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We visit VFX house Digital Domain to see how the Marvel magic is created

In a cinematic world where masked bandits and caped crusaders reign supreme, it’s more important than ever before to bring a realistic depiction of comic book characters to life on the big screen. This is especially true with a villain like Thanos, who shapes so much of the final product in a mega blockbuster like AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR. For those who are unfamiliar, this movie represents the ultimate culmination of ten years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which results in a showdown between the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy, and their shared nemesis Thanos, the man who seeks to commit genocide in the name of equality. With all of the pressure already placed on this gigantic story, no one would want something like botched effects gumming up the works. A single mishap can distract millions of viewers from a crucial Marvel moment. For example, when Gamora recalls the childhood memory of her father laying waste to millions on her home planet, the last thing you want the audience pondering is how close the nearest McDonalds is because the titular Big Bad more closely resembles Grimace than the Mad Titan. That’s why when it came time for Dan Deleeuw, lead visual effects supervisor on AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR to pick a trustworthy VFX crew to work on this massive project, he went with none other than Kelly Port and the gang at Digital Domain, a company that’s been conjuring up consistent creations for so many moons that they’re actually currently celebrating their twenty-fifth year in business.

Turning heads with projects like BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, MALEFICENT and THOR, Deleeuw had no doubt in his mind that Kelly Port would be the right man to help bring Thanos to life in Marvel’s biggest crossover event to date. Through a combination of Motion Capture equipment, Virtual Reality cameras, loads of compositing, and one real life Josh Brolin, Digital Domain gave realistic weight to Thanos, thus anchoring a 1973 Jim Starlin comic book character as a believable 2018 movie monster. We were lucky enough to spend a day with the two wickedly sharp brains behind this incredibly ambitious project, and what was learned at the Digital Domain studios will be forever relished in the heart of this writer, and hopefully for fans of the franchise as well.

Just before he shows the press the behind the scenes footage on the upcoming INFINITY WAR Blu-ray, Deleeuw points out an unlikely source of inspiration for the look of the film, which surprisingly lies in a 1963 Roger Corman horror flick called THE RAVEN. Deleeuw, who’s been working with Anthony and Joe Russo since ever since CAPTAIN AMERICA: WINTER SOLDIER, has developed such a strong shorthand with the go-to Marvel directors that they now only need to reference a classic cult movie to understand the exact type of pre-visualization they’re preparing for the specific aesthetic of their cinematic universe.

“For something like Titan, Thanos’ home world, we actually made that entire sequence on the computer, animated, before we shot it” explains Deleeuw. “One of the pieces in that sequence that we’ll show you later today is the wizard’s duel with Thanos, which was done by New Zealand’s Weta, and it’s something that Joe Russo always wanted to do. He always wanted to have a wizard’s duel in a movie, and kept mentioning this movie called THE RAVEN, which is a Boris Karloff and Vincent Price movie. It’s obscure, but being the nerds that we are, we all knew what the movie was, and it’s something that you remember being very great! You go back and look at it – nostalgically, it’s great, but it’s not what you thought it would be. But it’s basically shared inspiration for [pre-visualization], and kind of understanding what the director’s vision is”.

Aside from world building, when it came to the appearance of Thanos himself, Deleeuw made sure to mention that this time around, the MCU was going for a more grounded look. Although Thanos has been shown previously for brief moments in AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON and GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, the aforementioned depictions didn’t quite have that tangible touch that Deleeuw and his crew were clamoring for. The first attempt at the real life version of the Son of Alars was a man in makeup that was then completely replaced by CG. The design was then slightly altered, but it still came across as a bit too fantastical to keep the audience engaged. The solution? Making Thanos look more like Josh Brolin.

“The important part is, instead of this CG creature, you now have a little more of Josh [Brolin] in his face”, says Deleeuw. “As exaggerated as his features are, you now suddenly have eyes of the character that you can recognize, that you can start bonding with, and those eyes can now sell that performance. So, one of the earliest breakthroughs on this was when we started really bringing Josh into Thanos”.

Without a Brundlepod in sight to help mesh these two characters together, Digital Domain relied on good ‘ol Motion Capture Equipment to help the animated Thanos mimic Brolin’s very human movements. After Deleeuw and Port play a few behind the scenes Blu-ray extras and a Digital Domain highlight reel in the studio’s own personal home theater, the duo leads us down the hall, over to the VFX Stations and MoCap Stages. In here, we see a performer demonstrate how the Motion Capture suit works. He wears the tight black body capture suit from head to toe, which is covered in little white markers that record his movement. He’s even had special black dots drawn on his face and a Head Mounted Cam attached to his Velcro cap which hangs down in front of his eyes, a picture which is then projected up close onto a television screen nearby. This room is exactly what it sounds like – a stage – stark white, nearly empty except for TV screens and tiny cameras in every corner, with a big pink square painted on the floor like a schoolyard game is about to ensue. The actor walks carefully around in circles, his every maneuver captured and shown from different angles on the screens to the side.

Here we see a visual effects trick so effective it may be taken for granted nowadays, especially when there’s a new PLANET OF THE APES happening every few years. However, it would be wise to pause and remember that such technology was not as prevalent in the days of Zack Snyder’s WATCHMEN when animators were reduced to using little bright lights mounted on actors and guessing via a blurry computer image where to move their mouse. It’s a wonder that Dr. Manhattan came out as clear as he did.

Before we sit down to speak with Deleeuw and Port for the on camera interview portion of the day, we’re given some free time to play around with the Virtual Reality demo of Vormir, the virtual camera control which frames all of the action displayed on the larger monitor, and even the real Infinity Gauntlet prop worn by Josh Brolin himself. But of course, this writer being the admittedly nerdy type that she is, was naturally drawn to the animation department, as headed on the computer workstations by Phil Cramer, Scott Edelstein, and Keith Smith. Here, on the computer, I sat fascinated and learned about just how many meticulous little clicks it takes to create your very own rendering of Thanos. I’m pretty proud of what I came up with – my “Sassy Thanos”, as I’ve dubbed him – but believe me that it took at least thirty minutes just to throw the slightest bit of shade into the Dark Lord’s strut. I’ve gained a whole new appreciation for every single person working hard behind the scenes to bring AVENGERS to life, a film which contained 2,703 cuts total, with the gang at Digital Domain working on 2,623, meaning that only about 80 total shots in this movie were not touched by visual effects. In a way, these employees have the biggest job on the lot.

Check out my rendering of Thanos below, an image which Marvel was gracious enough to allow me to share, and be sure to pick up your copy of AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR when it hits Blu-ray and DVD on August 14th, 2018. Buy it HERE!

Source: JoBlo.com

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