ED. NOTE: As the record-setting “Marvel’s The Avengers” prepares to do box-office battle again this weekend — having already grossed $1-billion globally — word came this week from New York that ABC still plans to create a Hulk TV series, possibly by 2013. Given that Hulk will surely only grow in screen profile amid his latest wave of success, Comic Riffs contributor Winyan Soo Hoo caught up with two of the many Bay Area artists behind Hulk’s stunning big-screen animation.
FOR THE BLOCKBUSTER FILM “THE AVENGERS,” Mark Ruffalo didn't just have to deliver a strong performance as Bruce Banner. Technologically, he also had to put every fiber of his being into the role as his alter-ego Hulk..
Talk about fleshing out your character.
The team behind the Disney/Marvel film scanned every inch of Ruffalo's body, from his fingertips to his eyebrows, to help define his character's physicality and to provide it with such — well, incredible — detail.
From Ruffalo’s body, Hulk’s creative team also made dental molds, and took fingerprints, and produced photographs of the actor from every angle. They also made life casts of the Oscar-nominated actor’s body. They wanted to make his digital character more believable right down to his asymmetrical eyebrows and his birthmarks.
“Even though you may never realize that mole came from Mark Ruffalo, just having a mole there on the Hulk makes him look more realistic,” ILM artist John Doublestein, 28, said. “A lot of people criticize computer graphics for being too clean. We were looking to introduce asymmetry because people can innately recognize when something appears a bit too perfect. It’s really important to find the little details that we all look for intrinsically and recreate them on a digital version. We try to trick the eye a little bit there.”
About 300 animators and other artists from George Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic took the lead in handling the visual effects for the film and set the rest of the band of superheroes in flight. They worked in tandem with director Joss Whedon to re-interpret Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s iconic comic-book vision.
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“One of the best parts about working with Joss Whedon is that he's always focused on all our work being in the service of the story,” said Jeff White of ILM. “I think he does such a great job of making sure that the people aren't lost in the visual effects because the story of ‘The Avengers’ is really about the actors and the dialogue. We wanted to make sure that our visual effects upheld and supported that great story that Joss created. With actors like Mark Ruffalo, I'd say having great acting and great dialogue are so key to people also liking the visual effects.”
White served as the film’s visual set supervisor of the film. He studied film and computer science at Ithaca College, then went to graduate school for computer arts at Savannah College of Art and Design. One of his first jobs was designing M&M commercial animations; White said he found the gig to be a nice introduction to the animation field because its fast turn-around and varied roles on the job.
With “Marvel’s The Avengers,” ILM continues to push the boundaries in the special effects after the debut of “Star Wars” more than 35 years ago. Since then, the prolific company built a roster projects, including box office hits such as “Rango” and the “Harry Potter” and “Mission: Impossible” franchises.
Their success, they say, may be attributed to a hyper-awareness and close attention to detail that both blesses and curses any fine artist. Every arm of the grueling collaborative process benefited from this mindset, from the lighting effects to the creature modeling, rendering and animation. Beyond the artistry, the animators relied on computer science and programming to meet the challenging aesthetic demands. \
“Details are found everywhere [in the movie], like how an animator reproduces an actor's mannerisms on their digital-double; or how a modeler or texture painter sculpts each individual pore into a creature's face; or how the light reflects off a bumpy surface versus a smooth one; or how a cloud of dust trails a falling piece of rubble,” Doublestein, the lead creature technical director, said. “Each department contributes their expert specialization to create an image better than any one person could do alone.”
The digital creations pass from one department to the next at ILM before becoming one combined film still image. More than 700 of these visually edited shots made it into the final stages of the production, which took the animators an intense time-crunch within nine months to complete.
Doublestein said his team labored over the design and transformation shots for the Hulk by taking notes from the beastly film and comic-book character of yore, all while building a form that came into its own with Ruffalo’s physicality as inspiration.
“The Hulk transformations were especially challenging since we didn’t have much reference for how a human can double in size and tear through the clothes he's wearing — except for the pants, of course.”
“While there's certainly a lot of computer programming involved to solve the technical problems of how we make things move, we also rely heavily on studying real-world reference,” Doublestein said. “For Hulk, we studied bodybuilders, and I pored through many anatomy books to make sure I built each muscle properly and spent a lot of time making sure the internals moved realistically through all of the animator's poses. We also focused on getting muscles to jiggle and skin to slide over bone just as [they] would on a real person. Our goal is to create something impossible that seems believable, as opposed to just looking like an actor in a rubber suit.”
The details weren’t limited, of course, to the characters themselves. ILM spent weeks sifting through photographs that four of its animators had taken in New York City to create the essential backdrop in the film’s final scenes. ILM had the animators project the building geometry onto their animation designs. The background was then CGI’d onto a green-screen for the actors, who performed on a set along the backroads of New Mexico.
“Reflections move and change in windows, but in photography they're all static,” White said. “We ended up taking out every single window in those building photographs and replaced them with a CG window that has proper reflections. We then provided a room interior for the buildings, so that it looks like there's something behind the window. It's a lot of detail for us on our end, but our goal is for people to not even think about the fact that a scene is not real.”
A select balance of the real and imaginary only seemed to help finesse Whedon's sense of timing, particularly his humor. In one scene, a surly Hulk punches Thor without hesitation — striking him with a sharp blow to the side, reminiscent of a move from a Saturday cartoon. Those simple touches provided much-appreciated breaks in the story, preventing the superheroes and audience from taking themselves too seriously.
“I think Joss knew what people wanted to see out of his characters,” White said. “For me, that was the really fun part about watching the film, and I think that's always going to be the key to the comic books in the future ... to make sure they've got that great script and that great dialogue.
“Movies like Batman, Avengers and other superhero films are just raising the bar for the quality of work that people expect in comic-book films. There’s an expectation now for what these films can and should deliver, and I think that's a great thing.”