Dan Deleeuw began his career in the visual effects in 1992 at Dream Quest Images and then joined the teams of Rhythm & Hues. He worked on many projects such as THE ROCK, REIGN OF FIRE, NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM or IRON MAN 3. CIVIL WAR is his second collaboration with the Russo brothers.
What is your background?
I started in VFX at Dream Quest Images in 1992 working with the film scanner and digital film recorder. It was a great time to start in the film business because many of the original techniques were still being used. It would take CG a few more years to take over. As a result, I learned a lot of the older techniques from the artists that still worked in the model shop, motion control department, and optical department.
What was your feeling to work again with the Russo Brothers?
The Russo Brothers are great! When you interview with someone, you get an idea whether their sensibilities match yours pretty quickly. When you’re in sync, you really hit it off. We shared a lot of favorite movies from the 70’s which CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER were based on. Coming back for CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR was a pleasure. We had already developed a short hand that allowed us to move quickly through the creative process. They have a saying “That the best idea always wins!”. They are great leaders that encourage everyone to contribute.
This new Captain America have a bigger scale. Does that change their approach about the VFX?
The biggest change was that we knew we would be working even harder and longer hours than on WINTER SOLDIER! We wanted to stay true to the philosophy we had on CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER – “Keep it grounded”. Despite having many more digital characters, we still approached the shots as practically as possible. We always brought in Stunts and Special Effects to design shots in the best possible way. The biggest difference was the amount of Green Screen shots we would use. For CA:TWS, we were more location based. For CA:CW it was faster for us to shoot Green Screen during production and then make up the time in post production with VFX.
Can you describe to us one of your typical day during the pre-prod, on-set and then on post?
Pre-production is all about meetings and laying the ground work for photography. Typically I would spend a large portion of the day with Pre-Vis and in Production Meetings. Then based on information we received from the first portion of the day, we would strategize within VFX to be ready for the meetings the next day. We would strategize things like plate shoots, what scans and texture photos we would need, and what equipment we would need to shoot based on the pre-vis.
The Russos liked to shoot with splinter units in addition to any second unit or plate units. As a result, a large portion of the shoot day was running between the different units making sure everything was running smoothly. If a particularly challenging or important shot was being photographed, I would spend my time there. In between those moments, we would meet with Special Effects, Locations, Props, Wardrobe and other departments to get ready for upcoming shoot days.
Post days were spent in review. We would arrive between 8:30 and 9:00 AM, try to answer our emails, and then start reviewing shots. If it was a day we were presenting shots to the directors and studio, we would schedule in reviews for the studio reviews! Typically our day would end about 11:00 PM.
What was your most complicated sequence and how did you achieve it?
The Battle at Leipzig airport was the most complicated sequence. ILM was our lead vendor for that sequence. We spent months in pre-production pre-vis’ing the fight in tandem with Stunts. During photography we knew what shots would be digital and which would not. Shots that were all digital were handed over to ILM while we were still shooting. This allowed us to move as efficiently as possible.
We shot in Atlanta on a concrete tarmac surrounded by green screen. We had minimal set dressing of Tugs and Luggage carts that we could use to fill the frame. Over the course of three weeks we shots less and less with the set dressing as it would slow us down to move it. The sequence was so large we had to move quickly.
The general rule was that if it was hand to hand combat it would be photographed even if the characters were digital. Any CG characters would be roto’d to the motion of the stunt performers. This gave us very organic movement for the digital characters. Any characters that could fly were achieved digitally.
Can you explain in details about the previs process?
Pre-Vis started very early in the process and created a large portion of the choreography for the battles. I approached the Airport Fight from two angles. One angle was based on the needs of the story and the other was based on what the fans wanted to see. As the story evolves there are disagreements that need to be paid off at the airport. For example Black Panther would immediately go after Winter Soldier. I looked at pairings based on who the characters had fought earlier in the film. I wanted to make sure all the characters got a chance to fight against each other. In addition I had to consider the characters power levels and how a groups could team up to defeat a stronger hero. Following these ideas, we came up with twenty four minutes of animation that was then cut down into the pre-vis we used to shoot.
The Final Battle was approached similarly. How would Bucky and Cap tag team to take down Iron Man? Cap being the strategist would try to take Iron Man apart piece by piece. You can see throughout the sequence how Bucky breaks IM’s repulsors and how Cap specifically knocks out Tony’s boot repulsor so that he can’t fly.
The pre-vis was completed by The Third Floor using Maya. We had teams working in Atlanta and in California. The great part about working at Marvel is that we have access to all the assets from the other films. We would re-purpose as many assets as possible and then update them with the new uniforms.
The movie have many CG characters like Iron Man, War Machine or Ant Man. How was enhanced their CG models?
Iron Man’s and War Machine’s armor each received and upgrade for CIVIL WAR. The design goal was to give each of the armors the personality of the characters inside them. Iron Man had the classic car clear coat fire engine red paint job. His armor was more stream lined and advanced. War Machines armor was more blocky and less stream lined. War Machine also had more aging and damage that showed it’s history in battle. We had many scenes were Robert Downey Jr. had to deliver important lines of dialogue. We wanted to move away from the version of the armor where the face mask flipped up like a visor. We wanted Robert to be free of anything that would inhibit his performance.
How did you approach the iconic fight between the two teams in the airport?
We spent many months pre-vis’ing the sequence. As a comic fan it allowed me the opportunity to crate any and all scenarios I could imagine. The pre-vis provided us with a road map of how to plan, what to shoot practically and what to create digitally. We chose to shoot this “non-grounded” fight as “grounded” as possible. So even though we knew we would replace some characters and set pieces digitally, we still wanted real world reference we could base the shots on.
Can you explain step by step about its creation?
We started with pre-vis to map out the sequence. We would then bring the pre-vis to our production meetings and decide which departments would be responsible for the different components of the shoot. Any shots that were entirely CG were handed over as soon as possible to begin work. Special Effects would create explosions and practical destruction. Stunt performers would wear a stunt version of the Iron Man armor that provided great lighting reference but would be replaced in post production. Stunt performers for Spider-Man would wear motion capture suit with tracking markers. We photographed a majority of the sequence on green screen. ILM traveled to Germany to photo texture, scan, and get aerial plates of Leipzig airport. The digital model of Leipzig was enormous. With exception of portions of the Spidey fight in the terminal and escaping in the Quinjet at the end of the fight, all of the backgrounds are entirely CG.
The Wanda, Hawkeye, and Iron Man Car Crash sub-sequnce was created with digital car and destruction simulations. The “Water Truck” that is thrown at War Machine was created by Special Effects by actually throwing a truck frame that exploded. ILM completed the truck by adding the fuel tank to the frame. Black Panther was photographed with a stunt performer. It was decided in post production to enhance the Vibranium threads in the suit, as a result we ended up replacing all Black Panther suits with a digital version. Ant Man inside Tony’s armor was created digitally. The clash of heroes was photographed practically and CG characters were added were needed.
Did you use or developed specific tools to help visualize this sequence on-set?
The airport fight was enormous and we shot as much footage was we could each day. Fortunately I had worked on the pre-vis for months either mapping it out on the computer or visualizing with action figures on a table top. When we photographed, I knew were all the heroes had to be. Between setups we would have meetings to show everyone were the heroes were and where the lighting direction had to come from.
What were the challenges with the giant Ant-Man?
We tried photographing Giant Man practically by over-crankig the camera. Unfortunately, it looked like exactly what it was. Giant characters have always felt a little false because they look like a normal sized person shot in slow motion. Ultimately Giant Man was achieved digitally with a combination of motion capture and animation. We locked in on the term of “Drunk Baby” to describe Gian Man’s motion. It was Scott’s first time in battle as Giant Man, and as result, we played on the idea that he didn’t know how to balance for all that extra weight. Similar to how a toddler moves in trying to keep it’s balance for the first time because those muscles haven’t developed yet. The “Drunk” portion of it evolved because there was a level of humor in how he moved as well.
Can you tell us more about the new Spider-Man and he was created and animated?
We spent a lot of time on Spider-Man working on finding his character. It wasn’t until Tom Holland was cast half way through photography that we cracked the problem. Tom’s performance and physique made the perfect Spider-Man. Up until this point Spider-Man always felt like a stunt man in a suit. It was important to the character that Spider-Man felt like the same person as the hight school age Peter Parker. We created the digital Spider-Man based on the scan of Tom while accentuating his physique with super hero proportions. We tried four different versions of the suit before we settled on the version seen in the film.
We wanted to make sure our Spider-Man could express himself and not appear as blank expression on a mask. His eyes were created from a set of irising blades that closed down and opened up over the eye lenses. The movement of the mask was based on Tom’s facial motion capture. When he opened or closed his eyes, or raised his brows the lenses on the eyes would move. The mask would move based on a cloth simulation riding over muscle movement being driven by Tom’s motion capture. This kept as much of Tom as possible in the suit.
For combat, we approached his animation as a young kid really pushing the limits of his abilities. If you look at all of his swings, they are not executed perfectly. Instead of trying to hit the perfect Spidey pose we chose to add imperfections that ultimately make his performance appear more organic. It addition, any of his flips or swings had to have mechanics that would make them appear real. For example, if he needed extra height he would have to kick his legs forward. Any movement had a cost and had to be justified with a specific technique.
The movie takes us the various places. Which references did you received to created these locations?
The film was shot predominately in Atlanta. As a result, it fell on VFX to create the exotic locations. For Siberia, we traveled to Iceland to photograph aerial plates for the exteriors of the missile silo and panoramas for Black Panther and Zemo’s confrontation outside the bunker. We wanted to photograph in Africa for the Lagos Fight but couldn’t travel for safety reasons. We ended up using Puerto Rico to double for Lagos. We kept foreground elements from Atlanta and replaced large portions of the background with plates from Puerto Rico.
For Wakanda we traveled to Iguazu Falls on the border of Brazil and Argentina where we shot many plates. Unfortunately, the shot was reconceived and our plates wouldn’t work. Image Engine came in and saved they day and created a CG jungle for us based on the Iguazu photography. They did use waterfall elements from the plate shoot in the shot.
How did you split the work amongst the various VFX studios?
We had 14 VFX houses working on Civil War with just under 3’000 shots. We like to break up the shots by sequences to minimize the amount of shared shots. There is more overhead with managing the shared elements between vendors so we tried to avoid it if possible. We worked with ILM as the lead house to develop the digital assets as early as possible. The assets were then shared between the different vendors. On a show this size it’s important to make the pipeline as smooth as possible.
How was your collaboration with each VFX Supervisors and their teams?
We were lucky to have many of the same VFX houses from CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER return for this film. As a result, we already had a great relationship with their teams. Method joined us for the first time, but because everyone knows everyone in the VFX business, I had worked with Greg Steele before. Our Second Unit Supervisor Swen Gillberg worked with Double Negative and Cinesite. They came on later in the production and did an awesome job!
Was there a shot or sequence that prevent you from sleep?
The Young Tony shot was brutal. It is just under 4’000 frames. Having done the Old Peggy sequence in WINTER SOLDIER I knew it would be difficult to find the look for Young Tony. We examined reference from all of Robert’s early films trying to find the best look. Ultimately we decided we didn’t want a young Robert from Weird Science, we wanted a young Tony Stark, a look that represented wealth and not spikey 80’s hair. Once the look was finalized the process began. Normally you can split shots up over multiple artists and complete them in sections. With this shot, the Russo’s wanted to complete it as one long shot because it was the audience viewing a hologram. In the end, it was the last shot we completed.
What do you keep from this experience?
The size of this film was great learning experience. Moving this many shots through a short production schedule takes a lot of balancing. Also, I’ve never choreographed a sequence with this many characters. By the end of production, I found that I thought about the construction of the sequences differently.
How long have you worked on this film?
I started September of 2014 and finished in April of 2016 – so just about a year and a half.
How many shots have you done?
Just under 3’000 including shared shots.
What was the size of your team?
We had 14 vendors. I still don’t have a total for all the VFX artists.
What is your next project?
AVENGERS Part 3 and 4.
What are the four movies that gave you the passion for cinema?
RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK
LAWRENCE OF ARABIA
THIEF OF BAGHDAD
A big thanks for your time.
© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2016