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June 24
2018

ISSUE

Summer 2018

How THE AVENGERS’ Super Powers Became Even More Super

By IAN FAILES

The cataclysmic ending of Avengers: Infinity War sees the apparent loss of several key characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe at the hands of Thanos. Leading up to that moment, a number of the Avengers try, in vain, to take on the villain on his home planet of Titan.

Weta Digital handled these Titan scenes, which included providing Doctor Strange, Iron Man and Spider-Man with a raft of impressive new superhero abilities, from golden lighting to nano-particle-filled suits. VFX Voice sat down with Weta Digital Visual Effects Supervisor Matt Aitken to discuss how the studio amped up the Avengers’ super powers.

VFX Voice: Let’s talk about Doctor Strange’s golden lightning. How did you tackle that?

Aitken: Doctor Strange is able to effectively generate streams of lightning, and, because he knows if he just fires them straight at Thanos that he will sidestep them, he ricochets them off some large floating rocks that Thanos is standing on. The golden lightning has so much energy that whenever it hits a rock, the rock explodes into lava, so we had individual fluid sims running on each of these impacts, with lava, sparks and smoke.

It was done with a combination of Houdini and Synapse, our in-house tool. We had a great effects team working on the show, and it was a big effects show. I asked the head of the effects department how [Avengers: Infinity War] compared with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and he said, shot for shot, [Avengers: Infinity War] was about 50% more complex on the effects side.

A final shot of Tony Stark’s new shield in use.

Weta Digital’s concept frame for Doctor Strange’s golden lightning.

Final shot of Doctor Strange.

VFX Voice: Iron Man is wearing his new nano-particle suit in this battle. What effects challenges were involved here?

Aitken: The way the fight proceeds is that, initially, Iron Man is trying out all these different weapons; we built 12 different weapons. We got concept art for about four of them, and so we used that as a guide and worked up the other eight or so ourselves. We could have done concept art for those, but we actually just worked them up as geometry and got them approved as geometric turntables.

Part of the way those weapons form is that the nano-particles are moving around on the suit, and at some point Thanos is getting the upper hand over Tony. One of the ways he’s achieving that is by punching chunks of the nano-tech off the suit. He’ll smash Iron Man’s helmet, and large chunks of the helmet will fly away. Once they get beyond a certain distance from the suit, they can’t make it back, so the volume of nano material that Iron Man has to work with gets gradually reduced.

VFX Voice: How was the Thanos and Iron Man fight filmed?

Aitken: Robert Downey Jr. did that on stage, either with Josh Brolin as Thanos or with a stuntie standing in for Josh. They wore a cardboard shoulder strap version of Thanos’ bust of the shoulders and head, so that there was an eyeline match that could be referred to. Essentially, Robert just wore the suit that he wears under the  Iron Man suit, but we ended up invariably roto’ing his head off and replacing everything else, which was easier than it sounds, because we were replacing the environment anyway.

VFX Voice: Spider-Man is in the battle, too, with a new suit. What were the visual effects components here?

Aitken: He’s got the ‘Iron Spider’ suit, which has similar technology to Iron Man’s bleeding-edge nano-tech suit, so it had some similarities in the look, but it had to be a distinctive Spider-Man suit as well. He’s got the hood on, but he’s still often talking. We made the eyes in the suit a little bit like the blades in a camera iris. We built eye blend-shape targets for the eye expressions, but then our facial rigging team essentially wrapped cloth over his face and went through all the different phonemes and all the different blend-shape targets and created a cloth-wrapped version of all those shapes. Then those became the facial-animation rig for the hood, and so it meant that as far as the animators were concerned, they had exactly the same controls to animate the rest of Spidey’s face as they would have for the whole of Spidey’s face.

Effects simulations made the nano-particle components of Iron Man’s new suit possible.

A final shot of Iron Man’s suit in action.

Final shot of Spider-Man in his new Iron Spider suit.

Here’s Weta Digital’s effects pass of Iron Man’s shield.

VFX Voice: After Thanos snaps his fingers, Strange and Spider-Man are among those who disintegrate. Can you talk about that effect?

Aitken: The way that this visually manifests itself is that they ‘blip out.’ It had to look violent, but not too violent. It had to look final – the brief we got was that this can’t look like you can come back from it. Essentially, it’s like a wave that passes over these characters, and they turn to – not ash, but a kind of dust and flakes that blow away in the wind.

VFX Voice: What reference did you look to for that ashy feel?

Aitken: We didn’t want it to be like anything else – we wanted it to be something different. It’s [comprised of] procedural mattes that are able to move across the body, so we needed really good digital doubles. You want to avoid transitions where you can, so it’s easier if they’re just digital all the way through. We had an initial matte, which is where the flakes are starting to form, and then another matte, which was where the flakes start to drift off. Often, these are coming through really fast, because it all has to happen in quite a constrained time frame. There’s a beat in the Strange blip-out where his face almost collapses in on itself, and there’s a frame where it looks like a skull, because his eyes have sunken in on themselves, so it’s quite creepy.

At one point we had introduced, as part of one of these blips, an energy, like an internal green glow that was illuminating all the flakes, and we had that going for a while. But then the studio reviewed it and decided it looked too much like they were transporting, like they were beaming up or beaming down. They didn’t want it to look like these characters were going somewhere else. They wanted it to have that finality that we were talking about, because this is how part one ends: on a rather somber note.


Read more about the visual effects of Avengers: Infinity War here

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