Coordinating 17 Different Studios to Generate Marvel-Quality Imagery in Every Shot

Christopher Townsend’s Oscar nomination for Iron Man 3 is his first. Townsend’s entry into feature film visual effects was as a digital artist at Industrial Light & Magic on Congo. He followed that with credits on Mission: Impossible, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, and Deep Impact. With Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, he became a sequence supervisor and then a CG supervisor for A.I: Artificial Intelligence, Hulk, and The Day After Tomorrow.

Townsend left ILM to supervise the effects for the 2008 film Journey to the Center of the Earth. Directed by former ILM VFX supervisor Eric Brevig, it pioneered the rebirth of stereo 3D in live-action film. Following that film, as an independent visual effects supervisor Townsend worked on two blockbusters, Percy Jackson & the Olympians and Captain America: The First Avenger, for which he received a VES nomination.

Townsend shares his Oscar nomination for Iron Man 3, with visual effects supervisors Guy Williams of Weta Digital and Erik Nash of Digital Domain, and with special effects supervisor Daniel Sudick. Townsend, Williams, and Sudick also received BAFTA nominations along with visual effects supervisor Bryan Grill of Scanline VFX. In addition to the Oscar and BAFTA nominations, the film has received seven VES nominations. Directed by Shane Black and distributed by Walt Disney Studios, the Marvel Studios production has generated $1.22 billion dollars at the box office.

Congratulations on your Oscar nomination.

It’s very exciting. It’s my first nomination for just about anything. I was in the middle of shooting something for Marvel at the time the nominations were announced. We were underground and a little bit cut off from the world. I had wi-fi, but no phone. At around two in the afternoon, which was 6 a.m. on the west coast, someone checked the website and told me, “You got it.” I said, “Are you sure, or is it a prediction?” and I heard a loud yes. To be honest, it was a relief. I’ve done a couple of bake-offs and didn’t make it through and I was worried it would be another “Oh, so close.” I was thrilled. It’s a huge honor in an incredibly tough year. Gravity stood out and then everything else could have gone any way. The other nine movies all had strengths in their own rights.

Why do you think your peers decided to vote for Iron Man 3?

I’d like to think it was the consistent high quality of the work. And that we managed to achieve and maintain that consistency with 17 different companies.  It was a challenge, but it shows what the global visual effects industry is capable of and I’m excited to see that rewarded. I oversaw it and made sure it all fit together. But, from the few-person boutiques all the way to Weta Digital, everyone contributed passionately and with an attention to detail. So I hope the Academy members saw that a whole bunch of people in a whole bunch of companies could produce that consistent work.

How were you able to show that at the bake-off?

It’s difficult to edit so much work down to 10 minutes, tell a bit of a story, keep people entertained, and give the flavor of the work. As do so many Marvel films, Iron Man has a bit of humor and we wanted that in there, and to also show the key things: The suit-connecting shots, the animated performances, the house coming off the hill with the massive destruction, the water simulations, the barrel of monkeys with Iron Man saving the people dropping out of the plane, and the massive end battle, with nearly 40 suits fighting multiple digital Extremis characters. Those sequences had so many different techniques — live-action photography, digitally recreated environments, actors and stunt people in green-screen worlds. I also highlighted the Guy Pearce character; I explained how we changed actors at the last minute and had to come up with a completely digital character solution. Ten minutes is a long time for a show reel, but when you have a two-hour movie with work throughout, it’s hard to fit it in.

Do you feel the film pushed the state of the art of visual effects?

I think maintaining a quality that is exciting with so many companies is a new thing, so it’s different in that regard. And then the destruction, the simulations, the aerial stunt sequence, those things hadn’t been done in that way, to that scale, before. We’ve seen digital environments before, but it’s the massiveness of them in this film. And again, Guy Pearce’s character Killian. Hopefully, we pulled that off.

Did you have more than one company work on the suits?

When we first started, the idea was presented to me that only two or three companies in the world could do an Iron Man suit. I said that I thought with the technology and the skill sets the artists have now, more companies could. We had eight companies working on the hero suits and 12 that worked on some suits. I think it showcases the artistry of people not only in large companies like Weta and Digital Domain, but also the smallest shops and everything in between. The fun part was being able to find the people, share the information, and ensure the quality.

What information did you share?

I went into the project saying we were going to share everything in terms of assets and approaches. I said that when we come across something that works well, we’ll share that and when there’s a failure, we’ll share that as well. We all had to work as a single team, and all the coordinators and producers at Marvel helped to ensure we were able to do that.

Did you meet any resistance among the 17 studios about sharing, especially sharing their failures?

I think everyone was very good. I go into these things with an open policy. I told everyone that I wasn’t going to mince words, I would tell them exactly how I feel. That, from the production end, there was no politics; we’d be totally honest. And, then I said that I wanted the same from them, that we have to work as a team. That was my instruction going in and my question was, “Can you do that?” Everyone said, “Absolutely.”

There were certainly uncomfortable moments when I’d say, “Hey, they’re doing it better than you are.” They might answer, “But we don’t do it that way,” and I’d say, “But theirs looks better than yours. Can you do it their way?” For the good of the film, everyone knuckled down. We had positives and negatives across all the companies.

We went in with the right attitude, set out the ground rules, and it worked. It kinda had to. We would have been out of time otherwise.

Would you choose to do another project this way?

I think using 17 companies is a bit silly. But I do think it’s important to go to the best companies doing the work. Obviously, there are costs to consider and we have to make the best fiscal decisions, so we’re always trying to find the best value. But the decisions really were led by the best quality: the best animation, the best simulation, the best backgrounds, the best graphics.

When you go in with multiple vendors you can go full speed ahead on a lot of things at the same time. With one company, regardless of how big, if you ask them to power through one thing, they have to move resources and put something else on the back burner. With multiple companies you have less of that. If they’re working only on one sequence, nothing has to be held back.

It didn’t make you nervous?

It was a risk, but I went in with confidence. Marvel was concerned about having so many companies that were, in many ways, unproven at this level of work. But I knew the individual companies and had worked with most before. I was quite confident they could get there with our guidance and support. We had a very strong production team led by Mark Soper without which it wouldn’t have been possible. And this sharing caring attitude we tried to imbue in everything we did. It was a huge amount of work and a huge variety of work and everyone did what I hoped they’d do. It wasn’t sort of “Huh, that worked, that’s a surprise.” I’m extremely pleased and proud of the work. And all the companies excelled.

What changes are you seeing in visual effects?

I think that as a department we are being integrated into the filmmaking process more and more. We’re being seen not just as a post-production solution, but as a filmmaking tool. We had to fight to have a seat at the table, and I think we’re getting that seat more and more. It’s long overdue. It’s very exciting now to see visual effects recognized as an approach going in, not just a fix it in post part of the solution. I love watching films when I have no idea there are visual effects because they are used so creatively, beautifully, and elegantly. At the same time, I love films that couldn’t possibly be real. Now that we’re being invited to the table, it’s about how to use that tool to create better films and tell better stories.

What are you working on now?

We’re in prep on Avengers: Age of Ultron. I can’t really say anything about it except it’s a sequel to the third biggest film ever made, so it’s going to be big. Very big. And I’m very excited.