Dneg VFX supervisor Alex Wuttke talks lighting, camera arrays and macro photography on Marvel’s latest superhero movie.
To realistically render the world inhabited by the insect-sized superhero in Marvel’s latest hit, Ant-Man, Double Negative relied upon a tool they developed years ago, Jigsaw, which was indispensable in assembling key reference material. “Jigsaw manages and processes large image data sets,” Double Negative visual effects supervisor Alex Wuttke explains. “The big problem that we had capturing the photographic environments for Ant-Man was due to the nature of macro photography. You’re dealing with razor thin depth of field. The way through that is this idea of focus bracketing whereby you pull focus through an image and at each different step along that pull you get a slice of the image that is sharp.”
For Ant-Man, Jigsaw was modified to recognize and combine the slices into a complete image. “I travelled to Atlanta and was embedded within the macro photography unit. We had a Dneg workstation on the stage loaded up with Jigsaw and three special camera rigs that we used to do the photography. We ended up providing stitched and sharp panoramas to all of the various facilities that were involved in the production,” Wuttke adds.
Outside of this photographic technical support Dneg was responsible for the First Ant-Man Suit Experience Sequence. “The brief for that was it needed to feel epic and huge from his perspective,” states Wuttke, who had to deal with Scott Lang [Paul Rudd] standing in a white porcelain bathtub. “We spent a lot of time developing the look of the tub in terms of getting the lighting to work properly and then all of the nuances of the caustics of light that bounce between the surfaces.” A tap gets turned on while Ant-Man is inside the tub. “We looked at macro scale photography of water surfaces, and how they warp and move from that kind of scale. There’s a lot of surface tension. It ended up being a huge amount of water. The simulation work for that was heavy,” he continues.
Once Ant-Man gets out of the tub he ends up falling through cracks in a floorboard. “As we made the transition from this bright bathroom into a quite dark space in-between the floorboards we opened up the digital camera iris to let more virtual light in. Generally when there’s a single light source we make sure that’s the brightest thing and we bounce the light around as much as possible to get some visibility going on down there,” Wuttke notes. “There’s a shot where Ant-Man gets sucked in and spat out of a Hoover bag. Whenever we have a transition from one environment to another we’ll do a subtle iris pull to help ease you into a different lighting environment.” Along with surviving a rave dance party, Ant-Man has an encounter with rodent in a hallway. “Production covered a rat with coconut oil to make it look all greasy but didn’t get quite the performance they wanted so ended up doing a CG one. It’s a towering rat so the detail levels there had to be immense,” Wuttke adds.
Dneg was also involved with Scott’s First Flight, which is where Ant-Man takes a ride on the back of a flying ant through the streets of San Francisco. “For that we shot a lot of plates out in Atlanta doubling as San Francisco across an array of cameras which were mounted onto a Russian Arm that was driven up and down a series of streets. At one point Ant-Man and the flying ant he is riding on are on the back of a police car with the sirens flashing. Ant-Man transitions off and ends up in a cable car which had regular tires so we had to replace the wheels and lay some track down,” Wuttke says. Ant-Man and his airborne steed do not get lost in the frame despite the urban setting. “Most of the time the camera is with Ant-Man and the flying ant so they are relatively large in frame. However, what that means is everything around them, such as the details of that police car, has to standout and it has to look huge. We ended up building a CG police car with all of the inherent detail that you would see at that scale as a base. Then we would take the CG police car with Ant-Man and the flying ant riding along it and drop that over one of these stitched array plates for the moving background,” Wuttke continues.
Wuttke’s team also handled the Helicopter Fight, when the audience first meets Yellowjacket, played by Corey Stoll. “Yellowjacket ended up being a fully CG creation,” remarks Wuttke about Ant-Man’s adversary and battle that sees the two switch back and forth from macro-size into human size. “When they go tiny we ended up doing quite a few crash zooms to try and find them within the environment. Those ended up becoming a staple for those situations when we are travelling from tiny to the large and then back to the tiny again.” The fight continues inside a falling briefcase. “Everything inside of the briefcase is tumbling around is this zero-g environment and is being lit by an iPhone touch screen,” Wuttke adds. “The tough part was the choreography of the lighting because you have this one motivated light source insider the briefcase which is constantly tumbling and moving around. But at the same time you want to be able to see the characters battling it out inside the briefcase. We had to come up with some elegant integrated bits of animation to make sure that the phone screen rotates around the characters inside the briefcase. You have to keep it locked on the characters. We did a lot of creative work of bouncing light off surfaces to keep the characters silhouetted.”
The film’s final battle proved even more complex. “Early on we went along to have a look at the set they were building for Cassie’s [Ant-Man’s daughter played by Abby Ryder Fortson] room to see what would be involved. There was a huge amount of complexity to the room, which had been dressed with a scattering of toys and little faerie lights up on the walls,” Wuttke recounts. “We were going to have to rebuild it entirely in CG so we spent three straight weeks of macro photography within that room. The goal was that we should be able to put the characters and the camera anywhere we wanted in this room and be ensured that we would get all of the detail that we needed out of the CG.” Fighting occurs on and around a Thomas the Tank Engine train set. “When you’re down at that scale we wanted to make sure that every time the train goes over a little bump in the track, it was amplified,” Wuttke notes. Additionally, the explosions needed to look realistic. “We wanted to keep things true to scale so we could only use a tiny charge on the toys. We shot them exploding against blue screen and with a Phantom Flex running at a 1000 fps,” he adds.
Dneg built the Ant-Man digital double based on the practical suit used in filming. “We took our photogrammetry setup that we call Photobooth down to Atlanta and had Paul Rudd in the suit running through a whole series of photography sessions. It’s an array of cameras which are surrounding the actor and we shoot cross-polarized photography which gives us texture and reflection information but also gives us geometric information on the back of it. That was like a body scanner and an equivalent facial one as well,” Wuttke explains. The situation was different regarding the digital double for Yellowjacket. “They didn’t build a practical suit so there was more look development work involved in that one,” Wuttke continues. “We did a lot of backwards and forwards with Marvel. We studied things like ballistic nylon and Kevlar with a slightly more futuristic look than Ant-Man, who is quite retro. We made sure that there were seams and stitch points so that the whole suit felt constructed even if it had to be constructed in a high tech fashion.”
Lighting the two suits was tricky. “When the suit of Ant-Man gets lit by a bright light source he almost goes silvery, so you get these hot metallic pings off of his suit which gives you a good read on him,” Wuttke remarks. “Yellowjacket was slightly tougher because his suit is predominately black but it does have these amber and yellow panels which we played around with their refractive index, so you always get a strong read on his silhouette so you can pick him out at a distance as well.” The Disco Trail effect helped the audience to keep track of the whereabouts of our tiny protagonist. “Ant-Man leaves little time echoes of his poses hanging in space as he shrinks and the camera dives through them. That was the aesthetic we pulled through into production and it stuck. It was a useful technique for telegraphing motion as well,” Wuttke adds.
According to Wuttke, adding to the cinematic realism of Ant-Man was the decision to exercise restraint within the digital realm. “We wanted to avoid cliché CG camera moves so wherever possible we would try to emulate the camera work with some practical mechanism for how you would move the camera around. We had some aerial shots where we emulated helicopter footage, and also had dolly and crane shots.”
“The biggest challenge for us was in terms of the environments and making sure that it didn’t feel like a Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” Wuttke concludes. “I’m looking forward to seeing the first suit experience in 3D. That’s going to be quite the ride. I’m excited to see the Cassie Bedroom Fight for sheer entertainment value. Having come from being a big fan of things, like Toy Story, to be able to do that but within the confines of an action movie was a huge amount of fun for everyone involved.”
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.