It’s been 10 years since Robert Downey Jr. suited up as Tony Stark in the iconic Mark 1 armor in “Iron Man.” Back then the VFX had to look good to win over CG skeptic Jon Favreau, but Industrial Light & Magic stepped up and earned the first of eight Oscar nominations for Marvel.
Eighteen movies later, with the record-breaking “Avengers: Infinity War,” Marvel continued its superhero and box office dominance, while their photo-real VFX have never been better, advancing cutting edge modeling, shading, lighting, rendering, facial and motion capture, and explosive simulations.
Who knows? Maybe Marvel will even earn its first VFX Oscar for Thanos, the badass, unstoppable star of “Infinity War,” performed with great intensity and inner turmoil by Josh Brolin, and brilliantly mo-capped and animated by Digital Domain and Weta Digital (for the third-act Titan battle). That would be a fitting culmination. So, in honor of the MCU’s 10th anniversary, here are 10 VFX game-changing moments:
“Iron Man” (2008)
Creating an Iron Man who was both true to both the comic book and to Favreau’s vision of realism was more complicated that it first appeared. ILM (under the supervision of Ben Snow) and production VFX supervisor John Nelson tackled it head on with a successful test reel. Stan Winston Studios created a practical Iron Man outfit for actor Downey to wear on set. While the armor itself — based on a design by comics artist Adi Granov — was a thing of beauty with a stunning sports-car finish that took the VFX crew a lot of work to replicate, the character needed to move easily without being cumbersome.
Downey often wore only part of the armor, with the rest completed in CG using motion capture and animation to make the character look appropriately super heroic. Then, in “Iron Man 2,” ILM got closer for a lot longer, ramping up the real world look and danger. The big breakthrough was: integrating an energy-conserving shader in conjunction with HDRI lighting.
“Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011)
Although the Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) origin story wasn’t VFX intensive, the “Skinny Steve” intro was quite a Marvel breakthrough. De-aging expert, Lola Visual Effects (under the supervision of Edson Williams), came up with a new twist: 2D image manipulation. That meant literally taking the still image, mesh warping it around and making the buff Evans look thinner in body and face. But it required Lola to go further with this precise frame-by-frame approach, all in post.
“The Avengers” (2012)
Joss Whedon’s hugely popular, shared MCU mash-up accentuated the dysfunctional family motif. He proclaimed that it was “just booze and candy all day.” However, the notable VFX accomplishment by ILM (supervised by Jeff White) was animating Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk so that it believably matched the actor’s look and angry performance. Whedon particularly wanted to add likability to the alter-ego.
As a result, ILM was able to utilize everything that it had developed in its animated arsenal for a decade, capturing the actor in the mo-cap volume and on set. It was detailed down to his eyes, teeth, and tongue. In addition, ILM desaturated the green so he fit in better with the other Avengers, and they added beard stubble and salt andpepper graying around the temples to match Ruffalo.
“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (2014)
With the Russo brothers (Anthony and Joe) at the helm, adding a touch of the conspiracy thriller to Cap’s sequel, the MCU became grittier and more grounded. This extended to the action and tech as well. Thus, ILM (supervised by Russell Earl) created the biggest CG model in its history for the revamped Helicarrier. It was more than 1,400 feet long, and fully weaponized like a high-tech pirate ship, with a dozen next-gen Phalinx guns. Plus they replaced the turbine engines with the Stark Repulsor engines. The story goes that weapons inventor Stark was tired of taking a beating and offered his tech assistance.
“Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014)
James Gunn’s hilarious “Star Wars” riff unexpectedly turned a corner for Marvel, and audiences fell in love with Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) and his merry band of misfits: Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket (Bradley Cooper) Drax (Dave Bautista), and Groot (Vin Diesel). It also introduced the threat of Thanos (voiced by Brolin) into the mix. And while the snarky Rocket raccoon was terrifically animated by Framestore, MPC (supervised by Nicolas Aithadi) shined with the tree-shaped humanoid.
The team spent more than six months developing the character, which required extremely complex modeling, rigging, and animation. All of his branches were modeled and rigged individually, in fact, to allow his body to keep its rigid, wooden feel. And since he only said, “I am Groot,” a lot of attention was given to humanizing his facial expressions and eyes.
“Captain America: Civil War” (2016)
The Russos were back with the start of Phase Three, with the Avengers in turmoil because of collateral damage. This leads to a rift between Cap and Iron Man and a centerpiece airport battle featuring newcomers Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd). The hard part for ILM (supervised by Russell Earl) was figuring out the strengths and weaknesses of each superhero and making it convincing, if non-lethal.
What turned the sequence around, however, was having Ant-Man turn into Giant-Man and Spider-Man recalling the strategy from the Battle of Hoth in “The Empire Strikes Back” by wrapping his web around his legs to bring him down. The wild card was Spidey, whose web-slinging needed to be grounded in real-world physics.
“Doctor Strange” (2016).
Marvel entered the supernatural realm for the first time, requiring a new set of VFX tricks for Benedict Cumberbatch’s arrogant wizard. They not only found inspiration in “Doctor Strange” comic book artist Steve Ditko’s psychedelic tropes but also Christopher Nolan’s Oscar-winning “Inception” effect of bending and folding buildings. ILM (led by Richard Bluff) took it further, though, in the New York fight with Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen). The studio introduced mass duplication on a mathematical level with infinitely complex fractals.
“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” (2017)
There were two VFX standouts in the “Guardians” sequel: Baby Groot and Ego (Kurt Russell), Quill’s father, a living planet that takes human form (Lola did the effective de-aging prologue). Weta Digital, however, handled the heavy lifting for Ego, creating the interior look, along with the various transformations during his climactic fight with Quill. This once again involved complicated fractals, but more pliable and in short order. To avoid an R-rating, Weta toned down the gore by turning it into particulate sand. For Baby Groot, Framestore (supervised by Jonathan Fawkner) made him more alien-looking and more fluid in his motion, especially during the opening “Mr. Blue Sky” dance/fight.
“Thor: Ragnarok” (2017)
In transforming Chris Hemsworth’s Thor into a funnier and more relatable Avenger, Taika Waititi had fun pitting him against Ruffalo’s Hulk and pairing him up with the wisecracking, scene-stealing rock man Korg, which was mocapped and voiced by the New Zealand director himself. However, the gladiator fight between Thor and Hulk required great choreography and finessing by ILM (supervised by Chad Wiebe). Hulk was more controlled and confined, so there was no flying around. Crucially, ILM addressed the large-scale difference between Thor and Hulk by hiring a short stunt guy to play Thor in the mo-cap fight. This made the match more visceral and accurate. ILM also rebuilt Hulk’s face shapes based on Ruffalo’s performance, and gave him a leaner look and a new haircut.
“Black Panther” (2018)
This year’s Marvel phenomenon, directed by Ryan Coogler and starring Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa/Black Panther, allowed ILM to take a deep dive into African culture for Wakanda. VFX supervisor Craig Hammack studied the 500-page bible by production designer Hannah Beachler and then his team modeled cityscapes for districts associated with four of the five tribes (River, Merchant, Mining, and Border), as well as exterior and interior shots of the palace.
The most creative eye opener, though, was Steptown, the hipster cultural center and the epitome of Afrofuturism. It’s dry and dusty yet urban with lush plant life growing out of the high rise buildings. In materials and structure, it brought African aesthetics into our mainstream consciousness.