Few films can be called the biggest movie ever made, but that’s the title Avengers: Endgame earned when it brought Marvel Studios’ groundbreaking “Infinity Saga” to a close after 23 films and earned just shy of $2.8 billion worldwide.
Along with bringing together a long list of heroes and villains spanning the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, Avengers: Endgame also concluded many popular MCU heroes’ story arcs, successfully laying the groundwork for the next phase in Marvel’s blockbuster movieverse. It also delivered some of the year’s most exciting movie moments, culminating in a sprawling, cheer-worthy battle sequence that managed to give nearly every hero in the MCU a moment to shine.
Digital Trends spoke to Avengers: Endgame visual effects supervisor Dan DeLeeuw, a two-time Academy Award nominee for his work on Avengers: Infinity War and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, to learn more about the visual effects magic that made Endgame so memorable.
Digital Trends: So it’s not often that I get to ask someone how it feels to have worked on the biggest movie of all time. How does it feel to have the film earn that title?
Dan DeLeeuw: It’s pretty great. We weren’t really thinking about that as we were making it, of course. You just want to tell a great story. You’re so focused on working with all of these characters you love, but when you’re in the theater for the first time on opening weekend with the crowd and the fans, and they’re really into the film … Well, you always hope you can make a film that affects people the same way you were affected when you were a kid growing up on Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark and stuff like that. When you’re actually seeing that happening in real time before your eyes, it’s just … There are a lot of “best things ever” for me that go along with the film.
How did the experience working on Endgame differ from working on Infinity War?
In early versions of Infinity War, the script was pretty much a straight-ahead Avengers movie, with the characters interacting and going through the battle, but something Joe [Russo, co-director] really pushed for was changing the narrative to make it its own story, and tell it from a unique perspective. And as they were working on Thanos, it became something that let everybody know that they could tell the movie from Thanos’ perspective. So that really lent itself to letting the villain win. That was the big gamble everybody was a little scared of. There was a lot of, “Are we going to do it? Are we really going to do it?” And yeah, we did it.
So we knew that Infinity War was going to be the big battle movie and Endgame was going to be the more intimate story — at least for the first two thirds, and then it turns into an even bigger battle movie at the end. That was great, because it gave us a lot of different tones and a lot to play with in terms of supporting the story with the visual effects. There were more subtle, hidden effects at the beginning, and then the big blockbuster effects toward the end.
Hulk went through a really big change from from Infinity War to Endgame, particularly on the visual effects side. How did your approach to the character change with Smart Hulk?
We definitely wanted to feel the presence of Mark Ruffalo more within Smart Hulk. So, going into the redesign, we started with the Hulk sculpture — the digital model that we had from the other films — and we pushed the sculpt more toward Mark. So, we got a feeling for where that would go. Something interesting we discovered with Thanos is that the more you can bring in of the actor portraying the character, the better the performance will be that comes through. So we really made sure that Mark’s performance came through. His performance is very broad and his face is very elastic and very open. We wanted to bring those qualities to the character.
Later, one of the first things everybody said when they first saw his head was how handsome Smart Hulk was. It was uncanny. It was a great design, but that wasn’t something we necessarily expected. A lot of times characters can get stuck in the uncanny valley, but [visual effects studios] ILM and Framestore were able to capture an incredible amount of detail from Mark’s performance. We basically had to upgrade all of the software and the techniques to be able to support and carry those subtle details of his performance forward and get them into the character.
Moving on to that final, epic battle, what was the process like for bringing that to the screen with all of those characters? How did it evolve over time?
It was interesting because we shot the two movies together, and initially we wanted to shoot scenes from the first and second movies kind of interwoven between each other. But when we started planning with all of the creatives and creating the breakdowns to understand what that moviemaking process would be, everyone realized we should just shoot them in order and not intermix the scenes as much. So we had conceptualized a lot of stuff for the second movie that we initially planned to shoot during the first, and then ended up putting all of that on the shelf during Infinity War. So there were a lot of ideas that we took two or three years to actually get back to. We definitely had kind of a “version 1.0” of Endgame when we had all the time in the world, but by the time Infinity War was done, we had to really push through so many of those elements.
How did you manage all of those characters in the scene?
Knowing that scene was going to include everyone was interesting, because it’s a shared universe and we have all the assets from the other films available to us. As we were planning it, we just grabbed every character we could. It was like we were kids in the toy store, running down the aisles knocking every Marvel toy into our shopping cart.
Once we had a road map, it came down to deciding what we can photograph practically, and what would have to be all CG. The crater the scene takes place in definitely evolved. Once you have the idea of the crater, you look for locations where you can go get reference photos. We found some places in Iceland and Greenland, but something on that scale didn’t really exist. We tried to find as much real reference as we possibly could, but we needed to accommodate so many characters. With the amount of characters in it, plus all the water simulation and explosions, it was like everything and the kitchen sink, but also throwing in the bathtub and the hot water heater out back.
So, it was all of the fun stuff for visual effects: Fire, water, explosions …
Exactly. And with this, it was also Dr. Strange controlling the water — so it’s not just your standard kind of water simulation, because now you’re actually art-directing the water. Dr. Strange is spinning it into the air. And it’s not just the Avengers facing off against Thanos. It’s all of their army, plus Thanos’ army, and everything else. But fortunately, [visual effects studio] Weta, with their Lord of the Rings experience, are masters of big armies fighting each other.
The scene had so many different characters with different power sets and abilities. Were there any elements that were particularly challenging to to fit into the scene? What’s the shot that will always come to mind when you think about Endgame?
There’s the big oner in the beginning of the battle. [Note: A “oner” is the filmmaking term for a long, uninterrupted shot.] Joe [Russo] came in and said, “We need to do the oner to end all oners.” From the first Avengers to Age of Ultron, there are these big, continuous shots that Joss Whedon had done for those films. For ours, one of the challenges was figuring out how many characters we could actually fit into the shot.
That got really challenging in terms of getting everybody to have their own little story within the shot. As the sequence goes along, everybody’s kind of fighting separately, but eventually you’re combining everybody’s powers. And at the end of all of it, there’s the blip — the snap — that we did in Infinity War, but now you’re doing it not just for tens of people but for hundreds of characters in Thanos’ army as they turn to dust. Everything in this film was turned to 11.
Visual effects artists often say that the stuff the audience doesn’t really notice is often the stuff they’re most proud of. Was there anything in Endgame that you’re particularly proud of that the audience might not pick up on?
The time suits. Definitely. Those white suits they wear when they travel back in time were never practically made suits. All of those shots you see where they’re suited up in the white outfits are digital throughout the film. When Hawkeye travels back in time to his farm and picks up his little boy’s mitt, you can see the way the material of his suit flexes around his ankle and the soles of his feet, and the shoes squish down as he bends down. There’s an incredible amount of detail in those suits, and it’s all digital.
With an Iron Man suit, it’s metal, so you don’t have to worry about those types of subtleties, but the sheer amount of tracking and fitting involved in those suits is so complicated. You’re not just making one of the suits and copying it to each actor, either. You need to make a full suit for each of the Avengers. You’re tailoring it to them. So you’re not just reusing the digital assets. You’re basically tailoring a custom suit to each actor.
Marvel Studios’ Avengers: Endgame is streaming now on Disney+ and is available via Ultra HD Blu-ray, Blu-ray, and DVD, as well as Digital HD and Blu-ray.