Ageing Captain America to 119, and other adventures in ‘Endgame’ digital make-up

How Lola VFX shaped Tony Stark’s sickness, gave Hank Pym some hip, aged Captain America, and made Stan Lee young again.

#endgameweek is brought to you by Masters of FX.

Spoilers! When Lola VFX crafted Skinny Steve in Captain America: The First Avenger, audiences stood up and took notice at what digital make-up and digital de-ageing (and ageing) could do. Since then, Lola and other studios have advanced the art in enormous ways.

Avengers: Endgame included a multitude of digital make-up shots completed by Lola, from the emaciated Tony Stark, to the young Howard Stark, young Hank Pym and young Stan Lee, and to the old Captain America. The studio also carried out a number of de-ageing shots for the return to past-New York, and they worked on the Cap vs. Cap fight (which is the subject of this other #endgameweek story at befores & afters).

Here, Lola visual effects supervisor Trent Claus breaks down each of these digital make-up challenges for befores & afters.

Captain America hits a century-plus

There were some prosthetics involved and we worked with Legacy Effects on that. We wanted to avoid having to deal with any of Chris Evans’ hair, if possible, so he was wearing a bald cap with wig. And then he was wearing a prosthetic on his neck. Everything from beneath the chin to the collar of his shirt is a prosthetic. On set he wore prosthetic crow’s feet by his eyes. Subsequently, in post production we removed those. We didn’t actually end up using those. But they were there to help. We just ended up going in a different direction.

And then Chris wore tracking dots on the rest of his face. So he looked kind of strange on set! He looked like young Chris Evans but with an old neck and crow’s feet. That was in Atlanta – it was actually at a farm outside of Atlanta. And we shot Chris doing all the takes and the performance first, just like we’ve always done with de-ageing, or even with skinny Steve back on the first Captain America.

And then we shot a picture double. In this case it was a gentleman named Patrick Gorman who’s a really phenomenal actor. He was the older double for Chris. He would watch whatever Chris did on set and duplicate it as well as he could, then I would direct him to look a little more to his left, look a little more to his right. Hold this pose, hold that pose, that sort of thing. Try and get the angles and things that we need so that we would have that on set reference for lighting and textures.

There was a lot – a tremendous amount, actually – of lookdev that was involved. Because unlike de-ageing where you are aiming towards a reference, with ageing there’s nothing to go off of. So there’s a lot more subjectivity in terms of the filmmakers. Everybody is acutely aware of their own ageing, and then also the ageing of their parents and things like that. And they see things that happen to them or their parents, and kind of extrapolate that that happens to everyone. Sometimes those things contradict the ageing things that happen to someone else. So you might have one person in the room who thinks this is what ageing is, and another who thinks this is what ageing is, and they don’t necessarily work together. So there’s a lot of trial and error and lookdev in that process.

Just to find the character, too, it was really important that it always be Chris, it always be recognizable as Chris, and never change his performance in any way. He’s just a very old Captain America. I think the technical age we came up with was 119 years old he’d be at that point in time. But with the serum, he was supposed to land roughly 85 to 95, somewhere in that range – younger than what a normal human would have looked.

He had to look still super hero-ey. You don’t want the audience to feel sorry for him. You want them to accept him as an older version of Captain America, but still Captain America. So you don’t want him to look frail. But yet you want him to look really old, so it was a really fine line to find there.

The actual process was basically the same we do for de-ageing and the same that we did for old Peggy on Winter Soldier where we do it entirely in compositing, in Flame. There’s no CG. It’s all manipulating the main plate, which is the Chris plate, either by paint work or more in depth compositing work, or also using textures from our double, the Patrick plate. So then to that end, we also shot Patrick at our studio, at Lola, in our light rig, to get some higher resolution textures, and then also to catch any angles that we might have missed on set, which always happens. We used any and all of those materials that we could to come up with the final look of old Cap.

The light rig is a sphere that the actor sits in. And we’ve got LEDs and pin spots all around the sphere that can be programmed to recreate a static lighting that was on set, or also dynamic lighting. We can replicate the lighting that would happen if you were sitting in a car, say lights passing through the windows, and any number of combinations, so that we can recreate the lighting conditions of the set onto an actor after the fact. It’s a way to re-shoot something, or to pick up elements that you couldn’t on the day, or that you didn’t foresee, anything like that. Marvel tends to call the lighting rig the ‘egg’ because it looks like this giant egg that you’re sitting in. So whenever they ask if the ‘egg’ is available, we know what they mean.

For old Peggy shots in ‘Winter Soldier’, the plate started with actress Haley Atwell wearing tracking dots and a wig. © Marvel 2014.
The final shot by Lola VFX, which also relied on another actress for reference. © Marvel 2014.

In terms of doing old-age skin, we learned a lot since old Peggy. With old Peggy, there was a lot of trial and error, and we did a lot more trial and error with prosthetics on Peggy, actually. We tried all sorts of different combinations of things. In the end, with Peggy, we went with none. She just had a wig on. On Endgame, learning from that, we knew that the neck was a big source of problems and really a time sink without a lot of pay off. That’s why we went with the prosthetic on the neck. But in terms of the actual skin texture and things like that, much of our work was informed by our de-ageing work. Not necessarily Peggy in particular, but we know just from all of our de-ageing work what needs to be removed and what needs to be lightened, and which colors should and shouldn’t be there, and all of those sorts of things from that. So we kind of just go in reverse, we flip all of those instincts around and go the other way.

Much like de-ageing, it’s really easy to go too far. With de-ageing, if you go too far, they’re too smooth and to mannequin-y and too synthetic. Whereas here, if you go too far, they’re too prune-y or too frail or they stop looking like the actor. You lose that recognition. So it’s easy to go too far. And knowing where those boundaries are has just come with our decade and a half of doing this work now.

Skinny…Tony Stark

Tony had been on the spaceship for a while, so we did all the emaciation to make him look sickly and unhealthy. Much thinner. It was kind of like what we did on the first Captain America, just in a more of a sick look. We had to reduce his mass overall. So, not just in the face, but in the neck and body and everything. Virtually every shot had to be ‘clean plated’. He had full roto for virtually every shot, because it wasn’t on greenscreen or anything like that.

The emaciation itself had to affect not just his mass, but the musculature itself. He can’t be a skinny guy with bicep definition. We have to remove all of that muscle definition and replace it with a different kind of definition where you can see more of the bone structure and more separation between muscle groups and that sort of thing.

The fact that he’s gaunt and sickly, too, meant we had to reduce the fat in his cheeks. Make his cheekbones more pronounced. Sink in his eye sockets a little more. Give him dark bags and dark circles under his eyes, affect the entire skin tone. Give him a pallor so he looks pale and ill. We added things like veins and tendons and things in the neck. Especially when he has arguments with the other Avengers and gets very emotional and flexes his neck while he’s talking quite a lot. You can see a lot more tendons and things in there that weren’t actually there that were added in. And all of those things, veins and tendons and all those things, have to appear, of course, as though they’re under the skin. So it takes a lot of animation in comp to make it look like it’s beneath the surface of the skin rather than just painted on. With lighting – if there’s specularity to his skin on top – that has to remain intact and all of the changes have occur underneath that.

There was a lookdev process with that as well, where you want him to look thin, but not quite on the verge of death, necessarily. You don’t want it to be unbelievable that he can still walk. He still had to be able to move around. But you wanted the audience to react. You want him to not look like healthy, outgoing Tony Stark that we know and love. He had to be a bit shocking.

A young Hank Pym, with long locks

We did young Hank Pym in his little cameo in his lab back in 1970. That was an incredibly difficult shot. It’s only one shot, kind of like the young Tony shot from Civil War. It’s really young, and it’s a slow pan. It was, I think, roughly 45 years that we took off of him. So it’s our largest age gap that we’ve ever attempted.

Michael Douglas in ‘Streets of San Francisco’ (1973). Source: Alamy.

It was so difficult because of the large age range, first of all. We were aiming for kind of the last couple seasons of Streets of San Francisco, which was a TV show that Michael Douglas was on years ago. And that age range has such a dramatic change on the structure of your face. He had a lot more baby fat in his face back then. So it’s never really just a matter of removing wrinkles. But in this case, it’s not just about removing age, you’re adding mass to his face and adding cheek fat, and you’re adding a double chin and you’re adding a thicker neck. And there’s just so much structural change that has to take place that ordinarily we can avoid.

When we de-age Hank to his age in the Ant-Man films, we could keep his facial structure almost the same. There’s slight differences, but it’s nowhere near the change that we had to make for Endgame. And then add to that the technical challenge of the long shot. It can be easy for us to hide our tricks in the editing. If you know you have a cut in just ten more frames, you can hold something a little longer and just to its breaking point, and then swap it out for another element on the next shot and start fresh. But if it’s all done in one take, and if it’s all one big shot like this, there’s nowhere to hide. So you have to make sure your elements work from all angles. We see him from behind and a full profile, and then directly to camera, looking up, looking down. And your elements have to work in all of those angles. So you’re not just looking for a profile element or something like that.

Then there were all sorts of other obstacles. He’s holding a phone in front of his face. He’s talking a lot. He’s on the phone. So he’s emoting and has a lot of dialogue that we have to keep and make sure that that emotion is intact. And then, the hair. He’s got these amazing long locks of hair – not that dissimilar from what he had on Streets of San Francisco, actually. But what we shot on set ended up being a little too long. Too shaggy. So we ended up trimming it. The length of his hair got trimmed off digitally by four inches. And then the mass of the wig over the top of his head got shrunk quite a lot as well. So the bottom of his hair, all the ends are CG, that had to be replaced with CG. And then the rest was done in comp.

De-ageing Howard Stark

We did the young Howard Stark and all of his interaction with Tony Stark. That was roughly 25 to 30 years that we needed to take off of John Slattery to get that look.

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The lighting was tricky with Howard. There were lots of things that worked against us. It was a very dark office that they were in for a lot of it, which tends to provide very flat lighting that can look very synthetic if you start to do too much manipulation. So that was a challenge. And then opposite of that too; towards the end of the scene, they go outside onto the main grounds where the soldiers are exercising where there were a lot of really dynamic, harsh sunlight angles and things like that that we had to work against. So if you’re getting very brightly lit on one side, you have to de-age that side of the face differently than you do from the shadowy side. Something that complicates things. It’s certainly doable, but it takes a different kind of effort for sure.

With John Slattery in particular, he’s known primarily for things like Mad Men and more recent shows. So he’s not necessarily as recognizable in his younger form than other actors we’ve done. In the end, we aimed for trying to make him nearly identical to the age of Robert Downey Jr. now so that they were roughly equivalent in the scene. I think the end goal was to make John just sightly younger than Robert, but they’re around the same neck of the woods there. And that took some lookdev as well to try and find that right age to help sell the scene.

Goodbye, Stan Lee

We did the young Stan Lee cameo, which was amazing to be a part of, especially given that we know that it’s unfortunately his last filmed cameo. We shot Stan in Atlanta about two years ago, during principal photography. The car he’s in was in front of greenscreen, and then we replaced the background with the moving footage and did CG reflections in the windows and the mirrors and chrome and that sort of thing, and made it look like it was outdoors, travelling down the road.

We did his de-ageing work on top of it just as though we would with Michael Douglas or Kurt Russell. We shot a double doing the same takes after having watched Stan. And then we used that both as reference and we were able to take some skin elements from the younger double.

Stan had a fake moustache on set that he wore. We ended up doing a trim on that. It was a little too bushy, so we replaced some of the cheeks and upper lip and things after the fact digitally, but he was wearing a moustache on set, and a wig. I feel very lucky that I got to work with him and got to work on this piece of his legacy.

Going back to New York

When they go to past-New York, we did a CG arc reactor on Tony for the scene where he has little stand off with Robert Redford’s character in the lobby. We also de-aged Redford for that scene. Actually, everyone in that time period, all the other Avengers and those guys, even though it was only six or so years ago. They all required a little bit of de-ageing. You’d be surprised at the changes that can happen in six years.

Explore more of our in-depth Avengers: Endgame coverage during #endgameweek.

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