Plan of Attack
April 22, 2014

Plan of Attack

In the new Marvel Entertainment motion picture “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” the stakes are high as the hero Captain America is called back into service to help save the world from the latest villains, led by the deadly Winter Soldier. For the filmmaker themselves, the stakes were equally as high, as they brought the superhero back to the big screen following a wildly successful debut not long ago. 

The action had to be better than before, the stunts more than thrilling, and the visual effects better than ever. There to see these missions accomplished was Proof Inc., one of the film industry's leading visualization houses, which provided extensive previs and postvis services. 

The film was released by Walt Disney Studios on April 4 and quickly shot to #1 at the international box office.

“This new film was an extremely important project for Proof,” said Ron Frankel, Proof’s creative director/founder. “In fact, this was the biggest previs and postvis assignment in the history of our company.”

Frankel pointed out that previs has clearly become a critical element today as a story tool in the planning of action sequences within a 3D environment. To show just how vital is has become, Proof spent 14 months planning the previs for this new “Captain America” film, and then another eight months during the postvis process. 

According to Proof’s previs supervisor, Monty Granito, the crew was involved with every major action and VFX scene in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” The artists began animating the previs for the film six month prior to the start of production. Working directly from the script, they created a number of exciting sequences, such as when Captain squares off again the Quinjet, jumping onto it and destroying it, and when the Helicarriers take off and shoot each other and fall into buildings. 

“We are especially proud of how we helped craft the finale of the film,” Frankel added. In fact, they visualized a solid chunk of that finale, which translated into about 35 minutes of animation.


According to Dan DeLeeuw, VFX supervisor on “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” there has been a real paradigm shift during the past few years when planning a feature film. “We used to rely on storyboards, then on animatics, and now today on previs,” he said. “Previs has secured a place for itself as an extremely valuable tool in helping to visualize an entire movie before physical production even starts. In the case of this new film, a huge third act fell onto the shoulders of Proof’s previs team to help structure. We had to first construct the third act in previs, making our way through all of that data to help determine how the sequences would look. This was the first time I was able to see the entire third act of a movie before a film even began shooting.”

DeLeeuw notes that he and the Proof team were involved very early on in the planning of this film. “We had to figure out how to fulfill our director’s vision to help best tell this story,” he said. “Previs has become a really great tool these days for everyone to plan, design and ultimately shoot action sequences.”

Proof also delivered a good deal of postvis on this movie. In the past, it required a lot of imagination to envision, during screenings, what the movie would actually look like, said DeLeeuw. “You’d see greenscreens where future VFX shots would appear, so there would be ‘holes’ in the story. Now, by integrating postvis, you can watch the entire film and really get a solid feel for what it will eventually look like,” he said.

Gunnar Hansen, postvis supervisor for “Captain America: The Winter Solider,” said the group worked very closely with the editor, Jeff Ford, and the VFX editor, George McCarthy, for six months to provide postvis temps for over 1,400 shots. “We basically created very detailed 3D composites to fill in the pending vendor visual effects shots, as well as precise shots to send to the VFX vendors for timing, animation and design,” he explained.

Aside from touching on all the major action scenes, the Proof team and Hansen also created many of the animated screen graphics. For the huge battle finale, several hundred shots were tracked, lit, rendered and composited to a very high level of detail. In the end, these contributions gave VFX, editorial and the studio a seamless, decisive and exciting cut for both final visual effects and for screenings, he added.

Behind the Scenes

Marvel had requested black and white previs imagery, so the team experimented with various techniques to find a good solution for the black and white mandate. The artists ended up using Proof’s proprietary real-time CGFX ‘toon shader that had been developed in-house by Anna Lee.

The tool had been used on numerous projects before, but not to the extent it was used in the film. The ‘toon shader allowed the team to work quickly, focusing efforts on blocking, composition and action, rather than getting bogged down by color, texture and lighting. 

The crew relied heavily on Proof’s technical support structure, including camera rigs, a proprietary character builder and a few render tools. Shots were crafted in Autodesk’s Maya, and the sequences were edited together in Adobe Premiere. Some of the artists also used 3D Connexion's SpacePilot 3D mouse to navigate the virtual cameras more easily. 

“We would usually get a couple of concept drawings, a storyboard or two and a mandate. We were embedded with Dan DeLeeuw and Jen Underdahl in the VFX department. We would shape the sequence until it was ready for the directors. I would edit the shots in Premiere and put a temp soundtrack to the sequence,” says Granito.

According to Granito, the group met with the directors at the very least once a week. “When creating sequences from scratch like this, I think it’s important not to get too far ahead. We were given a lot of creative freedom, but that makes it all the more important to always make sure we are making their movie, not our own,” he said. “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Designing Action

Directors Anthony and Joe Russo wanted a 1970s thriller, “grounded.” “Because we were embedded with Dan [DeLeeuw], we could create and elevate on a daily basis. He is a VFX supervisor who really gets camera and storytelling, and was a comic nerd like me, so we were able to shape the action sequences with the directors from scratch. That doesn't help you in staying grounded, though.  What worked for this project was keeping the cameras relatively simple and just pushing the action,” he explained.

Among Proof’s work was the design of the flying sequences for the superhero Falcon. Falcon’s sequence began as an animation test, said Granito. “We had an image of Falcon doing a backflip off the Helicarrier. Dan, previs artists Eric Benedict, George Antzoulides, Michael Solorzano and I brainstormed his chase scene: ‘Falcon is trying to get into the Helicarrier, we should have a Quinjet chase him. Well, the Quinjet would be shooting at him. Can we blow up a Quinjet and force him to the deck? Why don't we have the Quinjet appear out of the smoke, like a shark forcing Falcon to shoot, then backflip and open his wings. Yes, please!’ Because we were embedded with production, questions like those could be answered immediately, freeing us up creatively. Collaboration equals creativity. From an animation test, our collective input became the sequence that showed up in the final film. Dan had this idea for an anime-type missile attack. Shahar Eldar designed a missile rig, and within a day we had a working missile set up. That led organically to Falcon leading them to the Helicarrier dome and blowing his way in. “

The previs team, the VFX supervisors, the directors and producers shaped the sequence. Because the team was working collaboratively, it “stayed grounded,” said Granito. 

Throughout the planning process, Producer Nate Moore would tell the group, “Falcon is not Iron Man. He is just a human being with a set of wings and an engine. Every move should try and adhere to the physics of the real world as much as possible. His agility and quickness is his only weapon.” 

“The directors always encouraged us to get fanciful, and they also kept us grounded. They gave us strict parameters as to what we could and couldn't do with the characters. Marvel will not mortgage their characters identities for a big splash,” said Granito. 

When Captain America faced off against the Quinjet, the group was given a concept image of Cap throwing the shield into the wing. The directors had called for the feeling of Cap taking on a dragon. “While my team was busy animating Falcon or making Helicarriers blow up, this little sequence was my side project,” said Granito. He explained: The directors wanted Cap to brake hard and flip onto the jet; everything else in the sequence flowed naturally from that move. How would Cap take down a Quinjet? The Russo brothers said Cap’s mind is just as enhanced as his body. I also did a lot of research into Krav Maga for some of the hand-to-hand fighting. In Krav Maga, you use what is immediately in front of you to disable your opponent. Once Cap ended up in the center of the jet with his shied, it was obvious: In one motion disable the aircraft and escape it. Within a week we had the sequence fleshed out to 75 percent of what was shown in the movie. It’s fantastical, but it’s Cap being surgical, and skilled and grounded…well, as grounded as possible.”

Granito said the group was allowed to rough out the finale very early on. The writers and board artists were working on most of the human-to-human beats, while previs was given the Helicarrier- and Falcon-centric beats to pursue. 

“We had a huge challenge. We had to make the Helicarrier sequence huge and thrilling, while NOT murdering the citizens of Washington, DC,” said Granito. “The directors would not allow Cap to destroy the Helicarriers if civilians would be harmed. We did know that one of the ship had to hit the Triskelion Building and that Falcon had to jump out. The rest was thousands of variables.” 

As Granito explained, Dan wanted the ships to fire at each other like pirate vessels. To this end, his group did a lot of firing shots but wanted escalation at every turn. “If we couldn't have the peril of innocents, we would settle for a little surprise,” he said. “As we had them firing on each other, one organically started to fall toward the other. It was our ‘grounded physics again.’ If the left engine is blown away , it will carry the ship in that direction and they collided, which escalated to the Helicarrier falling into the bay from which it rose. Which escalated to the bay collapsing and the Potomac flooding the bay.”  

The group was also able to add to the emotional ending when Bucky is pounding Steve and the Helicarrier is crashing. “In previs, you do a lot of big action; it’s rare you get to help shape the emotional side as well,” said Granito. “From Cap tossing the shield into the Potomac, a piece of structure moving behind Bucky to blow away the bottom of the dome, to a gorgeous slow-motion fall into the river, my team and I were able to help shape the mood and storytelling of the film’s end.”

As Granito notes, the Russos, Nate Moore, Dan DeLeeuw and VFX Producer Jen Underdahl allowed them – rather, encouraged them – to escalate at every turn, building on what they had done before. As a result, they scrapped whole versions of the sequence to make it better and better. “That’s what we always go for. We keep our previs light and fast. We want versions. The 15th version is usually better than the sixth, so we don't worry about bells and whistles,” he said. “We focus on storytelling, choreography, geography and Impact. We want to help make the best film possible, not the fanciest previs possible.”  

Having an Effect 

“Captain America: The Winter Solider” has a tremendous amount of action and cutting-edge effects. Yet, when it came to the visualization, the most important resources were not the technical, but rather the creative people power. 

Insofar as the previs, the group focused more on the creative and less on the tools, like motion capture and virtual cameras. “I’ve been doing previs since 2003, so I’ve seen it go from sliding characters in wireframe to full mocap, virtual cameras, particles and rendered lighting ,” said Granito. “Every job is different , and I’ve used mocap and virtual cameras successfully in the past. If I’m creating sequences from scratch, as we were for most of our work on this movie, I don’t want anything to bog down the selection of compositions and shots. An artist in Maya (maybe even using a camera emulation tool in Maya as I do) can map out the idea of a sequence much faster than a mocap/virtual camera pipeline. The ideas come faster. They won’t look as polished, but I’d rather have 10 rough ideas than three polished ones. A good artist sitting with a director or VFX supervisor can make 10 cameras in 15 minutes, then load them into Premiere and explore the idea.”  

On “Captain America,” Granito had an edit of the whole finale, and the directors and VFX supervisor were in the room. He had a couple of Maya scenes open and would find revisions to shots or compositions and place them in the edit. Because they were working this way, they were able to keep creative momentum. “In my opinion any animation, mocap or otherwise, should only be there to serve the storytelling. Sometimes the performance capture can start to drive the cinematography of the previs, or worse, can convince the watcher that and idea is ‘finished.’”

Granito notes, the only thing they really deliver to the final product is poses, storytelling, composition and data. As the technology gets more complex and all of the computers become fast enough to render all the previs, it’s up to them to keep sight of what is important and what is window dressing. “Don’t get me wrong, I want our previs to look and feel the best, but if you spend too much time making a sequence look like feature animation , you might be leaving cinematic possibilities undiscovered,” he said.

Images courtesy Marvel Entertainment.