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ILM Revs Up the ‘Avengers’ Action with Hulk v. Hulkbuster

Industrial Light & Magic helps Iron Man handle The Incredible Hulk with a new armoured suit in Marvel’s ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron.’

All images © Marvel 2015.

One of the most popular, and difficult, Avengers to create is The Incredible Hulk. ILM took his look and capabilities to an even greater level of complexity in Marvel’s new feature, Avengers: Age of Ultron.  That includes the introduction of the Hulkbuster robotic armour, a Tony Stark creation brought out in case a truly unruly Hulk needs “handling.”  But before the new Hulk could be handled, he had to be rebuilt. “We felt like we had a good place to start with from what was achieved with the Hulk in the first Avengers film,” states ILM VFX supervisor Ben Snow, who was determined to improve upon the previous raging green superhero.  The process began by re-examining the physiology of how the Hulk’s muscles would move. A series of exercises was devised for the stand-in bodybuilder, who was filmed with three cameras.  Snow explains, “We took him aside for a few hours, having him lift his arms in all sorts of calisthenics positions that we might normally use to test an animation rig.  We studied how the muscles move under the skin and how they tensed.  Creature TD Sean Comer proposed coming up with a new approach to the way we did our muscle simulations; he was assisted by creature TD Abs Jahromi and creature model supervisor Lana Lan.  In the past we would usually build the outside surface of the creature and then back engineer the muscles underneath to add dynamics and jiggle.  This time, we studied CAT scan data and talked to college professors about how muscles change their forms as characters go into different poses.  We built a detailed underlying muscle system that had a lot of the characteristics of the outer skin so that we could then ride the outer skin on top of those muscles in a different way than what we had done it before. [In the end] We completely rebuilt the Hulk at about double the resolution.”

“We ended up with three layers of simulation,” continues Snow.  “You had the underlying muscles that were animated, then you had a fleshy layer on top of those which were a 3D mesh, and then you had a 2D skin mesh that could move back and forth across these underlying surfaces, that was attached to a bunch of little springs. It was quite a complex system but it meant that the subtleties we saw with the bodybuilder were able to come through with our final creature.  In the Ang Lee film [Hulk (2003)] and The Avengers we had to have modellers go in after animation and do a lot of work to pull the Hulk back onto models so he still looked like the Hulk and didn’t drift off somewhere else.  That would sometimes change the animation, so we would have to go into these big loops to try to fix that.  This new system and the way we approached the Hulk this time meant we didn’t have to do that.  We were able to get a better performance and make it more accurate to what Mark [Ruffalo, who played the Hulk] was doing, and what the animators and Joss Whedon [the film’s director] wanted.”

For authenticity the green skin of the Hulk had to have some translucency. “Subsurface scattering is still a good approximation,” observes Snow.  “You have to do a lot of work to make it accurate, to look something like a human.  Sometimes people will underestimate things like bones. A ray of light isn’t going to penetrate and scatter as much when it’s running into a bony surface as when it hits the back of your ear or nose.  We spent a lot of time studying that and one of the first challenges that we had was in the Hulk Buster Sequence.  We started with this gonzo Hulk which Joss likened to someone strung out on drugs; his veins are popping out, his eyes are bloodshot and he has sweat rolling all over him. This was actually a good thing for us because it allowed us to use that detail to add realism to the Hulk.  This was one of the first things we had to do for the film - we were able to roll some of that back into the normal Hulk as well. We were in a position to transfer exactly what Mark Ruffalo did in his performance, which was also applicable for some of the emotional scenes with Scarlett Johansson [who played Black Widow].  For the action scenes, when he is throwing around cars, Joss felt he had defined the Hulk’s character based on the first Avengers film and wanted to keep what was fun about him from that film.”

A dramatically different suit also makes a debut in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – the Hulkbuster, which Tony Stark dons in his fight to get an enraged Hulk under control. “That sequence was challenging but fun to work because the Hulkbuster has been in the comic books but we haven’t seen it in the films,” says Snow.  “We spent a few weeks down in Johannesburg, South Africa and shot a bunch of plates. The city was great in putting up with us closing off streets.  We shot a fair bit of stuff onset like the cars, people and crowds.  We had some prop pieces to help us with the lighting for Hulk and the Hulkbuster.  We set-off some explosions but all of the damage that the characters do to the city we had to add in later with CG. There was some challenging stuff with simulations of them tearing up the road and smashing into buildings.”

The Hulk punches with the force of a runaway freight train.  As Snow explains, “Some of the art development and testing we did was to visualize when the Hulk punches Hulkbuster.  It’s like two immovable objects smashing into each other.  We ended up developing a hybrid 2D/3D shockwave that sets off car alarms and smashes glass.”  A complication occurred during the DI process.  As Snow describes, “The Hulk Buster Fight had a heavy post-production colour tweak which made it a lot more yellow.   If you put green under the yellow, the colour is going to go odd so we had to compensate for how the Hulk was going to look in the final movie.”


Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer best known for composing in-depth filmmaker and movie profiles for sites such as the CGSociety, 3DTotal, Live for Films and Flickering Myth; he is a big fan of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Batman: The Animated Series, The Hobbit, Studio Ghibli, and Peter Weir.

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.