VFX supervisor Greg Steele walks us through Iron Man, Cap and the Winter Soldier’s final fight in Marvel’s hit action-adventure.
In Marvel’s action-adventure hit Captain America: Civil War, the epic climactic final fight features Iron Man battling Captain America and Winter Soldier. Handled expertly by Deluxe's Method Studios, who took on 434 VFX shots, the scene involved creating extensive damage to Iron Man that was impacted by the various environments and lighting within the missile silo fight location. According to Method VFX supervisor Greg Steele, “It [the sequence] was broken into three sections because of where the scenes take place. When Cap [Captain America] and Bucky [the Winter Soldier] first meet Iron Man [in Siberia] they go into a place called the Stasis Chamber, where all of the other Winter Soldiers were being built. That’s where their relationship breaks down. They start fighting and move into an old nuclear missile silo structure. Damage was inflicted on Iron Man in all these different environments and had to be specific to all of the action that took place. For instance, Cap’s shield hits Iron Man in the face and leaves a mark. They smash him in the chest. Iron Man gets scraped across the ground. He falls down into the silo and smashes his back. All of the damage details from that type of action went into the suit. We setup a nice little system in our tracking software to trigger the different look development damage systems depending on which shot he [Iron Man] was in.”
Part of Method’s work involved creating a digital costume for Iron Man, played by Robert Downey Jr. “On-set, he [Downey Jr.] would wear what resembled the upper torso of a football suit,” notes Steele. “Our job was to put a full CG suit on him and try to make it as realistic as possible. The look was a throwback to the classic Iron Man suit which was more of a merlot colour and looked beat up. One of the suit pieces built for Iron Man 2 would be brought into a shot so we could get the plate reference off it in addition to the suit he wore, which was helpful.” While working on the sequence, Steele made an interesting discovery regarding the suit’s finish. “I thought that Iron Man was just reflective. But as it turns out there is a specific combination of reflectivity and matte finish. There’s a car paint shader going on there but you’re also trying to knock it down so it doesn’t look super glossy. If you pushed too far the other way it looked too dry. In every environment we would put him, the color would be slightly off from that perfect merlot tone we were going for. We had to recreate all of the parameters for each shot. It was challenging but that’s part of the fun.”
Shots involving fights choreographed to include a digital character and prop added later proved especially challenging. “The muscle memory and physical abilities of Chris Evans are amazing,” Steele explains. “Sometimes they would shoot with the shield and sometimes without depending on what Captain America was going to do with it. We’d track the shield in 3D with his body and 99 per cent of the time it was accurate.” Evan’s and Sebastian Stan’s (the Winter Soldier) uncanny ability to interact with something that was not there extended into the fight scenes as well. As Steel explains, “We would shoot them with a stuntman acting as Iron Man, get it to the point where the directors were happy with the performance, pull the stuntman out, and shoot it again with Bucky or Cap pantomiming the fight. A lot of the shots used that footage of them fighting nothing. It made things easier that we didn’t have to paint out the stuntman for certain shots. We did have a full digital double for Bucky and Cap so when they were blocked by the stuntman we could place a digital part of them into the shot.”
A key part of the Winter Soldier is his mechanical arm. “Sebastian Stan wore a silicon silver looking arm on-set which looked good and caused reflections on the walls,” says Steele. “But it looked too bulky because he had his actual arm in there plus the thickness of the silicon. The practical arm also started to deteriorate from all of the fighting so we had to replace it with a full CG one for almost all of our shots. It was challenging because of the camera motion as well as Sebastian Stan’s movement. Getting all of that stuff to jibe was tricky so we had multiple witness cameras when we shot all of the fight scenes. We used Canon C300s and had them all locked together. That helped us to get other views besides the main film camera so we could align things.”
Getting the right quality for the metal limb was tricky. As Steele notes, “It was either too chrome or too brushed depending on the lighting situation of the room. We did a bunch of work trying to get the body of Sebastian Stan and other characters to reflect onto the arm so that it doesn’t look like it’s just floating out there.”
The final fight scenes were shot at Pinewood Studios in the U.K. “The sets built at Pinewood were beautiful,” says Steele. “The big Stasis Chamber set was built up to two floors and beyond that we had to extend all of their shots with these huge Stasis pods. Our art department team here helped to flesh out some of the final designs. The silo was a half circle three stories up so we could shoot all of the live-action elements we needed. But, we needed to extend it both upwards and downwards to allow for some fairly wide shots. We had to build a version of the set that was accurate down to the nuts and bolts. An on-set team photographed, measured and scanned it. They brought all of the material back to the office and recreated it from the ground up so by the end of the show we were doing full CG shots.”
Marvel’s overall VFX supervisor Dan DeLeeuw had a specific take on the lighting. Steele explains, “When Iron Man was being a mean guy we would play him more in silhouette with rim light around him. When Iron Man was more vulnerable we would try to get more front light on him so you would know that it’s Tony Stark. It was an interesting challenge to integrate that into the shot in such a way that it didn’t feel forced. But in the end based on the way the shots and sets were designed, it worked out in our favour for the most part.”
Method additionally did work on the Germany-based Task Force Headquarters. “Originally, we shot around the Reichstag and the Paul-Löbe-Haus but then it turned out we weren’t allowed to use them,” comments Steele. “Drone footage was used as plates when it flies up the water edge to the walkway between the two buildings. That’s when you see the Avengers walking across it. Other than that there wasn’t much we could use it for.” Concept art had been developed by Marvel for Task Force Headquarters. “We went into a round of additional design work. We’d take Marvel’s work, do broad strokes, give them multiple options, they’d hone in on one or two, we would refine those and end up with one of them and then show a more derivative version of it. For the Reichstag, one of the things the guys wanted, which made sense, was to keep the old Germany feel about it. We did research into pre-WWII buildings and fabricated one which was an amalgam of different places.” In regards to the skies, Steele notes, “We went there and had three positions of panoramic photography bracketed over the course of the day from 6 am to 5 pm. It worked out well in terms of the weather patterns. It was a clear day and occasionally clouds would come in so we had a nice sprinkling of different times of day.”
Berlin serves as backdrop for the dramatic action helicopter escape sequence, which Steele also supervised. As he explains, “Bucky tries to escape in a helicopter. Steve Rogers grabs the skid. Bucky realizes that he can’t get away and slams the helicopter into the helipad trying to crush Cap, who dodges the wrechage. Bucky grabs Cap through the glass, the helicopter falls over the edge into the river, and Cap rescues Bucky, which harkens back to the Winter Soldier when Bucky saves Cap from drowning.”
The helipad set was constructed in Atlanta. “They had a mechanical helicopter on a buck on a big arm so it could move around. The set was surrounded by greenscreen. It was shot outside to capture the natural light.” The aircraft fuselage was puppeteered by special effects supervisor Dan Sudick. According to Steele, “It was fantastic reference. Sebastian Stan could sit inside and the glass was taken out so we could capture the action, then paint the CG helicopter over that unit.” Water simulations were needed as well. “The underwater shots of the helicopter crashing at the bottom of the water were fully CG,” Steele continued.
Method and the final film benefitted from a happy accident that occurred during the final fight. “Bucky and Cap are leaving the silo bottom and Iron man turns over in his destroyed suit,” states Steele. “Cap has jammed his shield into the Arc reactor in his chest, which goes on the fritz once the shield is pulled out. One of our renders was going and it had some bad popping frames in the Arc reactor as we were modulating it. It was more than we would have shown but we had to give Marvel a version to screen. They liked it.” The Nuclear Missile Silo Sequence stands out from the 434 VFX shots handled by Method Studios in their Los Angeles and Vancouver facilities. Steele concludes, “It’s a vertical scene which is not something you’ve seen a lot. We worked without the sound for the most part so it will be fun for me to see the final scene on the big screen with audio.”