Imagine if Avengers: Endgame was the first Marvel movie. Not storywise, of course. That would be silly. But think about a team-up, comic book movie on this scale coming into theatres, sight unseen.
Logistically, that feels like a nightmare for a ton of reasons, especially if a company (or several) was tasked with first conceptualising, then designing, crafting and eventually digitally creating all of those characters, all from scratch, for a single movie.
Fortunately, for Marvel Studios and one of their visual effects partners, Industrial Light and Magic, everyone came into Endgame with some experience. ILM has worked on more than half of the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date and, when we talked to visual effects supervisor Russell Earl (who also had that job for Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War, and Ant-Man and the Wasp before Endgame), he said while that backlog of work was helpful, it’s not as useful as one may assume.
“It’s always good having done the work but, that said, every time [the filmmakers and the studio] want it to be different or better,” he said, “In this case, it was helpful that we had done [Marvel movies] before so we had some good targets and we knew what we needed to do.”
ILM may know what it needs to do, but the company can’t just go into their hard drives, download the most recent Iron Man suit and pop it into Endgame. What they can do is utilise people who’ve previously worked with those assets and solved problems for them, making things run smoother. Earl and his team worked on three previous movies with the Endgame directors, Joe and Anthony Russo and he believes that relationship is more fruitful than anything tech-based.
“We know how Joe and Anthony like to work and how the studio works,” Earl said. “They’re all about the story and we’re here to serve that story and help put the best images that we can on screen. We were lucky in that having done the prior films, we got a good idea of where it could go [and] how they like to work. I think knowing that and being prepared to roll with changes [helps].”
However, not every character in Endgame had a strong history at Marvel Studios or ILM. In the film, Earl and his team worked on several Captain Marvel scenes at the same time as their colleagues were working on effects for the Captain Marvel solo movie, which would come out beforehand and define the look of the character.
In Endgame, ILM did all the shots of Captain Marvel arriving on Earth and blowing up Thanos’ ship single-handedly. Interestingly, those shots used very little of what was actually captured in-camera, on-set.
“That’s an instance where she was shot on blue screen being lifted up on wires,” Earl said of Brie Larson’s Carol Danvers flying around. “[Digitally] we kept her head. Her hair is CG and her body becomes CG as well. And that’s true for the other shots, like the Iron Man shots where we’re sort of keeping the actor’s head and then replacing everything else just to give you the fit of the suit and better action.”
The character is at the height of her powers at this point, which hadn’t been seen on screen yet, so Earl was happy to have the other film being worked on just down the hall.
‘We’re fortunate in that ILM worked on a lot of the binary effects [in Captain Marvel],” Earl said. “So I could go talk to Craig [Hammarck, the visual effects supervisor for Captain Marvel] and just say ‘What’s going on?’” Hammarck worked on Black Panther too, which put the company in a similar conundrum a year earlier.
“It’s always fun because once you see the film you’re like ‘Oh I get it! That’s who that is! Now that makes a lot more sense.’ The characters are key to Marvel’s success and they just want to make sure that we keep that going and stay true to what they are in the standalone films like Black Panther and Captain Marvel.”
And, of course, when compared to the suit she wears in Captain Marvel, the Endgame one different.
“Oh, the costume changed. The costume always changes,” Earl joked. “It’s funny. Having been on Winter Soldier through this last movie, the costumes always change just a little bit, whether something is a little bit darker or something gets tweaked here and there.”
So while working on all the other movies helps from a base level, everything ends up being new anyway. Knowing that, at the end of our interview, I asked Earl if Endgame was the first movie in a franchise, and none of this had been worked on before, would it even be possible?
“I mean it would be a huge undertaking,” he said. “I think if you’re going into it without [previous work and relationships] it would definitely be a much, much bigger challenge. There’s just so much to keep track of throughout the film. There’s just so much going on. So, yeah, while it could be done it would have been a big challenge.”