VFX: Avengers: <I>Infinity War</I>
Issue: December 1, 2018

VFX: Avengers: Infinity War

In April 2018, Marvel Studios released its much anticipated Avengers: Infinity War, the third installment in the “Avengers” franchise and 19th Marvel Studios film. The release, which grossed more than $678,815,482 US and $2,048,709,917 worldwide to date, also marked the 10-year anniversary of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which began with the release of Iron Man in 2008.

Avengers: Infinity War picked up as the Avengers and their allies continued to protect the world from threats too large for any one hero to handle, but a dangerous menace emerged from the cosmic shadows: Thanos. A despot of intergalactic infamy, Thanos would stop at nothing to collect all six Infinity Stones in his quest to wield unimaginable power and his twisted will on all of humanity.

Assembling a team that includes members from every Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise, the Avengers and their superhero allies sacrificed like never before in an attempt to defeat the powerful Thanos before his blitz of devastation and ruin put an end to the universe. Marvel Studios’ Avengers: Infinity War was the preeminent collection of iconic superhero characters in one film and stars Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Don Cheadle, Benedict Cumberbatch, Chadwick Boseman, Zoe Saldana, Josh Brolin and Chris Pratt. 

The film, directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, was created by a team that included DP Trent Opaloch (Captain America: Civil War, Elysium), production designer Charles Wood (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Matrix), editors Jeffrey Ford, ACE (Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Age of Ultron), and Matthew Schmidt (Avengers: Age of Ultron, Iron Man 3), special effects supervisor Dan Sudick (Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther) and visual effects supervisor Dan DeLeeuw (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War).

There were a lot of moving parts to pull off the film. According to Victoria Alonso, one of the film’s executive producers, it was a bit of “a big puzzle. You know those 10,000-piece puzzles that your aunt used to have when you went for Christmas? That’s it. It just sits there and you look at it, and it’s overwhelming and you think, ‘How in God’s name am I going to do this?’ And you know, it’s one little piece at a time, you try to find whichever corner you can get an angle on and you go with it. It’s very difficult, the amount of schedules we have to work with for this film is unbelievable. It was a lot of back and forth. The story itself, we have a lot of things we had to try and do and say because everyone loves these characters and they all have to have their time on the screen. A lot of these actors, we shot for a whole year, because we did the two movies [Avengers 4] back to back, there were times where we thought, ‘Wow, how are we going to finish this?’ But you take it one bite at a time, and you keep on chewing, and eventually you finish it.”

For the visual effects team, there were a lot of moving parts as well, and a wide range of effects required — from environments and action sequences to full-blown CG characters. 

For instance, transforming Chattahoochee Hills Eventing equestrian farm, just outside Atlanta, into the fields and landscapes of Wakanda for epic battle sequences fell into the hands of the film’s production designer Charles Wood, visual effects supervisor Dan DeLeeuw and special effects supervisor Dan Sudick.

According to DeLeeuw, “For the sequences in Wakanda, we wanted to make them the biggest war scenes we have ever done, because on a galactic level, having creatures from space fighting the futuristic Wakandan army warrants a huge scope and landscapes. So our teams went to Africa and captured plates that we used to build 3D versions or CG versions of the environments so we could put the set as the center of them. This way anything you see off in the distance from the practical set is actually what we replaced with the mountains and rivers and grass and trees from Africa itself.”

For DeLeeuw, working with production designer Charles Wood and Dan Sudick formed the perfect combination of people to create the beautiful and grand world of Wakanda. “Charles Wood and Dan Sudick are the best in the business and they always exceed anything you’ve ever seen before,” he says. “It is what gives us this grand scale that we see in this environment. Very early in pre-production we were basically inventing Wakanda along with the team at Black Panther from real features in Africa. We just started by sketching out where we thought the different battles would happen and based on that we worked hand in hand with the pre-vis team to build a version on the computer that we could then start animating to see the action develop. From this Charles would start the production design and work with Dan on his elements, so this loop would continue as we get some ideas and feed them to Charlie and he gets ideas and feeds
them back to us. At the end of the day when we come to set we’ve got this really great design. But we also know the shots we need to shoot for the movie itself.”

Shooting the battle sequences in Wakanda with as many actors and practical elements as possible was something the filmmakers wanted for the scenes. 

“There are a lot of CG characters in the film so having the Wakandans and the Dora Milaje and the border tribe there in mass with costumes and armor was critical for us,” says Louis D’ Esposito, executive producer. “You can certainly replicate a person, but nothing brings the real intensity and a visceral feel like hundreds of actors performing and reacting in a real environment. For the actors, it invigorates their performance when they can be out on a field where it feels like you’re in Wakanda. It really makes for an exciting battle that feels very real and authentic.”

According to DeLeuw, though, his favorite achievement in the film was the character of Thanos, played by Josh Brolin. 

“Of all the visual effects in this film, Thanos is what I am most proud of,” says DeLeeuw. “I think he’s very impressive in terms of the different range of emotions he’s able to project. It was great to watch Josh Brolin see himself as Thanos and see his eyes light up when he saw the performance. He said, ‘That’s really me.’ We said, ‘Yeah, that’s the point. That’s what we’ve been trying to do.’”

“What we did with Avengers: Infinity War is pretty amazing,” adds Alonso, who was responsible for the look and feel of Marvel’s greatest villain, along with the VFX team. “We used a facial capture technology that we developed called Medusa that can actually track so many points in your face and it can even just count the pores of your skin. I think that one of the greatest successes for us, is Thanos, the biggest, baddest, most anticipated villain and he’s completely CG. So, we needed to take the amazing performance that Josh Brolin gave us and the dedication that he had for that character and translate it into a character — you had to be torn apart by what he was trying to do because if you just hate him, then it’s a one-sided event. You have to be, at times, completely on his side or completely against him. We have extreme close ups on him all the time. This is a character that we were supposed to have maybe 400 shots and we ended up doing 900. That’s a whole lot of villain that is not human. It’s truly a testament to the visual effects team, led by Dan DeLeeuw and Jen Underdahl, and the teams at Digital Domain and WETA that did Thanos — it was unbelievable what they created.”