Saving the day is a big job for an insect-sized superhero. In creating the action for Marvel’s Ant-Man, director Peyton Reed and team used specialized techniques, including macrophotography, to depict Ant-Man, Yellowjacket and armies of ants at believable scale. Much of the film was mapped out in previs in a visualization process that brought together input from set design, production, visual effects and other departments to execute both the live shoot and digital VFX.
“The most challenging aspect was working in the macro world of Ant-Man,” says James Baker, supervisor at The Third Floor for previs, techvis and postvis. “There was a lot of experimentation with lenses and framing, and figuring out what types of shots and camera moves were best. A shot pulling away from the bathroom could make Ant-Man look tiny against cavernous bathtub walls, for example. We were always looking for ways to ‘sell’ the scale.”
Collaborating closely with visual effects supervisor Jake Morrison, The Third Floor previsualized key scenes across the movie, like the helicopter/briefcase fight, which threw in complex physics and lighting on top of the size/scale factor. A challenge for visualizing the helicopter sequence — part of which was built as an interior shoot on a stage — was keeping the action readable with several characters in a relatively confined space.
The briefcase fight sees Ant-Man and Yellowjacket in free fall, bouncing around alongside the rest of the contents as the attaché drops. A cellphone display inside the briefcase provides the only light for the scene.
“The light of the cellphone provided a great look — similar to seeing the sun in space, except that this light source was spinning and bouncing around,” Baker says. “We keyframed all of the action inside the briefcase and used After Effects to add Red Giant’s Trapcode shine to help the props and characters produce shadows within the dusty environment.”
The sequence where Ant-Man runs action hero-style across an architectural model of Pymtech headquarters offered a few new challenges. Beyond needing to help develop epic-looking shots at the character’s level, there were specific logistics to consider as the scene was to be filmed by destroying a Pymtech building model for real. Production had planned to shoot with a Bolt high-speed Cinebot motion-control rig using the Phantom Flex 4K. This required digging trenches in the physical model to allow for the cam and Baker’s team that delivered techvis to help determine how far the cam would be travelling based on the camera shooting at 1,000 frames per second.
The final battle on the Thomas the Train set employed a similar technique — approaching shots seen from the level of Ant-Man and Yellowjacket as if they were locked in battle with a life-sized track and engine and contrasting that with wide shots of the bedroom with harmless puffs of smoke among toys. Morrison and Baker worked to create beat sheets that outlined the action, which was then depicted in previs.
“In the previs, we included hallmark camera moves for action drama — booms, helicopter shots, handheld on the roof of the train,” Baker says. “In one shot that was particularly difficult to track, we referenced a paratrooper dropping to the ground from the sky to have Ant-Man launching onto the train set. Some of the funniest moments in the movie come when the action goes from epic jumps and explosions experienced by Yellowjacket and Ant-Man and then to [Ant-Man’s daughter] Cassie’s view on the other side of the room where all of the mayhem is clearly toy-sized.”
But in many places, something — or someone — needed to grow or shrink in mere moments in-camera, and these proved to be some of the most challenging effects to visualize. “You couldn’t shrink something and do a zoom on the shot at the same time or you would cancel out the shrinking effect. These were all things that needed working out to keep a realistic scale as characters and props shrinking and growing was a core plot element,” Baker says.
To create assets used in previs scenes and in postvis shots done to help inform work in progress by collaborators, including editor Dan Lebental, the team worked from concept art, stills of the sets and sometimes Lidar scans. As character designs evolved, the previs models and rigs were updated. Detailed assets and scenes incorporated bump maps and normal maps in Maya, realistic shadows from Maya Viewpoint 2.0 and textures from photos taken on the set. The toolset for previs and postvis modeling, animation, compositing, tracking and editing included Autodesk Maya, Adobe After Effects, Boujou, PFTrack and Adobe Premiere. Motion capture for previs was done in-house using Xsens Moven markerless suits.
“The advantage of having previs right there with the team is that ideas can be developed very quickly,” Baker adds. “Peyton had a very clear idea of what he wanted and sometimes gave us thumbnails, which was invaluable. He would always hone in on the central point of the scene and how it played into the overall story. VFX supervisor Jake Morrison came up with great creative approaches, such as using a snap zoom as a way to locate Ant-Man within a big environment. These and other techniques helped to define the size and physics of Ant-Man’s world and also added to the fun of the film.”