Carlos Ciudad began his career in visual effects at Framestore in 2013. He then worked at MPC and joined the teams of DNEG in 2017. He has worked on many films such as THE JUNGLE BOOK, ALIEN: COVENANT, VENOM and CAPTAIN MARVEL.
How was this new collaboration with directors Russo Brothers and VFX Supervisor Dan DeLeeuw?
We collaborated with Mårten Larsson (Associate VFX Supervisor) and Jen Underdahl (VFX Producer) directly, who really ensured we understood the creative direction and end deliverables that we were responsible for. We would have frequent meetings and collaboration sessions internally, and with Mårten and Jen, to make sure we got timely feedback and were able to adjust as needed.
When you start to work with someone so intensely in a short period of time you get to know their working style. My team and I were always conscious of being responsive to client requests and meeting deadlines. And I believe, that’s what made our collaboration so successful.
How did you organize the work with your VFX Supervisor?
From the get-go, DNEG’s VFX Supervisor Graham Page and myself worked closely together to plan the project to the very last detail. We would breakdown the requirements of each sequence and design a plan/workflow accordingly. At each step of the planning process, we would do a self-assessment of our plan to ensure we were staying in line with the overall vision, and provide guidance to our crew.
What are the sequences made by DNEG?
- Captain Marvel arrives at the Avengers Compound with the Benatar.
- Avengers Compound Planning.
- Journey to Titan from Earth & Captain Marvel explores the planet.
- Aerial Shots of New York – Liberty Island abandoned and Mets stadium empty and overgrown.
- Scott Lang returns and his Storage Unit.
- Golden Gate Memorial.
- Scott Lang visits the Avengers.
- Ronin & Tokyo Streets.
- Scott Lang Taco Sequence & the Benatar’s arrival.
- New York City 2012 – Captain America VS Captain America.
- Avengers Compound Exteriors.
- Captain Returns the Stones and the Avengers Compound is being rebuild.
How did you handle Captain Marvel’s rigging and animation?
Our Animation team, led by Ben Wiggs (Animation Supervisor), used different methodologies to handle Captain Marvel’s work, including a mixture of bodytrack augmentation, digi-takeover and full digi-double shots.
One of the most challenging sequences was when Carol flies in carrying the powered-drained Benatar to the Avengers Compound and places it carefully down before descending to ground level. Finding the right balance between selling the weight of this giant space ship against her super-human strength was a fun challenge. We needed to find a better pose to kill the ‘hanging’ feel she had in the plate, while completely preserving Brie’s head performance and, again, nailing the integrity of her upper-body strength supporting this immense weight.
Our Creature team that produced work on all of the characters were supervised creatively and technically by Kyle Wood, who designed the overall methodology and took care to bring all of the character work up to the same high standard.
For Captain Marvel’s rigging, we used our Modular Rigging System, Pinocchio, to create the animation puppet, and the face rig. All the Facial Actions are captured as individual elements which the Animation rig then blends together to create the facial expressions. We have a proprietary method of splitting out the FACS shapes and layering in art directed shape corrections for scenarios where there are complex combinations of shapes making up a particular expression.
How did you create the Benatar?
Our Build team, led by Patrick Harboun (Build Supervisor), used the model and textures from previous versions of the Benatar as a starting point, but unfortunately, there was not enough detail for all of our close-up shots. So we had to up-res it using several techniques.
In modelling, we added tons of extra greebles and made any overly straight lines more irregular to break that CGI curse. In texturing, we painted additional decals and dirt as well as sculpted dents and wobble on flat surfaces, while the lookdev and rigging had to be re-done from scratch.
On top of that, we had to design a few additional parts that had never been featured before, like the Benatar’s landing gear system, the cargo hold and the galley behind the cockpit.
Can you tell us more about the digital characters work on Rocket?
Patrick Harboun and his team built a full raccoon skeleton and muscle system to drive the deformations based on references from pre-existing Rocket models for the body, face shapes and costume. We also had to create additional/specific facial shapes for our shots, as requested by our animators.
Our Animation team was very careful to ensure they didn’t make Rocket look cartoony and add just enough mannerism to make him look alive. At the same time, our Lighting team had to take extra care to avoid tinting the colour of his fur. The final result was a balancing act across all departments: if a facial expression was too extreme it would make the fur look too dense in some areas; if the lighting was too harsh the fur would look too coarse. When all the pieces finally clicked together, it was great seeing this iconic character come to life.
How did you create his fur?
Dennis Petkov (Groom Supervisor), worked very closely with Kyle Wood (Creature Supervisor) and our R&D team to develop a new fur workflow that allowed us to rapidly ingest Rocket’s Groom from other VFX studios. The main challenge was to match the work done previously by other VFX studios, since each one of them have their own proprietary Fur Grooming tools and Shaders.
Once the look was achieved, our supervisors started working together to create an optimal method to animate the Fur and move it through DNEG’s pipeline.
Rocket’s groom is very dense and has to respond convincingly to the action of the facial performance, so in conjunction with our R&D team, Dennis and Kyle designed and prototyped a bespoke hair deformation technique so we could efficiently art-direct and animate the fur. We had such a high degree of success with their work, that we are promoting this into our studio wide toolset.
Can you tell us more about the shaders and textures work for Captain Marvel and Rocket?
Patrick Harboun opted for Substance Designer to create the textures of Captain Marvel’s costume as it gave us numerous advantages over a more traditional, photo-projection based workflow. We didn’t have to worry about preserving UVs which allowed our modelers to freely revise the model with each feedback on the design.
Tom Whitehead (Senior LookDev TD), designed a substance material that worked as well for macro close ups than for distant shots. They achieved it by drawing the costume’s stitches, from which they then derived rules like leather tension and bulging. They took this approach to generate a myriad of other surface-obeying folds and buckling. This approach allows everyone to work in parallel which greatly accelerated the creative process. The whole costume was rendered in Clarisse IFX using DNEG’s principled PBR shader.
Rocket was a fun challenge to take on! We received models, textures, fur curves and a turntable render as a reference to match to and Dennis Petkov (Groom Supervisor), developed a process to ingest these fur curves into DNEG’s Furball software. Our Lookdev team lead, Sebastian Becker, meticulously retro-engineered the look of the fur. He had to pay attention to details like whether follicles had 1, 2 or 3 colours along their splines, matching the fur’s reflectance, and making sure characteristic features like the bright fur on his eyebrows and muzzle were preserved. We also had to further develop DNEG’s Clarisse hair shader to allow for better transparency in order to get softer shadows.
How did you create and animate the space backgrounds?
Creating Thanos’s retirement planet had many design elements that needed to be considered as the audience had to instantly understand that this was not Earth, but at the same time, it had to look habitable.
Daniel Pastore (DFX Supervisor) and our environments team, achieved this by adding Saturn-like rings, multiple moons and a much larger land mass. Normal maps were used along with the terrain’s textures to give relief to the land once lit and rendered and the bodies of water were used to add a shimmer and specular roll from the sun light. For all the fictional moons and planets, we used the ones found within our solar system as reference.
For all of our space shots we had a suite of elements and techniques developed for AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR. The gas cloud elements were layered up to enhance the perception of parallax and depth, while having large distances between the layers helped create the sense of speed and scale. Once the space was designed, it was used as part of a lighting rig to embed assets like the Benatar and Captain Marvel into the environment.
How did you create the massive New York City 2012 environment?
For the New York City 2012 sequence, Daniel Pastore (DFX Supervisor) and his team, had to create a massive 360 degree environment that had to fit into the “Stark Industries aesthetic” and a digital matte painting of the entire city.
The decision of making such a massive environment was due the fact that the building was mostly made up of glass and this had a big impact on the overall look; since the building was going to reflect parts of the world which weren’t directly seen through the camera.
The tower needed to have a distinctive double helix-style shape with the four walls twisting around each other and connected by glass bridges. Each facade was essentially a grid with curves controlling the amount of sheering of each panel in a non-destructive manner, this allowed us to easily change the amount of curvature and create as many levels to the skyscraper as we needed. For the floors and the office interiors we created libraries of assets, that we procedurally assigned to decorate the interiors, with hundreds of variants to avoid repetitions.
Our team planned to rely on the modelled detail to provide extra shadowing, highlights and visual complexity rather than relying on textures to do most the detailing, that way we could take advantage of scattering and instancing the assets to keep the render times manageable. We did use the atrium at DNEG’s London office as a reference, especially the cafe area seen in the second half of the sequence is very reminiscent of our own. We shot inside the building for photogrammetry, textures and reference photography to aid our build and lighting teams.
All the plates required full bodytracks of Captain America’s performances; that way our digital double could be used for reflections and shadows on the CG glass surface. One of the challenges that we had overcome came from the fact the plate photography needed to sit between layers of CG glass. A flexible method for this, was to use STmaps to control the levels of refraction, light absorption and tinting on content behind the glass without always re-rendering it. This enabled us to render the environment in layers and make changes to the New York city backdrop without re-rendering the whole building.
Which sequence or shot was the most complicated to create and why?
DNEG was tasked with creating a fully digital environment of the modern building interior, which was a particular challenge due to it being largely comprised of glass, meaning in-camera versions of the characters had to be tracked for every shot to allow for their reflections.
Is there something specific that gives you some really short nights?
Seeing that everything comes together is of the utmost importance to me. We need to ensure that our work is in line with the high quality VFX detail that Marvel expects from us and in line with the creative direction. Adapting along the way to changes comes with its challenges, and sometimes long nights, but my team is engaged and motivated along the way. We set high expectations of ourselves, so we are happy to meet these challenges with a high-quality deliverable in the end.
What is your favorite shot or sequence?
My personal favourite is the iconic shot were Captain America clashes his shield with his past self. I think what makes it great is the comic-style vibe of it.
What is your best memory on this show?
Getting a tap on the shoulder to work on such an amazing film is always a thrilling and nerve-wracking moment. There’s always going to be hype and high expectations around a Marvel movie and of course we want to deliver the highest quality deliverable. I knew it would be challenging and demanding on me and the team but what got us through is our camaraderie and the positive environment we were able to maintain even through those long nights.
How long have you worked on this show?
I started on the project during September of 2018 and finished in April of 2019.
What’s the VFX shots count?
The shot count for DNEG was around 300 Shots.
What was the size of your team?
The average size of our team was around 350, including support and production.
What is your next project?
My next project will be FAST & FURIOUS 9, which is going to keep my team here at DNEG very busy until next year.
A big thanks for your time.
WANT TO KNOW MORE?
DNEG: Dedicated page about AVENGERS: ENDGAME on DNEG website.
© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2019