Create a free profile to get unlimited access to exclusive videos, sweepstakes, and more!
'She-Hulk' VFX supervisor says it took around 2 years to complete the finale's K.E.V.I.N. sequence
The animators event went so far as to study Feige's hand motions at various convention appearances.
Deadpool's return is still a ways off, but the Marvel Cinematic Universe couldn't wait that long to break the fourth wall. She-Hulk, another beloved character known for breaking the fourth wall, did just that in a major way at the end of her Disney+ series. After eight episodes of small asides to the audience, the finale saw Jennifer Walters (Orphan Black's Tatiana Maslany) completely warp the fabric of reality by jumping into the "real" world for a meeting with the creatives at Marvel Studios. Hoping for a less cliched conclusion to the season, Jen makes her way to the inner sanctum of the man — or machine, we should say — behind the curtain: K.E.V.I.N., a sentient computer based on actual MCU mastermind, Kevin Feige.
Jen's conversation with the HAL 9000-inspired A.I. took around two years to complete, according to Phil Cramer, a VFX supervisor and Head of Animation at Digital Domain, which oversaw a good chunk of visual effects on the show. "That was a crazy thing," he tells SYFY WIRE over a recent Zoom conversation. "From the very first day we heard about the sequence, we thought, ‘Will this ever happen?’"
He goes on to describe K.E.V.I.N. as "this older, rattling robot" that is meant to recall 20th-century notions of contemporary innovation. "It’s like a sports bar in the ‘60s or ‘70s that was amazing when it was opened, but now, it’s past its best days," Cramer explains. "You come in there, the floor’s all dusty, the technology looks like fancy technology of the past, more so than of the present ... Our idea from the get-go was a machine that’s rattling and about to fall apart — and they loved it. We never got any pushback on any of the ideas."
The animation team (spearheaded by Liz Bernard) went the extra mile by studying the mannerisms Feige has used during Marvel presentations at various fan conventions like SDCC and D23 Expo. The endgame, if you will, was to "match his patterns because he uses his hands more," Cramer adds. "When you pay attention to the robot, it has the hands like that — and he's wearing the same hat."
Digital Domain also worked on the look of She-Hulk herself, making use of its patented facial capture system known as "Masquerade," which helped bring Thanos (Josh Brolin) to life in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. But, where the Mad Titan only had about 20 minutes of screen time between those two films, a fully-rendered She-Hulk needed to appear for more than twice that across nine weeks of television. Indeed, the VFX teams were still fine-tuning a number of effects as episodes were rolling out on Disney+.
"We knew this would be a massive undertaking, to put a CG lead in an episodic [project]," Cramer says. The condensed timeframe of television meant the process would be a shade more stressful, prompting Digital Domain to get an early head-start at the tail end of 2020 before the cameras began to roll in earnest. That was still at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning the Vancouver-based Cramer had to appear at the vendor's Los Angeles offices on an iPad via FaceTime.
"We did a mo-cap shoot for multiple days, where we met Tatiana and she was getting accustomed to wearing the [face] dots [and] helmet camera," he recalls. "The most important thing is that she is comfortable — or however comfortable you can get with a setup like this — and can forget about it and just focus on the acting ... It helped to have Smart Hulk/Mark Ruffalo there [on set] because he has a lot of experience with that. I think for an actor, it's always good to talk to somebody who's gone through the same weird experience."
Cramer goes on to explain how work on Jennifer (shared in tandem with Weta Digital) posed more of a challenge due to the fact that the character has a wider range of emotions than Thanos, who usually vacillated between "stoic and fighting."
"Then you get Tatiana Maslany and she is this bubbling, wonderful actor that portrays She-Hulk positively and happily and has so many ranges of emotion. She cries, she’s happy, she’s in love. And that didn't break our system, but close to [it]. So what worked on Thanos, we had to rework a lot to give her that range of expression. We doubled the detail on her face, but in the end, a lot of it also came down the artistry of our animators to really understand the performance from Tatiana and then making sure it translates [on the screen]."
Capturing Maslany's physical and facial performance was just one part of the job. Adding in a number of small details — like Jen's makeup, for instance — posed an entire subset of responsibilities unto itself further down the line.
"We spent a ton of time on makeup," Cramer admits. "I watched a lot of TikTok and Instagram videos about how people put [on] contour shading, dewy make-up, different eyeliner techniques. The point is that She-Hulk would have a natural make-up. If you watch The Bachelor or the Kardashian shows, you see really strong shaping [and] different contouring. The problem for us, is that we always work through a system. We have a model, we texture that model, we light that, then we rig it, and so on. The issue here is that a gray model doesn't have any of the contouring applied. So you're constantly thinking like, ‘How is that meant to look later on?'"
Costumes also presented a unique challenge. Where Thanos only had two main outfits, Jen had between 20 to 30.
"On a male, these outfits don’t normally change your body so much. However, when on a female like this, different bra types would come in and all of a sudden, we have to think about like, ‘Oh, we have a muscle system, but how do we interact with a different bra?' ... We had no idea about all these problems before we went into it. We were thinking, ‘Oh like Thanos!' And then you're like, ‘Oh my God, she wears what? High heels?! How do you do that?’”
One of the biggest obstacles was getting the actors to maintain the correct eye-line with a non-existent She-Hulk on the day of filming. "The most important thing is that they look at the right spot because fixing that is gonna be way too expensive and unnecessary," Cramer says. To make sure the supporting cast members were always looking up, the production made use of several techniques — from an "eye-line pole" ending in a cutout of Maslany's smiling face (see above), to a 6'5'' stand-in (Malia Arrayah), to building sets with risers.
"[As a result], Tatiana would always be at the correct eye height and she would have the correct motion. The problem was [that] we had to paint all that out and make sure we paint everything back that was blocked by those [risers]. And then you put She-Hulk on top of it."
For the shots in which Jen transforms into She-Hulk and vice versa, Digital Domain utilized another in-house program called "Charlatan," a Deepfake-based technology that allows for a smooth transition between images. "The in-between zones are the hardest," Cramer continues. "You need to make sure you hold on to the likeness on either side as long as you humanly can and to never go into a third character that nobody knows."
While Marvel Studios has yet to confirm any further projects involving She-Hulk, it's probably safe to assume the production banner has blockbuster plans for the mean, green hero, who, in the comics, has been a member of the Avengers, Fantastic Four, and the Defenders.
"I can tell you that she is built for success, no matter what environments [she’s put into]," Cramer concludes, emphasizing that he doesn't know where the character goes from here. "I think she's ready for the big screen in that regard. But let's see what Marvel does. Because for us, when we make these characters, we need to make sure they can hold up incredibly close. And we have some She-Hulk shots where you get incredibly close. So then she has all the detail and the resolution to go wherever she wants."
All nine episodes of She-Hulk: Attorney at Law are now available to stream on Disney+.
In the mood for more sci-fi comedy? The first two seasons of Resident Alien are available on Peacock.