Battle Lines
Linda Romanello
Issue: Volume 39 Issue 3: (May/Jun 2016)

Battle Lines

Animators and effects artists create a battle royal for Captain America: Civil War

Moving along at a seemingly unstoppable pace is the Marvel/Disney juggernaut, with yet another major release opening in theaters – Captain America: Civil War from director siblings Anthony and Joe Russo.

In the tradition of its predecessors – The Avengers, Captain America: The First Avenger, Captain America: Winter Soldier, Iron Man, and others in the Marvel franchise – this latest release, starring Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr., promises epic battles of superhero proportions, and a respectable amount of wreckage and destruction, all requiring heavy doses of visual effects. 

According to VFX Supervisor Dan DeLeeuw, Captain America: Civil War combines the efforts of 14 vendors to complete just fewer than 3,000 visual effects shots. This includes environmental work, set extensions, and CG characters, and a reach inside a deep toolbox with everything from proprietary software to the standard Maya (Autodesk) and Nuke (The Foundry) toolsets.

Civil War differs from the other Captain America films in terms of its scope,” says DeLeeuw. “It’s something you see in comic books: The characters have their solo outings, and then there are comics where the characters are all there to help out. The ‘Civil War’ comics are the ‘event’ comics, fan favorites who wouldn’t ordinarily interact with one another – and you certainly wouldn’t normally see them fighting against one another –
come together. That’s what makes Civil War special. It’s that you have these giant set pieces with the characters showcasing all their powers, fighting against one another.

“It was a combination of taking everything we’ve seen before, taking everything to the next level, and expanding on the heroes’ powers so that you’re culminating in this battle royal at [Germany’s Leipzig/Halle] airport,” DeLeeuw continues. “That scene was shot in multiple places on multiple continents. We shot a large portion of it in Atlanta, on a concrete slab they poured for us, with greenscreens. For the types of things we wanted to do, we couldn’t film in an actual airport. They don’t usually like you destroying their jets or anything like that (laughs).”

So, a large portion is all-greenscreen. There’s a hangar at the end and a terminal towards the middle where Falcon, Spider-Man, and Winter Soldier fight that are practical, but everything outside is CG. But just by the nature of the heroes’ powers themselves, a lot of those fights use digital doubles. “It’s a great mix of hidden effects for the environments and bigger effects for the heroes themselves,” says DeLeeuw.

Here, DeLeeuw talks about the latest Marvel/Disney release and what it took to create some of the film’s most demanding visual effects. 

So most of the work in the film is a mix of environmental and character-based VFX?

Yes, that’s the best part of the magician’s trick, it’s the sleight of hand to distract the audience with the shiny object and actually perform the trick with the other hand. So, we tried to work with stunts and special effects to keep as much grounded as we could and mix the visual effects with that.

And keep it seamless, so the audience can’t tell the difference?

Yes, and you keep changing it up, too. So, if you think you’re starting to figure out the trick, you throw more live action in and keep people from tracking down what you’re doing. 

What was the film shot on?

The majority of the film was on the Arri Alexa XT with anamorphic lenses. The airport battle was on the Arri Alexa 65, which was completed for IMAX.

You worked on Captain America: Winter Soldier and Iron Man, so you have a familiarity with these Marvel films and what they’re looking for in terms of the VFX. Technically, is there a difference or any kind of advances on the VFX side from the previous films?

The big advancement on this one was the overall scope and how much we were able to do. It’s interesting, I came in on Iron Man 3, and as you come into the Marvel universe, you start picking up the playbook on the different characters. So, on Iron Man 3, you start learning how to shoot Iron Man. You have what we call the ‘football suit’ that Robert would wear. That was photo-ready  from the waist up. As the films progressed, we got more and more to the point where we would end up replacing it with CG, as the suits themselves became more complicated. And what we found for this one, because of the hand-to-hand battles that were happening at the end, we didn’t want to have Robert with just tracking markers on his body, because as Captain America grapples with Iron Man, you need to make sure he’s grabbing something as big as the Iron Man armor and not just a person’s normal size. 

What was called the ‘photo-ready’ version, the ‘football suits’ in Iron Man 3, eventually evolved to what we called the ‘displacement suit’ for Civil War. It gave me the size of the suit but was softer so the stuntmen could wear it. It was more comfortable, but still, when Cap grabs Iron Man’s arm, he’s actually grabbing something that’s the correct width. As we become savvier with the films, we find better ways to shoot with the different characters. 

With Captain America: Winter Soldier, the shield even evolved with the films. If you go back to Captain America: The First Avenger, the shield had a shinier, brushed metal look, and it got duller and duller as the films progressed. That’s something we went back and looked at and said, ‘That was a better-looking shield,’ so we ended up replacing the shield with a more brushed-metal feel to recapture what we had in Captain America: The First Avenger.

In terms of technology, has it improved? I think it’s something that allows us to stage a bigger and bigger spectacle as we proceed. We had just under 3,000 visual effects shots in Civil War, and a lot of the shots are the spectacle shots in the airport. But in addition, we have the hidden shots we try to make as seamless as possible. 

Would you say there were any major overhauls in the pipeline, moving from production into post and with the visual effects?

On Winter Soldier, working with ILM, one of the bigger things they had to deal with to move things through the pipeline were the three Helicarriers that were based on the Helicarrier from The Avengers. That model was very heavy, and they had to deal with three of them for Winter Soldier. So they had to push three Helicarriers through their render pipeline. Then, when we got to this [film], we modeled the entire Leipzig airport, which made the Helicarriers look paltry by comparison. So I think our moving forward and looking to the things we wanted to create, was pushing and creating environments and creating worlds that allow amazing amounts of details through the pipeline. 

Isn’t there an age regression scene in the film featuring the Tony Stark character?

Yes, there’s the shot of young Tony, which is about a 4,000-frame shot, where we took Robert Downey Jr. and made him about 23 years old for the length of the shot. And that was one of those shots that, normally, if it was done in cuts, you could break it up and spread it over multiple artists to finish each individual shot in a simpler way. But with the Russos, they wanted the scene to feel a little bit off when you first see it. They wanted to do it as a single shot rather than as multiple shots. So Tony wakes up on the couch, and he’s a little farther away from the camera, and has a conversation with his mother. When she leaves, present-day Tony Stark shows up in the background. 

In addition to it being a very long shot with the de-aging, it was also something that was shot in multiple passes. It was shot in a house just outside of Atlanta, and there was no way to get big motion-control equipment in there; the space was just too small. So we just married the two pieces together in addition to doing the age regression. That took quite a bit of time because you want to define what made a young Tony Stark. 

Would you say that the age regression scene and the airport battle are two of the more prominent scenes in the film?

Yes, we wanted a large feel and scope to the film. The opening of the movie [takes place in Lagos, Nigeria] but was actually shot in Atlanta, and we needed to make it look like Lagos. There were some things we definitely had hopes of filming in Africa, but we weren’t able to go because the Ebola outbreak was happening in Africa at the time. So, we went to Puerto Rico, since it is a coastal city like Lagos, and a lot of the architecture worked out fairly well. 

But in terms of shooting time, we were not able to shoot in Puerto Rico. So, we went down there with an effects unit, shooting many plates – aerial plates, drone plates, scans, surveys, and then shot plates off a camera truck – all to make the initial fight. We kept the foreground pieces of Atlanta and replaced all the background pieces to make it look like Lagos. 

A large challenge of the film was make Atlanta not look like Atlanta (laughs). But in terms of scope, the final battle, probably the biggest battle [in the film], was handled by ILM, and the finale with Cap facing off with Iron Man was completed by Method Studios. It’s a very interesting tonal shift between the scope of the battle with all the heroes fighting and then getting into a more intimate fight at the end where it became all about the powers, the thought process, and the friendship falling apart between the two characters. 

What other VFX vendors did you work with? 

We tried to break the film up by sequences. ILM was the lead house and started early, building the different digital doubles, the Iron Man armor, War Machine armor, Black Panther, Spider-Man, and then they would share their digital assets with the other companies. Method worked on the final battle between Captain America and Iron Man, and Rise handled the Lagos sequences at the beginning, where Captain and his team are fighting together after training together. Trixter did the fight with Black Panther, and Dneg worked on the fight with Hawkeye and Vision, when Hawkeye shows up to break Scarlet Witch (Wanda Maximoff) out of the Avengers’ compound. Those are the major battles, and then we have an additional nine vendors working on the rest of the shots. 

What tools did you use on the film?

I think we pretty much used everything. ILM has a lot of proprietary tools in their pipeline, but because we’re sharing assets, they had to create the characters in such a way that the other vendors could pick up the intent of the rendering and the animation, so you can share the geometry, you can share the textures. Each vendor used its own animation systems, and the majority of those were built on top of Maya, which allows you to extend it quite a bit and add your own toolsets to it. So, if we shared the skeleton between the different effects houses, they could take that skeleton and hook up their own animation system on top of that and then skin the character. It just became tricky with someone like Iron Man. Imagine a suit of armor that wouldn’t allow you to move, but through the magic of CG, you can force it to move in the way you need it to move.

We based our color pipeline on Nuke. We would create a sample Nuke file and then send it out to the effects houses and say, ‘This is how we’re applying our color, and this is the color space we like to use.’ It came down largely to Maya and Nuke.

V-Ray was used quite a bit between the bigger vendors – Method and ILM, in addition to their in-house shaders. 

What was the most challenging scene to pull off?

Definitely the scope of the fight at the airport was the biggest challenge to overcome because it was balancing the different characters together. I was working out the fight with the previs department and just keeping track of all the characters. We had a table laid out in our offices with all these little toys, they’re called hero clicks, and they’re basically little plastic sculptures of the heroes – not unlike war movies where they have the map on the table all laid out with these statues to show the armies. We did the same thing with the heroes in the splash panel, so Black Widow and Ant-Man are fighting each other over here and these characters are fighting each other over there, and as the fight rages, there is a logic to where everybody is, and there’s a sense of design.

Part of the movie is about heroes causing too much damage, so one of the rules going into planning the fight at the airport was that there shouldn’t just be full-on destruction of the airport. A lot of time when you’re planning a sequence, you fall into a trap where it’s, ‘Hey, it would be easy to blow up this fuel tank over here.’ We said, ‘No, let’s not do that, let’s have the heroes fight each other using their powers without destroying everything because it’s something new.’ The Russos always described it as a fight that breaks out, like at a family dinner. They’re a family, and they care about each other, but the fight gets a little out of hand. That’s what was great.

The fight goes on for just under 20 minutes, and it ends on a down note when War Machine gets injured. We pay off the second act with this fight that’s fun and a little bit serious. It prepares you for the final battle when we do get serious with Captain America, Iron Man, and Winter Soldier, and the movie then takes this tonal shift from being a fun superhero movie to, Wow, this is something that’s very serious, and it is going to have ramifications beyond this film.   

Linda Romanello ( is the managing editor of Post, CGW’s sister publication.