Unlike the Oscar race for best animated feature, there's already a clear front-runner for VFX: "The Avengers," with its dazzling work from Industrial Light & Magic (especially the Hulk). Of course, there's still quite a heated race ahead when Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" hits theaters December 14, boasting the latest and greatest from the wizards of Weta Digital in 3-D (including a new and improved Gollum). While there's still no telling what the impact of the controversial higher frame rate (48 fps) will be, "The Hobbit" should make a formidable challenger.
Plus, there's also "The Dark Knight Rises" to consider along with "Prometheus," "Snow White and the Huntsman," and "The Amazing Spider-Man," in addition to the upcoming "Cloud Atlas" (October 26), and "Life of Pi" (November 21).
But "The Avengers" has the advantage of also being the box office champ of 2012 and the third best domestic performer of all time with $620.3 million, not to mention a critical darling for Joss Whedon's fun and thrilling direction.
Still, Disney and ILM recently took the opportunity of presenting a VFX showcase in San Francisco for a contingent of online journos in anticipation of "The Avengers" coming out September 25 on Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D.
And viewing the impressive VFX breakdown footage in more detail (see the clips below of the Hulk, Iron Man, and the virtual New York City) offered a sneak peek of the presentation ILM has in store for the VFX committee during the Academy bakeoff next year. Mark Ruffalo's Hulk clearly steals the movie and is the best Hulk ever. That's because ILM wisely avoided the cartoony look of the ultra green superhero it created for Ang Lee's angst-ridden first movie, as well as the overly muscle-bound rendition Rhythm & Hues made for the second version starring Ed Norton. Right from the start Whedon wanted to see Ruffalo in the Hulk and viewed him more as a wrestler than a super strong guy. That meant capturing an authentic digital double of the actor as Bruce Banner and then placing it on top of the animated Hulk so they would meld into an organic creature.
In fact, Whedon, Ruffalo, and ILM took inspiration from Lou Ferrigno's popular TV performance. He was a believable physical presence, who flexed his muscles but whose physique had a smooth flow. "He was real and there's something very physical about his performance and we wanted to make sure that we replicated that so he didn't feel disconnected once we put him in a scene with live people," explained animation director Marc Chu.
And thanks to advancements in facial performance capture, new rigging, and procedural skin shaders, ILM got the Hulk just right. The detail in the skin is spot-on right down to the pours; and the extreme poses have the correct muscle mass. Plus, it helped having a great performance from Ruffalo. He was as much an unexpected pleasure as Robert Downey Jr. was when he debuted as Iron Man. Like the film overall, Ruffalo isn't too serious or silly. "The scene between Hulk and Loki's almost a Hanna-Barbera moment," remarked associate VFX supervisor Jason Smith. "But as it came together, that's exactly what viewers wanted to see the Hulk do."
But "The Avengers" is far more than the Hulk in its coalescence of several Marvel worlds. ILM also tweaked Iron Man, making him more nimble and less constrained in his new Mark VII suit than in his previous two standalone movies, which was another Whedon directive. "We're back to a round RT on his chest but the biggest change was giving him a rocket pack," added VFX supervisor Jeff White. "That was a conscious decision by Joss to give Iron Man different poses and not have his hand always as part of the thrust component. We also provided a little extra weaponry with a hand laser and thigh missiles."
However, it turned out that the virtual New York City during the alien attack of the last third posed the biggest challenge. ILM couldn't shoot principal photography there but sent four teams of photographers shooting spherical overlaps at all the appropriate locations, especially the Park Avenue Viaduct. They shot on the ground every 100 feet and up every 120 feet with a man in a lift moving down Park Avenue. They made close to 2,000 spheres and stitched together 275,000 high-res photographs like a Google street view.
"In New Mexico, we had a 300-foot set of the Park Avenue Viaduct dressed with a couple of flipped over cars," White explained. "They don't care how much exploding you do in New Mexico. And then we projected that onto the buildings and that gets us 60% there. But once you move the camera, everything that's static in a photo no longer holds up. Not only does every window requires its own reflection, but also every window blind needs to be a different height and every room interior needs to be different. We replaced every window from the photography with a CG window and the inside the building contains nearly 30 of our ILM offices that we digitally reproduced.
"And we had tools that we actually developed for 'Rango' in terms of populating the town. And we leveraged those and built upon them in order to populate the environments of all the street signs and cars and planter boxes. One of the benefits of a virtual New York is that we can use that environment to light our CG creatures."
It all comes together in that memorable, iconic shot of the camera moving around the Avengers, who are huddled together and poised for action. It's seamless and not as flashy as the Hulk but effective VFX.