THE AVENGERS: Interview with ILM's Marc Chu

The Avengers is coming to Blu-ray/DVD on September 26th, and scored a trio of incredible behind the scenes interviews on the film with the visual effects team at ILM. What follows is an excerpt of their chat with Animation Director Marc Chu.

Robert Downey Jr's Iron Man suit has evolved over the last few movies, in part to make him more comfortable on set. Do you approach enhancing a partial suit any differently than character animation or a fully CGI character?

MARC CHU: You know, it's a different challenge and after the first movie, when Robert saw, oh, wow, look at that, he realized he could not wear as much as he needed to. It gave him freedom. He was like, wow, I don't need to wear half of the suit and I could get the same effect. And that allows him to be more comfortable for sure because that thing is not built to be worn any long duration. It'll pinch you, I can't even put the helmet on. I tried one time. We got the helmet up here and I was like, oh, good, I'm going to put it on and I couldn't even get it over here. They have to cast - the first person they had to cast, the stunt guy had to just be able to put the helmet on and that's Clay, Clay is the stunt guy who always plays Iron Man. But the approaches to doing, for this movie, when he takes the suit off, he didn't even wear anything for that. He just wore what he was going to be revealed in.

The t-shirt and the pants. So that's a different challenge. We have to imagine his movements exactly and then place the armor on him. And then figure out ways for us to take the armor off. And everything, I think when they try to plan these things, looks great on a drawing. When they actually build the platform and you go, the platform doesn't even look like the drawing, it becomes our responsibility to figure it out. We need to figure out where the arms go, what gets taken off, how the mechanisms work and fortunately, we have lots of people who are well versed in robots and things to create that from scratch.

You mentioned tailoring the Iron Man CG with Robert Downey's movements. How did you assist him, or did you need to assist him on how to walk a little bit like he's wearing the suit because he had nothing on at the time?

MARC CHU: Well we never interfere with what Robert will do, so he's just going to walk the way he does. And we just want him to be natural. In the end, all those shots are tight shots, right, they're all going to be like this on his body, on his shoulder or whatever. So it wasn't that important. When he first lands and he starts walking, that's completely CG. And that's something that we did on our mobile cap stage. And that's us interpreting his walk and putting it on the CG character. And then once it gets to him, it's just a matter of brute force, imagination, let's figure out how this thing works.

HIDEFDIGEST.COM: There's a misconception that motion capture (MOCAP) means that tradition key frame animation is no longer required.
MARC CHU: For this movie, for Iron Man, for Avengers, for the Hulk, it doesn't matter, it's a combination of - sometimes it's MOCAP, the suits that we use on set when we capture the stunt performer's actions. Sometimes it's MOCAP on our stage, sometimes it's pure key frame animation. I think each one of those is a tool. And each one of them has their place to be in the movie. And the sequence where he's running after black widow and he's running down that little grating, we're using a combination of key frame shots and motion capture shots. And we're cutting between, back and forth to those things. And you can't tell. Each one, I think has their place. I think motion capture is a valuable tool but as you said, you'll always need an - I firmly believe it's always the case. You will always need an animator to pulse it out.

Either because you need to preserve the size and the weight of the Hulk, for instance, so you might need to adjust it, different proportions. It's always going to be an animator that gives it that level of final polish. With the actions, with the face, especially, we had Mark as a reference, we his face as a baseline for performance but it's always going to be the animator to go, you know what, I could push that expression a little bit more in the Hulk brow. And sometimes they would ask for to be a little more wild or this is the specific tool that we give him. He's fully CG. We can start with Mark's performance. If that's not enough, we can push it. Or we can completely change it based on what we've captured with him before. We've captured all his expressions so we can come up with a performance that's from scratch that is going to look like Mark because it's based on his expressions.

HIDEFDIGEST.COM: What's more challenging, working on organic characters or something mechanical like Iron Man?
MARC CHU: I don't know, I'm kind of a geeky guy, so I like mechanical stuff too. And for Iron Man it's always like, let's look at reference, let's look online like when he's putting this little thing on the pipe that diverts energy at the beginning, we looked at a ton of stuff that people were doing with underwater, I don't know. I don't even know what they're called but let's look at all this pipe cutting reference underwater and see what they do. Okay, let's make a conversion of that. It's - I think the more you always kind of hinge things off of reality, the more things look believable. For the Mark 7 suit, when it kind of unfolds and sticks onto him and transforms, we wanted to make sure that didn't feel too magical, that the volume of the pieces didn't feel like they were coming from nowhere. Like a magical tortoise of a suit, I don't know. That's how I felt the suitcase suit was in Iron Man 2. It felt like it was unfolding from nowhere. So we kind of paid attention and wanted to make sure this felt like it was physically possible, that this thing, X amount of size, could actually hold a suit and it didn't actually. The guys upstairs are crazy technical.

HIDEFDIGEST.COM: As each new challenge arrives, is part of the thrill knowing you're going to get put in a corner where something's never been done before?

MARC CHU: I think that's how ILM approaches the work that they pursue. We want to do something that is ground breaking, that you haven't seen before and getting to do the Hulk was one of those things. And it's, okay, let's do a photo reel, Bruce Banner, transforming into photo reel Hulk, a character that needs to act and performance next to live action counterparts. I think the next step will be, can you fully - can you really make a CG human and not make it seem CG? That's tough. It's tough, I mean you have to uncanny valley and everything to fight against. It was hugely fun, and I got to work on first two Iron Man films so it was, for me, a real treat to be part of this series and see them pull it off with The Avengers. It's like, you're going to do what over how many years? And, oh, you did it.


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