Christopher Townsend is a go-to visual effects supervisor for Marvel Studios, having worked on five of the Marvel Cinematic Universe's 22 films. In addition to earthbound films like Captain America: The First Avenger and Iron Man 3, the visual effects boss also supervised the VFX teams on both Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Captain Marvel.
ComicBook.com spoke with Townsend about a few of his latest projects, including Guardians 2 and Captain Marvel, as well as some of the fan-favorite pieces of those films including Ego the Living Planet and everyone's favorite Flerken, Goose.
Let's start at the very beginning. In the production process, you have the visual development team and they're doing concept art and things like that way out in front of everything. Out of curiosity, as a visual effects supervisor, when does your team hop into the process?
Christopher Townsend: Well, it really varies. On Captain Marvel, I happened to start at the very beginning of the project, like I was employee number four or five on the [movie]. One of the great things about being a visual effects supervisor is the whole process from the very beginning, often even early script treatment stages all the way through to final post-production. So our role and our influence vary from task to task, obviously.
Sometimes you will work the visual development department at Marvel and they have their own visual development team and they'll take things to a certain point. Then at a certain point, we'll say, "OK, we'll take it from here," because it makes more sense for us to continue to develop it with motion test or simulation or there's only so much that a single bit of key art can show us, so it really does depend. Sometimes we'll look at things and say, "Look, we'll skip the whole vis dev department and we'll jump straight in on our end." And other times we'll wait and say, "No, give us another week or two weeks worth of illustrations so that we have a better idea of where we're going." So it really does depend but we work hand in hand with that department.
Now you are in a unique position with visual effects that you deal with several different vendors and such per film. First, how do you determine which vendors you want to work with on each film?
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, that's sort of my main task, is to make sure at the end of the day no one gets taken out of the movie because of the visual effects. We're only as good as our worst visual effect. So one thing I'm always striving for is consistency. We ended up working with... I think it was 14 different visual effects companies on [...] Captain Marvel, just because of their approach and their deadlines, they chase the very best movie they can to the very last minute. So it means that it makes better films, but it also makes them much harder in post-production because you end up with a few weeks or a month or two to go, you suddenly have all these new tasks, all the changes. It's not because of indecisiveness, it's more just the iterative manner of film making and the way that Marvel approaches these things.
I've done several of these [...] now and in the past, we've given many shots to single visual effects companies, but that means that you're putting too many eggs in one basket. As soon as you start trying to get people to move very quickly and be nimble, they can't, because they've got too much on their plate. So I learned pretty early on that you don't want to do that; you want to try and spread the work and give a manageable amount to each company.
The casting of who does the work is done on many factors. One of the great things with Marvel is that they're ultimately looking for the picture. They're looking for the best image that you can create. My job and my visual effects producer, Damien Carr, we sort of sit down in the early stages, look at the script treatment or the script and start figuring out what the major effects are and what the major sequences are and the major assets and things that need to be built. Then we try and figure out, "Well OK, well who is particularly good at simulation work? Who's good at character animation? Who's good at a big end battle, that can take on that sort of volume of work?"
You start going through the list of all the various visual effects companies, many of whom we've worked with before, and start creating these, "Well, it would be great if you could get these people to do this." You start figuring out sequences and numbers of shots and then start getting the work out to multiple vendors to get some decent prices. Obviously, tax incentives do take a role as more and more of this work is done in states or in countries where tax incentives are in play. I think it's a shame, because I don't think it's necessarily good for the industry. But I think it's good for the film in its current state. So obviously that plays a role, but we really are looking fo creatively and visually, who can create the best scene with those particular tasks in mind.
And then secondly, how on Earth do you keep them all corralled? It's your duty to oversee all of these vendors and make sure they have the same look and feel that fit in the movie, right?
Then in terms of corralling all that and working with that, obviously we're working with multiple timezones. We worked with companies in both west coast America, we had both in Vancouver, in Canada, and in California. We also worked with companies in Montreal in Canada. We worked with companies in Germany. We worked with companies in Australia. We worked with companies all over. So you've got these multiple timezones. I work with a team of maybe 10, 12 people in our department at Marvel who are coordinators and production assistants and producers, production managers, all these kinds of people that are working alongside me and making sure that I get to see everything in a timely manner, and they go through a very sort of specific, regimented set of procedures to get the imagery in front of me.
Also, on Captain Marvel, we had a second visual effects supervisor, and I was able to sort of give her a bulk of work, particularly all the de-aging stuff, the youthening stuff that was done by a few companies. So she took on that body of work in the day to day, and then ultimately would be presenting it to me to sell it to me. Once I thought it was ready and had given my notes, we would then show all of that work to both the directors and the studio all at the same time and get notes back.
It's been an iterative process of getting notes, getting feedback, getting that back to the companies who, we would do these sessions where you're literally able to marry up the same images, the same movie, so that they're looking wherever they are in their location and they can be looking at the same films or the same movies that we're looking at and commenting in them and giving sort of real-time notes as it were.
Let's talk about Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 for a second. Obviously, your first handful of movies at Marvel were these earthbound, more realistic movies. But then once you get to Guardians 2, you're going out among the cosmos, which almost has to be a playground of sorts for someone in visual effects. When it comes to the VFX on Vol. 2, what percentage of the movie's shots actually have visual effects involved in the shots compared with say, I don't know, Captain America: The First Avenger and Avengers: Age of Ultron?
I mean, the statistics on Guardians 2 was I think it was 98% of the film has visual effects in it. Ultron was less than that, but not by much. It's crazy how much work we do, and obviously something like Guardians was, like you said, set in outer space you know that, well, there's a living planet and they're in this whole world and that can't possibly be real, so it has to be visual effects. But there are other things both in Ultron and Captain Marvel where hopefully as an audience, you don't question the shot because it looks real because, "Well why didn't you just shoot it?" Whether that's shooting some driving chase scene in downtown LA or it's a cat. Hopefully, you don't know as an audience that we rebuilt much of LA to make it period and that the cat isn't really CG in many shots. There's a lot of stuff that we're doing where it isn't obviously visual effects. Whereas, obviously on Guardians it's much more sort of in your face and, "Oh, that has to be visual effects." So it was certainly a higher percentage on Guardians, almost the entire film, but it's not much less on the other movies as well, really.
With Captain Marvel, for instance, there was more of the earthbound stuff, but Sam Jackson is in a third of the movie, or rather the last two-thirds of the movie, and so anytime he's there or Phil Coulson, they're obviously both de-aged so that's always work that we have to be doing as well.
Rocket is kind of a whole other monster, right? Since Guardians 2 was a sequel, obviously there's material already out there on Rocket. Was there anything you and the team did to kind of elevate that character, whether it be with the technical aspect of it?
Absolutely! Rocket was rebuilt from the ground up. I think what they were able to do on the first film was quite phenomenal, and they set a bar, and they set who he was as a character, and I think that was really important. That made our jobs so much more, I don't want to say easier or more straightforward, but we had a direction that we knew where we were going which was really great. We went back to Framestore, who had built the original Rocket character on the first Guardians, and we said to them, "Look, it looked great, but we want to make it look more realistic. We want to make it feel less like a sort of an animated character, and more like a real, living, breathing creature." And so they went back. They redeveloped their hair pipeline. They re-sculpted the body. They added in much more detail in the animation control in the face. They looked into all aspects of the sort of theology of the character and looked at the eyes and the eyelashes and the way that the hair is growing and every single bit about him. His proportions were slightly changed.
But always have to look back to the original to say, "It can't stray too far from that," because obviously it was still supposed to be the same character and we didn't want an audience questioning that. But hopefully what we did with the character was make him feel less like a stuffed puppet and more like a real creature. Then from an animation point of view, we also wanted to go to slightly more animalistic in his sort of mannerisms and his actions. We actually ended up with four different companies working on the animation, or on the character. They had their own special builds of it as well with all the hair and everything else, but we had Framestore who took on a bulk. We had Trixter who took on a lot of the very naturalist, animalistic motion. Trixter's a company in Germany. We then had Method, who was here in LA who also did a sequence, and then we had Weta in New Zealand. They were doing the final act, and they did a Rocket in there as well.
Some of the stuff that I think highlights the new sort of direction was the stuff in the forest that Trixter did where it really does feel like he's an animal, a very subtle being, twitching his nose, and eye darts, all these sorts of nuances we added to try and make him feel more naturalistic.
Probably one of the biggest things on Guardians 2 is Ego the Living Planet, right? I mean, it's certainly one of the most unique set pieces we've seen on screen so far. Can you kind of take us briefly into the process behind creating that character? What do you use as a reference for a set piece that's so massive and totally unique?
It is, and it was really interesting at the time when we read in that in the script. We thought, "What? I don't really understand what that means." I think that it took an amount of original vis dev artwork that was created, and then our production design team on the show created this beautiful artwork and really tried to nail down sort of the shapes and the forms and the colors. We struck upon the idea of using Mandelbrot sort of technology and sort of the aesthetics of that to try and create that sort of look and feel. So we gave it this sort of mathematical flash, organic sort of feel that was a real contradiction, but at the same time worked sort of really well together. So it was this idea that Ego had crafted and created his own planet and had manufactured it, but had manufactured it in an organic manner. So that's why those algorithms that are used to create that sort of artwork, that was so specific and worked so well.
Weta was the company that worked on the planet and did the entire interior set, particularly. We did have set pieces that all the actors worked on. We had platforms and things that were all painted and sculpted in a manner to help studios use some of it, but most of what you see on screen is ultimately a full virtual world, and that was something that Weta created and had to animate. This character is very subtly breathing and moving inside as if you were looking at a living organ and it was certainly the biggest asset that Weta has ever created by far in terms of numbers. So it was a tremendously heavy model, full of details, but it was all based on original artwork that was what we created, and spent a lot of time trying to figure out the look of, "What is a living planet? What does that mean? How do we portray that and how do we do it in a beautiful and ornate way and create something where, hopefully, you have this incredible map of information interspersed with some big open spaces that allow the eye to breathe?" So yeah, it was an interesting time. Fascinating.
Moving on to your most recent project, Captain Marvel, it was the first big-budget film for Anna and Ryan. From your perspective, is it easier or more challenging to work with directors who have never had their hand in these huge superhero properties before?
It's different, I think. That if someone has come from a world where they've done a lot of these sort of big movies, then they have preconceived notions and ideas of how they want to work and that isn't necessarily the way that works best within the Marvel system. It is a system, the way we create films, and I have done a few of them now so I understand how we make the system work for us. Having people that are new to it, they were incredibly quick learners and we sat down with them when we first sort of came on board and we sat for several hours and went and did what I would call a Visual Effects 101 and took them through everything that we do and how we do it and how long it takes for us to do it and how expensive we are and how they could use us as a tool.
They were very excited. It was, I think, a little daunting because like you say, they'd never done anything like this before. But I think that what they bring to it though is a fresh eye and fresh approach and there's just this, "You can do that right?" As opposed to someone who's more seasoned maybe coming into it really hard, "Let's see if we can think of a different way." It was challenging in a totally different manner working with Anna and Ryan, and I think that they successfully bringing their sort of indie aesthetics to the film was a huge plus. The challenge for us doing visual effects was to work within that sort of sphere, that sort of look, and to try and make things feel like they're part of that independent sort of film, gritty reality, rather than too showy. It was a very different look to a Guardians. Both sort of photographically, but also just sort of the overall look and the work we were doing.
Towards the end of the movie, there was one sequence, in particular, that kind of stole the show with Goose. We find out Goose is the Flerken and she attacks the Kree with the tentacles and teeth and all that stuff. First, what was the most challenging part of creating an alien cat? And then were there any elements of that sequence that had to be scrapped or was what was in the script kind of what appeared on screen?
The Flerken and the cat. I mean, the cat itself was probably one of the most challenging characters in the film because we're all very aware of what a cat looks like. We read the initial script and the cat was peppered throughout. I'd never worked with animals before but realized, that, "Well, this is going to be particularly challenging because even though we're going to have a real cat on set, there's going to be times when there will be certain actions that the cat won't do, or it looks scared, or it looked skittish, or it doesn't step or stand where it's supposed to. Or on the second take it doesn't do the same thing, so there's continuity." There are all sorts of issues where the cat itself is going to have to be replaced just with a cat, probably.
There are bits when the cat flies and the cat floats and all of stuff, which obviously you can't get a real cat to do. But there's also other stuff when it's sort of sitting on someone's lap and the creaking of the leather of someone else's costume scares it or we had an actor, in this case Brie is allergic to cats, so she couldn't be around the cat. So we would ultimately have to replace a lot of the cats in CG, and that was incredibly difficult to do because we were inter-cutting between the CG cat and real cat. It wasn't just the same real cat, we had four different cats on set and each one, upon first glance it appeared that they all looked very similar, but we realized very quickly when you start cutting back and forth that one of them's eyes are wider apart and one of them is fatter.
So we had to do a lot of manipulation of any of the shots that we had of the real cat, we had to manipulate those as well to try and make them all feel the same, but we also had a lot of shots that were done in CG. Trixter took on the role of creating the asset and creating the bulk of that, almost all of the animation, all of the animation with the cat itself other than the Flerken. The Flerken, once Trixter created the asset, they then handed that off to ILM and ILM took that and they built the asset to sort of match what Trixter had done. Then they [edited] the extra sort of articulating jaw and then massive tentacles and sort of the maw or it all and created this sort of character.
Now, the tentacles and the actual look of the character had not been established for a long time, and it ended up with some poster art that we had and some comic book art that we had. We actually had some of it up on our walls, and said "Actually, that looks pretty cool! Why don't we make it look kind of sort of like that, like it's being depicted in these comic books rather than trying to come up with something different?" I think one of the interesting things is what we try and do with Marvel is we do try and pay homage to the comics where it's appropriate, and you try and use the art and the creativity that's been done there. It's beautiful artwork, as you know. I think the challenge is to know when to literally just say, "OK, we'll just do that exactly as they did in the comics," or to riff off in that in something.
In this case, we liked the tentacles look and then we tasked ILM with creating multiple pieces of artwork to try and come up with some ideas of, "What do the tentacles look like? Are they silvery? Are they metallic? Are they totally organic? Do they look like octopus tentacles or squid tentacles? Should they look like larvae or snakes?" And they came up with a whole bunch of different looks and some with more or less tentacles. All these different varieties, but we finally whittled it down to the thing we liked and then we started movement and trying to figure out, "What happens to the jaw of the cat when it articulates and opens up? Does it articulate, open like a snake who can dislocate his jaw and be able to swallow much bigger things? And what happens to the fur?" There's a huge amount of research and development and conceptualizing of, "What does the Flerken look like and how do you sort of visualize that in a shocking, funny, almost Men in Black way?"
Men in Black was a film that we often referred back to. It was hilariously gross. But it couldn't be just sort of really gross. [...] So I think it was a really fun challenge to try and figure out what that should look like. But I think ultimately it's kind of what was written on the page. That was how it was.
I know, earlier you did mention the de-aging of both Fury and Coulson. How does something like that work from a technical perspective? Did you get pictures from the actors in the '90s and just kind of tweak it that way?
Yeah, so I think the de-aging stuff was particularly challenging because of the volume of work we had. We had over I think was about 500-ish shots of Nick Fury and Coulson, and that's way more than we've ever tried to do. Obviously now we've done a few of these with de-aging in the past, whenever I've done several other films and whenever we've done it in the past, we've always worked with another actor as well. We would have the real actor, the older actor who performed and then we would have a double who was a younger person sort of watch the performance and then mimic the performance.
We would use not only that performance not only as a reference so that we could see how light falls across his skin, a younger person's skin, or the shape of the jaw or the way that the face moved, but also occasionally you'd start literally skin grafting from the younger actor onto the older actor. What that does from a production point of view is it doubles the amount of time that you're shooting this stuff because you're having to overdub because you have to re-shoot it, you have to copy it. You have to check that it works, you have to line it up. It's a much more laborious process.
When you've got a handful of shots, that's OK. But if you've got 500, that's just not going to work. So we went to Lola, who were the company that we've worked with, I've worked with many times before, who've just done much of this work out there in the film industry for the de-aging and we did some tests we sent them and we actually brought a double in for these tests and said, "OK. I want you to show me a version where you're using the material with the double, and also when you're not using the material with the double." Because the question really is, "Do we absolutely need the double or can we not?"
We had a makeup artist for these tests and we spoke to him about, what tricks did he do in terms of sort of trying to pull the skin back and all that kind of stuff? Now, Sam is a remarkably youthful-looking 70-year-old man who we were trying to make him look in his 40s. But we ended up going with a version where we did pull just the skin on the neck back, just a little bit to tighten that and then we didn't have to use the double at all. We ended up on this film just sort of slimming him and tightening his skin and changing the theology of his face just a little bit just to make him feel more like the younger Sam.
And yes, we did use direct reference of their movies. We used Fear. I'm just trying to think. All this stuff has sort of gone from my mind now. We used The Negotiator and Die Hard. There were a bunch of films that we used as a reference that you obviously look for specific performances that he's doing in his current role, and you go back and you search the archives and you're trying to find all those specifics of his looks so that you can just recreate that. But it's done by frame by frame artistic approach and there's no sort of silver bullet. There's no computer that just you use to run an algorithm that does it. It's literally an artist, and many artists over many months sitting there and painstakingly, frame by frame, manipulating the image so that you're trying to retain his performance for both [Clark Gregg] and Sam Jackson and their performances on screen are not stepping on any of their emotions.
We ended up working not only with Lola, but we also took some of the work the Rising Sun pictures in Australia, and also Screen Scene VFX in Ireland to do some extra part of work that was just kind of overflow work, that we couldn't give it all to Lola just because of the time constraints. The challenge there, of course, was to make sure all of it matched and everything looked the same, and you hoped that the audience never questioned it.
One final question. Obviously through your work with Marvel Studios has resulted in two Oscar nominations. Is there going to be another MCU property for you on the horizon?
Maybe. They are currently talking, so yes. Hopefully there will be. They're really fun company to work with, and what it does from a visual effects point of view is that it allows us this amazing playground of extra work and I think you get to work with some of the best companies in the world and some of the greatest artists on films that people seem to love and people go out and watch. So they're an exciting place to be.
Captain Marvel is now in theaters and will soon be available digitally (May 28th) or on home media release (June 11th). Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is now streaming on Netflix.
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