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Precision Warfare: The Third Floor Visualizes ‘Captain America: Civil War’

TTF previs and postvis supervisors Gerardo Ramirez and Austin Bonang discuss key fight sequence visualization efforts on Marvel’s hit superhero feature.

As tentpole films grow ever more visually sophisticated and expensive, visualization – previs, postvis, techvis – become increasingly important disciplines, providing vital prototyping tools that can enable clearer, more coherent and efficient storytelling, production planning and implementation across every area of filmmaking. When a major action sequence begins with a simple script line that says, “A great battle ensues,” some combination of visualization can’t be far behind.

The Third Floor, one of the industry’s leading visualisation companies, is often brought in by the producers of many of the world’s biggest and most complex VFX-driven feature films - given the scope and complexity of visual effects required for Captain America: Civil War, it’s no surprise The Third Floor got the call.

Their workload was divided between previs and postvis supervisor Gerardo Ramirez and previs supervisor Austin Bonang.  “My team was based in Atlanta and then moved with production to the studio lot after filming. Austin’s team was headquartered in Los Angeles,” notes Ramirez.  “Some of the work from my team included the Bucky and Panther Rooftop Fight and Helicopter Escape in Berlin. Austin’s team covered Lagos and the United Nations as well as character movement tests.”

The teams shared work on some of the bigger sequences, such as the Airport Battle and Final Fight. “For the sequences we collaborated on, we would split up the sequence into fight beats,” Ramirez explains. “For example, in the Airport Battle, Austin's team would work on a group of shots that involved a certain set of characters fighting, and my team would work on another group of shots that involved another group of characters in a different area of the airport. This method allowed each team to explore ideas without affecting the action and layout of the other team.”

Collaboration between the directors, overall VFX supervisor, other key production leaders and the previs team was essential. “The work on this show was incredibly collaborative,” shares Ramirez. “Directors Anthony and Joe Russo would come and sit with us, along with visual effects supervisor Dan DeLeeuw, the producers, writers, stunt coordinators and other contributors. The directors were open to ideas and input from across the teams to make the movie absolutely the best it could be.  On a day-to-day basis we worked most closely with the visual effects department. Dan would review the previs edits, update us on new ideas and discuss upcoming sequences. Dan really knew the directors’ style and what they were looking for design and story-wise.”

Ramirez goes on to note that beyond creating action-scene previs, his team created technical previs, or techvis, that helped in laying out the logistics of the shoots, as well as postvis duties in support of editorial. “We worked closely with second unit visual effects supervisor Swen Gillberg to devise plans, based on the previs, that were detailed and accurate for positioning cameras and stunts in some of the more complicated shots.  When filming wrapped, The Third Floor’s team continued to work with the directors, visual effects supervisor and film editors during post-production, where our postvis artists collaborated closely with the editor to help fill in CG elements with the live-action photography.”

Part of the TTF teams’ effectiveness was their ability to work quickly, using well-tested tools and a production pipeline that could handle the workload and tight production scheduling demands. “We used The Third Floor's standard previs pipeline on this project: Autodesk Maya for modeling, rigging, animation and rendering; Adobe Photoshop for texturing; After Effects for the compositing of previs and postvis shots; and PFTrack during postvis to track the live-action plates,” explains Ramirez.  “When creating assets, we would receive information from various departments.  The visual development team would provide concept art for the characters, the art department would give us set designs and the location department would send reference images and survey data for the filming locations. Our asset team would then build and rig the models in Maya. There were occasions where we were tasked to do concepts for props and vehicles. Black Panther's jet was a good example of this, where we presented several 3D concepts that were then refined by the visual effects vendor.”

The airport fight was one of the most challenging sequences due to its sheer scale and amount of characters involved. “In visualizing the fight we had to consider the motive and goal that each character had. Black Panther was out for revenge, Vision was trying to calm the situation, Spider-Man was out to prove himself while Captain’s mission was to get Bucky out of there.  Early on in that sequence, we brainstormed cool action beats that could happen between the characters. We took the best ideas and created short animated fight beats. Then we incorporated the directors’ favorite fights into the previs of the sequence,” Ramirez describes.

Ant-Man transforming himself into a 50-foot being was a highlight. Ramirez continues, “The Giant Man Fight became my favourite scene in the movie and the most gratifying scene to work on because it was almost completely composed of actions we prevised and had a hand in developing. The final shots match closely to the shot layout and animation in the previs layout. Plus, it was extremely fun animating a character of that scale.”

The film’s final battle was also particularly difficult to plan. “The final battle was also quite challenging in terms of the sheer number of characters and logistics,” remarks Ramirez.  “Each beat needed a cause and effect – a way for characters to get from point A to point B in a way that made sense. The start of the fight takes place in a large cryo-chamber, which the production department built as a very large and impressive practical set. About a third of the way through the fight, the action moves into a vertical missile silo, which was a challenging environment because virtually every direction looked the same and the shots and flow of action could easily become confusing without careful shot design.”

All of the combatants appear together in one shot as the battle commences. “The Splash Panel scene was by far the most difficult in terms of staging, logistics and flow.  Here, a bunch of superheroes – some of whom often use deadly weaponry to defeat their enemies – now have to fight each other. Visualizing ways to keep the stakes high without making it look like they were actually trying to kill each other was something we looked at a lot through the previs,” says Ramirez.

“One of the first things we did with Dan was to pair off the heroes,” adds Bonang.  “We tried to imagine the best, most different combinations.  For example, ‘What would it look like if Wanda had to fight Black Panther?’  Another aspect visualized in previs was how to bridge from one fight to the next and weave heroes in and out from one fight to another, switching their opponents all while keeping the main directive of the two teams intact. The Russos like to have clear rules for every super power.  Vision can go super dense or become the consistency of air. When Vision is dense, he's also slow and heavy. When Vision is light, he can fly but can't fight.  So part of the process was exploring ways to best utilize the strengths and weaknesses of every hero.  Throughout the movie, we collaborated on this type of work, which previs might not be conventionally known for, but can be really helpful.”

The directors discussed early on that they wanted to experience the movie from the characters’ perspective. “The directors wanted the audience to be ‘in’ the fight, so in the previs we used camera angles and lenses that put you in the action. We used a lot of handheld angles near the characters and limited high or wide angles that took you away from the action,” Ramirez notes.

In addition to assisting with mapping out story beats and camera placements, The Third Floor was also tasked with developing the movements and fighting styles of two new figures in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  “As this would be the film introduction of Black Panther, we were among the first to be tasked with exploring ways he would move and fight.  We did many animation tests based on parkour videos, stunt performers, dancers and martial artists to find a distinctive style that captured the look of power a panther has while still being a man walking on two legs.  For Spider-Man, the Russos had a specific style in mind. The character needed to be agile but still ‘rough around the edges’ as he's still fairly new to his powers.”

Captain America: Civil War was my seventh Marvel film and over the course of the past several years I've worked closely with these heroes as they’ve taken on various enemies,” Ramirez concludes. “It was a fun contrast working on scenes where they battled among themselves.”

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.