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Interview: Visual Effects Supervisor Chris Townsend on the Making of ‘Captain Marvel’

June 11, 2019Ben MK

Visual effects are a part of most movies nowadays. But when your film is set two decades in the past and features younger versions of some of today's most well-known actors, as well as aliens and futuristic technology, the importance of the role played by the visual effects can't be understated.

Enter Captain Marvel, the 21st movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and one of the franchise's most hotly anticipated entries, which not only brings to the screen the MCU'S first female-centric adventure, but also helps lay the groundwork for the rest of the superhero series as we know it. Starring Brie Larson as a super-powered being in search of answers about her mysterious past, the film follows Captain Marvel as she partners with a young Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to stop an invasion of Earth by a race of villainous aliens known as the Skrulls.

I caught up with Visual Effects Supervisor Chris Townsend to talk about his work on Captain Marvel, and to find out more about the challenges of bringing such a VFX-intensive project to life.

I understand Brie Larson filmed her scenes for Avengers: Endgame before shooting her scenes for Captain Marvel. Did that in any way inform or affect the visual effects for Captain Marvel?

Townsend: No, actually, it was the other way around, really. You're right; she did shoot some of her scenes before the actual photography started. But because of our post-production schedule, we were ahead of them. One of the great things about working with Marvel is that even though we're very separate in terms of the way we do each individual film, we know everyone. And I've worked with Dan DeLeeuw, who's the overall [VFX] supervisor of [Endgame], so we were able to discuss openly with him what we were doing.

But they looked to us to take the lead on her look and her powers, and so as we were developing them we kept them informed of what we were doing. We shared our progress and then our final look, and then they matched that with what they were doing.

This is the fifth film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that you've worked on. In terms of VFX complexity, how does Captain Marvel compare to those other films?

Townsend: I think one of the great things is that each of these films is very, very different. One of the big challenges here was creating a look that fits in with the very analog, organic filmmaking style that indie filmmakers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck brought to it. And that presented interesting challenges. It also was a film where we had a lot of de-aging effects, particularly on Sam Jackson. There were about 500 shots of him; and that's far more than anything we've ever done before, of that type of work. But that was a big change, and certainly added huge complexity.

A lot of the work was things that we felt were going to be easier — like the cat. We felt that we established that look pretty early on in our process, and everyone loved what trixter (the company that was doing that) had done. But when we got that in shot production that was really challenging, because we were intercutting between real cat and CG cat over all the 70-80% of the cat shots in the film. And then obviously the big end battle that ILM did was something that was very difficult to pull off, fundamentally — to try to make an all-CG scene feel very naturalistic in keeping with the rest of the film. So each of these films present their own set of challenges.

Captain Marvel is also the first time that we've seen the Kree homeworld of Hala in the MCU. What was the inspiration for the visuals of the scenes set on Kree?

Townsend: The Hala environment was created by RISE [Visual Effects Studios] in Germany. It was trying to create something which again felt somewhat naturalistic — that you could very much believe that it was real — but something that looked very different from everything else. And trying to create a world where there was this incredible order; the Kree world has this very ordered sense of society and is almost dictatorial in the way that the city is laid out; it has very rigid, strong shapes.

So Andy Nicholson, our Production Designer, had come up with a lot of ideas very early on in the process to be presented to the directors and the studio. A lot of those were picked as the general aesthetic of what we wanted, and then we started developing that world. In trying to create an aesthetic that had that a very strong architectural feel, we looked at a lot of comic book art of how Hala was depicted. And it was all over the map; they had so many different styles. So it was really hard to pin down one particular, signature element. We borrowed a lot of inspiration from all over the place, from real-world architecture [to the] more fantastical.

Aside from the production and costume design, what kind of role did the VFX play in recreating the film's '90s setting on Earth?

Townsend: Whenever we were shooting in downtown Los Angeles — particularly for the Metro chase through the city — there's a lot of work that we're doing to erase buildings and replace buildings with the period buildings that were more appropriate or more accurate for that location. But the actual on-set production, the location department, did a brilliant job in trying to fill things out as much as possible.

We dress sets and we dress the locations as much as possible in the foreground, and then any for background stuff we were doing — big cityscapes where we had to recreate the Los Angeles skyline (because the skyline has changed) — there's a lot of work that we did to enhance things and to keep things in line with that period look. And obviously with the train fight, there's a lot of wire work that is done. Much of that was shot on blue screen and we composited it with backgrounds that we stitched together based on photographs. So it really is a general mishmash of ideas and techniques.

What was the most challenging VFX sequence to create for the film?

Townsend: It's really difficult to say, to be honest. There's an idea written on the page, and then you have to visualize that. Everyone has a slightly different version of what they're looking for, so the challenge in our world is to try and please as many people as possible and give everybody what they want, but particularly the directors and obviously the studio. So it's really hard to pin one particular thing.

I think the de-aging stuff that we did on Sam was challenging, just because there were so many shots and it was trying to maintain that accuracy and that look across such a huge variety of shots, but also a variety of performances, lighting and lensing, and action beats, and trying to maintain it so you as audience member believe that what you are looking at is Sam in his 40s rather than, in reality, 70. So there was a lot of work — very painstaking frame-by-frame artistry — done to try and recreate that. Hopefully, in a way that the audience doesn't notice.

Last but not least, what kind of advice would you give to those out there hoping to break into the VFX industry?

Townsend: [laughs] Be prepared for an awful lot of long hours and hard work. It's a very challenging industry, but it's an incredibly rewarding industry, I think. For young people, it's a matter of looking at the real world around them and studying it and analyzing and trying to figure out the physics of what's going on. One of the great things about visual effects is that it's a meld between science and art; how to use the science of light and form and shape and all these things, and to apply them into an artistic endeavour.

I think that's what makes it such a unique aspect of filmmaking. We're able to do anything these days; it's really just a matter of whether we have the time and the budget to do it. It's an expanding field that will continue to grow. There's much on the horizon, things that we can't even think of, where visual effects will continue to be used to tell stories.

Captain Marvel is now available on 4K, Blu-ray, DVD & Digital HD.

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