Down to the wire: looking back at the VFX of ‘Endgame’


The film had almost 2,500 effects shots

At the recent Oscars Visual Effects Bake-Off, Avengers: Endgame visual effects supervisor Dan DeLeeuw mentioned that the complex VFX work in the film was completed with just two-and-a-half weeks to spare before release.

It’s not uncommon for effects shots, of course, to be completely close to a film’s opening day, but Endgame was a massive undertaking, with 2,496 VFX shots.

I got the chance this week to ask DeLeeuw and a few other members of the VFX crew about their memories of the show, and what they recalled were some of the down-to-the-wire moments as they completed their shots.

Dan DeLeeuw (visual effects supervisor, Marvel): Well, I always evaluate a show. It’s like, how easy is it really going to be to land the plane? And sometimes you land the plane, sometimes you rip the landing gear off, and sometimes you just slide the belly across the ground. But this was definitely a slide the belly across the ground ending. But everybody came together and did an awesome job with the film. It’s interesting with something this big.

Any one sequence, any one character, would be enough just to make it a big visual effects film. A Smart Hulk movie would just be additional shots of Smart Hulk and it still would be a technological and artistic achievement in and amongst itself. But, with this film, you’ve got Thanos, you’ve got Smart Hulk, you’ve got travelling back in time, you’ve got the time suits, you’ve got so much more. So, what’s the hardest shot in the film? They’re all the hardest shots in the film because in any other film, they would be the hardest shots, but you have all those shots in one single film.

Russell Earl (visual effects supervisor, ILM): The big thing for us was Smart Hulk because we did rebuild the solver and the re-targeting system. Fortunately Dan and I had worked together for a number of years now, so I could be very upfront with him. Speaking on the phone with him, he’d say, ‘Hey, so how’s Smart Hulk coming?’ and I’d say, ‘I’m going to give it to you straight, we blew everything up and we’re putting it back together and we will get there, I promise you that.’ Even though, in my mind, I was like…’Um, we’ll get there, right, um, we’ll get there…’

Hulk before VFX Hulk after VFX

It was a little scary for a little bit there, but we ended up getting it all put together and built and were able to turn around the shots. And the first shots that went through, Dan was like, ‘Okay, now I can relax…’. I think it gave him peace of mind.

Matt Aitken (visual effects supervisor, Weta Digital): There was this little shot called ‘Oner’. It’s 45 seconds long, it was actually originally going to be about twice that length and it’s the moment where the two armies clash. And so this is, obviously, something that the whole film’s been building up to, and the filmmakers wanted it to pay off. At the same time as the armies are clashing, the portals have opened and everybody’s come back and so there’s all these reunion moments that have to happen as well. The longer version had more of those reunions of people who’d been blipped out in the Infinity War coming back. But it just played too long.

Endgame VFX shot Endgame VFX Endgame movie scene

Dan said to me something that really stuck, which was that the way it played, that people in the industry really appreciated the achievement of pulling off something like this and letting it play that long and had all those complex beats in it. But that amongst the general audience, some people just weren’t even aware that it was oner. They just had a sense that this thing was going on and it was a little bit wandering and a little bit random. So the filmmakers recognized that and, I think, had the sense to get over the fanboy geek nature of doing this thing and actually let the needs of the storytelling of the film to take priority. And so that’s why it was scaled back.

But, it was still 45 seconds long, and it still had its fair share of work. It was a predominately CG shot, CG camera, and a CG environment with predominately CG characters. But there were these three plates that we came in and out of through the shots and they all had to be worked in. It was one of the first shots that was turned over to us. And we went through these multiple iterations as we were working on it and that was one of the last large shots that we delivered. We were working on it for four or five months in production. We had a sub-team that were dedicated to that shot had its own animation supervisor. For the longest time, I wasn’t sure that we were going to pull it off, but we did and it plays well.

Jen Underdahl (visual effects producer, Marvel): Certainly that oner was one that we just had to stay on top of, to make sure that we weren’t necessarily going down roads that were going to waste time and artist energy at this point because we had just buried them with so much stuff. So we really had to time out when it was a good time to update them. It was about constantly communicating between these guys and the directors and making sure that we were on top of the exact right story for an hour once a week, and that when we asked them to make changes, that they were meaningful changes. I think one of the most impressive moments that happened in the darker hours was the final shot of Thanos’ blip.

Thanos

We were all just bleary-eyed and Dan got on the phone with the animation supervisor at Weta Digital and – I don’t even think you guys were speaking English at the time, but you somehow managed to put together this poetry of Thanos’ final moment. It all started with Josh Brolin’s performance in there, for sure, but because we didn’t necessarily have all the extended pieces, we were taking bits from all different places and the next iteration that showed up, we knew we were good because these guys in the wee hours had somehow pulled this magic. It’s a devastating shot because you really do feel that he knew he was right and the world didn’t. And you just feel the weight of him hit the dust, it’s just beautiful.

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