and The Dark Knight, Stuart Penn is no stranger to big screen comic-book extravaganzas. That being said, he’s dipped his toes into plenty of other genres over the years, including sleek sci-fis (Alien: Covenant), epic fantasies (King Arthur: The Legend of the Sword) and even lovable family flicks (Paddington 2).
His borad expertise and vast technical knowledge make him one of the most sought after minds in his field. An asset to any project he gets involved in, he has rightly gained a lot of attention for his award-winning work on Gravity, where he drew upon his background as a physicist in order to pioneer groundbreaking motion control technology. Did we mention he also has a PhD? Because, yeah, he has a PhD.
Suffice it to say, he is a very smart man and certaintly knows his stuff. It was, therefore, a great pleasure to catch up with Penn and go over his incredible work on Avengers: Endgame. As VFX supervisor for Framestore, Penn oversaw 300 effects shots for the Infinity Saga’s grand finale, taking responsibility for the Hulk, Quantum effects and some of the key environments.
It should go without saying, but major plot details are discussed ahead (late 3rd Act stuff), so if you haven’t seen the movie yet then just stop reading. Seriously, we’re in deep spoiler territory here. Otherwise, enjoy!
Before we start talking about Endgame, would you be able tell us about how you made it into the VFX industry?
My journey wasn’t exactly a ‘’typical’’ one. You see, I was a research physicist for about 10 years before getting involved in this line of work. I had a PhD, but at the same time I was also researching [VFX] as a bit of a hobby. Eventually – about 19 years ago – I put together a showreel. I submitted it to an event where Framestore were reviewing applications and they offered me a job. I’ve been here ever since.
And have there been any useful skills that you’ve been able to transfer over from your career as a research physicist?
Oh absolutely! For a start, I did a lot of technical drawing and programming in my previous occupation. Plus- from a physics point of view – I’ve been able to draw upon my understanding of things like dynamics, mechanics and light behaviour, to inform my VFX work. All of that stuff was very helpful to me, especially when I was doing Gravity.
When I interviewed Christian Kestner for Captain Marvel, he stressed the importance of ‘’relative physics’, contending that superhero movies should adhere to at least some semblance of reality
Would you agree that this is one of the most important things for making VFX look believable?
There are certain aspects that have to stick to physics quite closely, so that it looks convincing. For example, aspects like character movement and weight should definitely be grounded in reality. That’s always the case, even when you introduce hyperreal [concepts] like quantum tunnels or time travel. Sure, that stuff isn’t based on actual science, but you do need to give everything a hint of reality.
There’s a lot of secrecy associated with these Marvel projects and we know that sometimes the actors aren’t necessarily aware of what they’re shooting or reacting to. Did that extend to you guys on this film? Did you have to do your effects in isolation, so that you weren’t exposed to what the other vendors were doing?
Not really. Because we can’t do our job unless we know how all the bits fit together. Sure, vendors sometimes work on different aspects of the same shot, but we tend to share what we’re doing in those situations. Honestly, if we didn’t know what the other teams were producing, then it wouldn’t be very efficient.
Given that, is it accurate to say that you guys are among a select few who are allowed to see this stuff before the film is out?
Yeah that’s true. We had one sequence in particular that was done in a locked room with very limited access. Only about half a dozen people were allowed to see it, because it was such a big spoiler.
Are you able to say what that sequence was?
Well I suppose the film is out now and everyone has seen it. So why not? It was Tony’s hologram at the very end, the one that he leaves behind after his death. We did that effect, but had to keep it quiet so that no one knew what happened to him.
Let’s move on to the Hulk. When compared to his previous iterations in the MCU, he’s a very different character in Endgame. Both in terms of his persona and his physicality. Did this mean that you had to start from scratch, or were you able to draw upon the foundations laid by the other movies?
It was largely from scratch, because he’s a much more human character now. Which is one of the hardest things to do: a believable human face. Especially one that needs to pull of comedy like Hulk does.
He really pushed envelope in terms of what we’ve done before with character animation. He has to articulate a variety of emotions, probably even more than Thanos. You know, Thanos is quite a dry character, but the Hulk is much more expressive. He has comedy moments, he experiences sorrow. He has a much more dynamic range.
So was that the biggest change then? That he’s more expressive?
That and also the fact that he is much closer to a regular person in terms of his physicality. When people watch a character who resembles a human being, they subconsciously take it apart and [scrutinise] it more heavily. That’s something we had to bear in mind.
At the other end of the spectrum, you have someone like Rocket Racoon, who is definitely not human. So for him, you don’t need to do quite as much finessing in the facial performance.
Could you describe the process of translating Mark Ruffalo’s performance onto the Hulk?
Okay, when we shoot the scenes, Mark’s always there. So we capture his body performance on set and then take his facial mannerisms from a head-mounted camera.
For the body, we start by doing a first pass using the motion capture. Of course, Mark doesn’t have the same weight as the Hulk and his steps are way too small, so then it’s a case of going in there and reworking it to keep his performance, whilst also adapting it to make it be more… Hulk-like!
As for the face, we start by animating some key poses. Then we go in by hand to adjust all the different shapes and features, refining his performance by eye. Finally, we do what’s called a ‘’micro-movement’’ pass, which is extracted from all the facial capture we did, to get all the little ticks and tiny movements that would be too painful to do manually.
On that note, are there any particular features of Mark Ruffalo’s face that are important to preserve in the Hulk?
The real keys are the eyes and the lips. There’s a lot of subtlety in both of those features and the audience will read them for the smallest of changes, in order to detect shifts in emotion. So if you make a couple of very small adjustments to Hulk’s eyes or his lips, then his entire mood alters.
You kind of touched on this when you compared Hulk to Rocket, but there’s nothing in real life that looks remotely like the Hulk. Whereas we do have actual Raccoons, even if they’re not bipedal or wearing clothes. So my question is, does that make the former a bigger challenge from your perspective?
It does. I mean we have Mark Ruffalo’s performance to base it on, but we still have to figure out how to translate that onto the Hulk. Because it’s not a one-to-one transfer. We have to identify which bits of Mark’s performance are important for telling the story and which bits we should change.
Well we might need to accentuate parts for example. Or we might need to dial them back. If we just did a direct transfer of Mark’s performance onto the Hulk, then it wouldn’t look right at all. He might look like he’s overreacting or underacting. I guess the trick is to figure out which nuances to maintain, so that you know it’s still Bruce Banner and not somebody else. But we definitely do need to tweak some things.
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