Oscar-nominated Visual Effects Supervisor Jeff White discusses creating The Hulk in Marvel's The Avengers
When the nominations for the 85th Annual Academy Awards were announced earlier this month, the superhero blockbuster Marvel's The Avengers was nominated for Best Visual Effects, as many expected. One of the nominees, visual effects supervisor Jeff White, was celebrating his first ever nomination, after working on blockbusters such as Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe in various capacities. He and his team at ILM were primarily responsible for the look of Mark Ruffalo's The Hulk, a character which drew heavy praise from fans and critics alike. Yesterday, I had the chance to speak with this new Oscar nominee about his work on Marvel's The Avengers, his first ever superhero movie. Here's what he had to say.
I know you don't really have much say in this, but during the Oscar ceremony, they always have a clip they show from each nominated movie. If you had your druthers, which clip would they show at the ceremony Marvel's The Avengers would they show?
Jeff White: We had a couple of great scenes where he had this great comedic interaction with the rest of the Avengers. I would prefer any Hulk clip they would want to show.
This isn't your first big-budget tentpole, but this is your first superhero movie. Were there any specific challenges with Marvel's The Avengers that you might not have been expecting coming in?
Jeff White: With Marvel's The Avengers, some of it was work that I was familiar with from other projects, but it was just so much larger in scope. On any one project, you usually have a big challenge to bite off, and we knew that was going to be the Hulk for this project. On top of that, we had so much virtual environment, in terms of creating New York City. We had to create the Hellicarrier, and all the set dressing that went on it. We had to create Stark Tower, all of the battle at the end of variety, in terms of the number of challenges we had on the project.
I believe Mark was the first to actually perform as Hulk live on the set, in motion-capture. Were you on set for that?
Jeff White: What our approach was with Mark was he had an initial session up at ILM, very early on in the process, where we captured a facial library for him. We did many, many rounds of capturing texture and skin to life cast, his teeth, dental molds. He was incredibly gracious throughout the entire process. I think where the synergy really started to happen was having him do the Hulk performance. He did it not only on set, in a motion-capture suit while everybody else got to wear superhero costumes (Laughs), which wasn't very fair, but we have an optical-based motion-capture system for on set. We were able to use two witness cameras and we developed a new geometry triangle pattern on our suits, out there. It's not flattering, but it really helped us track his motion. Once we had all the shots in the film picked out, that were going to have Hulk in them in the cut, he actually came back to ILM with (director) Joss Whedon, for another round of motion-capture, on our mo-cap stage, with dual helmet cams. Really, through every stage of it, he was just willing to give any amount of performance needed to help bring the character to life.
I've seen this new technology called SimulCam used on a couple of sets I have visited, where they can see the CGI-created characters on the monitor, on the set. Did you use that?
Jeff White: We did a session early on, where we had him re-targeted live to the Hulk, just to kind of give him a feel for what the character would be. On the set, we went a little more low-tech. We would have Mark up on platforms, so he was the right height. We'd also have a stand-in with a backpack, who could go to the right height. To get the look of the skin right (Laughs), we asked Marvel, and they agreed and it actually worked out really well, we actually had a bodybuilder on the set, shirtless, and painted green from the waist up.
Jeff White: Yeah. The reason we did it is, we typically do reference busts, but they're made out of silicone, and that doesn't accurately represent what skin looks like, under those lighting conditions. So, we had this bodybuilder out there, and he really got into it. He would do all this crazy flexing and stuff, and our anatomy guys were poring over that, for great ideas about what to incorporate into the Hulk. It all ended up working out pretty well.
I was curious about your time on the set. Were you on the set more than other projects in the past? I understand it wasn't a tremendously long shoot either, compared to a lot of these projects. It was 90 days, I believe.
Jeff White: It was, yeah. It was very fast. We were on set for the sequences that specifically involved us, which was a significant portion of the film. What made it challenging was, it was a very fast-moving production, but there were two units running. Some days we'd look at it and see there are Hulk shots on the second unit, and Hulk shots on the first unit. Figuring out how to cover all that work was a real challenge.
It hasn't really been touted as such, but for my money, I think this was the best post-converted 3D movie so far. When you first came on, was it always being conceived in 3D?
Jeff White: It wasn't actually conceived in 3D. I think they told Joss, 'Look, go make your movie, your story, and we'll figure out the 3D aspect of it.' They didn't want to burden the production, and what he was shooting with 3D, knowing we could get a really good conversion out of it later. As we were doing the visual effects work, we definitely composed some shots, some moments in 3D. That would be if something blows up, having things fly a little towards camera. They did a really phenomenal job converting the film. We did have, I want to say, 60 or 70 shots that we rendered in native 3D, and the rest were conversions from 2D finals.
Are you working on the Phase II movies at all? Is there anything else you're working on that you can talk about?
Jeff White: I'm not personally working on Phase II movies right now. I'm in pre-production on Transformers 4 right now.
I read a quote from Kevin Feige about how they're goal was to surpass the visuals in Transformers: Dark of the Moon in Marvel's The Avengers.
Jeff White: Yeah, it is interesting, with all these movies, trying to do a one-up of the previous version, when that was pretty amazing visually. That will be quite an undertaking.
Great. That's my time. Thanks so much, Jeff.
Jeff White: Thank you.
See if Jeff White can take home Oscar gold for his visual effects work in Marvel's The Avengers at the 85th Annual Academy Awards on Sunday, February 24.