Captain America: The First Avenger tells the story of Steve Rogers, a skinny World War II-era soldier who volunteers for a top-secret research project, takes a “Super Soldier Serum,” and becomes the patriotic superhero Captain America.
The movie is directed by Joe Johnston, who gives Captain America some of the sense of adventure he used in his previous films, such as Jumanji, The Rocketeers, and Jurassic Park 3.
From the beginning, VFX Producer Mark Soper and VFX Supervisor Chris Townsend didn’t think it sounded like a VFX movie. “It was an origins film, a buddy picture about how skinny Steve Rogers becomes a superhero,” Chris said. The visual effects were only there to support the story, since Captain America couldn’t fly, become invisible or do any of the other usual superhero tricks. “But even so, the VFX work grew, what with the skinny Steve slimming, the CG environments, Red Skull, the CG vehicles and all the small fixes and improvements that end up in our department’s lap. At the end, there were about 1,600 VFX shots in the film.”
Mark and Chris’s involvement in the project started back during the writing of the script—before Chris Evans had even been cast in the title role. They were trying to figure out the techniques they would use to create the “skinny Steve effect” before they knew anything else about the shots. At first, they didn’t know where they were shooting, so they talked to the director, production designer Rich Heinrichs and the producers to come up with a plan. “It’s important to be involved as early as possible to start planning and really understand the needs of the other filmmakers, and the tone of the project,” Chris explains.
The movie was shot based on the script and storyboards. They decided there was no need for previs, although they did use postvis: work on the photography after shooting to help the visuals tell the story and assist with the editorial process.
With a film like Captain America, it’s important to find vendors whose abilities match the movie’s needs in a number of different ways: skill sets, experience, location, size, capacity, cost and availability. “This year, there were a lot of large scale VFX movies in production, so getting VFX companies on board early is always a good idea,” says Chris. “However, that’s the challenge, as often you can’t commit to facilities until you know the full body of work, and you don’t know the full body until you’ve shot it and done a first pass at the editing…. It’s a bit of a dilemma. It’s a worldwide endeavor, trying to find the right match of all the various types of work.
As they were shooting in the UK, the filmmakers found many key vendors there who fit niches they needed filled. Double Negative was the movie’s CGI cornerstone, handling about a third of the shots and concentrating mostly on the complex CG environment work. Framestore, with their previous experience with digital face manipulation, handled much of Red Skull. To turn Manchester, England into New York City’s Brooklyn and bring it back to the 1940s, they hired The Senate VFX, which had extensive experience with photoreal CG set extensions. California-based Lola VFX was charged with the Skinny Steve work, as well as some of the Red Skull effects, and two other American companies, Matte World Digital and Whiskytree, were brought on for their digital matte painting skills. The firms Evil Eye, Luma Pictures, Method Studios and Look Effects contributed both practical and CG elements into live action plates.
Director Joe Johnston reviewing a shot.
The team became even more international with the addition of the Australian company Fuel VFX, which worked on scenes from a motorbike chase, an underwater environment and a USO show; Germany-based Trixter, which created a complex, innovative flashback sequence, among other shots; and RiseFX, also from Germany, which was invited in at the last minute to do some intense FX simulation work. All told, the movie’s in-house artists collaborated with no fewer than 13 vendors.