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We Talked To An MCU Visual Effects Veteran About Avengers: Infinity War

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Dan DeLeeuw is no stranger to the MCU. Before serving as the visual effects supervisor for Avengers: Infinity War, he worked on the VFX for Iron Man 3, Captain America: The Winter Solider (for which he earned a Best Visual Effects Oscar nomination), and Captain America: Civil War.

Even so, Infinity War—infamously pitched as “the most ambitious crossover event in cinematic history”—presented DeLeeuw with a few unique challenges. How do you unify the visual identity of Black Panther with the identity of something like Doctor Strange? What can you do to make sure that Thanos looks and feels bigger than every other other MCU baddie?

We spoke to DeLeeuw about working with the Russo brothers, the ins and outs of bringing the Infinity Stones to life, the backstory behind Infinity War‘s Aliens-inspired sequence, and more. Check out our interview below and, as per usual, beware of spoilers.

Space: You’ve now worked with the Russo Brothers on three different Marvel movies. How has your professional relationship evolved and grown since working on Winter Soldier?

Dan DeLeeuw: A trust develops, you know, a shorthand develops. When I started working on Winter Solider, in the climactic battle the characters stepped on board the Helicarriers and were able to take them over and stop them from firing on Earth. You had all these guns and these Helicarriers, and the producer brought me in to the room with the Russos and I said, we can’t just have them do that. That means we’ve got to have them take over the ship and fire on the other ship and we’ve got a subterranean secret port where, when the Helicarriers crash, they’ve got to crash into the river and break into the wall of the subterranean levels and flood that with water.

They had a lot of crazy ideas early on that I think the guys kind of latched on to. But all of us really enjoy the same movies, and our taste is the same. So it’s become a really collaborative effort and a really great experience.

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How does working with two directors differ from working with one, from a VFX perspective?

With the brothers’ relationship, it’s an interesting thing. Creatively, I think they need each other. They come up with ideas and Anthony will say something and Joe goes on and Anthony will build on what Joe said. But they’re really great about knowing when they’re on the same page and when they’re not. And when they’re not, they’ll take the conversation to the side and kind of agree on the idea and come back with it.

In that sense it’s a really great experience because they’re able to chew through a lot of creative ideas pretty quickly and experiment with them. And then we can come back and really get into the nuts and bolts of working on the film.

Infinity War is unique from other Marvel movies in that it brings more characters together than ever before. Did you consult with the VFX supervisors from other Marvel projects to nail down the effects for characters you hadn’t had the chance to work with? 

One of the great things about Marvel is that the shared universe you see on screen is also the shared universe that exists within the walls of Marvel in general. For Iron Man 3, I did second unit [visual effects supervisor] but I was working for Chris Townsend and Chris had gone on to do Age of Ultron and Guardians 2. We all have this relationship.

So for Civil War, when we had to know how Wanda’s magic would work, we went back and talked to Chris about that. And for Doctor Strange, we’d go talk to Stephane Ceretti (the VFX supervisor for Thor: The Dark World, Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange, and Ant-Man and the Wasp). We’re rarely in the building, but we’re always a phone call away from each other. And the other great part is that we’ve got all the assets for all the films online. So if you have to go back and see how Scarlet Witch’s armour works or you have to go back to see what we were doing with Iron Man’s suit for Civil War, all that exists—you can grab all the old shots and all the old pieces. It’s like this Encyclopedia of Marvel that’s readily available.

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How difficult was it to merge the visual identity of something like Guardians with something more earthier-looking like Black Panther?

Yeah, it was a conscious effort going into this. In Infinity War, you’ll see that when you’re in space with Thor the colours are punched a little bit more, but not overly so. When you go to New York, the colours are washed out again slightly. And then when the Guardians show up, you get the punchy colour of the Guardians in space.

As the film progresses, as the other characters start merging with each other, those colours start merging as well. It was all by design that we’d kind of marry those different places. Luckily enough Charlie Wood, our production designer, had done the first Guardians and Age of Ultron, so he was already aware of those different palettes.

How did you and the Russos go about deciding how all the character deaths would look?

Throughout the film, we were very conscious about what the powers of the stones would look like and how they would work as they interacted with each other—when the moon gets pulled down on Titan, you can see that a purple energy from the Power Stone is what’s actually cracking the moon. Once it’s cracked, the Space Stone warps the particles of the pieces of the moon down to Titan.

With the disappearing effect, early on it was the same kind of thing. If he’s using all six Stones now, what’s involved in that? Partially, he’s going to use the Soul Stone—because what makes up the human, right? It’s soul, and it’s body. So there’s the energy for the soul as it disappears, the Power Stone breaks up the body and the Space Stone moves it. We had some early tests that were really beautiful, but it was just something that was overpowering the performance of the actors—we were taking away from the movie rather than adding to it.

So we decided to back away from some of the rules we had established earlier and make it more of an ash that blows away. We then focused more on the lyrical quality of how the ash moves and how it might be different for the different characters as they disappeared.

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There’s a scene in the movie where Spider-Man and Iron Man kill Ebony Maw by taking inspiration from an Aliens sequence. Did you have to go back and watch Aliens to nail down the VFX for that?

There were very elaborate versions of the scene where Maw gets sucked into the engine of the ship, and the movie just couldn’t carry the weight of another big action scene—and after the Battle of New York, we knew that strategy was going to win out over brute force. As we started playing with it, we talked about him getting blown out to space and we realised that that’s kind of what they did in Aliens.

Then it occurred to me that we did something similar in Civil War where Peter Parker was circling around Giant-Man. And the writers said if we do this we should just run with it, because we’re basically just doing the AT-AT stuff from Empire Strikes Back. Based on that kind of joke, we made it a runner that all of Peter Parker’s plans are derived from movies that he’s seen. So when Maw floats past camera, we went back at looked at Aliens after the Alien Queen had been pushed out of the airlock and floated past camera.

Now that you’ve had the chance to go back and actually watch the movie, what scene are you most proud of?

I’m just proud of the entire movie in terms of what all the visual effects artists were able to accomplish. It’s a huge movie—there are only about 80 shots that we didn’t touch in the entire film, to the point where shots would come up and we’d do a little cheer like, ‘hey, no visual effects!’

We’re carrying so much of the film and we also got to help shape Thanos, who’s the antagonist in some ways but the protagonist all at the same time—he’s the villain who thinks he’s the hero. You sympathise with him and you like him and you’re vaguely rooting for him. You give the audience a chance to like him and at the end he does these horrible things and like turns into hate. It was this really great thing where you’re not just doing spaceships and explosions. You’re actually contributing to a part of the film that helps drive it forward.

Avengers: Infinity War arrives on Blu-ray and 4K UHD Tuesday, August 14. You can read our review of the movie here and check out the trailer below.