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ILM ‘Captain America: Civil War’ VFX Part 2: Fully CG Airport Battle

VFX supervisor Russell Earl discusses the climactic airport battle complete with fully CG super heroes, environments and hundreds of digital assets on Marvel’s latest ‘Captain America’ franchise hit.

With the recent release of Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War on Blu-ray and DVD, we look back at some of the tremendous visual effects work done on the show by ILM in the second of our two-part feature - Part 1 can be found here...

In Captain America: Civil War, a climactic 20-minute showdown pits superhero against superhero, causing massive destruction of a German airport – leading the team responsible for construction of a full CG battleground, hundreds of digital assets and extensive use of digital doubles was ILM visual effects supervisor Russell Earl.

Earl’s team, and approach, mirrored the work he supervised on Captain America: The Winter Soldier. As he explains, “Layout supervisor Tim Dobbert, animation supervisor Steve Rawlins, model supervisor Bruce Holcomb, compositing supervisor François Lambert, CG supervisor Pat Conran, lighting supervisor Jeremy Bloch and I worked together previously on Winter Soldier.  We took a similar approach where Tim and the layout group worked closely, first looking at the previs. Next they took the airport and mapped it all out. Then Bruce and Elbert Yen, our paint supervisor, worked on getting all of the assets going.”

All told, the ILM group produced around 625 shots for the battle. “The full airport [at Leipzig] was scanned and photographed for reconstruction purposes,” Earl continues. “The previs guys used the scan data.  We started with that previs as an overall map, knowing throughout the course of this fight our characters have to go from Point A to Point B.  As editorial got more involved they kept changing the cut.”  The shifting narrative required Earl’s team to remain flexible, without finalizing any work too early in the production. “We brought everything up to a certain level so that editorial had something represented to cut in and we could know if we were on the right path.  Then we started finishing shots off and slowly filled in-between them,” he notes.

According to Earl, digital asset development was a massive undertaking. “We created everything from scratch,” states Earl.  “We had some vehicles typical of an airport tarmac, like luggage tugs, [on set] in Atlanta. The DP [Trent Opaloch] backlit everything so if you were going to flip to the other side of the scene you would have to move all of the vehicles.  It became this big puzzle.  When he was there that vehicle was here and that one was there.  Now we’ve turned and that one would be over there. It quickly became, ‘Let’s not do the vehicles. You can add all of that later.’”

Earl figured 600 to 700 assets needed to be created digitally. “It was almost like an animated feature,” he says. “We could have anything from Ant-Man being a half inch tall on a piece of airport equipment all the way up to a big aerial shot where you’re seeing 50-foot tall Giant Man fighting.”

Continuity was a serious issue. “We had almost every shot going at once so it was easy to miss those things, like when the order of shots got changed,” Earl remarks. “The other thing was mapping the trail of destruction behind them [the characters], like the scene where Wanda pulls all of these cars out of the garage and tries to smash them down on Iron Man.  If you’re watching carefully you’ll see that’s when his shoulder gets dinged - when he is hit by Hawkeye’s arrow it leaves a little dent so throughout the course of our sequence, we were slowly tracking damage.”

One particularly amusing sequence involved Ant-Man getting transported with an assist from Hawkeye. “It’s a fun beat in the film where Ant-Man flies off of the arrow and ends up inside Iron Man’s suit,” notes Earl.  “Having come off of Ant-Man we had done a gag where Ant-Man goes into Falcon’s backpack. We wanted to do something different.  What would it be like if Ant-Man got inside this suit of armour?”

Working from the previs, the team created some initial artwork. Originally liquid was supposed to be flowing through suit. That idea proved impractical. According to Earl, “That didn’t make a ton of sense so we came up with this idea of, “What if it was this fire suppression system.” It was more like a gas that would fire and flush him out.  Ultimately, that is what we ended up doing.”

ILM plans to digitally clean-up Black Panther’s suit ultimately proved too expensive. A complete digital double was inevitable. “The actor’s body didn’t necessarily match those of the stunt performer, who also didn’t have the ideal super hero proportions,” notes Earl. “We made his helmet smaller, his chest bigger, and his waist narrower but at the end of the day the decision was made to go fully CG with Black Panther. It also became an opportunity to look again at the suit.”

For the suit, a decision was made to weave a special metal into the fabric. Says Earl, “Every fifth thread [of the suit] was Vibranium and it needed catch the right highlight.  We tried to play it so you would see a highlight in that weave in the close-up shots but in the wider ones the fabric pattern got filtered out so it would lose that detail.  We ended up having two or three looks so that when he was in wide shots we were rendering a different texture to avoid a wetsuit look.”

A new version of Spider-Man required a new version of his web-throwing. “We started early on knowing that the webs were going to be a huge part of Spider-Man’s character,” remarks Earl. “It comes out as liquid, hits, warms and congeals. It has some flexibility but also strength so he can shoot it and use it to pull things back.  We added to its physicality with extra aerosol and particulate bits.” A number of different departments helped produce the webbing. Earl continues, “Animation had a web rig that would drive where it would hit.  From there we would send it to our simulation team to get the right amount of flex and tension based on the timing from animation.  That simulation would get handed off to the effects team to give it the look. There was a bunch of artwork that we had from Todd McFarlane and prior films.  The web would shoot and you’d get a bit of spray which would be more liquidy when it came out - the main core was comprised of strands that ran down, wrapped with more of a barbed wiry type of piece, which came out through these separate patches like individual fingers.  We also had this connecting web.  It was always a balance of, ‘How specular is it and how wet does it appear versus how cottony it looks?’”

The appearance of Giant-Man was a fun moment in the film that made use of a technique developed for the shrinking of Ant-Man. Says Earl, “The ‘disco grow’ takes time stamps every other frame as he grows to sell that grow and give a silhouette. That was something that changed. It would depend on what the background was and if we were looking down at the ground or up into the bright sky.” There were no transformation problems associated with the costume unlike those associated with the Hulk.  “That for us was easier because you could do it in the actual effect.  Giant-Man is not fully 100 per cent materialized when he does the actual grow so you’re seeing snapshots of him and outlines. It’s more of an effect thing.  Once we had a couple of versions of his paint and displacement, whether he went from small to big or normal size to big you would still get a good amount of textural detail into things like his boots,” Earl explains.   

Besides the Airport Battle, ILM was responsible for creating a submersible prison known as The Raft, which appeared surrounded by a digital ocean. “We had one or two concepts, and then worked here internally with concept artists and pulled a bunch of reference,” Earl describes. “It is always important to me not to just put in details. They actually have to have a reason to be there. There is the walkway where they come out and can survey the ocean. All of that stuff gives it a sense of story and purpose.”  An interior set was physically constructed.  “The interior built on the exterior submarine look, which tied in some aspects of the set photography,” says Earl. “The lighting was different for the exterior than it was for the interior settings. It was flat lighting because of the stormy sea. Once we got inside we played it brighter.”

Additionally, the correctional facility had to be displayed in less than pristine condition.  “All of that stuff that we refer to as ‘oil canning’ goes to the details being purposeful,” says Earl. “Texturing was tricky. The Raft is black but we cheated a bit greyer. The rain was sheeting off of it in an overcast sky, creating a wet look.  We have one shot which is a more afternoon beauty shot, where it is sitting out on the ocean.”

Per the usual on multi-VFX vendor shows, assets were shared with other studios.  “Sharing became important, so we tried to keep the assets going and working in a general turntable environment,” explains Earl.  “We paint in Mari now which a lot of places do.  We built Iron Man and Black Panther, which were the two main hero characters that got passed on to other vendors.”  As always, rendering was an issue.   Earl notes, “The airport was massive. It was huge just to be able to get the shots rendered and out the door. We had a couple of people who spent their full time trying to optimize things.  There was a lot of glass and reflections.  There were simulations too such as Spider-Man’s web and the destruction.  In the end we had a lot of moving pieces.”  The scope and size of the Airport Battle made the project a huge undertaking. Earl concludes, “The challenge was to always make it look as if they are really at this airport having this battle when in reality every shot was a greenscreen shot. Ant-Man/Giant Man was fun as well as getting a chance to be involved with the new Spider-Man.”

Trevor Hogg's picture

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer best known for composing in-depth filmmaker and movie profiles for VFX Voice, Animation Magazine, and British Cinematographer.