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The Third Floor Helps Visualize ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’

Supervisor Gerardo Ramirez discusses key facets of The Third Floor’s previs, postvis and techvis efforts on Marvel’s latest superhero blockbuster.

Tentpole films keep getting more sophisticated, as do filmmaker’s efforts to visualize and plot out their stories virtually before committing tens of millions of dollars to expensive onset shoots and VFX production. Assisting many of today’s top action-adventure filmmakers in that process is The Third Floor, one of the industry’s most prolific and successful firms specializing in previs, postvis and techvis.

Fresh off his successful run as overall previs/postvis supervisor on Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, The Third Floor’s Gerardo Ramirez took some time to speak with AWN about his company’s extensive work on the film.

Dan Sarto: How and when did you guys got involved on this film? What was the initial scope of the work and what were your project goals?

Gerardo Ramirez: The Third Floor has had the great opportunity to work on a number of Marvel projects, including The Avengers as well as Thor: The Dark WorldIron Man 3Thor and some scenes for Guardians of the Galaxy.   

For pre-production and post-production, the previs team was set up with the rest of Marvel’s production team at Shepperton Studios in the UK with another team working on postvis at The Third Floor’s Los Angeles studio. For post-production, the postvis team worked with the production team in Santa Monica and on the Disney lot in Burbank.  I served as overall previs/postvis supervisor, with Shannon Justison and Patrick Haskew as co-supervisors. 

The main goal for previs was to support the filmmakers in exploring and developing ideas for the main action sequences as well as to provide technical breakdowns of key shots to aid with actual filming. The Third Floor’s head of virtual production, Casey Schatz, was extensively involved, traveling to South Africa and Italy to do techvis on location as well as configuring and running virtual camera sessions to explore sets and work out blocking and technical needs. 

DS: What can you share about some of the main scenes you handled? 

GR: There were several key sequences for previs.  One of these is the “tie-in” shot at the beginning of the movie that travels from character to character.  Here, it was important to figure out what each character was doing, what the main action beats were and, through techvis, look at ways to film the action by seaming together different types of cameras and rigs to capture the scene. 

The Party Fight, where Ultron Mark One takes over Tony Stark's Legionnaire Robots and uses them against the Avengers inside the Avengers Tower, was extensively prevised and postvised.  Casey’s team also ran a setup that allowed James Spader’s motion capture and dialogue performance to be tracked to the CG Ultron character and then framed up from different camera angles. 

The scene in South Africa where Iron Man uses his new Hulkbuster suit to fight Hulk focuses on two fully CG characters and was thus heavily prevised.  The previs team worked with Joss [Whedon, the director], second unit director John Mahaffie and VFX supervisor Chris Townsend to develop a tight previs version.  This gave the production team a framework to reference when they filmed the plates in Johannesburg. 

Another major scene is the fight inside the grounded freighter tanker ship.  This scene was previsualized and technical measurements were calculated to support the extensive stunt and CG performances.  Casey and the second unit shooting team did a lot of blocking for this scene, capturing motion capture with the stunt team, calculating measurements for props and positions and then allowing variations of the action and camera to be “filmed” virtually before the scene was ultimately shot. 

A truck chase and train sequence in Korea featuring Captain America, Hawkeye and Widow was also a large task that benefitted from previs as well as detailed planning by stunts and special effects.  Work by Casey’s team included exploring crane and other camera moves, studying location logistics, and even plotting out a virtual clock to determine best times of day to shoot.  This sequence also included a number of stunts that were supported through virtual production and previs planning. 

In the train fight, Casey worked with the second shooting unit to rehearse and block the action on the motion capture stage. Of course, the movie’s final battle presented the sheer challenge of visualizing the flow of the action and how the characters would fight. 

Postvis, where we track previs, characters or other elements into the live-shot plates, touched almost every sequence, including Opening Battle, Party Fight, Freighter Fight, Hulk vs. Hulkbuster, Korea Chase, Birth of Vision and final fight scenes.  At this stage, we worked closely with the editors and would time the action of the digital characters and effects to the pacing of the edit. 

We also did significant amounts of techvis on the show. Within sequences that had been previs’d, several shots would be selected and our techvis artists would use The Third Floor’s custom tools and templates to create diagrams that would give the client essential camera information and measurements. During additional photography, we could also analyze an already existing plate and calculate the camera information so a new element could be filmed.

DS: What were some of the main challenges you faced on this project?

GR: The “tie-in” shot was very challenging but also a very rewarding shot. It’s probably the most complicated shot, where in the final result we follow all of the characters through the opening battle.  The challenge was to design an exciting, continuous shot that was also achievable on film.  We worked closely with the second unit director to work out the mechanics and would adjust our previs to the desired camera rigs and setups.  The previs process on that shot spanned several months as the story and design of the shot evolved. Postvis for the scene was also challenging, as we needed to take multiple plates shot at various speeds and composite them into a single shot that maintained the tone and excitement of the previs version that Joss liked.  

The Party Fight was also an interesting scene in that there was a lot of fast action to be previsualized, but other parts were very centered on acting performances and dialogue. Motion capture with James Spader was done together with the dialogue lines to create an integrated, realistic performance for Ultron.  On set, the actor was able to view the performance tracked in real time to his CG counterpart and, after the performance was locked, the filmmakers had the flexibility to explore the scene for potential coverage angles using Casey’s virtual camera setup.

DS: Did you develop or employ any new tools or technical innovations on this project?

GR: We recorded motion capture for previs using the Moven system as well as with The Imaginarium Studios motion capture company. Imaginarium set up a capture stage at Shepperton where we were able to work with the stunt team, Joss, Chris and John to choreograph action beats that would later be applied to the previs and postvis. 

Casey operated a virtual camera system at the Shepperton office where the filmmakers could lay out cameras for our pre-animated action beats and explore angles and ideas prior to going on location. They could also block the scenes or stunts directly on the mocap stage and then essentially “film” the results with our vcam system and MotionBuilder. 

They additionally utilized the system to do virtual scouts of the sets, both real locations and sets that were being constructed. 

DS: Any particular lessons learned on this film that you plan on applying to your next project?

GR: A film of this magnitude could only have been achieved by the massive effort and collaboration that each department put into this project.  The previs team worked closely with the art, visual effects, stunts, second unit, special effects and editorial departments.  By collaborating with the stunts team on the motion capture stage, the previs team was able to quickly visualize an action sequence and this allowed the stunt team to see their stunts play out with the fully CG characters.

DS: What was the most fulfilling aspect of the work you and your team did on this film?

GR: One of the great joys of working on this film was experiencing such openness for creativity.  The director, producers and VFX supervisor supported exploration of ideas for shots, fights, designs and effects.  They believed that if you have a great idea, it should have the opportunity to make it into the film, and a lot of those ideas did.


Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.