Avengers: Infinity War may have a cast made up of dozens of Hollywood A-listers, but the real star of the show is the visual effects. Executive producer Victoria Alonso described the movie as one big CGI scene, and she’s not far off. The achievement required assembling a crack team of visual artists, including visual effects supervisor Dan DeLeeuw.
DeLeeuw cut his teeth in the 1990s and 2000s on the likes of Armageddon and Night at the Museum, before joining Marvel for Iron Man 3. Since then, he’s worked on Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War and next year’s Avengers 4.
Screen Rant recently caught up with DeLeeuw for Avengers: Infinity War’s home video release (available now on Blu-ray, DVD and digital) to discuss bringing the film’s most shocking effects to life and how he handled the massive spoilers.
Screen Rant: Going right back to the start, when you first read the script, what was the first thing when you put it down that was racing through your head?
Dan Deleeuw: Well, the first thing is excitement and fear about how big it is, but then it definitely was figuring out Thanos. Thanos was… you know, the entire movie rode on Thanos working because the character, and beyond just what you’d seen in other films, really being a character that you can empathise with even though he’s the villain and [you can] kind of understand what he’s going for and understand that he thinks he’s the hero. And then your brain kind of understands the character and you’re just down to “how are we ever going to do this?” And then you’ve got to figure out the best visual effects companies to work on it and figure out if they’re able to do a test and get it in front of the studio and show everybody that it’s going to work – make sure everybody’s comfortable getting the test done early so everybody feels comfortable, and even Josh feels comfortable with what they’re able to perform on set. Because just knowing that based on our first test we could capture all that early fine emotional detail in terms of what he’s pushing through in terms of the performance, and knowing that he doesn’t really have to alter it in any way to like sell what he wants to get across… he can be just Josh Brolin performing Thanos. he doesn’t have to be Josh Brolin trying to puppeteer a digital character through a motion capture outfit and a head cam.
SR: You mention the multiple effects studios. It was two studios that worked on Thanos, right?
DD: Yeah. So, early on we decided, one of a lot of reasons really was to figure out how far we could push the technology. We were working with Jen Underdahl, our visual effects producer, [and] we kinda decided, let’s have a, we called it a “Thanos off” in the beginning. And so we had a sculpt of Thanos’ face from our vis-dev department and we basically sent that same sculpt to Weta and Digital Domain. In some ways, it was more difficult because as they progressed we had to keep Thanos on-model. But what was great was when each company would innovate: you could take what was great about a Thanos at Weta and then put it into the Thanos at DD, and what was great about the Thanos at DD you could put in the Thanos at Weta. So, in a lot of ways, we were able to speed up our development by having two companies work on it. And then, when you get into post, because there’s so many shots we can definitely spread those shots across the two companies to get it done before the deadline.
SR: Were there any challenges from communicating with the two studios and making sure the Thanos was consistent, both visually and the tactile feel of those shots?
DD: It was something that was… you always had Josh as a base. The rule in how we actually were delivered shots back from the vendors was that the helmet cam… you had two cameras on the helmet cam, the cameras are right in front of Josh’s face, recording his face that’s covered in the dots so they can easily recognize how his face is moving… but basically we take one of those cameras and then the image from that camera we would put it in the corner of the frame, so whenever we would get a performance back, you would always, always just reference back to what Josh did originally. And so, one getting the basis, making sure he’s on character at both companies, but also to make sure that we kept his performance safe so it can come through the digital character.
SR: Working with all these different studios, I want to talk about secrecy. That’s one of the biggest buzzwords when it comes to any Marvel movie – especially Infinity War. Was there a limit to how much you knew about the story, and how do you manage a team when you’re dealing with so many tiers of people?
DD: It’s an interesting process. It’s something that… I was fortunate enough because of Thanos kind of running through the entire movie, a handful knew everything that was going to happen and I was fortunate to be one of them, which helped while designing everything and designing the shots. For the secrecy component of it, when we would work with the different special effects vendors, basically we would try to like, when we would award the work, it was something where we’d do it based on sequences. So each vendor would know what happens in their sequences, but not necessarily what would happen in someone else’s sequence. For example, frame store, they knew what would happen in the Battle of New York with Spidey and Ruffalo and Iron Man and Maw and Cull Obsidian, but they didn’t really know what happens outside of that because it’s on a need to know basis, I guess. But then a company like Digital Domain, they had done Vormir so they definitely knew what was happening with Gamora on Vormir, and they then did the bit with Thor at the end. It was all compartmentalized to who knew what and who had access to those shots. Not any visual effects vendor had the entire movie.
SR: Of course, they will have been doing the disintegration. Where did the decision to have the characters disintegrate when Thanos snapped his fingers come from, and what sort of challenges did that pose?
DD: Well, we knew we had to see something: it couldn’t be just a simple snap and them just disappearing. We knew we wanted to put an effect on top of it. It was something when we started… if you look at the rest of the film we were always very careful whenever Thanos used any of the Infinity Stones that there was some kind of effect or color that would identify it as the power of that stone. So when we first started thinking about the blip-out, we carried that logic in, so that if you were looking at people disappearing, [it] made sense that all six stones are combined now, [so] what stones would… how would combining the stones make that happen? So does the Soul Stone go in and disintegrate their soul? And does the Power Stone disintegrate the body? And the Space Stone what actually moves the ash? And so early tests were combining all those different pieces and although it was kind of beautiful in a way, it just became too much, right? It became… if there was too much of a Soul Stone effect it looked like they were on fire when they were disintegrating, and the idea was like just back off and keep it simple. And instead of making it too much of a visual of what the gauntlet was doing, it was an effort in subtly and controlling how quickly the ash went over a person’s body and how it went over their body and how when they disintegrated they floated away. And just giving everybody a unique way in which they turn to ash. In the same way some characters would go away quickly and some would last longer, just give them something a lyrical, almost a poetic way in which they kind of float away to ash to make it more impactful.
SR: The final battle in Wakanda, there’s been a lot of comparisons to The Phantom Menace – the big fight at the end of that on Naboo with the big shield and the invading armies. Was that in any way intentional or was it an accident – and did you realize you’d created something similar to that movie?
DD: It was in the back of our minds, for sure. I think it was something that… you get into the idea of a shield around a city, and you even go back to Thor: The Dark World which had the same idea of a shield around a city. It was just, with is, there’s much more of a ground assault, which does kinda liken it a bit more to The Phantom Menace. It was kind of, taking those, the idea of the shield and putting the Russo brother’s touch on it. So it was much more of a grounded way of shooting it and much more of war film way of shooting it and keeping it dirtier and a little bit more violent in a sense – the heroes were being taken down by the Outriders. And keeping it balanced with the jokes between Cap and Thor and the viciousness of the villains that hopefully set it apart. But it was definitely at the edge of our… we all remember The Phantom Menace. The best thing about Marvel is that you’ve got a lot of movie nerds here, so they can call out movies from way back in the day, and say “oh, it’s like this, it’s like that, it’s like this”.
Avengers: Infinity War is available on Blu-ray, DVD and digital now.
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