While performance capture experts translated the nuances of Mark Ruffalo’s performance to Hulk, visual effects companies around the world worked 24 hours a day on the massive final battle at the climax of “Endgame”.
VFX Masters Bring Finesse to an Epic
The effects team perfected images grand and granular
By Ellen Wolff and Karen Idelson
One of the funniest lines in “Avengers: Endgame” comes from Mark Ruffalo as the Smart Hulk. When the character is encouraged to belligerently smash more things, he deadpans, “I think it’s gratuitous, but whatever.”
It’s a credit to the visual effects team — as well as the actor — that this line is perfectly delivered by a giant green motion-captured performer. Ruffalo’s Smart Hulk wisecracks so naturally that it’s easy to forget he’s animated.
“The last thing you want to do is to create a character that’s not emoting,” says Marvel executive producer Victoria Alonso, who’s been overseeing the studio’s effects work since 2008’s “Iron Man.” “A digital effect has to track with a character. Our actors’ performances always inform our visual effects.”
Executive producer Louis D’Esposito agrees, saying, “Character is always going to come first.” He cites the example in “Avengers: Infinity War” of how Josh Brolin’s acting transformed the motion-captured villain Thanos into a multifaceted character — one that continued to wreak havoc in “Avengers: Endgame.”
“We took a lot of what we learned from Thanos and applied it to the Smart Hulk,” explains visual effects supervisor Dan DeLeeuw, who led the Academy Award-nominated VFX team behind “Avengers: Infinity War.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, Weta Digital was animating whole armies for the biggest battle Marvel had ever done. As DeLeeuw remarks, “The sun never set on this show and we had crews working around the clock from New Zealand to Maui.”
DeLeeuw and his team had to move back and forth between live-action footage and CG in order to make the final battle scene happen.
“We shot footage of all the actors together on a 40-foot-by-80-foot stage. But from there, to make it look like it’s an enormous battlefield, you have the camera tilt up and you’re seeing CG work like the Pegasus,” says DeLeeuw. “And then you’re tilting back down to see the actors in their suits. We didn’t have every actor on every day so some of them are composited into scenes later.
“During that time our VFX houses are also working with what the art department has given them like concept drawings to dress the sets and make things look believable.”
He notes that 14 VFX shops worldwide worked on “Endgame,” with each shop cast for its particular skills. Any single shot might have included visual effects from several different houses, and images from varied sources had to blend well together. “Companies know that they will collaborate and share when they work on our films,” says Alonso.
Marvel’s hub-and-spoke approach to VFX production means that less established shops could get opportunities to show their skills. “I constantly hire based on potential,” says Alonso. “There are more artists now who know the digital tools, and that allows us to hire newer, talented people from around the world.”
The extensive archive of “Avengers” imagery that Marvel has amassed over the franchise’s 10-year history also helps the studio to maintain a consistent look. This long-desired “digital back lot” is actually becoming a reality for Marvel’s VFX team. “We had all the libraries to grab characters, ships and weapons,” says DeLeeuw. “With ‘Avengers: Endgame’ we brought all the characters back, and we were like kids in a candy store.”
For Marvel VFX veterans, “Avengers: Endgame” offered the chance to leverage everything they had learned before. “If we hadn’t done ‘Infinity War,’ ‘Endgame’ would not have been possible,” says DeLeeuw. “There was a level of fearlessness about what we wanted to attempt.”