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ILM’s VFX Help Marvel Studios ‘Wing It’ in ‘Black Widow’

The storied visual effects studio delivers 800 shots, tackling the high-octane opening small plane escape scenes, a Budapest shoot-out and car chase across the city, and the widows fight in villain Dreykov’s flying HQ, in Marvel Studios’ most recent MCU action-thriller.

The opening scene of Marvel Studios’ most recent MCU action-thriller Black Widow resembles something out of a 1980s Amblin film, with a teenage girl riding her bicycle through an American suburban neighbourhood, a far cry from the high-octane intros we’ve come to expect from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, it doesn’t take long for the story to shift gears when the girl’s family suddenly goes on the run, pursued by local authorities who’ve discovered her parents are actually Russian spies; their daring escape culminates with them flying off in a small plane with the patriarch firing a gun at their pursuers while strapped to one of the wings. Helping filmmaker Cate Shortland and Marvel Studios VFX Supervisor Geoffrey Baumann make this sequence a cinematic reality was ILM; the studio also dealt the Budapest Apartment fight, the subsequent motorcycle and car chase, as well as the widows ganging up on Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) in villain Dreykov’s (Ray Winstone) Red Room office.

“There was half an airplane rig on a biscuit driving platform out in London that had hydraulics and could lean over and right itself while it’s driving down the road,” explains ILM VFX Supervisor Craig Hammack, who oversaw the creation of 800 shots. “We had some elaborate practical effects that we took and finished out.”  Array footage was shot of various streets in Atlanta and along a dirt path running through a cornfield. “That footage was then taken over to a stage setup that had larger pitch LED screens which were for interactive lighting only.  It was invaluable for the moving reflections that you get across people in cars for the nighttime scenes.” Close-up shots were captured onstage of David Harbour as Alexei Shostakov hanging onto the wing of the aircraft firing at the police vehicles. “A lot of the opening scene had practical cars down to launching one off of a rig,” Hammack notes. “That was a visceral shoot where Rob Inch and his stunt team had a path planned out well.  We were able to establish what it was going to be and shoot it as old school as we could.  In a couple cases the vehicles were taken over in CG specifically at the end.”

For the Budapest sequences, ILM had a close relationship with the second unit, in particular director Darren Prescott and Visual Effects Supervisor Jesse James Chisholm.  “The mandate was for it to feel grounded and gritty,” remarks Hammack.  “It is a big endeavour whenever you have a scene that stretches across a city. You have to plan for the least amount of intrusive work that needs to be done on location.  We spent a month there shutting down major streets, having large scale special effects and stunt rigs, and running a camera array so we could take it back afterwards and do a series of complimentary and all CG shots that bring it together.”  Face replacements were applied to the stunt doubles.  “There were a couple [replacements] happened inside the apartment site and when Natasha and Yelena Belova [Florence Pugh] are on the motorcycle.” 

When they are reunited for the first time, Natasha and Yelena engage in a fierce hand-to-hand fight., “The kitchen had an elaborate wire rig and the rest was great choreographed fighting,” Hammack says.  “We had Scarlett and Florence do their parts against the stunt double of the other sister so that we had elements that editorial could cut with and we could use as reference for our face replacements.”  During that encounter, Natasha and Yelena are chased across the rooftop towards a massive smokestack.  “It was a stunt performer running across the majority of the roof mixed in with real action footage, with digital double takeovers once they get to the smokestack and crash through the window,” Hammack describes. “The chasing widow who falls down into the courtyard was a digital double.  That became an entirely recreated environment.  We had two thirds of a smokestack that was on a short track so it could move a certain distance away from the wall and tilt all the way over to the window, but not at full speed. In the end it was replaced 90 percent of time.”

For the chase through the streets of Budapest, Special Effects Supervisor Paul Corbould actually built a tank for the Taskmaster (Olga Kurylenko) to drive.   Digital cars were added to make the wide streets appear to be more dangerous and to better interact with the armoured vehicle.  “The only fully CG shot was when the arrow explodes underneath the car driven by Natasha,” reveals Hammack.  “The rest of the sequence was hybrids where we were adding in car destruction or tank impacts. There are a certain number of shots where its array footage back onstage and we’re doing close-ups of the actresses.”  At one point in the chase, a car door slams into a widow riding a motorcycle.  “There was a dead man’s cable on the bike that sent the stunt performer flying for real onto some pads.  They actually did the BMW 180 spin practically out on the streets in Budapest.  We did some of the backgrounds for the close-ups on Natasha and Yelena. The door that gets ripped off and the post that does the ripping were added digitally.  The bike and the stunt performer had to be taken over at a certain point to choreograph the action in a way they wanted it to playout.”   

What proved the most complex puzzle to solve was the widows attacking Natasha inside Dreykov’s office, which features a floor to ceiling screen tracking the whereabouts of every widow around the globe.  “They had a projector onset that would project a red line grid across the fighting widows,” Hammack explains.  “Some of that was salvageable but once you start putting real graphics on a display, the projections on the widows need to make sense.  We had to match move and match animating all the widows to reproject light back onto them.  Bombs are going off in the rest of the flying fortress, so dust is starting to fill the room and you need the projection lines to spell out this 3D space.  The widows start to shadow the projection lines and you have to shadow the actual projection.    A lot of graphic information is on the screen.  There are the projection lines, the particulates in the air, and the widows dressed in black being hit by this red light. It became this complicated spatial dance of trying to visually understand what’s going on.” 

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.