Meet the VFX Team of Captain Marvel

Among the many challenges set before the visual effects artisans of Captain Marvel: introduce the first solo superheroine who also happens to be one of the most uniquely powerful headliners in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and also turn the clock back on Samuel L. Jackson approximately 25 years, not to mention showcase an adorable cat who also happens to be a tentacled space alien. But like Carol Danvers, the VFX team rose to the occasion, as learned in a deep-dive conversation with the effects leads.

During our conversation, we spoke with additional visual effects supervisor of Marvel Studios Janelle Croshaw Ralla, visual effects supervisor at Industrial Light & Magic Craig Hammock, visualization supervisor at The Third Floor Shannon Justison, visual effects supervisor at Scanline Nick Crew, and VFX supervisor at LUMA Kevin Souls.

captain-marvel-blu-ray-top Once you knew the story and the script, what was that initial thing that gave you a little bit of the night sweats? Where you said, "If we don't get this part right, the movie's not going to work,"?

Janelle Croshaw: I think that the end battle and the end scene was a huge one, because the way it would read versus you think about how that's going to play out is huge. And then the second would be the de-aging and third would be the CG cat. But if you wanted to talk a little bit about the end scene and how that came about.

Craig Hammack: For me it's the combination of the end scene which establishes her dominance, and just the establishment of her power overall – like the actual Binary look of at all. And, she's the title character, right? And there's no movie without her powers and her powers have to live on to other movies. In this case, we knew she was showing up in Avengers: Endgame, and so being able to establish just how dominant that she can be and how powerful she is in the overall Marvel Universe, and then the fact that in the end, it's her against this entire fleet, there's a lot of challenges there, just storytelling-wise.

Croshaw: And the physics of it all, right? You read it and you're like, "Wait, the physics of it all – how is that going to work out?"

Shannon Justison: There was a lot of, "Okay, and then she fights these five enormous spaceships…" She is a person!. She is a powerful person, but she is very small. And so how are we going to make her so it doesn't look silly because honestly, when you get into scales like that size and if the physics doesn't work, it looks like cartoons. And so that was a huge thing. How do you make her look so powerful without it turning into Looney Tunes, which is a risk.

Croshaw: And keeping within [directors] Anna [Boden] and Ryan [Fleck's vision], there was this bombastic, crazy ending and they have such an indie, analog style with the rest of the film. And so coming up with shots that they approved and that they liked and where the physics did feel correct but he was showing the scale, was a tough challenge in pre-viz, but I think they pulled it off.

Craig Hammack: So much of the movie is grounded on Earth, once you leave the Earth, you're in a world that's all synthetic. It's all digital. You can't pull on anything to put it back, even in the '90s world, that is where the movie was living. So it's tough to keep the style and still go through the action beats that you have to.

Was there a eureka moment when it came to kind of marrying the spectacle that people expect from Marvel to that '90s era and Anna and Ryan's more grungy aesthetic?

Croshaw: I don't know if it was necessarily a eureka moment – it actually was a really long, drawn-out process [laughs] that happened at the very end. It was when she gets her flying powers and realizes that she can fly, because at that point, she is on Earth, and luckily we were out in Riverside in the desert, and so you have these really cool California landscapes around you, and it was that moment of her falling, getting the powers, heading to space was going until the very end.

Did you see anything in the pages of Captain Marvel or Ms. Marvel comic books that you really wanted to make sure to try to translate into cinematic moments?

Croshaw: I think Binary and Flerken are probably the two.

Justison: I'm visualization, so I start at the very beginning. It's a lot of pre-production, so we look heavily at the comic books for inspiration. And a lot of it's subtle stuff. It's just posing. How does she fly? How does she fire her photon blast? Because she's a new character to the MCU, even though she's been in the comic books for a while, making sure that she has her own distinct way that she does fly, that her energy. Doesn't look like Iron Man's energy or Doctor Strange's or anybody else's? It should look like hers.

So there were definitely moments that we really wanted to do, one where she was ripping a missile in half. We almost got it in! It got cut out in the end. It was going to be really troublesome. It was from a cover – I don't remember which issue, but it was amazing looking.

And then for the Flerken especially, we were looking at key frames of what it looks like when all the tentacles come out, and it's both gross and really funny, which was really what we were heading for.

Tell me a little bit about that whole '90s element, as far as both degrees of difficulty added to what you guys were doing and just pure fun to recreate that era when you needed to.

Croshaw: I'm a '90s kid so it was so awesome! And even some of the early sounds they were testing, and just the vibe of the office because I think there was a lot of '90s nostalgia around. It was really fun. I was literally wearing more flannels to work showing my grunge. When we were shooting, there's a lot of amazing iconic locations around L.A., that actually still feel very '90s. LUMA did a lot of turning Los Angeles into '90s L.A. and dealt with a lot of those shots.

Kevin Souls: There's a website online that shows you L.A. as it develops over the years, and so you could actually set the time period and it would show you what buildings were downtown and use that as a base. I moved here in the '90s, so I was familiar with what it looked like. It was fun to sort of move downtown around and make it look a little grungier, and for a lot of the train travel, we were doing a virtual environment anyway, so are we able to kind of sculpt the environment to what we wanted.

Alongside the heavy lifting, big picture work that you had to do, there's also that minute, Easter egg-y blink-and-you-miss-it detail work. What were the things that you put a lot of effort into just because it meant something to you, even if only on screen for a few seconds?

Hammack: We did the session that is basically the lab fight, where she's fighting the rest of the Star Force. And for us, it was really fun because that is a location that is anchored in '90s in that there's an Alien pinball machine, she picks up a Nerf gun at some point, there's a foosball table that's clearly from the '90s. There's things like that that make the different beats of the action scene. Even though it's a continuous fight, there's different beats that bring in different 90s flavor, which is a lot of fun.

And for us, I think we started on the movie without a lot of context of '90s or locations. We were building her and her Binary powers and whatever. So, when we first saw the first trailer where she crashes through the Blockbuster, everybody went crazy. That was the flavor that we wanted to see in the movie and we hadn't seen the taste of that. So that actually kind of introduced us to how it would go and made a big difference.

So many different degrees of difficulty that you guys have to deal with, one of which being a small army of cat actors that need to be one on-screen cat, Goose. How difficult was that to accomplish?

Croshaw: The cat continuity was also something that we were working on until the very end. Trickster did an amazing job, as you probably know, recreating Reggie, the main cat, one for one. He looked spot on.

On set, we actually had four cats. There were three other cats and one in particular, his name is Gonzo, and poor Gonzo kind of had a lazy eye. It wasn't until we got into post that we were like, "Oh my gosh, Gonzo looks so different." Every time we cut to these Gonzo shots we're really not cutting to the CG well. And Gonzo looked different from even Reggie. And so we actually did quite a few shots where we took Gonzo and turned him into Reggie by just doing almost like a Lola-type de-aging treatment, just changing anatomy positions and whatnot. It was a 2D treatment.

We just had to be really mindful of that because cutting from the real cats to the CG cat would be a dead giveaway that we were battling throughout to just make sure that that was as seamless as possible for the audience. So, cat continuity was a big thing on this film!

The de-aging effect with Sam Jackson's Nick Fury is a feat unto itself, and then you've got to layer that in with everything else going on around it.

Croshaw: We had 500+ Sam Jackson shots and about 50 Clark Gregg shots, done by three different vendors. Lola was our lead vendor and almost all those shots, as in most Marvel films, had other visual effects. And so we had to get those shots back and finaled with enough time to get them off to the other vendors so they could put their effects in, and then it was a big collaborative process.

And again, continuity from shot to shot to make sure that Sam's de-aging treatment, which was 25 years, didn't pull you out in any way. Because he tended to look different in different lighting, different wardrobe. It wasn't possible to do a procedural technique because he really varied from scene to scene. But the end result always had to be the same and not take away from his character in any way. But from posture changes to body changes that'll be adjusted.

Tell me about your directors Anna and Ryan, who are newcomers to the whole effects world on this film. Tell me was exciting about working with them and seeing how they found their learning curve?

Justison: I think what was exciting was that they were excited. I work on a lot of visual effects features. We all do. And you work with some of these directors who've been doing this for 20 or 30 years and they're kind of like, "Yeah, you guys got it, whatever." And it was like, "Make sure it looks right." But you could show them new things and they were still excited about it, and they were bringing different ideas and because they weren't held down by like, "Well, I've done this before," and I was like, "Okay, what about this?" and always looking to make sure that the facts were supporting the character in the story rather than just spectacle for spectacle's sake, which does happen sometimes.

They were always making sure that it was unique to Carol and Carol's story, and that's what we were there for, is to support that character arc and that character story rather than just making a lot of stuff blow up really cool.



Captain Marvel is nominated for a Visual Effects Society award, and has also made the shortlist for the forthcoming Academy Awards visual effects nomination.