And I suppose you’ve also got to account for clothing this time around. Which hasn’t been a problem for the Hulk in the past. How do you make sure that those materials are behaving and moving convincingly?
Yeah, we did about 7 different costumes for him in this.
Once the designs had been confirmed, the first thing we did was track down bits of clothing that resembled the artwork. We took some photos, purchased some examples and put them on people for reference. We filmed them acting out certain actions in those clothes, and then used that to form the basis of our simulations. Of course, the Hulk is really muscly, which means that the clothing would behave a little differently on him. To account for this, we did full simulations of him flexing his muscles underneath the costume.
He’s also got a pair of glasses on for the majority of the film and I noticed that they’re always reflecting things and catching the light. How do you achieve that? How do calculate the proper angles of reflection and so on?
Within our rendering system we have a standard set of shaders for doing glass. We use these, and then do additional distortions in post-processing, to make it look more realistic.
We don’t do it perfectly accurately though, as we want to be able to adjust how much the glass bends Hulk’s face. The reason for this being that we don’t want to distort his eyes to the point that they’d become unrecognisable.
We also control the amount of tint on the glasses, which is a really delicate process. We make them slightly green, like real glasses are with their reflective coating.
The fascinating thing is that this kind of stuff will never occur to most audience members, but the attention to detail is just astonishing.
Well, if you do visual effects correctly then people aren’t going to be saying: ‘’Oh look! That’s a great visual effects shot!’’ Instead, they’ll be focussed on the performance, or on the story. You’re not supposed to notice CGI at all.
For example, a lot of our shots have Hulk standing in a digital hanger. The actual environment isn’t even there! The trick is to make people think it’s a real place. Which is the most satisfying outcome for us, when the audience doesn’t even question if they’re looking at a visual effect.
So those hanger shots are largely CG?
Yeah. Obviously the Hulk is going to be CGI, but what you might not realise is that the stuff around him is as well! There’s very little real stuff left, but people aren’t aware because I guess we’ve done our job right.
Well, speaking personally, I couldn’t tell. I didn’t know the hanger was an effect.
They did shoot on location but most of it was covered in green screen. Everything you see in the background, including the windows and what’s outside them, has been replaced.
In fact, there’s one shot at the beginning of that sequence (where Ant-Man opens up the van) which is almost entirely replacement effects. It was originally filmed in a completely different location. All that’s really there is Ant-Man’s head. We replaced pretty much everything else.
Why did they move it to the hanger? Was it always part of the plan?
Originally it was part of a different sequence that had a bunch of other shots in it. But they decided to trim that down and join it onto the front of our sequence for the sake of pacing.
I see. And why is it only Ant-Man’s head that’s been retained?
Because he was wearing a different costume in that original shoot and we had to make it match with our sequence. So we changed his clothes too.
Well I had absolutely know idea.
[Laughs] I guess that means we did our job properly then!
You did the Asgard exteriors for this movie and also for Thor Ragnarok. Did you try to make them match with each other, or were you tasked with making them look like they did in The Dark World?
Yeah, it was kind of a mix between what it looked like in Ragnarok and what it looked like in The Dark World period.
One thing that’s quite interesting is that the big establishing shot we did (to introduce the location) started off from a completely different angle.
Yeah, It sort of evolved over time. We were originally looking at the back of Odin’s tower and then, at the last minute, they wanted it to be from the front instead. Because they wanted to track up over the waterfall.
It looks like a really busy and complex environment. It’s got mountainous peaks, buildings, lakes and the rainbow bridge. Is every single element of that establishing shot CG?
In that establishing shot there is nothing real whatsoever. And the same is true of all the stuff you see outside the windows. They shot on location in Durham cathedral, but a green screen was used for the windows.
What does the pipeline look like for a full CG shot like that? How many people does it go through?
That’s a tough one to answer [laughs]. You see, an image like that probably took less people than the Hulk or Rocket shots, because it was concentrated into only a few departments. There were a couple of environment artists working on it. a compositor; and an effects artist. That’s pretty much it.
Meanwhile, the character shots required an animator, a camera tracker, someone doing paint and roto, somebody doing cloth simulations and so on. In that sense, the CGI establishing shot probably took less people than any scene that has an animated character in it. After all, it just needed a digital camera and an environment.
Is there a specific effect that you’re particular proud of? Perhaps something like that hanger shot. Something that’s deceptively complex and that most people would just take for granted?
Yes, the Quantum suits! They’re fully CG.
Yeah. When they walk through the hanger, wearing their suits, people don’t realise that’s a digital effect. If you look at what’s in the plate for those shots, the only real thing we’re using is the actors’ heads. The design for the costumes wasn’t even pinned down until after they shot the film, so every time they’re wearing them, it’s been added in after the fact.
What were the specific challenges associated with that?
There’s a number of things. Firstly, we had to make sure that the costumes tracked with the actors’ bodies and fit properly with their necks. Then we had to make all of the materials behave realistically, in terms of how they moved and how they reacted to light. Finally, we had to put it all together in a way that looked like it had all been filmed in camera on the day. There was a lot to manage.
Rounding thing up, what would you say are some of the most important qualities for a VFX supervisor to have?
Ooooh, that’s a tricky question [Laughs] Patience. You need to have a lot of patience. I guess problem-solving abilities are key as well. You need to be able to break complex issues down into manageable, smaller packets. Then you can distribute those bits amongst your team.
And do you have any advice for people who want to break into the VFX industry?
Above all else, I think you have to be enthusiastic about it. It’s one of those occupations where it’s a passion rather than a job. If you don’t have that drive then you won’t get very far, because it’s quite hard work and the hours can be long. However the rewards are worth it. Getting to see your work on the big screen or on TV is pretty amazing.
Many thanks to Stuart Penn for taking the time for this interview