Call “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” Marvel's attempt at a “grounded” political thriller. With, you know, tons and tons of special effects.
“It was supposed to be like this grounded action movie that was kind of based on 'Three Days of the Condor,'” said Dan DeLeeuw, the film's Oscar-nominated visual effects supervisor who sat down with me to discuss his first-ever nod. “[But] there”s like 3,000 [total] cuts in the film, and 2,500 had some sort of visual effect going on.”
As opposed to “Guardians of the Galaxy” — the other Marvel film nominated in this year's visual effects race — “Captain America: The Winter Soldier's” VFX work is far more subtle, which of course doesn't make it any less impressive. In one particularly stunning bit of wizardry, the film features a scene in which we're introduced to a 92-year-old Peggy Carter — a feat accomplished not by makeup (“it was kind of very restrictive to her face,” said Deleeuw of their attempt to go practical) but by merging Hayley Atwell's features with those of an older actress.
“We ended up shooting Hayley without any makeup and then we cast an older actress that had the face that we liked, had the old feel but not too old,” DeLeeuw described. “And then were able to track both the faces and apply the wrinkles and liver spots and the old age from the older woman”s performance and then mapped out onto Peggy, onto Hayley.”
Indeed, aging a younger actor on screen is a difficult thing to get right, making the effect Deleeuw and his team came up with all the more impressive. As Deleeuw himself says, “What we end up with I think is probably a game changer approaching old age makeup.”
In addition to effects that most audience members never give a second thought to — in Deleeuw's experience, “bullet hits” and “sparks” are two of the more difficult to pull off — the film also features an incredible climactic sequence in which three giant Helicarriers are brought down in flames. Not surprisingly, this was one of the most trying sequences for Deleeuw and his team to pull off.
“The inner child in you is like 'yeah!'” he said of the sequence, which also required them to digitally recreate a portion of Washington, D.C. “Originally the script said 'and the Helicarriers were disabled and crashed.' So then when you get in there it”s like 'no, they”ve got to shoot at each other. And then they”ve got to broadside each other.' But just dealing with the complexity of all the models for that and the simulations. ILM [Industrial Light and Magic] did an awesome job with that.”
Another major component of Deleeuw's job lay in crafting digital doubles for the live actors, specifically Chris Evans and Anthony Mackie.
“We would scan them on the cyber scanner which basically stand on a pedestal and these laser scanners like move down past them and get a digital version of that,” said Deleeuw. “So, you know, it was lots of data collection at the beginning and then lots of textures and filling out their costumes…And sometimes motion capture, sometimes not, because sometimes what you”re actually doing to the actor you can”t motion capture because it would kill them, you know.”
Mackie's double in particular proved to be a difficult challenge, particularly given his character's high-flying antics. Indeed, the death-defying nature of the Falcon's aerial stunts made it necessary not only to double the actor's body but his face as well.
“We knew a lot of what we wanted to do with the animation was you were not going to get just on a wire rig. There”s only so much you can do to an actor before they just can”t take it anymore,” said Deleeuw. “Initially most of the shots with Mackie were, you know, it”s close ups. We”ll shoot the close up with him on the wire. Some of those shots even where we couldn”t get him to hang right, we would just kind of remove his body and just keep his face so even the close up shots are digi doubles.”
To enhance the realism of these closeups, the actor's face was scanned in a process that required him to stand in a “dome” while affecting a number of different facial expressions.
“[He was] surrounded by cameras and lights…And as [he did] that the lights cycle[d]. Like all the lights turn on and off in cycles so that when you bring all the information back on the computer you have your actor”s face giving a certain expression and emotion,” Deleeuw said of the process.
Despite all the digital trickery involved, Deleeuw made sure to note that directors Joe and Anthony Russo tried to shoot as much practical as they possibly could — all in an effort to keep things closer to that old-school “Three Days of the Condor” spirit: “It was a great marriage of like stunts and visual effects I think in this one,” he admitted.
So what's next for the newly-minted Oscar nominee? A stint on “Captain America 3” — which of course he couldn't tell me anything about — and (generally) continuing to live the dream of every aspiring visual effects artist.
“I think I”ve gotten really lucky,” he said of his involvement with Marvel, which began with a second unit stint on “Iron Man 3.” “Being a movie fan, comic book fan, you know, before getting into it…suddenly you actually get to play with superheroes, so like everything you do as a kid where you had like all your action figures and you”re smashing them together, you”re actually doing that in the movie now.”