‘The Avengers’: Five Visual-Effects Secrets Revealed

'We knew the film would be judged by the success of the Hulk,' 'Avengers' visual-effects supervisor tells MTV News.
By Josh Wigler

Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man in "Avengers"
Photo: Marvel/Disney

At the end of the day, "Marvel's The Avengers" is all about character. If the viewer doesn't feel invested in the conflict between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, the inner-turmoil Bruce Banner feels as he keeps "the other guy" at bay or any other number of relationships, then the movie as a whole simply does not work.

Thankfully, all those things work with flying colors due to the winning combination of Joss Whedon's direction and script and the performances from Earth's mightiest actors themselves. But while story is a crucial component to the success of "The Avengers," spectacle cannot be downplayed as another essential ingredient. The film's visual-effects supervisor Jeff White and his team had their work more than cut out for them when approaching "The Avengers," a movie filled with no fewer than six superheroes, one particularly nasty supervillain and an entire alien armada to fight for his cause.

MTV News spoke with White about his work on the film, what he viewed as the greatest visual-effects challenges, why the Hulk was key to the movie's success and what it was like working with Whedon.

The Biggest Challenge
In short? Everything. "At the end of the day, with 'Avengers,' there were so many things to get right," White told MTV News about the biggest difficulties facing his team. "We created a lot of New York City for the film and needed to build flying shots of Iron Man all from photography. We had to build a new Iron Man suit — the Mark VII — and Stark Tower. We had to build the alien race. When you add all of those things up, there are quite a few challenges there."

That's not even mentioning the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier, the floating base of operations for Earth's mightiest heroes. "That was a massive undertaking," White said. "The challenge was not only building the Helicarrier, but then having to build the atrium underneath that you fly into. Then we had to build all of the set dressing to make it feel like it was a populated vehicle: the flight crew, digital doubles, the vehicles pulling objects around, planes on the deck ... all of that stuff, if it's not there, makes everything feel very CG, because it'd be so empty."

We Have a Hulk ...
Still, if there was one particular ingredient White had to get right, the answer is easy: the Hulk. Already a big fan of Bruce Banner's monstrous alter-ego going into the project, White said so much of "Avengers" leans on the existence of a compelling Jade Giant.

"It was important to deliver on the performance that Joss was looking for. He knew exactly the Hulk he wanted to bring to the big screen. All of the great moments Hulk has in the film was Joss really guiding us there," White said of creating the latest take on Hulk. "We wanted this guy to be as photo-real as we could make him. He's not in a solo film; he's part of an ensemble team. We wanted it to feel very natural when he's sitting in that circle of Avengers. We didn't want him to pop off or seem separate from the rest of them. So in that vein, we spent a lot of time working on his skin and his hair and his teeth, just to make sure that all of that was believable."

... But They Have an Army
Just as important are the enemies Hulk goes up against — namely the Chitauri, the alien warriors Loki recruits to help him take over Earth. As they're not the most iconic creatures in Marvel Comics lore, the "Avengers" design team had some freedom in bringing the heroes' enemies to the big screen.

"They'd done some initial designs at Marvel, as far as getting their overall forms in place. They came up with this idea of a mixture of metals and leather and skin, and then we ran with that as far as what the textural details were, making sure that the chariots had enough variety in them, making sure that when we initially started, we wouldn't see the aliens with their helmets off — and then through the course of production, we do see them that way," White said. "That was a whole round of design processes: What do they look like? What do their heads look like under that armor? I think one of the great parts of them is they're wearing all of that armor — it's worn, they've clearly been through several battles — but you can still see their eyes in there. That's an important part of connecting them as a threat to the Avengers."

Release the Leviathan
The Chitauri foot soldiers aren't the only threats the Avengers have to worry about in the film. There are also the massive Leviathans, giant sky serpents hell-bent on destroying Manhattan. "That's all about scale," White said of those creatures. "It was such a great opportunity to have these massive creatures ambling around New York. Part of their design was to put these wings on them, which made them too wide to fit down a New York street, which in turn led us to have them tearing through buildings and causing mayhem everywhere they go."

Some fans have likened the Leviathans to something out of a Michael Bay "Transformers" movie — an observation that's all the more interesting when considering White's previous visual-effects work on those very same films.

"You can see where the 'Transformers' comparisons come from as far as the trailers go. But when you see how the Leviathans operate in the film, and the role they fill and what drives them forward, there's a pretty big difference," White said. "Driller from 'Transformers' was all metal and all machine, digging through the ground to take down a building. These guys are actually organic beneath all of that armor. They have these worn gold plates and energy signatures that ripple down the side. We really tried to make sure that they felt unique. But I agree, when the first trailer came out, that ['Transformers' similarity] was a component of it, but when you see them in the entire film, they really serve a very different purpose."

The Geek God's Influence
Creating aerial bases, giant green rage-monsters, chariot-riding aliens and massive flying serpents is all well and good, but for White, the real thrill of working on "Avengers" was collaborating with Whedon, a storyteller who White was already very fond of going into the project.

"It was fantastic," White said of working with Whedon. "He's involved in the [visual-effects] process every step of the way. Joss is so good at working with actors, and that extended right through working with animation and trying to get that same performance, really coaching us along. 'Here's what we want to see, here's where you really want that look to get the emotion across his face.' Everything he does so well with writing and actors really translated into his direction for working with the Hulk. He was involved in the entire effects process and every review. It was great working with him."

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