How VFX channeled ‘Back to the Future’ for ‘Endgame’s’ trip to New York

What needed to happen to make The Avengers watch PAST VERSIONS OF themselves?

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One of Avengers: Endgame’s big spoilers is the fact that several main characters go back in time to New York during the major clash that occurred there during The Avengers (2012). Staging scenes that offered glimpses of the past battle, but also other ‘angles’ or characters within that past world was a huge logistical challenge, including for the visual effects artists on the film.

In this interview with befores & afters, production visual effects supervisor Dan DeLeeuw runs through several of those challenges – whether they would try to use old footage, creating new scenes, coming up with ways to show the battle differently, and including a few gags as present-day characters look on at their past incarnations.


Note: You can read how the New York Cap vs. Cap fight came to be in this separate #endgame week article.

b&a: What did you have to think about from a VFX perspective when planning for this return to New York in Endgame?

Dan DeLeeuw (production visual effects supervisor): Well, there was the technical side of it where you’re going back and digging out the old footage, and you’re taking the work back to ILM. So, they already have all the digital assets and all the different pieces you need. But you’re also going back and getting the original files because now there’s the question of what that film looked like and how it needed to cut into our film, versus how the color spaces would match. Those were some of the technical issues.

For example, Avengers was a 1.85:1 show and not a 2.39:1 show like ours is. So you had to work with that, but then there was also the function of how to get ‘into’ that past world. There’s one version we had done where you were more in Tony’s battle with the Leviathans – back when Tony flew through the Leviathan and then crashed through it. We had actually completed a couple of shots with that kind of idea, where Tony flies through – it’s kind of the Back to the Future thing where you know it from this angle and then you find it from another angle – there was a version where Tony flies through the Leviathan and then crashes through the bus stand. And then you have another angle, the POV from the alley, of Tony watching himself. Because when Tony crashes, a couple Chitauri come up and start beating on him in the movie. So you have a angle from Tony seeing Iron Man getting beaten up by the Chitauri, him saying aloud, ‘Let’s not have that happen again.’ But in the end we had to re-think that approach a little.

b&a: Because it happens in the past, I heard you had a few of the characters that appear in these ‘new’ New York scenes de-aged.

Dan DeLeeuw: Yes, we wanted to make it feel like time had passed. It was not only time based on the real time of movie going audiences, but also the five years later as well. A lot of times when you de-age someone you don’t have the best reference in the world; you have to guess. But we had the perfect reference because we had the movie! So we went in and just touched the Avengers a little bit to make them look like they were more their original Avengers counterparts.

To the same degree with the Hulk, if you go back and look at the Hulk, there’s the Hulk from Avengers, and then he got modified a little bit. Then digi-modified a little bit for Ultron, and then got modified again for Ragnarok. We actually went back and got the old digital sculpt from the first Avengers, and then re-rigged it and put newer shaders on it so that when you actually go back and look, Hulk looks like he looked like when he was in the Avengers, not like what he looks like in Ragnarok.

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b&a: What about that sequence when Banner is talking on a rooftop to the Ancient One, who is fending off a few adversaries herself? How did you plan for those shots?

Dan DeLeeuw: It was something that was all about bringing all the shared universes together. I read online afterwards that people had been asking, ‘What was going up with the Sanctum while the battle of New York was going on?’ I don’t know if we really approached it from that standpoint, but it was something that we wanted to bring the Ancient One in, and then we also needed to lay a lot of track for how time travel works. So there’s at least three to four scenes in terms of just trying to set out the rules of time travel.

b&a: We’re in and around New York for that and other scenes – what did you feel you needed to show and therefore build?

Dan DeLeeuw: Well, you notice the street corner where the Sanctum exists in the real Greenwich Village. And then we had gone and taken some more texture photos on Infinity War based on when Ebony Maw and Cull Obsidian attack New York. But while we were there shooting Infinity War, because we shot the two movies together, we found, not quite so far down in the Greenwich Village, we found a rooftop that was a little closer up to where the skyscrapers are. And then went on a roof and took photographs of that. The cool part about having them on top was to be able to see the battle of New York in the background.

As the scene evolved, we needed a way to get into the scene. And that became the Chitauri flying further into Greenwich Village and the Ancient One on top actually battling them. And again, it just ties everything together.

b&a: Tony Stark peeks in on the conversations between his former self and other Avengers and Loki – how was that staged?

Dan DeLeeuw: The gag with that was, we shot a version of Loki’s POV with the Avengers in the same position they were, in that classic pose. And then they break the pose, and Tony had a line like, ‘I’m not gonna stand around here all day posing’. They wanted to get into the scene from Tony’s POV, so then you come in with Tony landing and then peaking around the corner. He’s watching them from behind in the classic pose.

To shoot that, firstly, the original set was very large, the Penthouse was very big. And in terms of how much of it we were going to use this time, we actually were inspired by that set, but the Penthouse we made is actually smaller. We still ended up doing a set extension on it. They still built a portion of the set, but it’s actually in and of itself, it’s just a smaller room with the same style of features, just not as expansive because you didn’t have to walk around it as much.

The beauty of it is again, with ILM, they already had all the backgrounds and the Chrysler building. So when you’re looking out the windows they just went back and restored everything you had from the first Avengers, and then put it back outside.

What you have with Marvel too and the whole shared universe, if you photograph and scan sets, it’s like, “Hey, we can just go reproduce it.’ So we had photo bubbles and scans of the original Penthouse that we used, and then we built up the digital version of that based off what we didn’t build on set.

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

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