How driving around L.A. with a camera out the window led to one of the coolest shots in ‘Iron Man’

Storytelling with Previs, VFX and a Sony hand-held camera.

As I watched Avengers: Endgame this week, one of the very obvious observations I made was how much of a role visual effects have played in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And it’s been like that, of course, since the very first MCU film, Iron Man.

Not only have VFX enabled epic landscapes, characters and battles to take place in these superhero adventures, they’ve also been – in concert with previs and postvis – a key ingredient in helping to find and tell and sometimes re-work those superhero stories.

In Iron Man, for example, VFX supervisor John Nelson pushed hard to realize a low-flying shot of Tony Stark during a test flight in his Mark II suit in which he almost crashes along Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles – a shot that almost didn’t happen. Nelson tells befores & afters how it all went down.

John Nelson: At one point in that Mark II test, Iron Man loses power and almost hits bottom on Wilshire Boulevard, but is able to pull out of that and zoom through the city and then home again. In previs we had a scene where Iron Man would come really low to the ground.  I talked to director Jon Favreau and he said, ‘Yeah, we’re not going to do that…’. But I said, ‘We’ve got to do that!’

We’d shot all these aerial plates around Westwood, and I knew I could get low, but I couldn’t get that low in a helicopter. We had this one shot of him falling down, and you see him falling to Wilshire, and that’s where they were going to cut. It was just one of those things where I thought we just needed to make the jeopardy a part of the shot, to see him almost not make it. A scene without that jeopardy point, in my opinion, was not going to make it. It was one of those things where I said, ‘I’m just going out to try to put something together.’

So I went out with my camera, which was this little Sony hand-held thing – not even a cell phone – and I drove around in my car, down Wilshire Boulevard, with the camera up out of the sunroof. I went back to [visualisation supervisor] Kent Seki and I said, ‘Okay, we’ve got to previs this low pass miss.’

I gave the footage to Kent, and we did a couple of previs shots of Iron Man barely missing a car, then we showed it to Dan Lebental, the editor, and he cut it in, and then Jon Favreau saw it and he goes, ‘Oh yeah, we’ve got to do that.’

So then we just went out two days later with the 35mm camera and a van and shot it. Then ILM did an amazing job with their CG Mark II. Fortunately, because we did that and Kent did such a good job with the previs, and then Dan cut it in, and Jon looked at it and went, ‘Well, yeah, we’ve got to do this,’ it made it into the film. The whole spirit of Iron Man was like that, we would do that shit all the time.

Watch the entire test flight sequence in the clip below.

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