Marvelous Effects: Fuel VFX on Captain America

Sydney-based vendor Fuel VFX completed 120 shots on Captain America: The First Avenger, consolidating its relationship with Marvel Studios and reputation as a world-class company. Miguel Gonzalez reports.

The last piece in the billion dollar Marvel Studios superhero puzzle is Captain America: The Last Avenger. Since his 1941 creation by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby as a symbol of US patriotism, the character has been synonymous with the red, white and blue of the American flag, but the latest incarnation of Captain America is quite global, with a number of international vendors contributing to the creation of this visual extravaganza. One of them is Sydney-based Fuel VFX.

Most of the film is set in the 1940s and tells the story of Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) a man who is physically unfit to join the US Army to fight in the Second World War, and instead volunteers for a military experiment that turns him into a super-soldier. As Captain America, he must fight the head of Hitler’s advanced weaponry, the Red Skull, and the terrorist organisation HYDRA.

According to Dave Morley, Fuel’s VFX supervisor on this film, the company completed 120 shots in six sequences. One of them is underwater, and involves Captain America chasing a submarine in the murky water. Another major moment is a James Bond-style motorcycle chase where the hero is chased to base by the enemy. This was Fuel’s main sequence, with the most number of shots, requiring complex plate manipulation for compositing and integration.

The greatest challenge, says Morley, was the fire – it had to engulf the enemies, with flames wrapping around them as they ride their motorbikes, crash, and roll on the ground.

“We ended up building a fire system. There are a couple of shots where Captain America fires a flame thrower located at the back of his motorcycle, engulfing the HYDRA agents that are chasing him. In the end, we used a mix of Houdini, Maya, and an internal fire system we had previously developed,” said Morley.

The underwater elements were not far behind.

“They actually shot wet-for-wet. Captain America is swimming as fast as a normal person can swim under water,” explained Morley. “We had to make it feel like he’s swimming at 40 km/hr by adding the environment, such as the bubbles coming out of him, to make it feel like he’s swimming a lot faster. There was also a lot of effects work to morph the walls of the pool where the scenes were shot into a sleepy swamp in New York City in the 1940s. All the underwater stuff was out-of-the-box Houdini.”

The company developed a number of set extensions and built environments such as a reconstruction of the famous Radio City Dance Hall, and designed the HYDRA enemy base (Box Canyon), which is built into a mountain in the Swiss Alps. Exteriors for this sequence, in which Captain America is trying to break into the HYDRA headquarters, were shot near Pinewood Studios in England – a location with low-lying trees and no real hills or mountains.

“We had to put the Swiss Alps mountainscape behind that footage. When you get to the base at the very bottom, where the in-camera ground meets the mountain, it was up to us to figure out how we could camouflage this mountain enough to be the enemy base,” explained Morley. “There’s also a big iron door that we had to construct, based on sketches and photos from inside the base and other HYDRA elements, provided by the art director. We took the influences of those designs to create the outer door that lets you into the encampment.”

Fuel also worked on one of the first sequences in the film, set in a frozen wasteland.

“In the opening shot you’re in the arctic, and we had to digitally extend the set they built on the soundstage, to create a frozen environment with snow blizzards. We also did a full CG takeover of one of the shots, into a shot that establishes what they’re finding, which is a big plane under the ice,” said Morley.

In terms of effects, Fuel worked on energy lasers, digital fire, snow, smoke, water and the mysterious cube that has appeared in previous Marvel films such as Thor. For Captain America, the cube has been given an internal electrical feel; Fuel did several shots for the sequence where the cube is retrieved in the arctic, including the deep sea submersible vehicle (Bathysphere) descending into the depths.

Fuel completed stereo deliveries for many, if not all of their shots.

“The studio has a stereo company (Stereo D) doing all the conversion to 3D for the film. They categorise their shots, and certain categories only required us to hand over final comps and any kind of maps that we may have, and then the stereo company did the conversion. But if it was a full CG shot, like the frozen wasteland and the underwater sequence, it was easier for us to render the stereo and pre-comp the elements that then get put back in with the live action being converted by the stereo company.

“We got our little stereo scripts from them, which basically told us intraoculars and what our convergence points are, and that’s enough for us to drive what information they’d need for the final comp if they were doing it, or for us, coming from the director in the studio making a call about how deep a particular shot would be, and that had to be translated into our renders. There was quite a bit of work in setting up the effects pipeline to work through to stereo; you can gain efficiency by putting it across a system instead of building it per shot.”

An Ongoing Adventure
The CG assets created by Fuel include the Bathysphere, motorbikes and a tank which were then blown up with CG debris explosion enhancement, and human digital doubles.

The submersible vehicle – which in the film is created by the father of the Tony Stark/Iron Man character – was the element where Fuel had the most design input. It came to the VFX vendor as sketches from the art department.

“They were pretty happy with it, but the director didn’t particularly like the design of the arms,” revealed Morley. “We knew the submersible was created by Stark’s father, and having done some original concepts for Iron Man 2, we took some of the philosophies we learned working on that project and got a little of that flavour in there. It was fun because this film is pre-Iron Man, but you can still see the stylistic similarities between what we did with the submersible and its arms, and what the Iron Man suits ended up being in the Marvel universe continuity.”

This continuity is something that sets the Marvel-produced films – Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor and Captain America – apart from other superhero films, which have all taken place in separate fictional worlds. Instead, Marvel has created a continuity in which its heroes inhabit the same world. They haven’t just added cameos to each project as a nod to the hardcore fans; Marvel is taking its creations to the next level by making them join forces in the upcoming team film The Avengers and, to do so, every single storytelling and visual aspect has been carefully planned.

“Integration was something that we went for,” said Morley. “We weren’t really briefed that way; we were briefed to make it a little more interesting and give it a little more articulation, so it was decided that these design connections would make sense to the whole Marvel world, especially the Stark character.

The company has had the opportunity to work on the three most recent Marvel titles. It has not been the major vendor for any of them, but the amount and variety of work has certainly increased.

Captain America had more shots for us, and in terms of the scope of work, it was bigger. In Thor there was a lot of complex, effects-heavy work, but Captain America offered a good amount across the board,” said Morley.

“It suited all our strengths quite well. It was a fun journey and I do like that all these Marvel films intertwine and they’re all about to come together in The Avengers. It would be fun to go on that journey as well.


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