‘Winter Soldier’ vfx artist Dan DeLeeuw: On Helicarriers and his ‘game changer’ Hayley Atwell effect

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.