VFX supervisor Alan Torres explains his studio’s work on key UI and HUD displays for Marvel’s latest action-adventure feature.
Futuristic UI/HUD graphics have become a staple of Marvel movies, especially when Tony Stark joins the fray, and carrying on the cinematic tradition of visual display motion graphics design for Captain America: Civil War is Cantina Creative VFX supervisor Alan Torres and his team. “In every movie we try to come up with a unique language for whatever piece or character we’re designing for,” explains Torres. “We look back at what we’ve done before and have those creative conversations about where to take things. We try to get a feel for the mood of the movie and what direction the story is heading in.” For Iron Man’s HUD technology, a militaristic style was adopted. “Tony Stark is feeling tired and wants to end the fight. He sides with the government in having the Avengers accountable for their actions. To me, his character is becoming more grounded and I wanted that to be reflected in the shapes, aesthetics and lighting within the HUD,” Torres notes.
“All of his different devices are going to be uniform in the film, but the layouts will be slightly different depending on which one he’s using,” Torres remarks. “Originally, we designed the sunglasses based on the external HUD from Iron Man 3, which was a holographic display that surrounded his face when he is not in the suit. Ultimately, it became more minimized, sticking onto the lens. Since the HUD is transparent, we tried to keep the light sources coming from the rim of the lens.”
New for Civil War was Stark’s ability to view the HUD graphics beyond the devices. Says Torres, “Tony Stark has these holographic capabilities in his helicopter. There’s a moment in the film where he flicks graphics off of his phone device and they animate out, taking over the environment of his helicopter. That approach was riffing off of the phone design and some of the Mark 46 shapes and aesthetics.”
The HUD for Falcon’s goggles was the first thing Torres worked on. “We put a lot of Tony into it not quite knowing yet the story arc of the film. They reeled us back because Falcon is on Captain America’s team. We still kept some Tony in there because he designs all of their technology and UI. However, Falcon’s HUD does not have as much flare. We designed it for a much smaller space. You want his eyes to read through the graphics, which was a challenge when laying them out. You really need a soft hand knowing when to put graphics over his eyes or keep them towards the edge of the lens. Those were trickier than it may have seemed,” Torres explains.
The film also introduces a new Falcon gadget, the Redwing. According to Torres, “The Redwing, which is the drone that shoots off the back of Falcon and can be his eyes in the sky, does have thermal imaging capabilities and in its normal state, the UI is a stripped down version of the goggles. We referenced an MRI look with a combination of X-ray and thermal heat sensing. It’s different from night vision. It allowed for more colour and tonal range.”
For the most part, Falcon’s HUD designs were brand new. Most had no previous point of reference. “For Falcon, who previously never had any such technology, it was like starting from scratch. The same with Ant-Man. But as far as Tony goes, there’s so much reference and visual history to go off of.”
“All of our animation and story beats are dependant on the performance of character,” adds Torres, who had to create a sense of interaction between the graphics and actors. “That’s always tough, especially with Robert Downey Jr., who puts a lot of character into his hand motions and performance so that half of the time we are puzzled on how to make it work!” Torres continues, “We design all of the layouts either in Illustrator or Photoshop. We usually create any CG assets in Cinema 4D, and every once in a while we use Maya. For compositing, we use After Effects.”
Cantina also handled some New York City background replacements on the film. “There’s a sequence with Tony Stark in Peter Parker’s apartment where we were responsible not only for the graphics but also for the background replacement of the New York City skyline,” states Torres. “We created a matte painting and did all of the background replacements. Mostly, we incorporated practical photography into the matte painting. We also included a CG building, Stark Tower, which is in the background.” Other work included inserting a view of London and a storm surrounding the helicopter of Tony Stark. Torres notes, “That was mostly practical photography, though we did overlay some storm clouds in it. But that was a lot of back and forth because ILM’s plates were gloomy and stormy and originally ours started off at dusk. In the end it became a stormy haze outside.”
Some Cantina assets were shared with German VFX company RISE. “RISE did all of the compositing of the goggles. We supplied all of their design and animation.”
“The biggest challenge,” observes Torres, “is always determining how to take the UI to the next level. Because we have done so many Marvel movies, you would think we’re getting close to having done it all. We try to understand where the characters are, where the movie is heading, looking back on what we have done and enhance all of those qualities.” Torres is especially proud of the Helicopter Sequence. “We did so much on those shots. We took it from designing the holograms and phone graphics to compositing the environment. For me personally that scene will be the most exciting to see.”