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'Avengers' DVD/Blu-ray Preview: Digital Effects Secrets of Marvel's Mega-Blockbuster

Last month, Fandango was invited up to San Francisco to chat with some of the digital effects specialists at Industrial Light & Magic. With The Avengers set to hit home video tomorrow, we chat with them about the challenges they faced making the film, including having to create a full CG duplicate of New York City as well as they favorite scenes from the movie.

Be sure to check back tomorrow as we'll have a full review of the 3D BluRay in our weekly New on DVD/Blu-ray section.

Q: Were there any challenges in animating and creating effects for the other characters like Thor, Loki, etc.?

Jeff White: Long blonde hair is hard and lightning is deceptively hard. One of the things with Thor is that he had this whole sequence where he was supposed to jam up the portal by destroying the Leviathan by calling down the lightning. We did so many iterations of what does his lightning bolt look like? You know, it's not just a squiggly line. We looked at all sorts of examples of lightning, forking lightning, lightning in slow motion to try and get the right characteristic and we found it had to be different in wide shots versus close shots.

Q: Marc Chu: We had to build digital doubles of all of them, so Captain America, Black Widow, Thor, Loki, Nick Fury, Bruce Banner, Tony Stark [laughs] so, the tough thing with something like that is capturing all the data – getting the actors to sit down, paint up their faces and then you have to capture a wide range of emotions, anything that you think the character is going to do. And then you sit them through another series of sessions to capture the textures. The benefit of doing all of that is that you get a better digital double. If you don't have those expressions to work off of...I mean, I could be the worst interpretator of Black Widow sad face ever, but if we have that to use, that's what maybe makes it a bit more seamless than the digital doubles that you've seen in the past.

Q: What kind of research did you do to create a digital New York?

Jason Smith: We were lucky to have a few New Yorkers on the crew so they kept us honest. We'd be developing stuff and they'd be like, "Nah, that's not New York." Photography was a huge thing, even photography we didn't use for our assets, we'd look at to see what was out there on the streets. We had to remove everything on the street level – the cars, the trash cans, the traffic lights – anything that would stick out and give away that we were projecting these images onto simpler geometry and then we had to replace it with CG things.

Q: Was there a particular moment or scene while you were working on the film or when you saw it in theaters that made you say, "That's why I got into this business."

Marc Chu: There were a couple of shots in progress where our Hulk lead animator Jacob Bastecki... where the jet that comes into the lab while he's fighting Thor and he turns around and he screams and starts to run towards camera; when I saw that shot, rendered, I was like, "Oh my God." [laughs]  "We did it!"

Jeff White: For me there's kind of two. The first one is, there's sort of a mini-montage of where he walks out as Banner and the Leviathan is coming up the street and he turns into the Hulk, punches him in the face, Iron Man shoots it, it blows up and falls down and he's yelling at all the aliens around him. That just becomes kind of emotional since you've been looking at it for so long but we never hear it with the final audio until we sit down in the theater and we're like, "Whoa! That's amazing!"

And then the second one is when he slams Loki at the end. It's this sort of perfect comedic relief through all this high energy action that's going on.

Jason Smith: For me, even from the storyboards, my favorite shot was where we fly around The Avengers and you see the Hulk roar and you see each Avenger in turn and Iron Man is landing. To me, that's THE comic book moment that we've all been waiting for.

Q: This is such a huge project. Was this the most expansive and/or difficult project that you've worked on?

Marc Chu: I don't think it may have been the biggest that we've taken on, but it was one of the most difficult movies, just because of the scale. They shot it and as they were still filming, we're working on it. And we have a compressed schedule to deliver all these special effects that are hard. I mean, CG New York.... [laughs]

Jeff White: Every project has its own difficulties, but I would say it was unique in that there was so many different things – character, environment, Iron Man. A whole new Iron Man suit is its own challenge.

Q: What have you learned and picked up from the first Iron Man movie to the completion of Avengers as far as advancing your style of effects?

Jeff White: As far as Iron Man is concerned, there's two things – there's technology improvement and then there's also understanding the character. And now, the same people have worked on all three films (Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Avengers), so the modeler who worked on the first Iron Man worked on the Mach 7, so he knows how to make the suit look like the signature Iron Man profile. And then at the same time, our metal shaders and rendering capabilities with him have just continued to get so much better, leveraging off work we'd done in previous Iron Man movies as well as Transformers.

Q: Is there anything from the first two Iron Man movies that you can look and carry over to Iron Man 3?

Marc Chu: I'll say that we're not working on the third one. [laughs]

Q: What is it like for you to take everything that you've worked on and putting it out there, especially with something like The Avengers?

Jason Smith: It's really is insane because you go from everything being a complete secret that no one can see and no one can talk about to walking through Best Buy and buildings are blowing up on the big screen TV. You have that initial reaction of like, "No! This shouldn't be… oh. It's OK." [laughs]

Follow along on Twitter @DerrickDeane and @Fandango.

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