Tech Support: Bringing 'The Avengers' to life through visual effects
“The Avengers" was a pet project of Marvel Studios for years. After planting characters in solo films for half-a-decade, the superstar extravaganza hit the big screen last summer. Despite much risk, it was a rapturous success. Last month, the film earned a well-deserved nomination for Best Visual Effects and I recently spoke with Jeff White, visual effects supervisor at Industrial Light and Magic and one of the four artists who shared that nomination, as well as Victoria Alonso, Executive Vice-President of Marvel and executive producer of the film, about crafting the film and the visual effects.
What was the process of bringing this to screen like? Alonso describes it as “you don’t ever sleep again. It’s like having a newborn for two years. You say goodbye to your life.” White, on the other hand, had to balance working at the studio and being on the set. “I was on the set mostly to cover the scenes I knew would come to ILM,” he explains.
Notwithstanding, or perhaps because of, the film’s large budget, the corresponding expectations, and reliance on visual effects put great pressure on everyone. “There’s never enough money and time to make things be what they need to be,” Alonso notes. “We had to ask what are the things we will be able to make for this amount and what for that degree of time? It’s a struggle but there was never any compromise on the quality.”
White looks to the bright side of hard expectations. “The upside of deadlines and budget is it gives you a creative framework," he says. "Some of our greatest ideas came out of having a two-week deadline.”
From Alonso’s perspective, the biggest challenge remained telling a story the fans would be happy with. "Trying to put the different Marvel characters together could be a good Christmas dinner or a bad Christmas dinner," she says.
White, whose role was obviously more discrete, nevertheless ended up being concerned with very large tasks. “For ILM specifically, the biggest challenge was the Hulk,” he says, noting that the prior attempts to bring this character to the screen were met with mixed success. But his worries were hardly confined to that. “The great thing about this project was the amount of variety we had in the visual effects.”
Alonso picks up on that. “The Hulk had been done twice before. We wanted to apply every technological advance. And a great challenge when shooting the movie was imagining how the effects would fill in the blanks. The movie had 2,200 blanks.”
One of those technological advances is obviously 3D technology. “We were always conscious of it,” White says. “We had shots where we had done some animation but then in 3D, we realized it didn’t work.” Of course, this resulted in amendments.
Alonso is quick to add that the film was not shot with 3D in mind. “We knew we were going to convert,” she says. “The challenge was to tell the director to tell your story and don’t get tangled up in the technicality of conversion. We’ve been successful in how Marvel movies have been converted.”
As for the producers' and director's hand in crafting the visual effects, it is unsurprising that Alonso chimes in quickly. “We are 100% involved all the time in creating and guiding the visual effects,” she says. “Jeremy [Latcham, executive producer], Joss [Whedon, the director] and I were in every review. Kevin [Feige, producer] and Lou[is D’Esposito, executive producer] were in most of the reviews.”
Adds White, “I would agree and I think that was a really important part of its success. Joss and all the producers at Marvel were always available to discuss the work. The fact that we were talking improved the work.”
As for the experience of being nominated for an Oscar? “For me, it’s an incredible honor to be nominated,” White says. “You’re there through thick and thin with the artists to get the work done. I really see it as a recognition of all the efforts everyone put in. It’s really not one person but a collaboration. The fact that it was able to get nominated is a great tribute.”
The nomination is a highly deserved reward for this longstanding and highly successful Marvel project. We’ll see how the crew does on the 24th.