Superheroes in most comics and action/adventure films are superhuman and often larger than life, or at least more muscular than most. Perhaps that’s one reason why Marvel’s Ant-Man is so popular. In his “normal” human form, he’s just another guy, but when he dons his supersuit and activates his particular superpowers, he shrinks to the size of an insect.
How can that be helpful? It becomes quickly obvious in Marvel Studios’ feature Ant-Man when the superhero avoids a punch by, with a whoosh, shrinking to ant-size. But he still packs a punch himself.
“Conceptually the idea is that ants can carry many times their weight, and it’s the same with Ant-Man,” says Tim Harrington, animation supervisor for Industrial Light & Magic’s visual effects shots. “Even though he’s super small, his density stays the same, so in a way, he gets stronger. He can knock out walls, punch guys, take things out.”
Actor Paul Rudd plays the role of petty criminal Scott Lang, who becomes Ant-Man thanks to subatomic particles discovered by his mentor and former SHIELD agent Hank Pym (actor Michael Douglas). On the hands of his supersuit are buttons he uses to control the size shifts. Push the right-hand button and he shrinks; push the left-hand button and he grows. Similarly, he can throw “pin disks” carried on his belt to shrink or grow things outside his suit.
Ten visual and special effects studios under the supervision of Jake Morrison (visual effects) and Daniel Sudick (special effects) created the illusions. Lola provided de-aging. Double Negative artists handled a helicopter sequence. Method artists created shots in which a tiny Scott Lang forms a bond with an ant he named Anthony. (In the film, Ant-Man can communicate with the insects.) Method also assembled backgrounds, particularly for scenes in which Ant-Man is insect-size.
“We tiled stills from macro photography to build the environments,” says Director Peyton Reed. “The environments are virtual, but they’re made from real photography. If we framed Ant-Man in a medium shot, he could look huge, so we had to use perspective, light, and shallow depth of field to keep him small.”
Creating a smaller-than-insect Ant-Man was the biggest challenge for artists at ILM. Led by Supervisor Russell Earl, the team needed to shrink a CG Ant-Man into what they call a “microverse.” In all, ILM took charge of four main sequences: an Ant-Man vs. Falcon fight, a series of shots in which carpenter ants paratroop out of a plane, the final battle with Yellow Jacket, and the microverse in the grand finale. Of those, the microverse was most unusual.
Moviegoers discovered the Falcon in Marvel’s 2014 film Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Actor Anthony Mackie returned to the screen to play Falcon for a brief fight with Ant-Man in this film.
“We worked with our London team on the scene,” Earl says. “Every time I see the sequence, I smile, knowing how terrified Tony Mackie was on the wires.”
During the fight, the half-inch-tall CG Ant-Man punches the full-size Falcon.
“That was the hardest thing about the fight,” Harrington says. “The camera is moving quickly, he’s small, and everything is motion-blurred. So we tried to give him a super-nice silhouette for the anticipating punch and when he rockets forward. With a clean silhouette against a white background, you can see the action pose even though he’s small. And, we put a little extra spec [specular highlights] on him.”
Ant-Man wins the fight by crawling into the Falcon’s backpack, where he pulls wires from the circuit boards and causes that superhero’s wings to malfunction.
In that sequence, and usually through the film, Ant-Man shrinks to about a half-inch tall. He’s warned not to shrink too far, however, and uses a regulator on his belt to control his size. That is, until he fights the villainous Yellow Jacket toward the end of the film and throws caution aside. Yellow Jacket’s backpack is made of titanium; Ant-Man’s ant-sized body can’t get in.
The fight begins as a physical fight on set with a stunt actor playing Yellow Jacket. ILM artists replaced the actor with a CG character.
“When possible, we matched the actor in the plate,” Harrington says. “For pick-up shots that weren’t in the plate or ones we needed to create from scratch, we did motion capture here at ILM.
For the CG Ant-Man, the animators came up with a signature fighting move.
“He reels back, and when he punches, he puts his whole body into it,” Harrington says. “He hits these poses that look like they’re out of ‘How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way.’”
But to win the fight, Ant-Man decides to shrink small enough to pass through the titanium.
“The challenge for us was that unlike most sequences in which he stays one size, in this scene, he continuously shrinks,” Harrington says. “What does that look like? We decided that if someone shrank nonstop, he would have the sense of falling. So we gave him a skydiving aspect as he fell through the backpack and ripped stuff apart.”
Yellow Jacket has shrinking technology similar to Ant-Man’s, and when our hero pulls technology in the villain’s backpack apart, it causes the CG Yellow Jacket to shrink in on himself.
“We created a spectacular death for him in which one limb shrinks at a time, he caves in, and collapses in on himself,” Harrington explains.
For reference, the animators drew inspiration from the house that collapses in on itself during the film Poltergeist, and put the animators in motion-capture suits to act out the sequence.
“We had an animator who was working on the shot contort and act like the suit was malfunctioning, to get the movement of a skeleton in place,” Harrington says. “We knew something would pop or explode on Yellow Jacket’s back and the villain would try to stop it. So the animator reached back, and by motion-capturing him, we had data for what the skeleton would do. We put that motion on our Yellow Jacket model.”
Ant-man can control his size by using buttons on the hands of his suit. Visual effects sold the illusion.
That gave the animators a starting point for the motion, but the sequence called for something more horrific.
“We wanted his arms and hands to collapse into his body,” Harrington explains, “the same with his head and chest, and the stingers with the lasers on his back. We worked out the beats, the key moments in animation. This reaction. That arm collapses. Reaches there. Head collapses. And then we started breaking the model.”
Once the director and supervisors approved the motion, the animators sent the performance on to modelers, who dented the suit, crushed fingers, and broke the helmet, and then to the character effects team, which added smoke and sparks to take the sequence over the top.
Dust to Dust
To save his daughter and defeat the villain, Ant-Man had decided to sacrifice himself. When he turned the dial to 11, he set in motion a process that would cause him to shrink forever. So, by the time the villain is vanquished, Ant-Man has shrunk to the size of a dust mote.
“He’s like a dust particle floating with pollen in the room,” Harrington says, “with the everyday things you don’t see but breathe in – dirt, skin flakes, stuff like that. We zoom in to find him, and he continues to shrink.”
Throughout the film, visual effects artists shrank Ant-Man using an effect they called the “disco shrink.”
“When he shrinks, thin traces of his history – his previous sizes, which are as transparent as onion skins – trail behind,” Harrington says. “It’s a nice visual cue that tells the audience he’s shrinking. A lot of times, the effect happens in six to eight frames, and the effects group handles that. But when we’re doing the animation, we have to think about what his silhouette looks like because he leaves a history in the shape of his body as he shrinks.”
Ant-Man continues to shrink until he enters the molecular world. He’s still in the room – he can hear sounds around him – but he has left the larger world of dust and pollen.
“The world around him is visually similar to what you see in textbooks to describe molecules, but it has an outer space feel to it,” Harrington says. “One of the cool things about this sequence was the collaboration with Jake [Morrison], Russell [Earl], and Marvel. All these shots were CG, so there was a lot of camera and shot design. It was a process of trying all kinds of things to learn what worked and what didn’t. We cast the net really wide. Marvel would take our footage and edit it to basically block in the sequence. And it evolved from there.”
At first, the sequence seemed too simple, like cool shots cut together. It had no emotional arc. Ant-Man would skydive from one world to another without angst.
“We met with Marvel and Peyton [Reed], looked at an early version of the sequence, and talked about what we needed to tell Ant-Man’s story as he traveled through the worlds,” Harrington says. “His emotional arc became, ‘Oh [crap], I can’t stop this from happening.’ Then panic, fear, and a moment when he accepts his fate and gives up.”
As he shrinks smaller and smaller, Ant-Man enters two worlds, one after the other, that are not based on science.
“The first world gets totally trippy and conceptual,” Harrington says. “It’s a kaleidoscope world. He’s so small, as small as a quark inside an electron. This is when he lets go and accepts his fate that he will shrink forever and become nothing or the smallest thing you can be. He goes into zero-G, and where he had been tense with body language like a skydiver, he’s now curled into almost a fetal position.”
From the quirky kaleidoscopic world, he shrinks into the final world. The void.
“Visually, this world is empty and dark, with only dark matter in the background,” Harrington says. “The shots are very wide to show how small and lonely he is. He can hear voices in the big room, but he’s completely isolated. He thinks he will die.”
For this part of the sequence, the animators gave the CG character an underwater/zero gravity feel. Ant-Man is all-CG through the whole sequence.
“We didn’t have Gravity’s budget,” Harrington says. “And we had to do the shots quickly. We found the most effective way was to motion-capture someone we had sit on an apple box. He leaned back and held himself in place with his abs. It was very effective. Whenever we could, we started with motion capture to get us into animation quicker, but a few shots were keyframed.”
Of course, Ant-Man doesn’t die. He’s a superhero, destined for future films in the Marvel world. “We came up with this beat where he comes to and says, ‘I’ve got to get out of here,’” Harrington says.
Ant-Man pushes the “grow” buttons on his left hand, but they don’t work. He finds one last disk that he could throw. It slips out of his hand and starts to float away. He grabs it, and we see close-ups of his CG belt, hands, and gadgets.
“He does some Macgyver-ing to fit it into his belt buckle,” Harrington says. “He slams the buckle shut, it turns blue, and the button on his left hand works. He starts scaling up.”
And, he lives.
“The entire journey back is quick,” Harrington says. “We play key shots from earlier in the sequence in reverse. We see him come back through his daughter’s perspective. Since he’s growing rapidly, he causes a vortex in the interior of the room. Boom. He appears.”
Before Harrington joined this project, he was not sure he would like working on the superhero.
Scale was always important, as shown here in concept art.
“It’s funny, though,” Harrington says. “I discovered that it’s really cool, different work. One of the highlights for me was working out shots and shot design in the microverse. We had brought our filmmaking expertise to the table and helped the filmmakers figure out the narrative for the sequence.”
And that was no small task.