Matt Dessero began his career in the VFX more than 15 years ago. He worked in many studios such as CFC, Sony Imageworks, ESC Entertainment and recently Method Studios. He has worked on films like AMERICAN BEAUTY, MATRIX REVOLUTIONS, WATCHMEN, ARGO or CLOUD ATLAS.

How did Method Studios get involved on this show?
On 12/28/2012 we had a meeting at Marvel with Chris Townsend (production’s VFX Supervisor) and Mark Soper (production’s VFX Producer). The next week was spent bidding. We were awarded the show the first week of January.

How was the collaboration with director Shane Black?
All of our dealings were with Chris Townsend.

Can you tell us more about your work with Production VFX Supervisor Christopher Townsend?
With only nine weeks to get through a wide variety of work, having tight communication with Chris was essential. Chris was very respectful of the process and had faith that we would deliver. At our first meeting in December Chris and I discussed the fact that it would take us about four weeks from award to get our first shot up for review. We gave Chris and Mark a schedule and adhered to it or adjusted as needed.We finalled the low hanging fruit and presented those as the larger assets were being developed in order to keep a constant flow of shots in the reviews. All of our reviews were via Cinesync. Chris was always available when feedback was needed and sent reference from all the companies as they became available.

What have you done on this show?
We oversaw more than 80 shots comprising several key sequences including the destruction of a water tower complete with molten metal, the Extremis effect in Killian, Savin and Pepper, CG water, snow, fire and ice, plant regeneration, the opening and closing of the Iron Patriot suit and numerous greenscreen comps.

Can you tell us more about the plant regeneration?
We started with concept paintings. Olivier Pron drew up a few iterations based on the extremis reference from production. The idea was… traveling hot streams of extremis allowed the regeneration of the plant. The extremis starts at the core of the plant and flows up the stem via the plants internal fibers and into the wounded nub. The plant regenerates when the fibers begin to melt and form a lava like goo. From under this goo new growth is formed as the plant cools. Ash is brushed away as the new growth emerges. As the concepts were in the works, our fx artist Tomas Zaveckas began building the plant effect. In his words « the plant effect was a transformation matrices heaven! »

How did you approach the Extermis effect?
We were tasked with adding Extremis to multiple characters including Killian, Savin and Pepper. For each character we received a cyberscan, from which the CG character was built and rigged. Each shot started with a tight camera track and once the tracks, model and rig were approved, the VFX team began matchmoving the actors’ performance to the model. The majority of the shots requiring Extremis in this sequence were medium shots and required full facial tracking. To further lock the CG model to the plate our modelers built custom blend shapes. On average there were three blend shapes needed per shot to lock the actors facial performance. The Blend shapes were modeled to match key points in the actors performance. These matchmoves were important because the Extremis effect not only has a surface component, but the richness Chris Townsend was after comes from the deeper internal component of the effect that included an internal glow that is occluded by the bones and vascular system. Other facilities were also developing the Extremis look, and Chris was good about having geo, and reference images sent to us.

During a fight, a water tower is destroyed. How did you create it and its environment?
For the Rose Hills Tower sequence Chris Townsend and the team shot on location a full scale dump tank for the bulk of the water. Our task was to build the wide establishing Water Tower shots showing its instability and ultimate collapse as Savin heats up one of the towers leg. Our hero shot in this sequence is a wide side shot looking at the final stages of the collapse. The tank hits the ground and destroys a construction trailer, with water rushing toward camera. The shot is 100% CG and required water flowing under camera.

There were many challenges in this sequence, primarily the animation – both hand and simmed – for the tower collapse. We started with Postvis provided by Chris. We ran a few physically accurate sims to understand the timing of the shot. This gave the animators a true sense of speed for the falling tank. Models of twisted metal girders were built based on reference. Blend shapes were utilized to transform the original girders to destroyed ones. Based on the way the shots were cut together the blend shape technique proved to be the fastest and also gave a tremendous amount of control. Once the primary and secondary animation was bought off on, we added tertiary animation in the form of snapping tension cables and falling debris. Ultimately, we arrive at our hero shot. This shot is 100% CG and required water flowing under camera, and flowing from the cracked tank. Detail was added to the water in the form of whitewash foam / aeration, particulate mist, fine volume mist, spurts, and splashes. The water interacts with all objects in the environment, and actually causes pallets to shift. Fine ice crystals were added blowing in the air, and snow clumps fall from the collapsed water tower as the tank falls.

How did you manage the water interaction with the environment?
In all these shots the water tower shot on location was replaced with a matching CG version. As for the side angle shot where the water rushes at camera, the shot is 100% CG. Everything except the distant matte painting was modeled, so interaction was not an issue. Our animator Joon Lee started by blocking the animation for the settling water tower and its legs.

In an effort of not having to wait for the water simulation to come through the pipe we opted to animate the larger debris and the trees and fence in the Christmas tree lot. This included animating the pallet, hay bail and axel and tire. Our fx artist Sergey brought the animated geo into Houdini and resimulated the master water simulation with the animated geo to get the interaction. Secondary splashes and mist were added to all the moving objects to further integrate the layers. As these pieces came together we added addition animation to settling girders and cables in the distance, along with dripping water and water gushing out of the water main to keep the whole shot alive.

Can you explain in detail about the Iron Patriot armor?
The Iron Patriot model has a lot of moving parts for both the exterior and interior. Rigging these pieces required a bit of back and forth between our modeling, rigging and animation departments. Due to the limited time we had to complete this effect we only built what was necessary for our shots. Animation began with a camera track and matchmove of Rhodey’s (played by Don Cheadle) performance. We roughed in the timing with very few simple exterior shapes for the helmet, chest, arms and legs. Getting the opening to flow and feel purposeful was important. Each animated event was motivated by Rhodey’s performance. Making sure the Iron Patriot felt heavy was Chris Townsend’s primary concern, he never wanted the suit to feel flimsy. This heft was achieved in many ways, some of which included adding reverberation which was added as each large piece opened; we also stiffened the joints to limit arm and leg sway. Once the primary animation was approved, we scoured more of the suit and added more movable geometry to both the interior and exterior, thus adding complexity to the suit opening effect.

Can you tell us more about the lighting challenge of the armor?
We lit in Maya and rendered with Vray. Besides tweaking the material settings, additional detail came from adding more and more details into the textures. We would add chipped edges, large scratches, fine scuff marks. Spec maps were tweaked to give us more breakup which added complexity.

What was the biggest challenge on this project and how did you achieve it?
The biggest challenge for me was getting the job done within our limited time frame. To put it into perspective, our larger commercials have about the same amount of time as this feature, but with half the shot count. Each build was tough and had its unique set of issues but we had a strong team, and our CG supervisors and artists stood up to the challenge. At the end of the day managing a team moving as fast as we did was tough. Concessions had to be made, but I never wanted the concessions to be seen in final product, so we had to be cleaver about what to model and texture, and what to look dev, what to rig, and how much time to spend on sims versus modeling blend shapes. As stated previously, we only worked out what was seen by camera.

Was there a shot or a sequence that prevented you from sleep?
Coming onto this show late (nine weeks of post) made every night sleepless. In the beginning it was about wrapping our heads around which approach to take, then the admin, scheduling and crewing of the show. Next it was about keeping the artists fed with work so no one’s time was spent waiting. Finally we dealt with the visual components.

There was a ton of organization and maintenance needed to keep our team on task. We typically talk about the artists and the imagery but behind all of them is the support of the production team. Without them this would not have been possible. The organization that goes into pushing 80+ shots through with the level of complexity we had per shot becomes exponentially complex on a nine week schedule.

What was your feeling to be part of the Iron Man saga?
All in all IRON MAN 3 was a very pleasurable experience. We were given a wide variety of work, ranging from the Extremis effect, the Iron Patriot suit opening, plant regeneration, and a collapsing Water Tower. We did not have a lot of time on the show, so our plan had to be concise. The team stood up to the challenge, and delivered some technically challenging and beautiful work. It was a honor to be part of IRON MAN 3.

How long have you worked on this film?
9 weeks from beginning to end.

How many shots have you done?

What was the size of your team?
75 artists and production team.

What is your next project?
I am on DIVERGENT with Jim Berney who is the production side VFX Supervisor.

A big thanks for your time.


Method Studios: Dedicated page about IRON MAN 3 on Method Studios website.


© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2013

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