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James Spader and Ultron Become One in ‘Avengers’: How They Did It

James Spader and Ultron Become One in 'Avengers': How They Did It

There was an early moment in “Age of Ultron” when Joss Whedon wanted to hide his giant robot’s face in the darkness of a church. Industrial Light & Magic was still perfecting the facial rig and the director wasn’t taking any chances. But then came a breakthrough: ILM showed Whedon the first close-ups of Ultron talking and it changed everything: Ultron could be Ultron without holding back.

More important, Ultron could become everything James Spader brought to the performance: the wit, the strut, the arrogance. ILM then went on to achieve its most articulate robot ever, far surpassing the Transformers. In fact, there are two Ultrons: the early defective version, and the sophisticated Ultron Prime.

“The facial performance was key and the Ultron Prime rig is by far the most elaborate we’ve done for a major character,” explained ILM visual effects supervisor Ben Snow (“Iron Man”). “It’s about 10 times the complexity of a Transformer. Ultron’s face alone had about 600 controllers to be able to get the nuance of James Spader’s performance reflected in this robotic face. But we couldn’t make it look like
it was made of skin or flesh and we tried to avoid it squashing too much.”

So what the rigger had to do was set it up so that the plates of Ultron’s face slid under one another. But it kept Snow, animation supervisor Marc Chu and their ILM colleagues awake nights for several months until they got the first version out and saw the potential. “We went back and forth between model, rigging and animation, evolving this thing until it gave us the nuance that we needed but still looked like it was made of metal plates.”

READ MORE: Joss Whedon on “Age of Ultron” and Why It’s His “Rio Bravo”

However, there was still uncertainty about how much of Spader’s physical performance was going to come through: his head tilts in a certain way, and he has a slight curl of his lips. “Marc made sure that got through into the animation,” Snow suggested. “And that touch was the key. And when we showed Joss how that would look and how that would transfer, he confirmed that that was absolutely the right way to go.”

ILM also worked on making Ultron look angrier by redesigning the rig. They opened his cheeks and gave him an angular scowl, which even resembled the Ultron from the comics.

As for Spader, ILM arranged for the actor to play with the character in motion capture so he could see how his performance would be transferred by looking at a rough version of Ultron’s race on a monitor. Spader was also keen on exploring different weights by having objects strapped to him. He wore a pole as a backpack and also carried various weights in front.

Meanwhile, ILM explored motion studies of mimes, dancers and a former basketball player at Andy Serkis’ Imaginarium studio in London (Serkis plays the villainous Ulysses Klaue).

There was even some interesting tinkering for Ultron’s philosophical discussion of humanity’s weakness with Paul Bettany’s Vision. Ultron looks beat up once again and is at his most vulnerable. But ILM’s Chu went in and reanimated the bot to add more of the Ultron Prime into the scene.

“Even though it was a simpler, more primitive version of Ultron, you had to capture some of the sophisticated feel of the earlier one,” Snow added. “He’s front and center and in your face.”

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