Disney's remakes of its classic animated films are blurring the line between what should be considered animation and live-action — there will be no real lions in the new The Lion King — and in some ways, the same debate can be had about its Marvel movies. Avengers: Infinity War stars real people, but also has visual effects in 97 percent of its shots. It's a breathtaking number, and the seamlessness with which those top-shelf VFX shots were integrated earned Infinity War a place on the Oscars VFX shortlist.
As a result, the effects team is no longer a post-production unit, but a group that works with the filmmakers all throughout pre-production and production. Several groups, actually.
"[Infinity War is] a film that builds on itself from beginning to end and never stops, and then at that point, you realize: 'My god, what have we done?'" Dan DeLeeuw, the VFX supervisor who oversaw the script and helped decide what the film should look like, told SYFY WIRE. DeLeeuw, who worked with co-directors Joe and Anthony Russo on their other MCU entries (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War), was charged with deciding which scenes in Infinity War should be doled out to which effects houses.
Because just like the Avengers themselves, it takes a massive, talented team — 14 visual effects houses and thousands of artists — to bring such a visually groundbreaking story to life. To try and grasp how much work went into Infinity War, SYFY WIRE spoke with DeLeeuw as well as his fellow VFX Supervisors Kelly Port of Digital Domain and Russell Earl of ILM to discuss keeping the Universe's secrets, the visual horrors they put us through, and Endgame.
Digital Domain, the VFX house whose work you can catch in everything from Deadpool to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, was challenged with bringing Thanos to life. VFX Supervisor Kelly Port told SYFY WIRE his team at Digital Domain worked on "10 different sequences" involving Thanos.
These were the people charged with making Josh Brolin look less like a man in a skin-tight, ball-covered suit and more like an 8-foot-tall purple alien with the ability to wipe out half of all life in the universe.
Industrial Light & Magic, the groundbreaking company founded by George Lucas in order to make Star Wars reality, handled the film's most epic battle scene in the movie. Earl and his ILM team tackled everything in Wakanda — Thanos' ships colliding with the barrier; Thor's arrival; every stumble Bruce Banner makes in the Hulkbuster. Digital Domain also partnered with Weta Digital to bring it all home, creating the scenes on Titan and, yes, the team's now-infamous disappearing act, termed "blipping."
Figuring out just what was going to happen when half our heroes faded away was a sizable challenge. The script simply said, "They disappear." Where do you go from there?
They started with Tom Holland's performance as Peter Parker — "Tom did an awesome job, sold it like crazy," DeLeeuw says — and the moment he turned to ash. At first, they looked to the Infinity Stones, each of which has always been assigned a specific color in the MCU, and thought perhaps each death should be color-coded.
"We ended up backing away because it was just becoming too much of an event," DeLeeuw says. "It had to be something that supported what the different actors were doing."
What resulted was a sequence that "had to be art directed quite a bit to control when and how they would turn to dust, timing-wise," he explains. "The Guardians were kind of surprised — they went pretty fast… To the point where Peter Parker goes and he's kind of fighting it off a little bit more than everybody else. It's all just encroaching up to his head, up to his face so he can get his last line, last apology to Tony for failing."
DeLeeuw says just seeing daily cuts from the set, even without the effects, was enough to bring tears to some people's eyes. But once the effects were overlaid on each actor's performance, especially Holland's (as his disappearance acted as a sort of starting point), and the artists could see it as a finished whole, they couldn't help but be affected.
"There are a lot of films that you can see as they come together and you kind of know what you have. I think we knew what we had, but until all the effects were in — just the gut punch was crazy. And [you're the one] dealing it," DeLeeuw says.
Whereas many movies have clear delineations between VFX sequences and the rest of the movie, Infinity War blurs that line. The blipping scenes are perhaps the best example of that, as each actor was overlaid with a digital double that eventually took over as they faded out.
"You see a lot of the big blockbusters and you remember the big scenes and a lot of the great effects, but it does get kind of broken down into more sections — visual effects and not — even with the Marvel Universe," Port says. "But that boundary doesn't seem to exist [in Infinity War]."
"There's just no simple shot in this movie," DeLeeuw says. "It's all complex."
Making a film that has so much VFX and for which scenes are spread out across so many companies results in not everyone always having the best grasp on context. Then again, digital effects artists are often the ones with the most information at their disposal. While stories abound of actors being given fake or partial scripts to keep spoilers to a minimum, few people ever talk about the behind-the-scenes security that goes into making such a massive movie. After all, the actors are only staring at green screens — the VFX artists actually know what it's all supposed to look like.
"Everybody that works in the industry… we work such crazy hours and everyone works really hard and everyone is really passionate about the work that they do. So through that everybody takes things like security and keeping the secrets to heart because they know that's at the heart of the business," Earl says. "It's hard to keep all the secrets, but everyone really does a good job doing that because we don't want to ruin it for the fans."
Earl says in his experience at ILM, they don't work in an environment that's too secretive or where certain people aren't allowed to know information, even information like which Avengers turn to dust. "We try to keep everyone involved on it; the best idea wins and those ideas come from getting everyone in a room... So we just try to be collaborative as possible.
"And make sure everyone changes their passwords every two weeks," he adds.
As for the next chapter, Endgame? Principal filming ended in January 2018, as it and Infinity War were shot back-to-back, so the VFX crews have had plenty of time to look things over. When asked if any movie is bigger than Infinity War in terms of complexity, collaboration, and the amount of work that has gone into it, all three laughed.
"There's one coming out in April," DeLeeuw says. Endgame, they promise, is that much more intense. Let's just hope no one gets blipped this time around.