You might think that the shape-shifting Skrulls in Captain Marvel were one of the biggest challenges for the thousands of visual effects artists who worked on the hit Marvel movie, but there was an especially luscious obstacle too: Carol Danvers' hair.
"Throughout the film, she has wet hair, and dry flowing hair, and Mohawk hair, and hair that has to move when the helmet actually comes on," Marvel Additional Visual Effects Supervisor Janelle Croshaw Ralla tells SYFY WIRE. "That helmet effect coming on was something that's been used in lots of other Marvel films, but never with anyone with long hair."
Carol's superheroic hairdos weren't even the only hair the effects team had to deal with. They worked as much as possible with real-life cats to bring the breakout character Goose to life, even though it wasn't easy. Luckily, they were able to use a real cat more than some of the effects artists initially feared.
"When we were doing pre-viz, I was like, this cat's going to be CG the whole time — it's never gonna be a real pet, they'll never get a cat to do this," Third Floor Previs Supervisor Shannon Justison recalls. "And then I get these plates back and was like, they got the cat to do this?"
Taking on the challenge alongside Ralla and Justison was Scanline VFX Supervisor Nick Crew, ILM VFX Supervisor Craig Hammack, and Luma VFX Supervisor Kevin Souls. As they explain below, the key for them involved at times taking artistic license with how Carol's hair would actually move in space, and using unconventional objects to stand in for Goose.
What was the initial reaction to taking on Carol's hair?
Craig Hammack: It's daunting. It's shoulder-length blond hair, that goes through really dark states. Everything's gotten to the point where with enough time, you can do it, but you never get enough time. So, then it becomes just a task of breaking down what can be cheated. It's always a roll of the dice. We were able to with photographic reference nail her hair, you know, in a certain state. Whenever we had to run binary energy through the hair, we had to hand sculpt strands so that we could actually do the lighting through it. But to get to that level, it's a level of pain and you just go for it.
Did everyone know going in how hard this would be? Or at some point during production, was everyone saying "wouldn't it be nice if he had a buzz cut?"
Janelle Croshaw Ralla: CG hair is always one of those visual effects that you know is going to be hard as you go. You went into it knowing that anytime there would be a digi-double, she's going to have CG hair — especially when she's in binary mode, and when she has her mohawk.
Hammack: I think the biggest challenge was probably knowing what to do with hair in space. Because, if you look at space station footage, there are lots of reference videos out there, because some astronauts have long hair. In this case, there were instances where you wanted some of that feeling. And there were other instances where you want just a little bit of that feeling.
When you say that, do you mean you're modulating the hair movement for dramatic effect?
Croshaw Ralla: Well, for instance, when they first go into space, and there's no gravity, the hair is literally floating and going everywhere. And then towards the end of the film when she's in very heroic poses with the binary effect around her, you don't want it to be all the way out here. [Holds her hair up to demonstrate.] There has to be a lot of thought put into what physically works, but also just with the story works, because you don't want it to take the viewer out. It has to be, you know, beautiful and look good. Each shot kind of becomes an artistic interpretation.
Hammack: Yeah, you can't satisfy everyone. There are going to be people that come back with "it wouldn't look like this in space."
Her supersuit has magical hair-weighting properties?
Croshaw Ralla: You have no idea the discussions we've had about what is possible.
In terms of the de-aging being done for Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and other characters, it's not just about an actor with a de-aged face, but making sure he moves like a person of that age too, right?
Croshaw Ralla: Our number one focus is always to not take away from Sam's performance. So, almost sequence to sequence, you have to analyze what part of this is Sam performing as washed-up Nick Fury, desk cop (as he was in the early days before he became badass Nick Fury) and what part is a 69-year-old man that is hunched because he's older.
So it really became an artistic interpretation from shot to shot and scene to scene, of how much of the posture we fix. We always had to do body modifications where we brought in the tummy and even sometimes the hips and we had always straighten the posture a little bit. It just became really making sure we weren't taking away from that character moment.
Did you end up getting any feedback from him or his team about the end result?
Croshaw Ralla: I think he was really happy with it. We gave him a visual effects shirt and he wore it and put it on Instagram. It was actually one of our coordinators, Sarah, who designed the shirt and she's so proud. She has it printed out.
Our goal was that you have that first moment where Vers meets him on Earth, and you're like, whoa, Sam Jackson looks different and younger. But then you don't question it for the rest of the film.
When it came to creating the character of Goose, how much did you end up actually working with real-life cats?
Croshaw Ralla: I worked with them a lot because I VFX supervised second unit. I worked under Christopher Townsend, who was the overall supervisor and he shot main unit, and they tried to at first have patience with the cats; when shooting live animals, you have to have a little bit more patience. But more and more as the shoot went on, the cat shots got pushed to second unit. After we were finished with all of our explosions and crazy stunts and whatever, we were shooting a lot of cats, and it was actually oftentimes a lot of them.
There were four different cats — Reggie, our hero cat, and then three stand-ins, and they all had their own little specialties. And so for almost every single shot in the film, we have a reference take with one of the cats, even for the 80 percent of the shots where [actors were interacting] with either the green cucumber or the stuffy [a stuffed cat replica].
What was the green cucumber?
Croshaw Ralla: It looks like a big green sausage. It's actually in a lot of the shots. Brie's allergic to cats, so she was often just holding the green cucumber. The stuffy was rabbit fur, which I think all the actors were kind of sensitive to because it would come off and float in the air — and it would freak them out, because it looks real enough, but it was almost like you were holding this dead limp animal.
Croshaw Ralla: The stuffy was Legacy Effects [the same company that made Baby Yoda for The Mandalorian].
Hammack: But the stuffy also had problems because peoples' hands get buried in the fur. So you end up reconstructing fingers. In a lot of cases, the green sausage was preferable.
Shannon Justison: It's a cat that acts like a cat 95 percent of the time, until it suddenly isn't a cat, so it's unlike The Lion King. This is a real cat. It also harkens back to the director's purview because Anna [Boden] and Ryan [Fleck], they don't come out of visual effects. They wanted everything as real as they could get. And surprisingly, even though we ended up having to replace them quite a bit, the cats were pretty good actors for the most part. And when he did get replaced, then those [videos] became amazing reference for the weird things the cats would do in this situation.
Hammack: Stuff you wouldn't come up with.
Like the scene where Goose throws up the Tesseract?
Croshaw Ralla: We watched a lot of reference videos you didn't want to watch before lunch.