The Avengers was a massive hit last year, smashing box office records and wowing with stunningly ambitious effects! I recently had the opportunity visit Walt Disney Studios to talk with Executive Producer Victoria Alonso who worked on Thor, Captain America, and both Ironman films, and is currently working on Ironman III, and Visual Effects Supervisor for ILM, Jeff White, who is nominated for a Visual Effects Oscar for his outstanding work on The Avengers.
They discuss what it’s like to work on simultaneous blockbusters, reactions from fans, The Hulk, and share answers to burning questions.
First of all, let me congratulate you on your nomination and the fantastic success of the Avengers! To start out, can you talk a little bit about working on the effects for The Hulk and what you did to incorporate Mark Ruffalo’s performance into the character?
Jeff: By the time the whole design arrived to us he was already incorporated into the design. For us I think that was a huge part of why that character was successful and part of that is you immediately go to the eyes anytime you’re looking at a character, and having those eyes that’s where we really wanted to see Mark Ruffalo in the performance. He not only did motion capture sessions at eye-line but he was out on set, and you know that wasn’t easy to do that. I mean, he had to wear this Mo-cap suit and everyone else got these really amazing superhero costumes. The poor guy…
Victoria: I know, poor thing!
Jeff: He really was incredibly gracious in the whole process. Always having a performance for him, and a real plate of him, and his real eyes, and to be able to see how his skin looks, that was absolutely critical to us getting that right. We would just continue to look back and forth- look at The Hulk, look at Mark Ruffalo, and ask, “What are we missing?”. Back and forth. So, the fact that he was incorporated in the design and then also did so many performances for us was a huge part of why it was successful.
I know people love to hear about the big scenes and everyone’s favorites, but is there anything that for you was a personal “Nailed it!” kind of moment, where technically for you it was a big deal that you were proud of but other people might overlook?
Jeff: That’s is a good question! There’s so many huge shots and there’s so many great character moments for The Hulk but one of my favorites was in his first transformation. It was a close up where he’s about half hulk at that point, and he looks back at camera and it’s close on him, and for us, that’s a really unique opportunity. We knew we couldn’t use the plate of Mark Ruffalo so we knew we wanted to do a digital person, but we wanted people to feel like it was a makeup application. So invisible that people thought it was really Mark Ruffalo with some green paint. It was one of those nice character moments too, with just sort of the angle of his eyebrow and the motion of his face. Joss gave us great direction in terms of this is what he wanted to see in that moment when he looked back at Black Widow and it’s sort of the last before he becomes The Hulk. So that was one of those great combinations of let’s try to use everything we know about trying to create a photo realistic digital person and also get all the acting beats in there.
You could say that in some ways this Oscar nomination is a mandate that people want to see more Hulk. Are there any plans for that?
Jeff: That I don’t know, but I would imagine, he’s a very popular character.
Victoria: Hulk is a very loved character so, you never know. You never know…
With the big 360 degree scene especially, where the camera pans around to show all the Avengers assembled before battle, which was also used in the trailer, there is a real sense that all the characters belonged and that was their world. Were there any design elements that you made as a conscious choice to have throughout the origin films to help enhance that feeling?
Victoria: Um, not when we did the origin ones because at that point the Avengers movie was a faraway dream. As we got closer to it with each one- Ok we got one done, the second, the fourth- then it became very clear that we were going that direction but I don’t know that I would say that it was specifically thought out that we will have this here. But we have characters from other movies that have existing relationships, like Agent Coulton, and Gwyneth Paltrow doing Pepper Potts, and bringing back Scarlet, and Nick Fury, and the whole S.H.I.E.L.D language which we had seen before, which is something that translated but again it’s something that would have also worked on its own.
One thing that sets the Avengers super heroes movies apart is that they all have a strong shared Marvel universe that links them all together. What were some of the concerns you faced you wouldn’t normally have when doing standalone films?
Victoria: Well, story wise we had four origin stories that we somehow had to respect where each of them came from so that they can land in a place that was believable. But, it also had to be done in a way that if you had not seen any of the other movies you’d still be interested in that one movie. Some people may not have had the chance or may not have cared to see an Iron Man movie, or Captain America, or Thor. We wanted to do something so that as a group film it works but was also independent of whatever else, but with enough of the information of the origin pictures that if you were a true fan then you felt like we had respected your character. That was a big challenge. We threaded things in there that were from other movies, in the dialogue but also in the imagery.
You work on a lot of movies at the same time! You’ve got people working all over the world on them…
Victoria: Yes! That is how we have figured out how to get 36 hours out of the day. You see people say, “I’ve only got 24 hours in a day!” but I say, “I’ve got 36!”.
What are some of the challenges you find that come with keeping up multiple projects and that sort of release schedule?
Victoria: Every movie is different and every production team works in a different way. I think there are plus and minuses in every production, but time is always our biggest enemy. You know, because we announce our release date right off the bat, sometimes without a script. So, sometimes it’s that battle to get to the best that we can but with the most consistent quality. Because that’s the one thing that I strive for in our movies, it’s to have the level of quality that sets us apart. Whether we succeed or fail, every movie had to determine that level.
Jeff: That’s very true too! You’re only as good as your worst shot and the great thing about the Marvel films is that there’s no shot that bumps you out being really integrated into that.
Victoria: Yeah, there’s a relentlessness to not let go until we have to let go. In times of being tired that isn’t necessarily your friend, but after you’ve got your good night’s sleep and had your vacation in Hawaii you come back and you say, “You know, I’m glad we pushed!”. Because you’re proud of the work. We don’t do little films we do bigger films, so the challenge for us is to show these huge journeys and to keep them always up to the same level and quality as the last one, or better.
Jeff: You see it even just in how Iron Man puts his suit on. First he stood still and he could put it on, and then he had the suitcase suit and he could do it in the field, and then for Avengers we have him walking around and falling off buildings, and so there definitely is that one-upmanship with each of the projects. That’s fun, that’s great kind of stuff to work on.
So, I’ve been thinking about something and maybe one of you guys can answer this for me. Why doesn’t Thor wear his helmet when he’s fighting? Because he has it in the movie, and Captain America gets to keep his.
Victoria: Well, hmm, he wore it in the Coronation Scene…
Jeff: I sure wish he would, because it’s awfully hard to roto those long locks. Haha!
Victoria: Well, let’s just say Chris looks good with anything on him and sometimes you might see him with it, and sometimes you might see him without it. How’s that? Hahaha!
After working on and completing the Marvel phase one movies, is there anything that you have learned from those that you’re bringing with you into the second phase?
Victoria: I think what I’ve learned over the last 7 years is that you want to have in your vendors is people that are as committed as you are to the level of excellence, and the level of quality, and the level of photo realism that we all strive for. I think if you don’t have that commitment from the vendors, that can hurt you. We have been so lucky being blessed with characters that people love, so there’s a commitment that is far and beyond in what you experience in maybe other films, and we have seen that also from our vendors from all over the world, big companies and smaller companies. They are committed and they are devoted, and that is the joy I think of doing what we do.
Jeff: It’s not hard to get people excited to work on The Hulk. They will go above and beyond, even if they don’t have the time. They’ll stay to make it just right. And, that’s one of the great things about working on films like this that have such great characters.
One last question- Getting to work with this Marvel franchise is such an amazing and fun opportunity. How does it make you feel knowing your movies are being seen by a whole new generation that’s growing up with them, and your designs and work influence so many and will be what is remembered when they think of these characters?
Jeff: It is sort of bizarre when you see a little kid with a backpack and there’s the Hulk that we were noodling over, trying to get the angle of eyebrow…
Victoria: Well, I’ll tell you a story. We were in North Carolina shooting Iron Man 3 and I took my daughter to the park on a Sunday and I was just standing there and this little kid comes up and says, “Did you see Hulk? Did you see that Avengers movie ‘Hulk’?” And I’m like, “Yeah…” “That is the best! It is the best!” And his Daddy is standing next to him and he says, “He has seen that movie forever. He can recite every line…” And I say to him “So could I!” Haha! And I say, “Did he enjoy it?” And he goes off, “Oh my god! He’s got everything green! We had to paint the room green! Everything green! He’s even got, you know, the fist. Everything is Hulk! And now, everything is Captain America, and…” And… it’s a dream come true. Because I think that if you can encourage, and it’s about being a hero, it isn’t about being a super hero which I think is very different- you need the cape and you need the help of CGI for that, but it’s really about stepping up. And I think you can teach a generation with humor, that it’s not about the dark world. With humor, that you can step up and make something of yourself. Sometimes it’s as easy as reaching out a hand when someone is about to fall. It’s simple, you don’t have to save the world. You just have to show up and step up. And I think that, if you can do that for a new generation or an older generation, that is a dream come true. There’s no other place that can give you that, unless if you are in Congress and you can pass a law that will effect and help someone. This is something that can help emotionally a generation if you can do that. To me, that’s the biggest gift that Marvel could ever have given me!
Jeff: It is. I’ve given several presentations to High School kids to show them, they’re so inspired by the film, and here’s the math and science that goes into creating the visual effect for it that we do. And if that gets them interested in pursuing those careers, what a great thing! We both have small kids, and it’s so nice to have worked really hard on a film that you’re going to be so proud to show them one day when they are older.
I appreciate you taking the time to talk! Thank you, and good luck to you again!
Jeff white is nominated for a VFX Oscar along with his fellow effects team members Janek Sirrs, Guy Williams, and Daniel Sudick, and recently won A Visual Effects Society award for The Avengers.
By Laura Gaddy