Avengers: Infinity War featured

Visual Effects Supervisor Dan DeLeeuw on the Making of ‘Avengers: Infinity War’

August 13, 2018Ben MK

Avengers: Infinity War is nothing short of epic, from the sheer number of characters involved to the galaxy-sized stakes anchoring the plot. One of the most impressive and memorable aspects of the film, however, has to do with the visual effects, which play a key role in transporting audiences to a battleground in Wakanda, a showdown on the decimated moon Titan, and everywhere in between.

A 25-year veteran of the VFX industry, Visual Effects Supervisor Dan DeLeeuw has worked on such movies as The Rock, Reign of Fire and Serenity, not to mention Iron Man 3, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War. And for Infinity War, DeLeeuw was tasked with overseeing the gargantuan effort involved with bringing to life this ambitious culmination of a decade's worth of Marvel films.

I caught up with DeLeeuw to find out just how massive of an undertaking Infinity War was to bring to the big screen, what some of the most challenging sequences to create were, and what collaborating with directors Joe and Anthony Russo was like. (fair warning: some of the content below contains spoilers)

Infinity War is the fourth Marvel Cinematic Universe film that you've worked on — and it isn't your last, as you're also working on the followup due out next year. In terms of the number of VFX shots and the shot complexity, how much bigger was Infinity War compared to those previous films?

DeLeeuw: Shot number is definitely up there, and magnitude and complexity, I think, is the big difference. Ironically, there's actually 80 or so fewer shots in Infinity War than there was in Civil War. But the movie's about 20 minutes longer, so what we ended up doing was we traded up shot count for overall shot length. And a lot of times you'll hear shot count numbers where this is a blue screen comp, or something like that, and that'll count as a shot. Whereas in Infinity War, there really weren't a lot of those simple shots.

A lot of times your two lead houses will be like an ILM or, in the case of Civil War, like Method [Studios], where the bigger visual effects [houses] do the hard shots. And then you'll have a lot of smaller, medium-sized houses that maybe don't have that complex a pipeline work on the simpler shots. But for Infinity War, we had 13 different visual effects houses working on it, and they were all the really top companies out there — Weta [Digital] in New Zealand, and Framestore, DNEG, and Cinesite in London, and then ILM and Digital Domain in California. So just by the sheer amount of firepower you had in the visual effects houses, it shows how big the movie was.

Did the massive scope and epic nature of Infinity War have an impact on how you and the VFX team prepped and planned for the film, as well as on how you executed those plans to create all the effects?

DeLeeuw: Yeah, think of it as "casting" the visual effects houses — who best to do the job. Early on, with Thanos, we knew we wanted to go with Weta because of the work they had done on their digital characters there, starting all the way back with Golem in Lord of the Rings.

And since Marvel's part of Disney, we had also heard what Digital Domain was doing with Beauty and the Beast. And they kind of reached out and said, "Hey, you guys should see what these guys are doing." We went out and saw some of the demos of what they had and it was like, "This is brilliant stuff as well." So because of the sheer number of Thanos shots — about 40 minutes of screen time — we essentially split Thanos up between the two visual effects houses. Then we had to make sure the shots would get done, and then ILM would handle Wakanda and all the other visual effects houses would basically get their own sequences in the film.

What was the most challenging scene in the movie to work on? And what was it about that scene that made it such a challenge?

DeLeeuw: There's a lot. Titan was challenging because of its size, and because it was a completely alien world. Basically, you were on-set, a 120 foot by 50 foot patch of Titan, that we could actually put our characters on. And then, in a lot of cases, a lot of that was covered over with CG just to make this feel like we were in many different places across Titan as the battle raged with Thanos against the Avengers. And then with Wakanda, the sheer scale of working with all the Outriders and all the Wakandans, and planning out Thor's arrival; there's so much going on.

Early on, Joe Russo, our director, was like, "This movie's entitled Infinity War, and so we're going to make it a war.” [laughs] And so we were fighting a war on two fronts, but beyond the size and scale and scope of those, really the hardest scene was the scene when Thanos sacrifices Gamora by throwing her off the top of the mountain on Vormir, and keeping the complexity of Josh's performance as Thanos and building that across the scene. There's a lot of subtle acting going on of making the audience believe that he truly cared about Gamora and [making sure] that that scene worked and the rest of the movie works. Because you have someone that is doing horrible things throughout the entire movie, but in some ways you're almost feeling sorry for him, which is the best villain you can have.

Are those scenes the ones that you're also the most proud of? Or is there another scene in the film that stands out for you?

DeLeeuw: I think all the scenes are really great, but what's interesting about all the different franchises coming together [is that] each scene is almost a different film. Like with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, you get to play with super soldiers and Helicarriers at the end, but it's mostly an action movie. But when you get into Infinity War [and] you get to the Guardians, you've just gone through this intense drama of [being on] the ship with Thor, and then Loki dying and Heimdall dying. And so you get this really heavy drama; and then Thanos is this imposing figure, and then New York getting wiped out, which was much more of a conventional action beat; and suddenly you're in a comedy with the Guardians. So there's lots of things throughout the film to be proud of.

You mentioned The Winter Soldier, and you've been working with the Russo brothers since they became a part of the MCU. So can you tell me what it's been like collaborating with them? Have you perhaps developed a shorthand with them over the course of three movies?

DeLeeuw: Working with the Russos is great. They have this maxim that the best idea wins, and they can come from anybody, really. And [with] the idea that you're constantly building on where you start doing the script, or where you started with the previs, the film just always gets better.

[The Russos] based [The Winter Soldier] on these ‘70s thriller movies, so we hit it off initially because they were fans of those movies, and I was as well. And so this shared love of movies becomes your shorthand. It's like, "Oh, it"s like in The French Connection when this happens," and then you get into other films and then it's like, "Oh, it's like The Empire Strikes Back when this happens." And so your shorthand is calling out scenes from movies, and you build on it and change it and make it your own.

Of course, prior to working on these MCU films, you worked on a number of notable movies, like Serenity and The Rock. What are some of the key insights that you've picked up — or the career-shaping experiences that have happened — along the way?

DeLeeuw: It's a combination of things. I think I was lucky, in a sense, that when I started working in visual effects — it was a couple of years after Jurassic Park had come out — it was this point where digital was just starting to make its way into the industry. And so there wasn't a lot of people in the business, and as I worked my way up I could do different disciplines. So you can start off rotoscoping, and then you start off compositing, and then you're animating, and you're just doing all the different parts. So by the time I got to supervise, I at least had some level of hands-on experience with each of the different aspects.

And then when you're working with different directors, you definitely pick up their different rules, in terms of how they would shoot things. Like how Michael Bay would shoot something and how he'd compose a shot, or [how] someone like Rob Bowman, who I worked with on Reign of Fire, was with his camera. And so part of your job is to definitely bring your own creativity to the process, but basically getting inside your director's head and understanding how they would shoot the movie. And as part of that, you start collecting all their experience and their taste, and then you apply it to what you work on later in your career.

What advice would you give to those trying to break into the VFX industry?

DeLeeuw: You [should] know you're going to dedicate a large portion of your life — a large portion of the hours during the day — to working on films, so definitely it's something you should love. But if you love films, it can be very rewarding.

But I think now is a pretty great time to get in. There's lots of great schools now that you can go to to learn the process. There's lots of great software now that you can download at home — and they've kind of disabled some of the features, but you can actually learn the software that we use in the business. And that's what we're seeing now. Like back in the day you'd have to train everybody in the software, [but] now you have people learning it when they're in high school. So now you've got a very mature group of artists that you can pull from as you start working on the films.

And just in general, our job is to recreate the real world, so pay attention to the real world. Watch how animals move, watch how water flows. It's simple things like that that you're tasked to recreate, that will help you.

Avengers: Infinity War is available on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray & DVD August 14th, 2018.

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