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'Avengers: Infinity War,' 'Mary Poppins Returns' show that visual effects come in all shapes and pixels

'Avengers: Infinity War,' 'Mary Poppins Returns' show that visual effects come in all shapes and pixels
The villainous Thanos stars in "Avengers: Infinity War" along with 2,623 visual effects shots. (Marvel Studios)

With the announcement of the various category shortlists last month, the visual effects Oscar race has tightened, leaving 10 contenders to fill five coveted nomination slots. Among the hopefuls are superhero films, franchise favorites and heartwarming stories.

But history shows the odds may be stacked against the superhero hopefuls; only two such films have taken home that prize in the last 40 years, 1978’s “Superman” and 2004’s “Spider-Man 2.” At the 91st Academy Awards in February, “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Black Panther” will look to end that long losing streak not only for the genre but for Marvel Studios.

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The trio face stiff competition. Three of the shortlisted films – “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom,” “Mary Poppins Returns” and “Solo: A Star Wars Story” – come from franchises that have previously won VFX Oscars. New contenders “Christopher Robin,” “First Man,” “Ready Player One” and “Welcome to Marwen” are equally immersive stories, each finding a way to make a real-world visual language. Here, the VFX supervisors on each of the shortlisted films weigh in on their challenges and innovations.

“Ant-Man and the Wasp” | Stephane Ceretti

The Wasp/Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) in a scene from "Ant-Man and the Wasp."
The Wasp/Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) in a scene from "Ant-Man and the Wasp." (Marvel Studios)

The team relied on previs animation (a previsualization technique) to guide the complex workflow behind shrinking and enlarging its heroes. Specialty made props, miniature sets and macro photography helped transition real-world environments into their CG counterparts. Complete 3-D scans of the actors wearing their superhero suits allowed visual effects to re-create the characters in realistic form down to the wrinkles in their suits when they moved. “We also shot some motion control on a green screen so that we could have [star Paul Rudd] there really playing the part. There’s a lot more of his face when he’s small in the film,” says Ceretti.

“Avengers: Infinity War” | Dan DeLeeuw

Marvel Studios' "Avengers: Infinity War": Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Wong (Benedict Wong).
Marvel Studios' "Avengers: Infinity War": Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Wong (Benedict Wong). (Chuck Zlotnick / Marvel Studios)

The mantra behind its 2,623 visual effects shots was “the best idea always wins,” says DeLeeuw. Fourteen vendors were tapped to give life to the colossal project that pitted its famed superheroes against Thanos, an 8-foot-tall villain played by Josh Brolin. Motion-capture technology placed Brolin in the role, where the team used scans and texture photos to create the CG-based character. The size of Thanos was decided from a digital police lineup of sorts in which each character was placed next to one other. “We considered a 16-foot-tall version and even a 12-foot-tall version, but the bigger you get, the less you believe it,” says DeLeeuw.

“Black Panther” | Geoffrey Baumann

Lupita Nyong'o, from left, Chadwick Boseman and Letitia Wright in a scene from "Black Panther."
Lupita Nyong'o, from left, Chadwick Boseman and Letitia Wright in a scene from "Black Panther." (Disney)

Shooting this film was a unique experience for Baumann as the collaboration with director Ryan Coogler extended to multiple departments. “Ryan made sure we all had common themes of color, material and texture that translated throughout the whole film,” says Baumann. The visual grammar was cast in authentic African cultural references and connected its production design, costumes and cinematography with the visual effects. The Wakanda skyline combined mountainous terrain and the warmer tones of Africa while staying true to its architecture rather than relying on big glass buildings and hard edges more often found in Western society.

“Christopher Robin” | Chris Lawrence

Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) with his longtime friend Winnie the Pooh in Disney's "Christopher Robin."
Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) with his longtime friend Winnie the Pooh in Disney's "Christopher Robin." (Laurie Sparham / Disney Enterprises, Inc.)

“Christopher Robin” combined live-action and CGI to create Winnie the Pooh and friends. Animators extensively tested character movements to develop distinct personalities for each and unique interactions with the world. Characters were then designed based on toy-like stitching patterns with some of those stitches looking broken to replicate the wear of old cloth.

“First Man” | Paul Lambert

Ryan Gosling in a scene from "First Man."
Ryan Gosling in a scene from "First Man." (Daniel McFadden / Universal Pictures)

The idea for “First Man” was to get as much in camera as possible. “We didn’t want anything to take you out of the story,” says Lambert. For its spacecraft launches, including the death-defying X-15 flight that opens the movie, rather than have actors reacting to a blank green screen with effects to be filled in later, a 35-foot-tall, 60-foot-wide, 180-degree circular screen projected digital footage of the actual flight paths. Miniatures and full-scale builds of certain spacecraft were used for exterior shots.

“Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” | David Vickery

A scene from "Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom."
A scene from "Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom." (Universal Pictures)

An artful balance between VFX and creature effects was needed to pull off “Fallen Kingdom.” “Bringing tennis balls to set was not an option,” says Vickery of the old-school method of using a ball on a string to give actors an idea of where the creatures will be. “We instead wanted to find ways to bring in lifelike creatures with animatronics to add energy to the performances,” he says. Anatomically correct models were created and sent to the creature effects team to build full-scale puppets of specific dinosaurs. “Animatronics can have limitations and lack the subtle performance of a digital character, while digital characters can lack a sense of quality. We wanted to find a way to merge digital and physical techniques into one realistic experience,” he adds.

“Mary Poppins Returns” | Matt Johnson

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Emily Blunt is Mary Poppins, Emily Mortimer is Jane Banks, Ben Whishaw is Michael Banks and Joel Dawson is Georgie Banks in Disney/s "Mary Poppins Returns."
Emily Blunt is Mary Poppins, Emily Mortimer is Jane Banks, Ben Whishaw is Michael Banks and Joel Dawson is Georgie Banks in Disney/s "Mary Poppins Returns." (Disney)

This sequel to the classic Disney film used live-action, animation and CGI to form its visual language. During the song “Can You Imagine That?” characters visit a fantastical underwater world where fully 3-D environments and animals were created from scratch. The VFX team also took on the re-creation of 1934 London and extended the Cherry Lane studio set. However, effects weren’t all computer-generated: Poppins’ talking umbrella is a practical effect controlled remotely.

“Ready Player One” | Roger Guyett

A scene from "Ready Player One."
A scene from "Ready Player One." (Warner Bros. Pictures / Amblin Entertainment)

In Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One,” people escape to the Oasis, a virtual reality environment, to avoid their own lives. Photo-realistic landscapes were powdered with vivid colors while maintaining a sense of real-world physics. “Creating the Oasis was a brick-by-brick process where every level of detail was considered,” says Guyett. Nearly 50 environments were designed from the ground up for 60-plus minutes of screen time.

“Solo: A Star Wars Story” | Rob Bredow

Alden Ehrenreich is Han Solo and Joonas Suotamo is Chewbacca in "Solo: A Star Wars Story."
Alden Ehrenreich is Han Solo and Joonas Suotamo is Chewbacca in "Solo: A Star Wars Story." (Jonathan Olley /Lucasfilm Ltd.)

To make “Solo,” a prequel to the original 1977 “Star Wars,” filmmakers grounded the visual effects in the filmmaking styles of the '60s and '70s. It meant framing camera movements to those of that era but still using today’s technology to create them. Such was the case with the Millennium Falcon. Rather than having the actors sitting in front of a green screen, hyperspace was projected as a real-time effect. “We didn’t tell the cast the entire plan, and when Donald Glover [as Lando Calrissian] pushed the button for the first time, we were able to cue the screens to go into hyperspace,” says Bredow.

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“Welcome to Marwen” | Kevin Baillie

The dolls of "Welcome to Marwen" (from left): Anna (Gwendoline Christie), Cap'n Hogie (Steve Carell), GI Julie (Janelle Mon?e), Roberta (Merritt Wever), Suzette (Leslie Zemeckis) and Carlala (Eiza Gonzalez).
The dolls of "Welcome to Marwen" (from left): Anna (Gwendoline Christie), Cap'n Hogie (Steve Carell), GI Julie (Janelle Mon?e), Roberta (Merritt Wever), Suzette (Leslie Zemeckis) and Carlala (Eiza Gonzalez). (Ed Araquel / Universal Pictures / DreamWorks Pictures)

The challenge of “Welcome to Marwen,” says VFX supervisor Kevin Baillie, was to bring the dolls to life through motion capture in a way that didn’t evoke that “uncanny valley” look of coming just close enough to looking human as to be off-putting. A new workflow was created through game engine technology that involved filming the motion-capture stage and lighting it to match the real world of the film’s story. The team then transplanted the actors’ eyes and mouths onto the faces of the dolls and added effects to give them a plastic look. “The faces of the dolls are driven by the actors’ performances almost pixel for pixel,” notes Baillie.

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