Special Effects Wizard Ben Snow Talks About Developing The Money Shots For Iron Man 2!

If you are a tech guru then this is the Iron Man 2 interview you have been waiting for!

Below is an in depth interview with Ben Snow, ILM special effects supervisor on Iron Man 2!

"Could you describe us which developments and news have you brought to this sequel compared to the previous movie?

Everyone on the film wanted to keep what we liked about the first movie, including the story and characters, great in Iron Man 2 as well, but to try and add more action. On Iron Man 2 our aim was to keep the realistic look of the visual effects from the first film, but to make the action more spectacular. In this film all the Iron Man suits get updated, and in addition we have the new War Machine suit, a group of military drone suits and one or two surprises. We also created the Stark Expo, a largely virtual environment based on the Flushing Meadows site of the 1964 New York World’s fair, which we used to stage part of a big action sequence at the end of the movie.

On the technical side we were able to build upon the materials work we did do make our computer graphics suits more realistic but adding some new lighting tools we’ve been working on since Iron Man 1. We extended those tools to make them more user friendly and to give our artists a much more similar set of lighting tools to what the Director of Photography is able to use on set. The suits looked more realistic on the first render, which gave us the ability to play with the lighting creatively a lot more. This was essential for some of the big flashy stage-based sequences from the start of the film and where the Hammer drones are unveiled.

The action is bigger and required more simulations and destruction work than we were faced with on the first Iron Man. The special Effects crew on set, led by Dan Sudick, did their part with a bunch of big practical effects such as a scene where a whole parking lot of cars gets blown up by the drones pursuing Iron Man. But on the CG side we added a bunch of destruction effects created on the computer, particularly for the end battle – splashing water, spurting hydraulic fluids, metal being shredded by gunfire and so forth. It was difficult, but we had a lot of fun doing it!

For this movie, besides the Industrial Light and Magic, a lot of other companies have worked. Was there a mutual collaboration, or did everyone work on their own? And, if there was a cooperation, could you tell us how was it carried out?

We were fortunate to work with Janek Sirrs as the effects supervisor on the studio side. As well as ILM he worked with fourteen other companies including Double Negative, who did the suitcase suit for the Monaco sequence with Mickey Rourke’s character, and PLF who did the head-up display work this time ‘round. Janek had the most direct contact, but we definitely were in touch with the other companies and did some early art exploration on the suitcase suit and consulted with them on the motion of Iron Man.

ILM did the bulk of the FX work, with over 535 shots. Most of the work was done at our offices in San Francisco , but several shots were done at our Singapore offices, with whom we have very fast network links allowing me to review the work directly with the artists as often as we need. We also worked with third parties on a couple of the sequences including Embassy in Vancouver, who had worked on the first Iron Man, Pixomondo and Trixter in LA and Germany, Virtuous in Asia and Svengali, also in LA. We worked very closely with those companies on their sequences. With all of these companies and with the client we generally used Cinecync in conjunction with conference calls.

Which has been the biggest challenge for you with this movie? I guess that the fight shot between Iron Man and War Machine with the Hammer drones can be considered as one of them.

The biggest challenge facing all of us was making sure that we keep the qualities that audiences loved from the first Iron Man – the humor, characters, story and realism of the visual effects – but adding more spectacular action.

In terms of a particular scene, I agree the fight where Iron Man and War Machine team up to battle the Hammer drones was a big challenge. We started with some terrific pre-visualisation that had been created by Genndy Tartakovsky, the creator of Samurai Jack and the original Star Wars Clone Wars cell animated series. Also collaborating was Tommy Harper’s stunt team who came up with some cool action and Dan Sudick’s special effects team who set off real explosions on set based on where we’d be adding the CG fighting. Filming was a challenge because of limited time, and then a lot changed in the story that required us to create many new backgrounds synthetically, and come up with new shots when an additional action beat was added late in the game.

But we strove to keep the intensity of the original action in tact, and this meant a lot of work from a big team of people, starting with Digital Environment team who extended the garden set where the battle takes place, through the layout team that matched the actors and camera, and the animators who motion-captured and hand animated the actual fighting. Their work went to our creature team who simulated the base damage of the drones being smashed or blown apart, and then we had our modelers and painters working on top of that to add detail to the ripping metal. Then the lighting and FX TDs added the lighting, CG smoke trails, spurting hydraulic fluids, spark hits from bullets and additional destruction. Finally our team of compositors went in to marry all of this in with the practical explosions in the plate, adding water being kicked up, additional explosions shot separately, and even more smoke and atmospherics. It was a huge effort but I hope people get a thrill out of it (and certainly they’ll have some fun stepping through it when the DVD comes out!)

How much time did you spend on the execution of all the scenes?

ILM started pre-production work on Iron Man 2 around April 2009, the same time that they started shooting. Client side visual effects supervisor Janek Sirrs had been working with Jon Favreau planning the shoot for several months before that, and we’d done some art work and had some meetings with them, but actual modeling started in April. Full production started late August and we ramped up to a crew of over 200 people, working through to the end of March this year. My approach is to spend a lot of time getting the models looking good, and also trying to get a basic look for each sequence established by lead artists. We then try and get a very quick first fully rendered take on every shot to be sure the action is working with the lighting and to make sure the basic look is consistent, then get into the subtleties of beauty lighting, fx and compositing.

It wouldn’t be Iron Man without a new sequence being added late in the day, and we did add some action to the end sequences as I mentioned, but even ‘though we had less time for that, we had enough warning to make sure we could do it to the same level of quality that we brought to the rest of the film. It did mean we spent several weeks working around the clock on it, and I’m very grateful to our terrific crew of artists who were so dedicated and enthusiastic to always make the shots look better.

Could you describe us your work on the War Machine character and tell us which differences there have been for his actualization compared to Iron Man?

The idea is that War Machine was based on the Mark 2 silver flying suit from the first Iron Man, and then tricked out with all sorts of weaponry but Hammer industries working with the U.S. Military. Legacy effects provided partial practical reference costumes for Iron Man and War Machine on the film, but the War Machine you see in the film is entirely digital, and we ended up changing the design to make the materials look a little darker and more metallic.

War Machine was a great character to work on, because while we started with a great design by Ryan Meinerding with input from Legacy, we got to work out a lot of extra details like weaponry and flight controls. Bruce Holcomb, our model supervisor, and Aaron McBride, ILM’s art director on the project, contributed a lot of these revisions, but we all got to brainstorm and throw around suggestions and run them by Jon Favreau. So the character has a lot more traditional type weaponry than Iron Man does. At one point we decided to add some more weapons to Iron Man so he wasn’t upstaged!

In terms of creating him, it’s a similar situation to Iron Man – Don Cheadle or a stunt performer wears a partial War Machine reference suit or marker bands and we track in the digital suit pieces to match the performance, or animate War Machine using the performance as a blocking guide.

Which of the characters you have worked on has contented you the most?

We had a great time with all of the characters because we started with great designs but were able to add to them. For the drones we modified and added the weaponry, using the types of weapons used by each of the branches of the military as a basis, and also work out their final paint job and materials. For the air force drone we matched the radar-invisible look of real aircraft – so successfully that they weren’t showing up well enough on film and we had to cheat in more reflectivity to the materials. For the Marine Drone we devised a version of the modern digital camouflage and added a slightly shimmery quality to make them stand out. And as I said, War Machine was a lot of fun all around. But when all is said and done, Iron Man is my favourite. I was there at his birth as a filmed character and have worked hard on all of his different suits. And besides, its hard to beat a character that is driven by Robert Downey Jr.’s great performance."

For those of us who have not seen Iron Man 2 yet, only one more week! One more week till we can experience the special effects that are sure to be something spectacular Iron Man 2!

Many thanks to the Italian web site Comicus for providing the interview!

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