VFX: Marvel Studios' <I>Captain Marvel</I>
Issue: March/April 2019

VFX: Marvel Studios' Captain Marvel

Captain Marvel, one of Walt Disney Pictures’ and Marvel Studios' most anticipated films, features for the first time in the Marvel Cinematic Universe a female superhero lead. Oscar-winning actress Brie Larson steps into the role of Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel, and stars alongside Marvel alums Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury and Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson, as well as Jude Law as the intergalactic warrior Yon-Rogg. From the box office numbers in the US alone, over $321M at press time, audiences are receptive. Thus far, it’s the top grossing film of 2019 worldwide.

Set in the 1990s, Captain Marvel opens with Danvers already in possession of her super powers and part of an intergalactic elite Kree military team called Starforce, led by their commander, Yon-Rogg. Through a series of events, she ends up on Earth and crosses paths with Fury, which raises questions about her, perhaps, Earthly past. On Earth, she becomes caught up in the middle of a battle between the Krees and the Skrulls, alien “bad guys” who also have the ability to shape-shift and who have plans to invade Earth.

Captain Marvel is directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck ( Half Nelson, Sugar, Mississippi Grind) and executive produced by Louis D’Esposito, Victoria Alonso, Jonathan Schwartz, Patricia Whitcher and Stan Lee. The creative team includes DP Ben Davis ( Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Marvel Studios’ Doctor Strange), editors Elliot Graham ( Steve Jobs, Molly’s Game) and Debbie Berman (Marvel Studios’ Black Panther, Spider-Man: Homecoming), and visual effects supervisor Christopher Townsend (Marvel Studios’ Avengers: Age of Ultron, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2).

Townsend (pictured) was responsible for leading a huge team of VFX studios and pros — using a mixed bag of tools that includes Nuke for compositing, Maya for modeling and animation, and Arnold, Renderman and VRay — through the stages of creating more than 2,200 VFX shots, including otherworldly environments, spaceship battles, CG cats and other characters, superpowers, fight scenes, building 1990s Earth and de-aging actors Samuel L. Jackson and Clark Gregg. Here, Townsend speaks exclusively with Post about the challenges of creating the world of Captain Marvel.

You’ve worked on numerous Marvel films — Iron Man, Captain America, Avengers, Guardians — how do the VFX on this film compare to others you’ve worked on?

“One of the really interesting things of this film is the directors, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, come from a very indie film background, so because of that, their prior experience is very much character pieces. It’s very interesting that they brought that dynamic and visual aesthetic and storytelling vibe to this film. I think one of the challenges on this one in particular, from a visual effects point of view, is being able to create work that for a lot of the time, isn’t front and center. It’s quietly done behind the scenes that hopefully you don’t notice.

“There’s a lot of work that we’ve done to sort of create the vibe of the ‘90s where a lot of the film takes place. We have a lot of youthening work on Sam Jackson, because it’s set in the ‘90s, so 25 to 30 years back in time. Hopefully, in a way that audiences never question it. I think there will be that first gasp of ‘wow,’ when you first see him, like, ‘That’s cool.’ But then people will just then forget about it.

“We also have a cat in the film, which is in about a hundred shots, so he’s kind of a star player in a co-starring role. We used real cats on set but there’s also an awful lot of CG cats — about two-thirds of the shots of the cats in the film are CG. And again, they were done hopefully, in a way that the audience never notices it. 

“There’s also a lot of invisible effects work, that tries to keep in the same tone and vibe and the visual language the directors set up — a sort of indie naturalistic filmmaking.

“And, of course, we have a lot of the other, sort of bombastic, spectacular superhero stuff as well. So it’s been a lot of fun from a visual effects aspect working on this film.

“The work wasn’t really revolutionary that was created, but it was more of an evolution of effects and techniques.”

How did you determine her superpowers?

“Trying to find the aesthetic for her superpowers was incredibly difficult. We had lots of discussions about how, when she’s gone full binary, which is when she’s fully powered as it were, it should look. The visual challenge was to try and figure out how to create something that doesn’t look just like fire and doesn’t look just like electricity…that also had a familiarity so that from an audience point of view, you can accept it and not question it, but at the same time is spectacular and amazing.

“We looked at a lot of references of electrical energy of the Tesla coil, oil on water, flaming lighter fluid and jet engines. All of this to determine how to create this aesthetic that’s not just, ‘Oh yeah, she’s on fire.’ We were constantly referring to real-world situations, real-world examples and also what’s out there that’s aesthetically in other movie languages to figure out how to make this a little different and stand out.”

Right, because you want it to be something that’s unique to the character?

“You do, absolutely, and I think one of the challenging things with Marvel films is, this is the 21st Marvel movie of a superhero, so trying to find new and exciting ways to do things is always extremely difficult. You’re always thinking, that’s just like so and so, or, we did that in that movie. 

“The interesting thing with these films is that they have to stand on their own, but also, they are part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so you have to be sort of conscious while designing these effects so that they are unique but fit in a little bit with that visual language that’s been established in the last ten years.”

What are some of the key VFX in the film?

“It’s a huge body of work, as is usually in these kinds of movies. We touch just about everything — full set extensions and full CG environments, but I think some of the highlight stuff is, the things we talked about — the youthening for Sam Jackson particularly — he’s in 500 or so shots, which is a huge amount, and people change day to day and depending on what we’ve eaten or how we slept, or how much exercise we got, our faces change throughout the day and they change with lighting and different camera lenses and so on, so the hard thing is trying to find some consistency for a character and for that many shots. He’s in two-thirds of the film, so for that body of work, the level of consistency was one of the biggest challenges.

“Then the binary — trying to create something not only with her binary look, all lit up and energized, trying to create something that is interesting and unique and doesn’t distract or detract from her performance, was very challenging and also the photo blasts that fire out of her hands. How to create something that’s unique is a signature there.

“And the cat — the cat was far harder than we expected. We did some early tests and we went to Trixter in Germany, who did the work for designing, building and animating the cat…We said we want you to build this exact cat and they showed us some tests and we showed to the directors and the directors said, ‘We’re not really sure what we’re looking at …What is this?’ And we said, ‘This is our cat.’ And they said, ‘What? This isn’t real?’ (laughs) 

“So I thought we nailed it, very early on in the process, but it proved to be one of the hardest things in the film, because we ended up intercutting back and forth between a real cat and a CG cat, and not only the one real cat, who we modeled, but three other cats that were brought on set as well. It was incredibly difficult. It wasn’t just creating a cat that looks like a cat, but creating a cat that we could cut with a real cat, back and forth, and hopefully done in such a way that the audience never questions it. That was way harder than I ever anticipated and was certainly a challenge right up to the end.”

What vendors contributed to the VFX?

“We had around 14 different vendors. The main ones were ILM (Industrial Light & Magic), which did a lot of the third-act sequences and created the look of the binary, and did a lot of exploration of how she looks in the suit; Trixter in Germany designed the cat and also designed the photon blast — the energy blast coming out of her hands; Lola completed a lot of the youthening on Sam Jackson and Clark Gregg; Digital Domain did shape shifting between the Krees and the Skrulls and transformations; Scanline VFX did the plane crashing into the beach and a lot flying shots and dog fights; Rise Visual Effects created some alien environments; Framestore also created alien environments and did whole sequence of massive ships arriving and entering other world atmosphere – big battles; Rising Sun Pictures created a lot of aircraft hanger world and a lot of holographic projections coming out of communications devices; Animal Logic created an SI chamber…a virtual chamber…and created this analog feeling look of how we cut some memory sequences together and how they aesthetically treated those; Luma Pictures did an LA 1995 car chase a’ la French Connection and rebuilt LA and added in CG trains and cars.”

Final thoughts?

“I think it’s a good film and certainly we’re very proud of the work we put into it. I’m really excited to see how female audiences, particularly, see the film. What Brie Lawson does as Captain Marvel…I think she’s an incredibly strong actress and strong woman and very smart, and she brings that intelligence to the role and I think that’s pretty inspiring.”