Seamless Effects, Smashing Things Together, and Aging Agent Carter

In Captain America: The Winter Soldier the super WWII soldier Steve Rogers finds himself in a modern-day political thriller, a suspenseful visual-effects laden action-adventure that won praise from critics and Avengers fans alike. Rogers, aka Captain America, now works for the modern-day espionage agency S.H.I.E.L.D. The threat? An assassin known as the Winter Soldier. 

Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo, the film stars Chris Evans as Captain America/Steve Rogers, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, Robert Redford as Agent Alexander Pierce, and Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter. (More about Peggy later.)

Writes Richard Roeper, “We not only get an edgier, more complex, more compelling storyline, we get the most bad-ass 95-year-old the world has ever known.”

Produced by Marvel Entertainment and distributed by Walt Disney Studios, Captain America: The Winter Soldier achieved an 89 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and earned $714 million at the worldwide box office.

Marvel VFX supervisor Dan DeLeeuw, Industrial Light & Magic VFX supervisor Russell Earl, Scanline VFX supervisor Bryan Grill, and special effects supervisor Daniel Sudick received the Oscar nominations. In addition, the film received two Visual Effects Society nominations in the category Photoreal/Live Action Feature Motion Picture: Outstanding Effects Simulations (the Helicarrier Broadside and Crash), and Outstanding Created Environment (Triskellion Headquarters), both created at ILM.

We spoke with Dan DeLeeuw about the film. This is DeLeeuw’s 19th feature film credit. He began his career at Dream Quest Images on the 1993 film, The Three Musketeer, became an associate VFX supervisor on Mighty Joe Young (1998), and then a visual effects supervisor for 101 Dalmatians at The Secret Lab. From there, he moved to Rhythm & Hues, where he supervised that studio’s work on six films including two Night at the Museum films. He became a second-unit visual effects supervisor for Marvel Studios’ 2013 film Iron Man 3, and then Marvel’s VFX supervisor for Captain America: The Winter Soldier. This is his first Oscar nomination.

StudioDaily: Why do you think your peers voted for this film to receive an Oscar nomination?

Dan DeLeeuw: What’s special about Cap is that the effects aren’t hidden, but they are seamless in a way, built from the directors’ vision. All the effects are designed to live in a gritty world and be believable. I think a lot [of the voting] had to do with the helicarrier battle at the end, how huge that was. And Peggy. We took a woman in her early 30s and turned her into a 92-year-old woman without using any makeup at all. We did it all digitally. I think it opens new avenues.

How many visual effects shots were there?

2500 shots in a 3200-shot film. Marvel films tend to be big—to have a large number of shots. When you have a superhero character with superpowers, it drives up the number of shots. And, a lot of it is hidden work—work we did to showcase and help other departments, like painting out rigs for stunts.

How many vendors?

We had 15 studios. Well over a thousand people worked on the effects.

How did you divide the work?

We looked for key sequences. We had ILM do the finale, the helicarrier battle, and a similar sequence, the reveal of the helicarrier bay for the first time. We gave the sequence when Cap escapes on the Roosevelt Bridge to Scanline. We shared the Quinjets among vendors. Also Triskellion and Winter Soldier’s arm. We tried to figure out the best places to share resources and assets. We used to be afraid to do that, but it’s pretty much been solved. Alembic is our new Rosetta Stone.

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Tell us about the helicarrier battle.

Storywise, S.H.I.E.L.D has been taken over by Hydra, who reprogrammed the helicarriers to shoot at each other. The script had them fire against each other and crash into the Potomac. The previs team started on the sequences in pre-production and I got involved. I’m the giant kid that wanted the helicarriers to crash into the helicarrier bay. You kinda grow up playing with action figures, smashing them together, so it’s a natural place to go—if they’re going to be shooting at each other, it has to be broadsides. And, well, if they’re going to crash into the Potomac, then they should first crash into the helicarrier bay. And if they’re going to crash into the helicarrier bay, they should crash on the edge and water should flow into the bay. Wouldn’t that be cool?

We had ILM in a helicopter taking aerials with a stabilized camera over a portion of the Potomac outside the restricted airspace for their sequence, and Bryan Grill’s Scanline team on the bridge for their sequence.

ILM created the helicarrier effects?

Russell Earl’s team at ILM had the helicarrier crash and water simulations. [See previous StudioDaily coverage.] They did the Falcon, too—pretty much everything with the helicarrier battle. They remodeled the helicarrier from The Avengers and gave it more detail, which we hadn’t seen as close in Avengers. It splits open, so we needed to see the decks. They crashed the helicarriers into the bay and caused the Potomac to flood into the bay. There was an amazing amount of detail. The battle at the end had so much heavy geometry, ILM had to spec out bigger machines with more memory. 

To preserve continuity, they took the previs and plotted out each cannon blast from one to another through the entire sequence. If you go back and step through it, all the hits happen in sequence. There was no cheating going on. 

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And Scanline?

Scanline did Cap’s escape on the Roosevelt Bridge. Cap gets into the elevator and the attack on him in the elevator is the turning point in the film. We shot the elevator on stage in Manhattan Beach. You can see Triskellion outside the elevator. He steps out and goes through a CG version of Triskellion and lands in an atrium in Cleveland. Then he leaves the atrium and rides across a bridge in Cleveland that they made look like a bridge in D. C., and jumps on a Quinjet in Carson, California, where we had the green screen. We had a buck in the shape of a Quinjet there that Scanline replaced. Their sequence was all over the place.


Who created the “old Peggy” effect, and how?

We worked with Lola on that effect—making a 30-year-old actress look 90. Going into the film we hoped it was something we could do by augmenting makeup. Makeup is additive. We could make her more guant, do something subtractive. But the makeup restricted her performance, so we wondered if we could go with no makeup at all—put minimal tracking markers on Haley’s face and replace her head with makeup that we’d develop as we went along. We decided to try it.

We cast someone older as reference for Haley, and she matched Haley’s dialog as closely as she could. Then, we took the wrinkles and old age spots from that double and copied them onto Haley. We photographed the old age double with multiple cameras and used multiple images to project the old age texture onto 3D geometry of our old-age version of Peggy. Then we mapped that, through compositing, onto Haley.

At the end, it was less of a 3D effect and more of a compositing effect. We didn’t replace Haley; we just augmented her face. That way, we stayed true to her original performance. We had a mandate from editorial not to affect her performance, because that would have changed the cut. We kept the integrity of what Haley did while making her feel older.

Did the practical effects influence the visual effects?

Dan Sudick’s practical effects helped ground the feeling. The directors wanted the film grounded in a 70s thriller like The French Connection or Three Days of the Condor, with rough and tumble car chases. His practical effects made the film feel real. We crashed CG helicarriers. He crashed cars together like hot wheels. He flipped cars, had a truck and cars on cables crash into each other. I didn’t get to see the Penske truck crash, but I hear that some people were crying because it was so violent. It’s amazing.

How long were you on the film?

About a year and a half including pre-production. 

What’s the best thing about Captain America: The Winter Soldier?

I think the film works on a lot of levels. There’s the psychological level, the higher level of plot that mimics what’s happening in the modern day. And then for younger people, or those young at heart, there’s all the comic-book stuff. It’s a lot of fun.

The best thing about working on the film was the team. One of the tricks for doing a movie like this is having a great team like that. It was amazing. Everyone shared the same vision. We’d get in a room and start brainstorming and when we’d leave, everything had gotten better. We had a lot of different departments and disciplines and everyone was welcome to throw in an idea. Nothing was rejected. The best idea won. It made everyone feel like part of the process, part of a family. That makes the whole film better.

The best thing for me was getting nominated. To have the hard work that went into this film recognized by the branch is the best thing. Everything after that the Academy does makes you feel special. It makes the recognition very special, and it keeps settling on you how special this is. As part of the luncheon, they took our picture. You’re standing on these raised platforms with everyone else, looking at the crowd, and Clint Eastwood is standing behind you, and you realize the gravity of what you’re part of. 

What are you working on next?

Another Marvel project. I can’t say…