The latest title in the Marvel Studios Universe, Ant-Man and the Wasp takes place between the events of Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War. It finds Scott Lang under house arrest in San Francisco trying to balance fatherhood with superherohood when a mission teams him with Hope van Dyne as the new Wasp.
As one might expect, opportunities for standout visual effects abound. The action-packed film, produced by Marvel Studios and distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, introduces a fully formed Wasp character and the new villain Ghost and is filled with lightning-fast changes of scale as Ant-Man, the Wasp, props and locations shrink and grow in the blink of an eye.
Ant-Man and the Wasp posed big creative challenges for the film’s four main VFX vendors (Double Negative [DNEG], Scanline VFX, Method Studios and Luma Pictures) as well as the additional dozen or so studios that also came onboard as the film’s VFX needs evolved and grew.
“There were some new characters, new costume art, more playing with scale. We introduced the Wasp to the world — the way she looks, flies and fights — and Ghost who is contaminated by quantum energy and unstable in our world so she phases in and out. And we go deeper into the Quantum Realm than ever before,” says the film’s VFX supervisor Stephane Ceretti. “It’s two hours of VFX everywhere!”
The Third Floor was called on for previs to help visualize the dynamic fight and chase sequences and the rapid changes of scale. “Some things you can only figure out in previs as you play them out,” notes Ceretti. “There was a feedback loop from the script to the visuals; we tried to never stop having new ideas.”
A great deal of attention was paid to the level of detail and shading in digital Ant-Man, especially in his Giant-Man incarnation where he’s sometimes seen in extreme close up. Lots of simulations were required for the underwater sequence in San Francisco Bay and for the Quantum Realm, a multi-layered mix of dynamic environments.
“I don’t let technology drive me. Concepts drive me — what looks cool — then we find the tools we need to do the job,” Ceretti reports. “Some were already available, some were tweaked and molded to tailor them to our needs and some were built as we went along.”
Since Ant-Man and the Wasp was released in IMAX and 3D, images were protected for 1.77 full frame IMAX and “every detail was scrutinized for the bigger screen,” he says. “Most vendors are used to delivering 3D renders. It was so exciting to see the Quantum Realm in 3D, the big landscapes, all the floating particles in the Quantum Realm auroras. It’s so much more immersive in 3D.”
Ceretti gives kudos to Marvel Studios for its production management skills, which enabled shots “to flow into the editorial department and to the vendors in the fastest and most efficient way possible.” Marvel Studios also “worked in tandem with vendors to deliver all the VFX and layers to 3D and get everything to Technicolor for the DI.
“The exchange of information is really slick now,” he points out. “Everybody knows there is no time to waste. There has to be an almost military-style regimentation to how we do things.”
Regimentation sounds like it might run counter to the creative process, but Ceretti disagrees. “To be very creative you have to very organized on the technical side. If there’s a mess in the everyday pipeline, you have a problem. You’ll spend more time figuring out how to make the pipeline work than working on shots. The framework has to be super-organized for films that are extremely complex and constantly changing so that creativity can flow.”
DNEG’s Vancouver studio created VFX for some 500 shots in Ant-Man and the Wasp. “This office opened three years ago, and the chance to take on such an important film from the Marvel Universe was a privilege,” says Alessandro Ongaro, VFX supervisor at DNEG (www.dneg.com). “DNEG London has worked on previous Marvel films, and I really enjoyed the first ‘Ant-Man’ picture. So to be able to work on the sequel was great!”
DNEG’s biggest sequences come in the film’s third act. The car chase on the streets of San Francisco not only comprises breathtaking car stunts but also features numerous changes of scale as the hero vehicle shrinks to Match Box size to slide beneath the undercarriage of the villains’ vehicle and as a giant Hello Kitty Pez dispenser (the real version of which sits on Ongaro’s desk) topples a motorcyclist.
In the sequence Scott, Hope and Luis are in a speeding minivan chased by bad guy Sonny Burch and the evil Ghost who are trying to capture Hank’s lab, which has shrunk to hold-it-in-your-hands size. Practical footage of the car chase was shot in Atlanta whose flat downtown streets don’t resemble the hills of San Francisco. So additional live-action plates of the city on the bay were shot as backgrounds, including the famously twisting Lombard Street, which sells the sense of being there.
“A special 17-camera rig mounted on a car captured plates in San Francisco to stitch together for traditional car comps,” says Ongaro. “We also used lidar scanning and a lot of HDRI to capture San Francisco locations. We mapped the whole city, basically.” Environment supervisor Pedro Santos was responsible for more than 130 unique locations ranging from 2D matte paintings of the ends of streets to 2.5D environments in the middle ground and some full 3D builds in the foreground.
DNEG rebuilt the hero minivan along with a Yukon SUV, white Escalade with gold trim, a Dodge Charger, motorcycles and generic cars. “Some stunts started on location and finished with CG or vice versa,” Ongaro explains. “A lot of detail went into the cars, even the goons’ car’s undercarriage when the minivan shrinks and scoots beneath it.”
DNEG developed the Ghost character and her phasing treatment, which features in the car chase. Ghost is traditionally portrayed as male in the comics but appears as a female in the film.
“The idea is that Ghost has the ability to pass through objects, but she also has a connection with quantum physics so she can have many copies of herself: While she’s seen doing one thing her phantom image does something else,” says Ongaro. “In the car chase she phases through objects and moving cars and there are multiple copies of herself.”
Digital Ghost was driven by the performances of actor Hannah John-Kamen and her stunt doubles, Ongaro points out, with 3D aspects enhancing the action. “When she’s phasing in and out and semi-transparent it’s like she has a disease not a superpower. It’s painful to her,” he says. “We tried to emphasize that in a subtle way in the different body animations and VFX passes.” Jennifer Meire was the compositing supervisor for the car chase sequence.
In the finale, set in Dr. Hank Pym’s lab, Ghost can no longer control her phasing and is about to disappear. So she hooks the non-working containment chamber she’s been using, which was created by Luma Pictures, to the Quantum Tunnel to channel energy from the Quantum Realm so she can repair herself. But draining energy from the tunnel threatens its stability and the return of Hank and Janet van Dyne from the Quantum Realm.
“We developed the look of the chamber and its energy rings adding sparks to make it all more chaotic,” says Ongaro. “Ghost wears no helmet so as she’s flickering and fading we see her expression; we didn’t want to obscure her performance.”
DNEG also did all the VFX shots for the final fight sequence featuring Ant-Man, the Wasp and Ghost and the returning Hank and Janet. “Ant-Man and the Wasp are fully digital in their fight with Ghost,” Ongaro notes. “We had takes with stunt doubles but instead of doing body tracking with different background plates we opted for the freedom to do full digital characters in keyframe animation.” Farhad Mohassed was the compositing supervisor for the lab and Ghost sequences.
DNEG’s toolbox included Autodesk Maya for modeling and layout animation, SideFX’s Houdini for VFX and Isotropix’s Clarisse for rendering.
Ongaro credits Marvel Studios with being open to DNEG’s ideas throughout. “We felt part of the filmmaking process,” he says. “Although shots were heavily prevised we were able to pitch some ideas, and Marvel was very receptive to anything that would improve the film or help with the action.”
Likewise, “Stef [Ceretti] was great and trusted us to do a lot of work independently,” says Ongaro. “Every shot was unique, every department got to be so creative. It wasn’t just comping elements.”
Vancouver’s Scanline VFX (www.scanlinevfx.com) was awarded its shots, including a big restaurant fight sequence and the San Francisco Bay topside and underwater sequence, based on the test the studio did for the Wasp. Scanline worked on roughly 400 shots and did the build and development work for both Ant-Man and the Wasp’s digital doubles.
The initial test for the Wasp was developed by lead animator Mattias Brunosson under animation supervisor Eric Petey.
“We determined how she’d move, her wings, her fighting style,” says VFX supervisor Jelmer Boskma. “In the initial test we used the wings from her mom’s Wasp character, very organic wings like a dragonfly’s. But once we saw the Wasp’s costume with the folded wings stubs that gave us clues to the design language of her digital wings. Now they look more like high-tech fabric unfolding from a backpack.”
Scanline also created the blasters on the Wasp’s wrists, which she shoots to stun the enemy. “They’re a combination of a laser bolt, smoke and sparks,” Boskma says. “We had to figure out how aggressive to make them since she’s one of the good guys, but the blasters definitely had to sting.” In addition, Scanline developed the saddles on the giant carpenter ants that Ant-Man rides. “They went through phases of upgrading to revamp the shape, make them sleeker and fit with Ant-Man’s updated suit.”
The restaurant fight sequence was shot on a set in Atlanta with the stunt team. “A lot of the fighting was shot in camera but we replaced some performances completely when the characters shrink and grow back to regular size,” says Boskma. “Part of the Wasp’s fighting style is to dodge a punch by shrinking rapidly then growing to normal size again.”
At one point in the action, the Wasp flies between the crystals of a giant chandelier that Scanline built — and destroyed — entirely in CG under CG supervisor Ryo Sakaguchi. “It tested the limits of our render farm,” Boskma reports. “The chandelier was both highly reflective and refractive. Refractive crystal distorts images and there are prismatic aberrations to the light. That asks a lot of a physics-based render engine to do. But the tech wizards in our pipeline department helped us find ways to render it.”
Scanline also did the look development of the macro kitchen environment and all the VFX involved in that scene, which featured a giant saltshaker, an exploding bag of flour and a smashed CG tomato.
The San Francisco Bay sequence posed many of the challenges that water-based visual effects often present.
Ant-Man emerges from the bay as Giant-Man, 90 feet tall. “He’s initially mistaken for a whale by the passengers in a whale-watching boat,” says Boskma. “He makes a huge splash, and we mimic a whale’s tail with his feet. We used our proprietary water sim software, Flowline, to help us convey the scale of the scene: the mist, foam, aerated water, emitting water versus displacing it. Ant-Man wears a reflective metal suit and with water on top of that it got pretty heavy renderwise.” Scanline’s tools included Maya for modeling and animation and Chaos Group’s V-Ray and 3ds Max for rendering.
Giant Man falls unconscious at one point, makes an enormous splash and sinks into the bay as bubbles rise to the surface of the water. When he hits bottom he stirs up sediment. “If it were really the bay it would be so murky underwater you’d never be able to see him,” notes Boskma. “So we took some creative license to clean up the murky green bay water enough to tell the story.”
Scanline created a 360-degree digital underwater environment, including the underside of a pier and lots of vegetation. “There are degrees of murkiness that effect the way light scatters around, and in the shallow water you see patterns reflected from the sky and sun — but we had to be careful it didn’t look like the caustics from a swimming pool,” he explains.
“Very little is inanimate underwater,” he adds. “The fish move and everything — seaweed, pieces of rope — has a bit of a sway to it from the motion of the current.” Topside, Scanline crafted a high-resolution digital seagull with a complex working feather system.
Additional Scanline shots in the film include creating a man-size ant who loves cereal, takes baths and plays the drums in Scott’s home. “We had to make this ant look more realistic but not monstrous,” Boskma says. He also promises a glimpse of “a very colorful little world inside the Quantum Realm” for those in the audience who stay in their seats past the closing credits. “Those were fun shots that were highly original in their design,” he says.