[Editor’s note: Spoilers ahead for “Avengers: Endgame.”]
Directors Joe and Anthony Russo have come a long way since “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (2014) in harnessing the power of VFX and effectively integrating it into their four-film MCU journey. Throughout the last five years, they’ve taken advantage of tech advancements in lighting, surfacing, rendering, compositing, and facial animation that have benefited Marvel’s seamless, photo-real, visual virtuosity. The finale demanded that they deploy all the skills they’ve learned to get the most from the wide range of challenging effects sequences they faced in one three-hour movie.
To bolster the action for “Winter Soldier,” the Russos led off with Industrial Light & Magic’s revamped, fully weaponized Helicarrier (the biggest CG model in ILM’s history). Then, in “Captain America: Civil War” (2016), they choreographed the intricate airport battle (also handled by ILM) featuring newcomer Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd). And, for the more ambitious “Avengers: Infinity War” (2018), the directors took full advantage of the game-changing CG Thanos (performance-captured by Josh Brolin and believably animated by Digital Domain and Weta Digital).
However, for “Avengers: Endgame,” the Russos required a more sophisticated use of VFX to help resolve the wide-ranging emotional conflicts in their intricate “time heist” finale. “We not only had to resolve our own movies but all the other MCU movies from the last 10 years,” Anthony said. “Our approach has been subversive, making these superheroes confront the finality of death. There’s a sense of introspection that allows these characters to deal with who they are individually and collectively.”
This is particularly true of the six original and most senior Avengers (Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark/Iron Man, Chris Evans’ Captain America, Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, and Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner/Hulk), who are confronted with some trippy time and space situations. “This is a unique moment in time because I don’t think ever before on this scale have characters ‘lost it’ so dramatically in a commercial film,” added Joe.
“And it does put them psychologically in a very profound place,” he continued. “And we can express that through the environments. Antonioni was one of our favorite filmmakers growing up and environment was always reflecting the psychology of the characters. We use the digital internegative in our real set design and in our CG set design to reflect psychology, but not in a way that’s as highly expressionistic as ‘Red Desert.’ But certainly when you watch [‘Endgame’], you’ll see how our choices reflect tone. These movies have incredible scale and fantastical settings. The real challenges are incredible photorealism and how you accomplish it in lighting and tone.”
For example, when introduced to a new planet, there’s a sense of beauty that co-exists with loneliness. By contrast, when revisiting one of the planets from “Infinity War,” the exotic, dark beauty foreshadows the inevitability of doom. “I think we found for some reason if we put a touch of blue in the sky that it grounds it to a certain level for the audience,” Joe said. “It takes it out of what can feel like a fully CG environment. This is one of the tricks that we’ve learned over the years.”
Most of the environmental work out of the nearly 3,000 overall VFX shots was done by ILM, Digital Domain, Weta, and Framestore. “We needed everybody we work with to be filmmakers and to understand that story drives everything,” Anthony said. “The total design of the movie is an expression of the story.”
The Russos also learned how to tweak Thanos to their liking. “I think the technology is improving constantly,” Joe said. “Digital Domain, who spearheaded Thanos, reached a level of even more detail than the last go around and they can render it faster. Which makes for more iterations for us being able to examine on a creative level his animation, the level of emotion from him, how he’s feeling in the scene. Whenever you get greater detail, you get greater range. It’s all based on Brolin’s performance. The craft of controlling a CG character to the level of his ability is what made these movies special.”
From a pacing standpoint, the animation seemed to move quicker, along with lighting and rendering. “We were able to pull off things that we were never able to before,” Joe said. “We were also able to pivot quickly and make choices that three years ago, it would never get done in time. If a stunt didn’t work, it allowed us to re-execute the stunt through animation and CG. There are sequences in the movie that are totally CG and I don’t think audiences will be able to tell.”
Not surprisingly, digital double work is one of the “Endgame” highlights, especially de-aging and accelerated aging as a new wrinkle. Lola VFX has perfected de-aging throughout the MCU (Michael Douglas in “Ant-Man,” Downey in “Civil War,” Kurt Russell in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Laurence Fishburne in “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” and Sam Jackson in “Captain Marvel”). The various encounters are placed for both surprise and suspense. What a wonderful summary of the artistry.
Again, according to the Russos, it’s always at the service of the script (by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely): “If the narrative is fresh, if the narrative is original, if what is happening to these characters and the road they are traveling together hasn’t happened before, then we are necessarily going to arrive at someplace original on a visual effects design level because everything is in support of that narrative,” said Anthony.