Christopher Townsend discusses digitally altering Steve Rogers and Red Skull in the latest Marvel superhero movie.
Despite 1,600 VFX shots spread across 13 vendors worldwide doing lots World War II period CG environments, Captain America: The First Avenger isn't really considered a visual effects-intensive movie, at least not according to overall supervisor Christopher Townsend or director Joe Johnston. But that doesn't mean there weren't some difficult challenges, chief among them, turning a very buff Chris Evans into a scrawny Steve Rogers at the beginning of the movie before he becomes Captain America.
Thanks to Lola Visual Effects (under the supervision of Edson Williams), the experts of youthenizing, they came up with a new twist on digital manipulation.
"The audience has to believe that it looked real and not an effect," Townsend asserts. "At the same time, it had to work with Chris Evans. He was very keen in leading the performance so we looked at a lot of different head replacement techniques, including full-digital. We realized very quickly that we had to nail the articulation, particularly the lip movement and the lip smack, as we call it. We studied the technology a year-and-a-half ago. A full digital head wasn't going to serve us well. The other alternative was to do a head replacement and take the actor into the studio afterward. We rejected that as well. We thought it was achievable but everyone thought that it would take away the spontaneity of the performance you would get on set.
"We looked at projecting the photography and the photographed element onto 3D geometry and then rescaling the geometry and did tests with various companies. Although that could work, it seemed pretty clumsy and too much of a heavy footprint."
They finally decided on the most straightforward solution: 2D manipulation of the image. That meant literally taking the still image, mesh warping it around and making the actor look thinner in body and face. Lola, of course, seemed the perfect fit, but it required them to take their technique further with this precise frame-by-frame approach all in post.
"We shot a test during pre-production in England of a large guy and skinny guy and we asked them to turn the large, muscular guy into the skinny guy," Townsend continues. "We had him sitting down and standing up and picking up objects off a table. We did it with shirt on and off. We gave it to them and with some R&D they came up with phenomenal results. They could turn a big guy into a skinny guy, and could even do the big guy when he was shirtless and remove his pecks by de-sculpting him in a 2D world and use tracking and they could paint out any of the shadows of the pecks or abs and make him less scrawny than the original."
Still, the low-impact solution on set came with a caveat: the greater the movement, the more difficult the manipulation. In any event, they were going to have to shoot a reference pass with the body double (Leander Deeny), or "Skinny Steve," as they called him. This was so they knew what it should look like of him performing under the proper conditions, and to also use bits and pieces in the body double's plate when necessary.
"It was a risk but we did as much as we could upfront," Townsend admits. "We shot the Chris Evans master plate with all the other actors and camera moves. And then we repeated it the best we could with our skinny actor. We hired an English actor as the body double and he would sit and watch Chris' performance off camera or on the monitor. Chris would give him a few pointers and then he would do the same thing on set. That was our reference pass. We would shoot the same thing again without any foreground performance actor and get a clean plate and that would be used for recreating the background. Sometimes we would do a fourth pass with Chris performing against the greenscreen, not only making Chris Evans thinner but also making him half a foot shorter. It meant that we'd either have to get Chris to crouch down in the original master plate to match eyelines and height. Or we would get the skinny actor to stand on a box. Alternatively, if we saw full bodies, Chris would have to look above the other actors, and the other actors would have to look at Chris' throat. When we scaled Chris down, thinning out the arms, reducing the squared jaw and making sure that the eye lines would match."
The other wrinkle is that Johnston insisted on not using previs, instead relying on storyboards and shot notes. "He liked to keep it loose so that on the day of shooting he could discover the best move," Townsend adds. "He likes to use a Techno crane or dolly and it meant that when we had to repeat the moves with Chris Evans and Skinny Steve, we would have to use video assist and playback and doing a live 50/50 mix to repeat it as accurately as possible. And then Lola would put the plates together as best they could. It is amazing what you can do and we called it 'Poor Man's Process' for motion control. But we had to solve it all in post."
Meanwhile, the other digital manipulation challenge was Hugo Weaving's super Nazi, Red Skull, which was handled by Framestore and then completed by Lola. Although designer David White constructed a brilliant red silicon mask for Weaving, it didn't fully project the desired creepy look. With manipulation of the prosthetic, however, they scaled it down and moved the nose in Photoshop. The look was then provided to Framestore, which tracked on the digital nose cavity replacement; thinned out the cheeks, hallowed them out, and made them look gaunt; thinned out his lower lip; and removed the eyelashes; squared up the chin; and tightened up the jaw line and any of the wrinkles that would appear in the prosthetic of the mask. "You still believe that it's Hugo Weaving and yet they managed to make him look less like a human, which I thought was interesting," Townsend concludes.
Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and editor of VFXWorld. He has a new blog, Immersed in Movies (www.billdesowitz.com), and is currently writing a book about the evolution of James Bond from Connery to Craig, scheduled for publication next year, which is the 50th anniversary of the franchise.