Marvel has never seen a VFX game-changer like Thanos. The star of “Infinity War” and the center of its record-breaking, $1 billion success, he’s performed with great intensity and inner turmoil by Josh Brolin — and brilliantly animated by Digital Domain and Weta Digital. Thanks to Thanos, “Infinity War” now becomes a serious VFX Oscar contender.
“I think Thanos is a marvel,” said Joe Russo, who co-directed with brother Anthony. “It really reflects every level of nuance in Josh Brolin’s performance. You’re watching Josh as a giant, purple alien, and you’re seeing all of his movement, all of his facial expressions, on the most subtle level. I don’t know that we’ve seen that level of photo-real performance capture before. Maybe in the ‘Apes’ films, but this is really groundbreaking.”
It was critical for Thanos to be completely human and relatable as a CG humanoid to carry the movie. He’s conflicted about the fate of his daughter, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), yet firm in his resolve to destroy half of the universe to preserve what’s left of the natural resources.
“Even though he’s despicable on so many levels, there’s a part of Thanos that is very empathetic,” said Anthony Russo. “He has a very complex inner life, and he’s not all bad. Josh is a performer who’s capable of delivering that kind of complexity, where you have that level of violence in him, but at the same time you have that level of sensitivity.”
Digital Domain created Thanos from an initial proof of concept and handled everything except for the third-act Titan sequence, which was done in parallel by Weta Digital. The success of both Thanos characters was a direct result of conveying every nuance of Brolin’s onset performance at Pinewood Studios in Atlanta.
For DD, this was achieved with a new high-res facial capture system, Masquerade, based on the concept of machine learning through computer algorithms. First, they captured facial data of Brolin via a separate session using Disney’s Research Medusa system and fed that into Masquerade. Then they added the actor’s low-res onset performance. Through analysis and fine-tuning, the animators accurately joined Brolin with Thanos.
“We adjusted the model toward Brolin to maximize his performance as closely as possible, but still being true to the design of Thanos,” said Kelly Port, DD’s visual effects supervisor. “We looked at them side by side to see if they were both conveying the intended emotion. If not, we tweaked it and fed it back into this learning system. And as you gave it hundreds of these adjustments, it kept getting smarter and smarter about what we wanted.”
Fortunately, DD nailed the look and emotion in the initial two-minute test, and Brolin used it as a guide for visualizing his performance as Thanos. “Josh’s performance was something very new,” said Phil Cramer, DD’s animation director. “It was about how he was thinking with little twitches from the face.” The addition of a few hundred controls around the cheek and neck also contributed to a more subtle animated performance, letting Brolin know that he didn’t have to overact.
The first challenge, though, was the opening fight between Thanos and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). It only comprises 60 shots, but after suffering some hard blows from Hulk, Thanos responds with a flurry of punches that knock out the Avenger. “He needed to be so brutal that you guess right away that this is a different-style Marvel movie where the superhero is not winning,” Cramer said.
Equally challenging was the contemplative moment after Thanos kills Gamora, in which he’s confronted by her childlike presence in one of his dreams. “It’s a quiet scene, but we wanted to get across all of the details in Josh’s performance,” said Port.
For the confrontations on Titan, the home planet of Thanos, Weta upped its facial animation for the supervillain. To better translate Brolin’s performance, they made both a Brolin model and a Thanos model for more accurate 1:1 translation. This intermediary step was new to Weta.
“The problem is, if you solve directly onto your character, you’re never quite sure if you’ve got it right,” said Matt Aitken, Weta’s visual effects supervisor. “We calibrated those two [digital] puppets based on facial and physiological analysis. We can be confident that the actor puppet and the character puppet are 1:1. It’s part of our continuing desire to accurately capture the actor’s performance and to judge it accurately on the character puppet.”
Additionally, Weta altered its facial system to accommodate the particular demands of Thanos, which resulted in greater artistic freedom for the animators. “In the past, we would use the neck and the throat as a transition zone between the facial system and the body,” Aitken said. “What we found with Thanos is that his neck and throat are such a big part of his character that we essentially extended the facial system. That allowed the animator more control over Thanos’ Adam’s apple, tendons, and musculature, which helped accentuate tension or anger.”
The hardest part for Weta was visualizing Thanos’ thought process. For example, there’s the defining moment when he decides to kill Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) “It’s is the culmination of that whole battle on Titan, where he triumphs,” said Aitken. “He’s beaten up Iron Man to the point where his suit has failed, it can’t protect him anymore, and you can tell that he’s decided to kill him. It’s a relaxing of the face that comes about from not being in conflict anymore. He’s at peace with what he’s decided to do. But we wanted to make sure that those expressions were readable to the audience.”