The year’s mega blockbuster superhero movie comes to Blu-ray this week from Disney looking and sounding as spectacular as you’d expect. The success of Joss Whedon’s Marvel mash up can be summed up in its self-mocking attitude (taking a cue from Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man) and in finally getting the Hulk right. And along with a multitude of bonus features (including deleted scenes and A Visual Journey), comes a nifty short: Item 47 involving certain alien technology left behind.
ILM is up to its usual high standards in creating CG characters and mayhem and has to be considered the front-runner for the VFX Oscar (especially for its Hulk work). I recently got a behind-the-scenes glimpse up in San Francisco and spoke with some of the team. You can view three breakdown clips in my Avengers column for TOH/Indiewire.
Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk clearly steals the movie. That’s because ILM wisely avoided the cartoony look of the ultra green superhero it created for Ang Lee’s angst-ridden first movie, as well as the overly muscle-bound rendition Rhythm & Hues made for the second version starring Ed Norton. Right from the start Whedon wanted to see Ruffalo in the Hulk and viewed him more as a wrestler than a super strong guy. That meant capturing an authentic digital double of the actor as Bruce Banner and then placing it on top of the animated Hulk so they would meld into an organic creature.
In fact, Whedon, Ruffalo, and ILM took inspiration from Lou Ferrigno’s popular TV performance. He was a believable physical presence, who flexed his muscles but whose physique had a smooth flow. “He was real and there’s something very physical about his performance and we wanted to make sure that we replicated that so he didn’t feel disconnected once we put him in a scene with live people,” explained animation director Marc Chu.
And thanks to advancements in facial performance capture, new rigging, and procedural skin shaders, ILM got the Hulk just right. The detail in the skin is spot-on right down to the pours; and the extreme poses have the correct muscle mass. Plus, it helped having a great performance from Ruffalo. He was as much an unexpected pleasure as Downey Jr. was when he debuted as Iron Man. Like the film overall, Ruffalo isn’t too serious or silly. “The scene between Hulk and Loki’s almost a Hanna-Barbera moment,” remarked associate VFX supervisor Jason Smith. “But as it came together, that’s exactly what viewers wanted to see the Hulk do.”
But The Avengers is far more than the Hulk in its coalescence of several Marvel worlds. ILM also tweaked Iron Man, making him more nimble and less constrained in his new Mark VII suit than in his previous two standalone movies, which was another Whedon directive. Weta Digital also got in on the Iron Man action for the first time.
However, it turned out that the virtual New York City during the alien attack of the last third posed the biggest challenge. ILM couldn’t shoot principal photography there but sent four teams of photographers shooting spherical overlaps at all the appropriate locations, especially the Park Avenue Viaduct. They shot on the ground every 100 feet and up every 120 feet with a man in a lift moving down Park Avenue. They made close to 2,000 spheres and stitched together 275,000 high-res photographs like a Google street view.