Welcome to Awards Contenders. This month, SYFY WIRE is talking to the actors, directors, designers, and craftspeople whose work was featured in the best movies and TV offerings of 2019, and who are now the leading awards nominees. Today, we're speaking with Oscar-nominated visual effects supervisor Dan DeLeeuw of Avengers: Endgame.
The scene wasn't exactly a blank page, but the lack of description for the final battle in the screenplay for Avengers: Endgame gave VFX supervisor (and second unit director) Dan DeLeeuw a lot of room to "just have fun with it."
"The script said something like, 'And then they battle,'" he tells SYFY WIRE. "Although it wasn't quite as simple as that."
DeLeeuw didn't have to dream up the beats of the battle on his own — he had decades' worth of the comics and a box full of little HeroClix plastic sculptures of the characters that he and his VFX team could smash together. "We all brainstormed on it," he says. "We're all fans. We know how to play together."
DeLeeuw's key fanboy moment came when he realized he could have Captain America wield Thor's mystical hammer Mjölnir — a moment foreshadowed in Avengers: Age of Ultron, when various members of the team tried to pick it up. (Cap may have realized he was already worthy when the hammer moved ever so slightly for him, but he didn't follow through at the time out of deference to Thor's ego.) In the comics, Cap has used Mjolnir many times: 1998's The Mighty Thor, 2011's Fear Itself, 2017's Secret Empire. What Cap does in the Endgame scene feels pulled from the Fear Itself moment when Cap uses the hammer to lead the Avengers into battle. "That was really exciting for me personally," DeLeeuw says.
From there, other members of the visual effects team started pitching the moments they wanted most to see. "One person said that they really want to bring in Valkyrie riding in on the Pegasus from Thor: Ragnarok," DeLeeuw says. "And then it's like, 'Well, if we have a Pegasus, then Spidey needs to end up on top of the Pegasus'" — as a way to pay homage to Spider-Man catching a ride via War Machine in Civil War. The team ended up with about 10-15 minutes more previz material than the film could use — especially with the Hulk, who was going to battle frost giants as well as become part of a fun threesome.
"We had a really cool gag of Spidey getting picked up by the Hulk, who gets picked up by Giant Man and thrown across the field like a little fastball special," DeLeeuw says. "The guys who do the artwork were like, 'We gotta do that! That's the greatest thing ever!' Unfortunately, that couldn't make it in."
Designing the Avengers assembling oner — a continuous shot of their arrival — was especially tricky, because the team had two versions to choose from. In one version, as the portals opened, there was a panning shot with everyone standing behind Captain America, revealing all the heroes at once. In the other version, the heroes were revealed more slowly, giving each of them a reintroduction.
"It was the coolest thing from a comic books standpoint, but the movie just stopped," DeLeeuw says. DeLeeuw decided to blend the two versions, so that the energy of the charge also had more emotion, which is how we got little character moments between Cap and Thor and between Iron Man and Spidey. "We re-used the ideas, so they didn't go to waste."
No character was wasted, either, not even Howard the Duck, who gets a small cameo during the battle. Watching the dailies with the Russo brothers and Kevin Feige, DeLeeuw and the team had an idea: "Wouldn't it be great if we could put Howard the Duck in one of these shots?" Even though it was crunch time, he called up Weta and asked if they could insert one more character from the shared Marvel universe. "He's only there for five or six frames, so we thought it was pretty buried," DeLeeuw says. "But fans spotted him! They've caught most of the easter eggs that we did in there. Everyone's caught pretty much everything at this point."
Avengers: Endgame is available to stream on Disney+.