The Oscar-nominated VFX supervisor breaks down some of the key grand finale action on Marvel’s second ‘Captain America’ hit.
Of all of Marvel’s Avenger-inspired movies, the two Captain America films are the ones most grounded in the physical reality of our world. I use the term “grounded” loosely – I’m not sure if either Boeing or Airbus are planning any helicarrier production in the near future. But more to the point, with the latest franchise installment, filmmakers Joe and Anthony Russo brought a realistic, gritty feel to the story, from the close-up fistfights to the crash-filled car chases. Visually and stylistically, the filmmakers opted for a 1970s spy thriller feel, shot practically, and very much in line with the fact that Captain America is a decidedly “real” and grounded superhero.
Visual effects supervisor Dan DeLeeuw, part of the film’s Oscar-nominated visual effects team, worked on a number of key third act “grand finale” sequences. An industry veteran known for his work on Iron Man 3 and the first two Night at the Museum films, DeLeeuw and I recently talked about Winter Soldier’s immense action-packed third act, including previs on Falcon’s flight sequences, trying to shoot Washington D.C. plates for the helicarrier destruction scenes, and the main challenges he faced on the film.
Dan Sarto: What were the key scenes you were involved with on this film?
Dan DeLeeuw: The film’s grand finale is the helicarrier battle over Washington D.C. Of course, there are no helicarriers. So we had to build those. The tricky part of these third act sequences was that there wasn’t much you could actually shoot in D.C. There are restrictions everywhere you go. So we thought we were outside of those when we were on the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge that crosses the Potomac River. I thought from there, I can get my aerial plates. But essentially, you just can’t go where you need to go to get shots. So a lot of the work we did was recreating Washington D.C.
Throughout the film, the idea was to create a grounded, 1970s thriller look, from the point of view of shooting an actual film in the 1970s. That involved working with the various departments, figuring out how we could help them achieve what was, for all intent and purposes, a practical shoot. We helped them figure out different ways of setting up equipment that we would eventually remove for them.
My work varied throughout the film. We did lots and lots of set extensions on the Triskelion headquarters. We also had scenes like where Haley Atwell, who played Peggy Carter, was also playing the 92 year-old version of herself. At first we tried makeup, but it was one of those things where we couldn’t capture the right performance. So, we couldn’t use any old-age makeup at all. We ended up doing it all digitally. We cast an older women as a double and then took her wrinkles and old age spots and mapped those onto Haley’s performance. Going into it we thought we could use makeup and then just do CG touchups to make her look more gaunt. But her performance was suffering during the test so we decided to eliminate the makeup all together. That was scary and exciting all at the same time. We had a great time in post-production dealing with the textures from our older stand-in actress’ face.
DS: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced on this film?
DD: It was a huge film. For Captain America, he doesn’t have a lot of super powers. Basically, he’s human. He can’t fly. But then you add in the complexity of the plot where he has to almost single-handedly take down S.H.I.E.L.D. There’s the helicarrier bay, the headquarters buildings, the size of things he has to overcome. Industrial Light and Magic worked on the helicarriers for us, bringing them back from The Avengers. What we used to see in wide shots now we saw in close-ups. We had to detail all the different sections, then blow them up and scatter their pieces up and down the Potomac River. Of course we had to do all that digitally as we couldn’t actually film in Washington D.C.
DS: As objective as you can be, what about this work do you think stands out most to audiences and Academy members?
DD: I think the overall design of the film stands out. Talking to the directors, Joe and Anthony Russo, the goal always was that this would be a grounded film, even though it was going to be a superhero movie, where we have Captain America coming back into the real world, with “real” being the key term. Everything we designed needed to feel gritty and dirty. As people are searching for good stories to tell, a lot of films end up with that “fantastic” look in their designs. In some respects, our film pushed that away.
We were going to have fight scenes between real people. One person might have a CG robotic arm, and they might be able to jump or throw somewhat farther than a normal human with the help of visual effects. But the idea was to keep it real. Even though we have helicarriers over Washington D.C., it’s the same idea -- there’s not a lot of trick shots. You’re going to film it as someone would with a helicopter. You’re not going to do a lot of shots where you’re flying through the helicarrier as it blows up.
And with someone like Anthony Mackey’s Falcon, we spent a lot of time in previs making sure we could imagine, for example, how we would shoot him if we were just going to photograph him. If you truly had a guy with a rocket pack, and you had a rocket pack to follow him around, how would you photograph him? We tried to maintain that sense of realism and then seamlessly get those visual effects into the film.
DS: When you watch a big VFX-driven film, what catches your eye and makes you take notice?
DD: You always see new styles of visual effects coming out, done with new tools. But we’re at a point where you should be able to integrate your effects into a story in support of the film. As long as they fit within the style and scope of the story, the visual effects shouldn’t take you out of it. If an effect gets in the way of the film, because you were trying to be tricky or design something cool, that’s where things pop for you and catch your attention. The longer you’ve been in the business, the less judgmental you are when you see problems that catch your eye. You know in general it’s because people ran out of time or there was some element they weren’t quite able to get. In that case, you know what they were going for but couldn’t quite get there.
DS: Any new tools that had to be developed for this show?
DD: The final scene had three helicarriers on the screen at once. At ILM, the helicarrier models got so big they actually had to go out and spec new computers that could load the model. Also, the work on the 92 year-old Peggy I think may change the nature of how old age makeup is done in the future.
DS: How has your job changed over the past five to ten years?
DD: Today, the work is all about story and less about visual spectacle. I’m able to get in on a show earlier. I get to be part of the design process more, working with previs and the director in the creation of the story. We’re at the point you can go to a visual effects facility, look at the tools they have, see what work they’ve done in the past, and know there isn’t much that will be new, that they haven’t done, that has to be done from scratch. That means I can really hit the ground running with a good pipeline and strategy for achieving the effects that are needed on the film. Working with visual effects continues to become a much more fluid process, which only makes the creative storytelling that much better.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.