Avengers: Endgame VFX Supervisor Trent Claus on the Art of De-aging, Heroes Fighting Themselves, and More

Now that Marvel Studios has started to introduce non-linear storytelling into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, films moving forward can take place at any time during the timeline. With that will likely come the need to properly de-age and age the heroes of the MCU, and luckily, Marvel Studios can rely on the masterminds at Lola VFX to make it up.

Trent Claus and his team at Lola have mastered the art of de-aging, taking it to new heights in Captain Marvel and Avengers: Endgame. ComicBook.com recently spoke with Claus about his team's time coming up with the right de-aging process plus a few other tidbits from shots they worked on with Avengers: Endame.

ComicBook.com: You had a hand in helping develop kind of Tony's sickly look at the beginning of the film, right? It wasn't like RDJ went out and lost 50 pounds and made himself look really sick. That was all digital?

Trent Claus: That was all digital, yeah. It's similar to the work we did back on the first Captain America, where we made Steve Rogers the 90-pound weakling from the beginning of Captain America. With Tony, though, it wasn't just losing weight. It was actually the fact he was supposed to be sick. He's injured and emaciated from lack of food, but then he's also been affected by poison from the previous movie, so he's supposed to have dark bags under his eyes, and sunken cheeks, and not look like a healthy and skinny guy like skinny Steve did, but a person who used to have mass, He's kind of withering away, so the musculature's separating from the bone, and major muscle groups are separating from each other, and veins and tendons are showing much more then they used to, and all those sorts of details that make him look less than healthy.

And that's quite the opposite of just the general de-aging. Now as I understand it, you also de-aged Stan Lee, right? There hasn't really been another Stan Lee cameo that's been de-aged — this was kind of the one?

There was some very minor de-aging done on Captain Marvel, but that was like, whatever it was, 10 years or something, so not really a noticeable change overall, especially for a man of his age. But for this one, we had to go back 45 years, so it was a pretty sizable amount.

When we talk de-aging, especially for a firm that does it so often — I mean, you're the go-to firm for Marvel Studios with this stuff — what's your typical process? Do you just look at Stan back in 1973? Do you try to find as many pictures from that era?

It's an art form. There's no good procedural way to do what we do. The work that we do, we don't create a CG replication of the actor. We use the actor that's actually there on screen, so we were actually modifying the actor in the performance that was there on set as opposed to re-creating something new. So, we have to treat each and every frame like a painting, where you're working with light and shadow, and form, and composition, and things like that to accomplish the goal. We've got a highly trained roster of artists here that work for us that have been doing this for a long time. Lola started de-aging way back on X-Men 3, and have been doing it ever since. I started with the first, as far as de-aging and stuff goes, with the first Captain America, but also going back to Speed Racer was the first de-aging I worked on.

But for all of them, it's necessary that you look up reference. You find photos of what they looked like when they were that age, if they're available, and that's invaluable, something to shoot for, a target to aim for. But then in addition to that, you have to rely on the artist's knowledge of anatomy, the changes that happen to humans over time, the physiological changes in the skin and the muscles, and the mechanics of the expressions that you make in your face, and also the body, the posture and the build of the body changes over time. All those things have to be taken into consideration.

As you explained it, right, it's a lot more prevalent than I think most people initially think. There was a bit of a ruckus, a big news cycle surrounding Sam Jackson in Captain Marvel. It got really big around then, but you even did that work for the Endgame flashbacks to 2012, right? Oftentimes it can be something pretty subtle that moviegoers might not realize has been done.

Yeah, for sure. Like the flashback scenes to, like I said, 2012 and 2014, those are pretty short distances in time, so we're not talking huge anatomical changes from there to here, but there are differences. If you put a photo of yourself from six years ago up to now, depending on what age you are, you're going to see some minor changes, and when we're shooting the scenes that re-create a moment from Avengers, you want the actors in that scene to look exactly like they did in that movie, so you make minor adjustments to make that happen.

Let's talk about Cap versus Cap, something else Lola had its hands in developing. So, let's breakdown the scene a little bit. You have two versions of Chris Evans, present day and past day. Did he shoot both sides, and then you put them together, or was it Evans versus a stuntman, and you put Evans likeness on the stuntman? How did that all end up working out?

It's a little of each, actually. There's all the above. Depending on the shot, and it really varied by shot, sometimes Chris would play the Cap that's most visible to the camera, and the opposite would be played by a stunt double, sometimes Chris would play both Caps. We would shoot it twice, once with him in one role and once in the other role, so obviously, in each case then, he's playing opposite a stunt double, and then when it comes to the final comps, what you see on screen, it's always Chris's face. Sometimes it's on the body of a stunt double, and sometimes it's a split comp where we've merged two different performances of Chris, so it really varies shot to shot, whichever worked best for that moment.

Now say it is Chris versus the stunt double. Are they both wearing a version of the Cap suit or are those digitally altered in any way?

Yeah, so both Caps, whether it be Chris Evans at the time or a stunt double at the time, are wearing Captain America suits. The 2012 one is wearing the same one that he wore in the first Avengers, and then the modern day Cap is wearing a different suit. Then neither one of them were wearing a helmet or a cowl at the time, and then after the fact, in the edit, the filmmakers decided in order to make it easier to tell which one is which, we would add a CG helmet onto the 2012 version, so in the final film you see the 2012 version wearing a helmet, and that was completely added digitally after the facts.

Moving to the end, you have old Cap and Chris posted that shot on Instagram that it was a little bit scary, to be honest, with the prosthetics and stuff. How complex was the opposite of de-aging, right, aging Chris Evans?

Very complex. It's not all that dissimilar from what we did with Peggy in Captain America: Winter Soldier. There was a scene with Peggy as an older woman in which we did the aging digitally. For this one, with Chris, we had a very long period of look development where we tried lots of different ages and styles of aging. One problem we run into a lot with aging is that everybody has their own idea of what happens to you when you age based on your own experience, what happens to your own face, and what happened to your parents' faces, and things like that, and it's not the case that each of those elements happens to everyone, so if you get a room full of six or seven people, they might all have a different idea of what aging should look like, so it's harder to pin down a look, whereas with de-aging, you've got a reference. You've got an exact image of what you're aiming for. Here it's a lot more subjective.

So, what we did was, as you saw the photo with Chris, we worked together with the filmmakers and then a practical effects company called Legacy Effects, who did the makeup work, which was amazing. In the end, the look that we came up with that was approved by the filmmakers didn't get approved for several months after filming was done, so unfortunately the makeup that we had applied to the face around the eyes, and the forehead, and nose, and things like that no longer matched the approved look, so we had to digitally remove that makeup, and then re-create it entirely after the fact. The makeup that you saw in the photo that we kept is the neck and the wig, and then everything on the face that you see on screen is digital.

After doing a Helicarrier, or an alien, or something, right, that's a visual effects model. Now how does de-aging differ from that? I mean, are you building model for these actors? Is it more of a filter?

There's always a thousand ways to go at the problem, different solutions. One way would be to create a 3D model not unlike the character, but in this case, it would be the face of an old man, complete with wrinkles and jowls, and all those things, and then to animate that. That would be the full CG approach. That's exactly what they did with Grand Moff Tarkin from Star Wars. That was done by ILM did that work, which I thought looked really amazing.

What we do here at Lola, though, is not that approach. We don't use CG at all, actually, on the face. It's all done in, as I say, in comp, so our compositors work basically frame-by-frame creating those wrinkles, and age spots, and saggy skin, and jowls, and really sculpting that with color and light, and all of those painter's tools.

There's an older gentleman named Patrick Gorman who was our on-set double. He would watch Chris Evans perform on set, and then sit down in the same spot and re-create it as best he could, and that was invaluable to us because then we had in camera, in lighting reference of what wrinkles and those things look like in that environment, so we had those reference plates, also, for the artists to base their work on. In some cases, then, you can actually pull skin textures and things from the double's face, and apply them in areas to Chris's face. You can't steal his whole face or anything like that, because then you'd lose Chris. You always want it to look like Chris, or what Chris would look like at that age, anyway, not Patrick, and not some third person who doesn't exist that's the mixture of the two. You want Chris, so always with his performance and his appearance in mind, everything we do is at service of that.

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Avengers: Endgame is now in theaters while Captain Marvel is available digitally ahead of a home media release on June 11th.