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ILM Gets Out the Big Guns for 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier'

ILM rebuilds the helicarrier for the latest Marvel blockbuster and it's the company's biggest model in history.

The Captain America sequel, The Winter Soldier, ups the Marvel superhero franchise with the addition of the political conspiracy thriller (directed by the brother team of Anthony and Joe Russo). But in terms of VFX, it's all about the next-gen helicarrier (known as "Project Insight"): a tech marvel and the ultimate super weapon that can stay up in orbit and target and kill about a million victims at once.

"The vitality of the franchise is dependent on pushing it in new areas and finding something fresh to bring to audiences and surprise them," suggests Anthony Russo. "We knew that we were going to do that with this movie by putting it in the political drama and perhaps by doing it in a more grounded, real world version of what a superhero movie can be."

At first, ILM intended on doing a slight upgrade on the helicarrier from The Avengers, but given the scope and demands of Winter Soldier, this led to a complete rebuild as well as well expanding from one carrier to three. Inevitably, the massive CG model became the largest in ILM history:

The helicarrier is about a quarter larger than its predecessor: 1,400-feet-long, and designed with more powerful Phalanx guns (14 scattered around the deck with 70-foot barrels and 2-foot shells) along with a nifty surveillance dome. It's like a modern version of a broadside pirate ship, only they replaced the turbines with a more powerful Stark Repulsor engine.

The story goes, in fact, that Tony Stark was so tired of getting roughed up in The Avengers that he offered his tech to S.H.I.E.L.D. "It's got the big guns on the deck, the super weapon, and the underbelly surveillance hub, where the Cap and Winter Soldier fight takes place," explains ILM VFX supervisor Russell Earl. The brothers wanted everything to be grounded in a reality even if it was technology that we don't necessarily have. We did 90% modern and 10% World War II."

-- View more images: ILM Concept Art, Progressions and Final Shots from 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier' -- 

When it came to collaborating with ILM, Joe Russo naturally found it a dream come true: "Growing up on Star Wars films, I went to the theater at 11:00 am to see Empire Strikes Back and stayed until 11:00 pm after watching it four or five times in a row," he recalls. "They're still good at what they do, and we had a strong mandate that we wanted the visual effects to look as realistic as possible. And I thought they did a tremendous job with that third act, which is a massive visual spectacle. It was a challenge to the filmmakers shooting in a more hand-held, verite style, which is not common for strong visual effects movies like these, so that was something that they were very sensitive about studying and trying to replicate that spirit and that texture in the visual effects."

"Proof did the previs and one of the first things we did was go through the progression of where they are in space and the damage inflicted," Earl continues. "We mapped everything out on a spreadsheet to track internally all of the massive chaos and destruction."

The new helicarriers are both enormous and incredibly detailed (overseen by model supervisor Bruce Holcomb). But some of the functional challenges included getting the dome to sit in the carrier so that it didn't appear like a big, pregnant belly below, and designing the guns so that they seemed massive and armored. ILM came up with a translucent, polymer dome that contains nearly 70 cameras inside the underbelly.

"We were everywhere on the carriers: on the decks, we were flying along the side, we were up close on the guns, we were inside the surveillance hub, we were outside of the hub, we were close on the super weapons," adds Earl. "We spent a year-plus just building out this carrier. And for the destruction scenes we had to visually give it the internals that help to sell scale and make it real."

-- View more images: ILM Concept Art, Progressions and Final Shots from 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier' -- 

But with full digital environments and so much destruction (in which all three helicarriers wind up in the climactic battle together and one of them crashes into a D.C. building), ILM was unable to load all of the assets at one time. So instead the artists broke it up with one or two carriers at a time.

In terms of software, ILM used Maya and its proprietary Zeno package for camera blocking and rough layout along with Katana for lighting and, for the first time, V-Ray for Katana, for better integration of high complexity shots in the pipeline. The VFX powerhouse also used V-Ray for 3ds Max for environments. The proprietary Flip solver came in handy for water shots and the Plume package for effects sim. Thinking particles in 3ds Max was additionally used for building destruction shots.

"You spend all this time building these carriers and then you end up destroying them," Earl concludes.

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Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld and the owner of Immersed in Movies (www.billdesowitz.com). He's a contributor to Animation Scoop and Thompson on Hollywood at Indiewire, and author of James Bond Unmasked (www.jamesbondunmasked.com), which is now available on Kindle with a new Skyfall chapter.