Lola VFX supervisor Trent Claus talks about capturing Paul Bettany’s performance as Vision in Marvel’s latest blockbuster movie.
Having worked with Marvel on eight of their previous ten movies may have made the decision easier to bring Lola VFX on board Avengers: Age of Ultron, but it certainly didn’t make the project itself any easier. “We have a fantastic relationship with Marvel,” says Lola VFX supervisor Trent Claus. “In particular, we worked closely with Chris Townsend [VFX supervisor] on the first Captain America, developing the look of ‘Skinny Steve.’” That creative partnership was renewed for Avengers: Age of Ultron with the Los Angeles-based visual effects studio handling 100 shots. “Chris felt that our unique methodologies would work well in creating the character of Vision [played by Paul Bettany]. Much like Skinny Steve [played by Chris Evans], Vision required a drastic alteration of the actor’s appearance without sacrificing any of his performance,” Claus explains. “Often times working on something like this [Vision], you do an extended period of R&D trying to find just the right look of the character. Even when the final look has yet to be determined, Chris [Townsend] is good about providing specific ideas and directions he would like us to pursue. Our in-house producer Allison Paul did an excellent job maintaining an open line of communication with Chris and his team that allowed us to respond quickly to his directions.”
While Lola’s work on Vision’s face certainly built upon their extensive face replacement experience, it required an entirely new creative methodology. The goal was to preserve all of Paul Bettany’s in-camera performance while building the look and design of Vision over the top of the actor. Highly detailed facial textures and 3D adjustments were required. As Claus describes, “Vision was challenging in that he’s not human nor completely a robot, but rather something in-between. We were tasked with defining a look for him that fell into that indefinable middle ground in terms of materials and textures, and the way they interact with his environment. Chris was looking for an otherworldly quality to him while also maintaining his realness – quite a combination!”
To emphasize his robotic nature, the easier route would have been to go with a full CG character. But Paul Bettany is such a nuanced and emotive actor that his performance and humanity would have been lost. Vision’s face and skin are an intricate system of plates, layers, valleys, and machined edges that would have been impossible to create practically. Lola’s solution involved creating a 3D under-structure over the top of Paul Bettany’s skin to define shape and lighting cues. They created the illusion of the textures, plates, and skin surfaces in compositing.
“The biggest challenge was that his skin and metal alloy components had to always maintain an ‘indefinable’ quality,” says Claus. “The material should never be ‘skin’ or ‘aluminum’ for example, but should always be something in-between. To achieve this, our lead compositor Brian Hajek employed a complex workflow of removing the actor’s surface texture and imperfections while maintaining his defining features. He then created a new surface that had qualities of both skin and a more synthetic material like plastic. Underneath, a subsurface glow was added to not only accentuate the subsurface scattering of the human skin, but to give a bit of an otherworldly quality as well. Our 3D team created a scene and object track for every shot [PFtrack and Syntheyes], then rotomated Paul’s movements with our model and rig created with Maya and Zbrush. Each shot was then lit and textured by our 3D supervisor Carlos Fueyo. The shaders were created in Maya, always striving to maintain the goal of indefinable materials.”
“Our composing team combined the lighting and textural elements from 3D with their own surface treatments, animation, and particle effects to create the final look of Vision,” continues Claus. “Back in the development stage, we worked with production to try a few different varieties of practical makeup and prosthetics, trying to find the combination that worked best for our compositors. We settled on a reddish skin paint with a mid-level reflectiveness, and a large number of tracking markers to help us duplicate Paul’s facial expressions in the design work. Additionally, there was a helmet prosthetic applied in order to help define the shape of the design and provide lighting information. As the prosthetics are additive in nature, our compositing team then clean-plated the in-camera work off of his face so that we could have full control over the shape of Vision’s silhouette. While applying our skin treatments, the compositors also removed certain overtly human aspects, such as replacing his eyelids and removing his eyelashes.”
Vision’s eyes, like the rest of him, are a mixture of human and machine. “Our matte painter Rob Olsson created a few dozen concepts of what that mixture should look like,” says Claus. “He created one in particular that had a series of concentric layers around the iris that were made of circuitry and some mechanical elements. I thought that if I broke the layers apart in compositing and added some clockwork movement between them, I could mimic a dilating camera diaphragm. This movement would allow us to re-introduce some life to the eyeballs through animation. The combination of the new synthetic eyeballs and the animation allowed us to achieve the right mixture of human and non-human elements.”
“In addition to Vision’s head and face, we also worked on his suit to make it an extension of Vision’s body,” remarks Claus. “Vision is not actually wearing clothes, but instead he creates them from within, so his suit should fit impossibly well and react to his movements in ways that don’t necessarily mesh with reality. Additionally, we contributed a number of background replacements and green screen effects.”
Claus is pleased with the cinematic end result. “We’re all excited to see Vision come to life! Our final Vision look merges synthetic qualities with human expressiveness and performance in such a way that has never been done before. We’re proud to have contributed to Avengers: Age of Ultron, and grateful to have had the opportunity to help create such a unique character for the screen.”
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.