VFX supervisor Greg Steele talks about bringing ants, wasps and a tiny superhero to the big screen in Marvel’s new action adventure.
On Marvel Studios’ latest superhero feature, Ant-Man, Method Studios, led by visual effects supervisor Greg Steele, was charged with populating the film’s macro world with insects imbued with personality while maintaining a photorealistic look. “The Marvel creatives were nervous of people being turned off by the ants. What we wanted to do was give the insects more of a visual appeal,” notes Steele. “The first thing to go were all of the nasty thorny hairs all over the ant’s body, which were replaced with peach fuzz. Next were their mannerisms and how they moved. We did a range of tests early on when developing the vignettes. When Ant-Man is shown at small scale, time slows down so that the ants don’t appear too frenetic. We treated them almost like puppy dogs. The cute behaviour went over well.”
Lighting was adjusted to compensate for compound insect eyes under the direction of Marvel Studios visual effects supervisor Jake Morrison. “Jake had a good idea in the beginning, which was to try and use hero lighting to get a bling or specular hit off the front [of an ant] that could infer the direction of the gaze,” explains Steele. “Jake found some great reference of Hematite stone, which he felt has similarity to the ants’ outer shell in terms of its specular response and shine. So, we implemented a layered shader. You would get a hard hot core in the center of the hit and then a broad surface specular reaction. We also ended up doing some work with the subsurface scattering inside the bodies of these creatures. There was a heated metal and magical quality to it which helped to take off the nasty insect edge.”
The proportions and colours of the various ants were altered to help distinguish the different species. According to Steele, “The Bullet Ant is the big brute and they’re much larger than Ant-Man. The Carpenter Ants [Antony the flying ant is a larger winged version] have a slightly bluish tonality that complimented well with the orange subsurface. Smaller than those would be the Fire Ants, which are the engineers of the group. They all work together and build things like rafts. With the Fire Ants we tried to amp up what was already in their nature, which is this vibrant red colour. The Crazy Ants are a puppy like size and have a golden colour.”
Dealing effectively with the macro world also meant Method had to add considerable intricacy to the film’s digital environments, such as when Scott Lang (played by Paul Rudd) is training to become Ant-Man. “There was a huge amount of extra detail,” notes Steele. “You look at a small surface in a room and say, ‘There’s not much going on.’ But when you get down to that macro level you see layers of complexity. When you look at sand it looks like small units of stones but through a microscope everything is different. There are these small shells and unique crystals. We took the same approach with the soil in the backyard of Hank Pym’s [played by Michael Douglas] house. We did a lot of photography of small scale dirt. Nothing is just a rock. Everything has a translucent or reflective quality to it. We tried to implement all of that into the shaders and models that we put together to build the tunnel environments.”
A particular cinematic moment comes to mind for Steele. “There was one scene where Scott escapes from the police station and jumps off a curb. It’s hero asphalt and a bunch of ants waiting for him, then Antony flies in. There were tons of particulates that we put on the ground along with leaves, a pop can and some match heads to give it some extra scale. The second we put on the depth of field and added some flying dust mites everything became alive and real.”
Lighting the ant tunnels required a lot of improvising. “We always tried to have some distant tunnel where it ends with some light cheating in from a downward angle,” reveals Steele. “It didn’t have to feel like it was coming directly from the sun but the light might have bounced around the tunnels a couple of times before it got down to these areas. We did play with little shafts of light here and there, which allowed us to silhouette Ant-Man or highlight things. When Ant-Man first meets the Crazy Ants they are coming in and out of a light that bounces off the ground and illuminates the rest of the tunnel.”
Ant-Man’s adversary is known as Yellowjacket, and he’s first revealed through a series of magnified lenses. “We were trying to figure out a way to make multiple lenses stack up almost like when you go to an ophthalmologist to get your eyes checked,” says Steele. “But based on the design of the pod and the time for the shot we didn’t have tons of time or real estate to hide these lenses. We ended up going for a zoom lens quality and added some magnification markers on the outside of the pod.”
Method also handled a flashback sequence involving a de-aged Michael Douglas. “We did the flashback sequence with a young Michael Douglas flying on the side of a Russian missile headed towards New York City with Wasp coming in to help him. They work together to try and disarm it when she goes subatomic,” remarks Steele. “It was originally 30 shots but ended up being about 11. For the most part it stayed consistent to that storyline. It was just a matter of tidying up the performances and beats. Peyton Reed [the film’s director] and Jake were able to come down and setup over at Disney while they were in post-production. They had some stages there and we did some motion-capture with some performers. It was an exploration in trying to find the right time of day, the quality of the missile surface, what clouds they are passing, understanding where they are, making sure you could see what was happening and still sell that they are super small.”
As one of several vendors handling visual effects on the film, Method had to share ant assets with other studios. “We built things in a clean way that would be fairly easily to reproduce and wrote some documentation as to how we were getting a certain look,” states Steele. “Every vendor uses slightly different combinations of software and renderers. Traditionally you would do a turntable that rotates around and you can judge it from different angles.” The routine approach did not work considering the intricacies of the subsurface scattering and specular lighting. “We would get certain frames that looked fairly good but everything else looked like technical rendering,” Steele continues. “We took some plates they had shot early on, put some ant animation together and made vignettes - for example, two Crazy Ants interacting with each other. Jake wanted us to roto it out into layers so that the other vendors could see how they were working together.”
“The biggest challenge was dealing with the unique one off nature of a lot of stuff that we were doing,” notes Steele. “One offs would come up and we would have to put some concept art together, work it out, give the Marvel creatives some options, they would maybe combine one or two images together, and we’d move forward.” For Steele and his Method team, Ant-Man was a fun and collaborative project. “We were all working towards one goal but occasionally someone would make a decision that was different from what we were originally thinking and it made the results that much better,” he concludes. Steele, who is currently working on Captain America: Civil War, adds, “I saw an early cut of Ant-Man back when everything was in blocking mode. It’s exciting to see all of the other vendors’ work. I’d seen bits here and there in some of the edits we were given. It’s a cool film.”
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.