SAN FRANCISCO — ILM’s facilities in San Francisco, Vancouver, London and Singapore contributed to more than 800 shots featured in Avengers: Age of Ultron, making them one of the film’s largest VFX vendors.
The film challenged them with further developing The Hulk and Iron Man characters they had worked on in past releases, as well as imposed brand new challenges, including the creation of Ultron and helping to carry out the villain’s grand plan to destroy a European city by ripping it from the ground.
According to ILM VFX supervisor Ben Snow, The Hulk appears 50 percent more than in the prior Avengers film, and is much more amped up. “[He’s] not really himself,” says Snow. “He’s an amped-up version, so one of our first tasks was to make him a more extreme and crazed-looking version. Joss likened him to someone strung out on drugs.”
ILM, says Snow, set the bar high, working to improve upon an already well-received character. “It was like, ‘How do be push this even further to make it more believable and a more realistic performance?’ We thought a lot about doing that and worked with Mark Ruffalo so he could help us on-set, performing the character for some of these quieter moments. Also, we went in and rebuilt his technology. The design of Hulk was largely the same, albeit angrier and more strung out. We essentially doubled the resolution and rebuilt him from the inside out. We made a full skeleton and skull, which he hadn’t had in the past. We rebuilt the muscle system to more correctly drive his surface, rather than be a simulation tool. We took the sculpting we did in the past and rebuilt his muscles, so that once we layered the flesh and skin simulation on top, he would look the same, but you see his muscles move under his skin much more convincingly.”
While Snow isn’t sure of the poly count, Hulk represents the studio’s largest human asset to date. ILM employs a mixture of off-the-shelf and proprietary tools in its feature workflow. Most of the studio’s animation and base rigging is performed using Autodesk Maya. Simulations are created in Maya and with the studio’s proprietary tools, which provide good soft body dynamics and solid body dynamics, says Snow.
“For a lot of our simulation and for flesh and muscle systems, we were using our proprietary solvers. The skin-sliding simulation or muscle-driving simulations, that was implemented mostly with internal stuff.”
Pixar’s RenderMan is used for rendering creatures, but Chaos Group’s V-Ray is used for rendering environments.
The studio was able to use some of the assets from Iron Man’s Mark 43 suit, which was introduced at the end of Iron Man 3 but not created by the studio. Still, they were faced with building the Hulk Buster suit and the new Mark 45 — Iron Man’s latest creation.
“It’s a little bit of a different direction,” says Snow (pictured) of the Mark 45 suit. “It’s a much more streamlined suit, with rounded forms. It still feels like Iron Man, but it presented some particular challenges because of the rounded streamline-ness. As soon as he started moving, he got these weird gaps that would open up — more than we’d experienced with the more-traditional design — so it took another layer of work.”
But even Iron Man’s impressive suit pales in comparison to the work ILM put into creating Ultron Prime.
Ultron, says Snow, “was probably the most elaborate hero character that we’ve created. He was a full robot and had to feel like he was made of rigid material, but we really wanted the essence of the James Spader performance to come through and have a nuance you would get from having an actor like James Spader.”
ILM received an initial Ultron design from Marvel. The studio then built on top of that, making his body and face even more complicated.
“We used a proprietary tool for rigging,” recalls Snow. “Basically, it was 10 times as complicated as the rigs we did for The Transformers. It had around 2,000 individual nodes in the rig and 600 in the face alone. This is because we couldn’t really get the face to squash and stretch. You didn’t want it to deform like a creature would, you wanted to see the plates sliding below one another. It was an extremely-elaborate rig and was a collaboration between the rigger, animator and modeler, adding more cuts and breaking it up. The ultimate goal was to give the animators the sort of control they’d have on a normal face. We gave them the tools they would have on a normal face and we gave them a version of James Spader they could animate as a digital double. It was driving this elaborate, robotic face that rode on top of that.”
ILM employed its proprietary Muse motion capture system on-set to allow the actors to see how the Hulk’s and Ultron’s expressions would appear, and to serve as a reference for the artists creating the final animation.
ILM also contributed to a big, timed sequence in the trailer, where all of the Avengers are shown coming together and in action. The Hulk and Hulk Buster sequences were among the first scenes shot, in order for them to appear in multiple trailers and in time for last summer’s Comic Con convention in San Diego.
“It was the first sequence that was shot,” says Snow of the Hulk Buster sequence. “We shot it in South Africa and planned it very well. There was previs and it was a second-unit shoot, though Joss was there with us for part of the shoot. It was of course featuring the Hulk and the Hulk Buster exo suit that Tony [Stark] creates around his Iron Man suit, so it was a lot of fun to do. So we shot that and it was a pretty elaborate sequence.”
Beyond their contributions to the film’s superheroes, ILM also handled a major VFX sequence in the third act.
“Ultron engineers this crazy scheme to basically lift a small European city from the ground it’s sitting on and raise it up into the sky with the idea of dropping and crashing it into the earth and causing a huge cataclysmic event,” Snow explains. “We did a lot of the work on the creation of this European city, and the lift off and the ground effects/earthquake effects, ripping itself out of the earth, and the flying city."
The sequence, says Snow, represents ILM’s most elaborate digital environment asset. “We had to create this city, which you have to see from all sorts of different distances. It had to break apart.”
The studio took digital matte assets — generated in 3DS Max and rendered in V-Ray — and ran them through ILM’s proprietary rigid body destruction tools, finally going back into V-Ray for rendering.
“In the wider shots of the city lifting up, you have whole avenues of buildings breaking apart, the ground ripping apart,” Snow explains. “In the past, when we’ve wrecked buildings, it was a single skyscraper or a few skyscrapers falling into one another. We had to really step outside of this — it’s a whole city this time — and change our approach a little bit. We wanted the detail and realism, and hand-drawn artwork that you get from the digital matte artists, and combine that with our rigid body destruction so that we could put interiors into these buildings so it didn’t seem like they were eggshell buildings cracking.”
The studio employed its Plume proprietary effects simulation software to add smoke and dust in the debris.
VFX work on Avengers: Age of Ultron spanned ILM facilities throughout the world. The studio’s Singapore facility has been contributing to films since the first Iron Man release, but this film marked the debut of ILM’s UK office and also took advantage of the studio’s resources in Vancouver, which were able to receive dailies at the same time as the San Francisco location.
“It was a terrific experience because we were able to hire very talented artists in those locations,” says Snow. “The team in Singapore has become a really advanced team, and does work the levels of anywhere else in the world. And because we share a pipeline, we are able to split sequences amongst companies.”