If the story told in Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame feels like two parts of a whole when you’re watching it, imagine what the experience must have been like for the thousands of cast and crew members who shouldered the responsibility of delivering Marvel’s biggest and most ambitious adventure yet across six hours of epic filmmaking, delivered to audiences in chapters released just one year apart. While post-production unfolded on Infinity War, pre-production ramped up on Endgame, forcing that talented team to juggle some enormous responsibilities with an eye simultaneously held on the past, present and future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – and most remarkably, they pulled it all off.
Visual effects supervisor and second unit director Dan DeLeeuw has been a part of the Oscar-nominated team that brought the MCU to life since Iron Man 3 in 2013, and his responsibilities have only grown with each film. He tackled both roles on Endgame, managing teams of visual effects supervisors while capturing much of the footage that they would transform into operatic battle scenes or moments of devastating intimacy. And as Avengers: Endgame arrives on 4K Blu-ray and DVD, DeLeeuw talked to Nerdist about just a handful of unexpected challenges he faced in between those extremes – some that enabled him to draw upon the vast library of reference materials and assets created for past Marvel movies, others that required him to think more like a costume designer than a computer effects wizard, and a few that simply demanded he not share what he knew before the world was ready to watch events unfold on screen.
How much of Endgame were you making simultaneously with Infinity War and how much was staggered?
We shot Infinity War and then we shot as much of Endgame as we possibly could before we had to start going into post production on Infinity War. But while we were finishing Infinity War, we were prepping Endgame and it was this weird overlap where we were in post-production and pre-production at the same time.
In that dovetailing of post production and pre production between Infinity War and Endgame, how seamless a flow was there from one to the other?
We definitely had the assets we could carry over, like Thanos was built and the death scene was figured out. So there was definitely that continuity, and ILM had worked on the Hulk for the flashbacks. But Endgame is interesting because you have the continuity between the two films, but then you have the continuity between the films that came before in the Marvel Universe. So when we went back to do Morag again, we could go back to Guardians of the Galaxy and get their scan of the set, because we built smaller portions where Quill was dancing and expanded our set with that. And for New York, we went to ILM and they had New York from the first Avengers. So there was efficiency in shooting two films together, and there was the efficiency of having this entire library of every Marvel film that they’ve done and we could pull the assets from that.
Were there specific challenges that you tackled on Infinity War that you knew would help when you got to Endgame?
There were definitely assets that we could share, like the Avengers compound that was shared across the movies, and technology and ideas that we had developing Thanos that would apply to Smart Hulk later on. There was definitely a time saver and an artistic and kind of a brain power savings working on the two movies together. But then also, working on that many visual effects shots back to back, and the complexity of everything, we needed that efficiency. Otherwise we couldn’t have completed the two movies with the complexity of effects that we were working with.
Thanos laid the groundwork for Smart Hulk. But were both of those characters always meant to be created through performance capture?
Starting with Thanos, we knew that if the character didn’t work, then the movie wasn’t going to work. So it was something that started with a motion capture performance and then finding the right teams to work on it with Weta and Digital Domain. And then getting the level of detail we were able to achieve across their two different pipelines is what took Thanos outside of that uncanny valley, based on all of this really fine, detailed movement on the face. You’re actually capturing all of Josh Brolin’s skin movement, and then you could then import it to the Thanos model. Brolin’s performance is very subdued and intense, but with very small movements, so the challenge was to capture that incredibly small movement. But then you get to Mark Ruffalo’s performance with Smart Hulk and his performance is very broad and bright, so now you’re dealing with an elasticity to the face that you didn’t have to deal with with Thanos. So the two characters kind of bookended what you would have to do with the definition of a CG character to keep making him look real.
Were there projects from past movies that were particularly relevant to showcasing what you knew you needed to do with either of those two characters or any others in the film?
Yeah, Disney was working with Digital Domain on Beauty and the Beast and we saw what they were doing with machine learning and their solutions, and then with Weta, who are famous from Gollum and many other CG characters, that started us down the path. We had done initial tests for Thanos very early on that gave everybody else confidence in terms of what we were able to do with that performance as Thanos got more and more lines. And then with Smart Hulk, we started him in the same way – we had done a motion capture test on Thor: Ragnarok, and the Russos caught up with Taika, who ad libbed a scene with Mark where Banner is in Hulk’s body and he’s trying to type on a keyboard and nothing’s working because he’s too big. We later showed Mark and he got a big kick out of it, but we were really ahead of the curve on that one in terms of kind of having confidence in terms of what Hulk could do – be funny, but then to carry the emotion of doing the snap and bringing everybody back.
For those flashbacks, how much was there a juggling act of trying to balance whatever technological differences there were between then and now in terms of rendering a character like the Hulk, or any of the other characters?
With shots we’ve seen before, we have access to those because they’re all in the archives, so you’d go back and get the completed shot. There was the color space that they used on the first Avengers that have changed over the intervening years, so we would go back to the original file and then convert it into our color space and then color time it into the surrounding bodies that we photograph for our film. And then with if you look at the Hulk from Avengers and the Hulk in Ultron and the Hulk in Ragnarok, there’s been a little bit of a migration to his design, but since we were going back to the first Avengers, we wanted, like we did with some of the Avengers, making them look more like their first Avengers counterparts. So we went back to the design of the Hulk and used the same scope, but then modified the shaders and the rigging on him so that we took advantage of new technologies for skin and muscles but still use the way he looked back in the first Avengers.
There’s obviously literal hundreds and even thousands of characters in some sequences, but was there one scene or shot that was uniquely difficult that people might not even notice but was a real challenge to get right?
In a lot of ways, it was the entire movie. It ran the gamut. You’ve got the big oner in the final battle where you’ve got every Avenger, all of the villains that we faced before with all of the associated warriors that go along with them with Ravagers and Asgardians, Giant Man punching a Leviathan, the dragonflies and talons for Black Panther and sky cycles for the Ravagers and chariots with Chitauri on them. So the giant scenes with everything in it would go on for quite a length of time. But then you’ve got Smart Hulk, and we got concept art and he’s kind of wearing sweats and a hoodie. And then Joe Russo was like “he should have more costumes,” so Hulk originally had his casual wear and then his superhero suit and we ended up making eight different costumes for this CG character. And you don’t normally generate that many costumes for a CG character, but then he started getting this really awesome wardrobe with these cool sweaters and t-shirts and jeans and glasses. Like the [time travel] planning session, the idea is that it happens over a number of days, so you can see the rest of the Avengers’ costumes changing – they’re kind of taking coats off to get the idea that the [discussion] happened over maybe three days. So then we had to do the same thing with the Hulk, of figure out when they changed clothes and then the change Hulk’s clothes to go along with them. So we didn’t really expect that one when we started out.
You are in a unique position in that you have to know all of the secrets of the Marvel movies because you are responsible in a very real way for creating them. Over the course of working on and being a part of these films, what has been the most difficult secret that you’ve had to keep?
Well, with Infinity War and Endgame together, I was doing an interview talking about Spidey blipping out at the end of Infinity War and the implications with Uncle Ben and Peter Parker having a problem with father figures kind of disappearing on him. And I said, “first it was Uncle Ben and then Tony going,” and I couldn’t believe I’d said it because we knew for three years that Tony was going to die in Endgame. And I kind of gave it away, but just in the sense of Peter losing father figures, not literally losing his father figure, and there was a sheer moment of terror where I was like, did I just give the movie away? But between Infinity War and Endgame, you knew all of the secrets, and if you had to talk about, Thanos and Gamora, you had to be careful that you never slipped and actually said Natasha because it’s the same set and the same sequence where it’s throwing someone off. And you’re just hoping against hope that you don’t accidentally slip up and say the wrong name.
Featured Image: Marvel