Marvel Studios’ blockbuster summer hit “The Avengers” is up for a single Academy Award this year, and it’s well-deserved: Best Achievement in Visual Effects. Jeff White, Janek Sirrs, Guy Williams and Daniel Sudick are the four nominated for the award, going up against the VFX teams from “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” “Life of Pi,” “Prometheus” and “Snow White and the Huntsman.”
Comic Book Resources spoke with White, the team’s supervisor, about his reaction to his first Oscar nomination, discussing the experience of creating iconic characters like the Hulk in “The Avengers.” White also explained that director Joss Whedon instructed the ILM team to turn to the source comic books to design the film and shared how a bodybuilder painted green who hung out on set helped bring the Hulk to life.
CBR News: First of all, congratulations on the Oscar nomination. How did you find out about it?
Jeff White: Thank you, it’s really exciting. I was actually just climbing out of bed, and I have 2-year-old twins and they were in bed with me. My wife checked the news and found out we’d been nominated and she said to the girls, “Say congratulations to daddy!” Jenna said, “Congratulations daddy,” and [my other] said, “No, I don’t want to.” So, you know, they keep me pretty grounded.
We’ve been loving all of the featurettes ILM has been putting out about the creation of “The Avengers’s” visual effects, which give a great background into the film and how you brought it to life. Did the team have any sense of how well those big CGI-heavy scenes would be received when you were creating them?
I think we were definitely pushing our internal envelope, especially as we started into the Hulk. We knew we were going to have to utilize every new development and advance and actually have to write some additional software in order to pull that character off and make it believable. It was a really exciting and difficult process creating the Hulk, but [also] one of our favorite challenges. It combines the best of all of our latest technology, all of our research and development, with just phenomenal artistry.
People were a bit uncertain about Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk going in because of the two “Hulk” movies that came before, but the jade giant ended up being a fan-favorite character. Was that really rewarding for you guys to see people respond so well to him?
Yeah. I mean, I can’t credit Mark enough for his involvement in the process. There’s no Hulk, really, without a great Banner, and I think he completely nailed that performance. Our whole approach to the Hulk is — there are so many kinds of art projects to figure out what makes a digital human look real, and the way we went after it was to say, “Okay, we’ve got Mark Ruffalo and we’re going to utilize him for not only performances and motion capture, but even skin texture.” We did a dental mold! The Hulk’s teeth are sort of a large-ish version of Mark’s real teeth.
Just always going back to Mark as kind of the thing in reality that we can base everything on made a huge difference in terms of making the Hulk look real. It wasn’t always fun, I’m sure, for him, having to wear the motion capture suit while everybody got awesome superhero costumes on set and having to do a lifecast for us and everything like that. He really is not only an incredible actor but just really gracious and really, really interested and involved in the process, but also just a super nice guy.
Were there any specific issues or scenes from the various “Avengers” comics that you used for inspiration in creating the visual effects for this film?
I don’t know the exact issue numbers, but early in the process, I’d say, just as we were getting into animation, Joss actually came up to ILM. We spent almost the entire morning in the theater with him talking about the Hulk and what this Hulk was going to be and the anger, the sort of anger and rage that was in him, tinged with regret. He brought up several frames from comic books of poses that he liked and kind of went to comic books as a great reference.
We really took that to heart. There’s several shots in the film where, if you freeze on a frame, there’s a panel from a comic book that’s very similar. That was a great inspiration for us. Our challenge is always, of course, to take those static images and those great poses that the comic book artists do and incorporate them into a very natural performance of this 1,200 pound guy jumping from building to building.
Were there any specific generations or artists that you drew from the most?
We were looking across all eras and picking design cues from [many artists]. Certainly, the [Jack] Kirby Hulk had influence. If you look at the design of our Hulk, it came to use, design-wise, all these great elements and some of Mark Ruffalo. I think that was a real departure from any previous incarnations of the Hulk, where you could actually see the actor in the Hulk. That was a big part, I think, of what made it successful.
Did you sneak any Easter eggs into the film, something people haven’t noticed yet?
I’m trying to think if there are any in the film. One of the fun things that’s not in the film, but if you watch some of the DVD making-of stuff, we actually requested having a shirtless bodybuilder on set painted green during the production. It had real practical purposes in that we wanted to see what real skin looked like under those lighting conditions, but it was a riot. The bodybuilder got very into it and I think the whole crew enjoyed having him out there.
We would sort of finish the performance take with Mark Ruffalo, and then — his name was Steve. We called him Green Steve — there was one time when we were watching him on set and Joss started singing the “Greensleeves” song, so that was kind of stuck in my head forever. It was an incredible set. We just had a lot of fun with the entire process.
I feel like you could have called up Lou Ferrigno and he would have happily taken that part.
Yeah, absolutely. We certainly spent time watching the “Hulk” television show. There’s even something to the build of the Lou Ferrigno Hulk, where Joss wanted this muscly Hulk, but not 100 percent ripped all the time. We had a special shape we called the “Muffin Top” that gave him just a little bit of extra bulge around the belly and softened some of his features. What works great about that is that it not only gave us something to simulate to give us more dynamic skin movement, but then when he did get angry and he flexed, we could really pop the muscles.
Awesome! Well congratulations again, — we’re all rooting for you.
Oh, thank you. Certainly you’re our target audience of people that we want to make happy with the Hulk. It was very gratifying to hear the fans like it.
The Oscars take place on February 24. “The Avengers” is currently available on DVD, Blu-ray and digital download.