In Marvel’s “Avengers: Endgame”—the highest-grossing movie of all time—stars Josh Brolin and Mark Ruffalo had enough to worry about without wondering whether their emotive acting would actually come through in their CGI characters. Luckily, they had Oscar-nominated VFX supervisor Dan Deleeuw on their side, who places as much importance on capturing character nuance as he does those massive battle sequences. Deleeuw speaks with Backstage about ensuring Hulk’s emotions can read and what actors new to CGI should know.
What does a VFX supervisor do?
You’re in charge of producing shots for the movie that basically can’t be achieved practically. In the case of something like “Endgame,” it’s dealing with [characters] like Smart Hulk or Thanos—kind of the more obvious characters that need to be created in CGI. Part of the process is [that] you’ll take a look at the script, you’ll break it down and talk to the other departments to figure out what they can help you make, what you need to achieve on your own, then come up with a plan for shooting it, a plan for designing it. I work a lot with the previews department to design sequences like battles, and then you take all that planning to principal photography. When that’s done and the film starts getting edited together, then you’ll take those shots and figure out which visual effects house is the best to send them to based on their strengths.
So is VFX supervisor a creative role in addition to a technical one?
Yeah, especially with [“Avengers” co-directors Anthony and Joseph Russo]. They have this maxim: The best idea wins. Part of interviewing with them is making sure you understand their sensibilities and their goal for the movie, the storytelling. There’s a lot of trust in my part of the team to not only handle the technical aspects of the photography, but also to help with the storytelling and the visual effects through characters like Thanos and Hulk, and to be able to get in there and design a lot of the sequences.
Going way back, how did you get into VFX?
I grew up on “Star Wars” and the “Indiana Jones” movies. The first time I saw the Star Destroyer, the blockade runner go over the top of the camera, the Star Destroyer following it—[I realized] it’s magic made real on the screen. From that point on, I wanted to gather all the books I could possibly find, and I remember over the summers I would try to copy what they had done [in movies], so I would make little models and then blow them up on the Fourth of July. I went to school, studied graphics, and then got into the business right after I graduated college.
I’m sure there are many ways, but can you speak to how as the VFX supervisor you work with actors?
Part of the goal with Thanos and Smart Hulk was to make sure [the actors] didn’t need to worry about the technology and they didn’t need to worry about the realization of the character coming to the screen. They didn’t have to act through the science, and they could feel confident that however subtle the performance would be, we would be able to capture it. At first, we imagined Thanos as this broad villain, a mustache-twirling character. And then Josh came in and played him very pulled in, very subtle, and just really defined [him] as a great thinker and a complex character. Taking that performance and working with digital and finding a way to make sure the very subtle, subdued performance came through on the character’s face—it was the same thing with Ruffalo. You had Thanos on one end of the spectrum, this internalized performance, and then you got this very kind of external [performance] from Mark, where you get the very elastic face. We were making sure you could feel the essence of Mark Ruffalo in that character.
Are there ways you work to help actors with scenes that have heavy CGI elements?
Because the actors are fighting many digital characters and other things created in post-production, a lot of the time we use stunt people [as stand-ins]. There’s the big, climactic charge at the end of “Endgame” when you have all the Avengers lined up and they’re charging into Thanos’ army, but if you look at the original plates, you see all the main heroes charging at four or five stunt men. Even though they were digital, we always try to have something practical, some kind of real person that the actors can actually visualize and understand is there. Many times, when you’re dealing with green screen, you’re in this vacuum of creativity and this vacuum of something that you can’t play against. We always try to have something practical—even if it is in the shot, we just know we’ll get the shot and go back and replace it. It’s more work to get the shot done, but you always end up with a better performance.
What advice would you give to an actor who is going to work in CGI for the first time?
I think it’s important for the team that you’re working with to prepare you for it, and it’s something you can ask for. A lot of times, you’ll have artwork of what the characters looks like. And if you’re playing against a CG character, if they can, production will bring in someone you can act off of, which is key. Having done it now, I think it’s really the only way you should do it. Sometimes it’s a leap of faith [for the actor], where they have to imagine what’s there. But if we can get the artwork and get the actor there, then the hope is they’re not going to have to worry about shifting their performance. When motion capture first started, there was this idea that you had to push your performance through in certain ways to make sure that CG version of the character came through. We’re at the point where you don’t need to do that anymore. Generally, you don’t want to overact through the motion capture; you just need to find the character and let science and creativity take care of all the rest.
This story originally appeared in the Nov. 21 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.
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