In preparation for the biggest movie of the year making its Blu-Ray debut today, Movie Fanatic headed to Industrial Light and Magic’s San Francisco campus to meet with the wizards of George Lucas’ special effects house. First off, we speak with Jeff White, Visual Effects Supervisor for The Avengers, to get his priceless take on how they finally created a Hulk that audiences adored in the Joss Whedon film.
As per Whedon’s directive, the process had to begin and end with his actor cast to portray the Hulk’s alter-ego, Bruce Banner… Mark Ruffalo.
“You know the nice thing is we started with him coming up and just working on it talking with Joss, but not for the movie at all. Really all we were trying to get out of that day was a sort of training library of facial shapes so that we could accurately recreate his major expressions,” White said.
“For the rest of the day he got in the motion capture suit and we were doing kind of a live retarget onto an old Hulk model -- just so he could kind of play around and feel like, what is this performance capture stuff really gonna turn into in the end? And then, I think it’s difficult on set, those first couple of days when everybody’s in cool costumes and you’re in the gray spandex.”
White appreciated how game Ruffalo was to do whatever it takes to nail the part, which included a large amount of special effects. “I would think it would be hard for any actor to kind of get beyond that. But once he got into it, I think it really started to work,” he said.
The special effects whiz got the most joy out of seeing a seasoned independent film actor dive into a part that would find him rendered in CG half the time. “Mark has done a lot of independent movies and this is a huge big budget visual effects film. We tried to make that process still feel somewhat natural. Once he got comfortable with it and could see how he could drive the performance, I think he really gave us the best performance that we could hope for.”
Creating a bigger and better Hulk did not stop with capturing Ruffalo’s essence in the green monster. “Joss worked very closely with the animators because there’s always that process of like, okay, now you’ve got Mark, but Hulk’s facial proportions are bigger,” White said. “It’s not a one-to-one translation. There’s that process of, what does that look like when it’s actually applied to the Hulk?”
After two previous “failed” attempts at the Hulk, ILM was also ready to prove that this incarnation was the one that would rock longtime fans. “Joss clearly understood the kind of performance people wanted to see the Hulk do. And I think for us, we’ve had a lot of developments in terms of the technology side of it, both in terms of performance capture and in terms of rendering and muscle simulation and everything,” White said. “For us it’s kind of this ultimate, 'Okay, let’s throw everything at it that we’ve got.'"
It worked, big time. No matter how many times this writer saw The Avengers, the biggest response from the audience were the scenes with the Hulk.
“I was the most worried about it,” White said of audience reaction. “But, when we saw the initial designs where we’re going with the more de-saturated scan and we’re incorporating Mark Ruffalo into it, that gave us some really tangible goals in terms of how we needed to make this Hulk different than the previous ones.”
When The Avengers sequel lands in 2015, White is hopeful Ruffalo will return again, and there are no signals to the contrary.
Sure, the fact that he is an amazing actor is a plus. But more importantly, half the battle of creating a popular Hulk would already be at the ready, tech-wise.
“Hopefully Mark Ruffalo is the Hulk again because otherwise we’d be changing it a lot," White said and laughed. “We’ve got a really great basis to start from. We can keep pushing some of the things that we wanted to get to, to push it even further.”
There’s talk that the success of The Avengers’ Hulk could bring back the TV series, but ILM cautions that their work on the creature may not adequately translate to television.
“So I think after learning things like that, we could. If you’re talking about a TV schedule and how fast you need to turn around production, it would be a matter of trying to build off everything we did for the movie and then get him in there, get him lit,” White said. “You wouldn’t have time to do all the really detailed shape, the per frame corrections that we do.”
Simply the fact that fans are beyond thrilled with the Hulk in The Avengers is a huge weight off of White and his team at ILM.
“We knew everybody was going to be judging and so I think when the film first came out and the reaction seemed to be positive, it was a big sigh of relief -- because there’s so many different ways that that could be critiqued. That’s kind of the holy grail,” White added.
“It’s like, ‘Here’s something. It’s incredibly difficult and it’s gonna get judged pretty harshly… so good luck!’ To have it come out as a positive result is a great thing. We are thrilled.”
Ever the perfectionists, as those who excel at this field are, White is looking forward to the sequel also to further improve the Hulk design. “A lot of the hair was difficult, especially his hair design and how different it came out in each shot,” White said.
“I think there’s more that we can push as far as the simulation of his skin and the muscles underneath. And it’s always a matter of the level of detail that we can incorporate into him.”