In honour of Avengers: Age Of Ultron‘s UK home release, we spoke to the film’s visual effects supervisor Christopher Townsend about creating Ultron and The Vision, his relationship with Marvel and what to expect from Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2…
As the visual effects supervisor on Avengers: Age Of Ultron, how much freedom did you have regarding what characters like Vision and Ultron looked like on screen?
A lot! I mean, Marvel has the visual development department here, and they are responsible for creating all of the characters, and so we [the visual effects department] worked very closely with them. It’s the director, Marvel Studios, the creatives – particularly Kevin Feige, Victoria Alonso and Louis D’Esposito – who are responsible for trying to guide the look of the individual characters. And then we work with the director, Joss [Whedon] in this case, to try and figure out what will look best and also how we accomplish that. One of the things that we wanted to do with Vision was something I was struck by in the script, which was the surreal nature of the character. We proposed to the visual effects crew to do it in a synthetic manner, having a sort of CG covering over him to try and take away a little bit of Paul Bettany’s humanity. Just a little bit to try and create something odd and surreal. So that was a really fun thing from a visual effects point of view, of bringing something that you can’t really paint or design. You have to take it to the computer and really play around with it. We worked with a company called Lola Effects, who created that look and it was great fun trying to create a new character for the Marvel universe.
We spoke to Joss towards the back-end of production on Age Of Ultron and he said he was pretty stressed out trying to finish it. Did the visual effects department run into any problems?
Yeah, I mean, it was a huge film. One of the things I’d say about Marvel is that they save the very best things that they can to the very last minute. That means that we are always up against it. We’re not the last piece of the puzzle because sound has to come after us and then the colour timing and then after that the stereo, the conversion to 3D, but often we’re the big stumbling block for everyone else after us because we’re the ones holding everyone up. Just because of the nature of what we do and the length of time it takes to do individual shots, yeah, it was not plain sailing. But I think we all got it done and ultimately we’re happy with it.
As a VFX supervisor, how do you approach a new project?
You never look too far down the road. It’s a very scary thing because you have no idea when you first start a project like this how on earth you’re going to do it, so I think you just have to sort of try and take it one step at a time. You go through the script initially and in the initial breakdown, you try and figure out the kind of work and the scope of work and that gives you an overall view of the film. And then you try and just chip off piece by piece. It was a huge undertaking, this film, because there were so many visual effects shots in it. There were 3,100 shots. So it’s huge, it terms of the kind of film, or any of these big visual effects movies. And obviously, it felt like there was everyone and their mother in the film. You know, you’ve got a huge variety of characters to deal with as well as massive CG and visual effects environments. You have to go in and try not to be too daunted by the entire thing and take it one step at a time.
What’s been the most challenging project you’ve worked on so far?
A movie called Avengers: Age Of Ultron, I’d say! [Laughs]
Do you have a favourite film that you’ve worked on?
I don’t. They’re like your children. Not that I’m a mother, but I’d have thought it’s all about painful births, and then at the end of it you love all of them and they’re all painful in their own way. I think Iron Man 3 was a film I look back on. It was a very difficult process to go through but ultimately I’m very happy with that as a film. But there are great things about all of them in terms of the process we went through and also the way they look.
You were nominated for an Academy Award for your work on Iron Man 3. How did that feel?
It was great! It was a huge honour. It’s something that you dream about and so it was fantastic to be in that group and to go to the show and everything. Yeah, it was great. It was lovely to be nominated. It would have been even more lovely to win but a little movie called Gravity did that.
You’re also going to be working on Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2, aren’t you? Can you tell us anything about that?
It’s pretty early into production. I can say that there’s a character called Rocket in it. [Laughs]
Were you a fan of the first film?
I was. I think it was great! It was a big departure for Marvel and I really admire them for doing something pretty outrageous and pretty risky, and I know that when they were working on the first one I was working on Avengers, and there was this big concern about, ‘I don’t think this is going to be a big success and that people are going to get the joke, or it’s going to completely fall flat and people are going to turn around and say, what on earth were you thinking?’ So I think it was a big risk doing anything like that and trying to pitch something with music and with humour, and with that slight irreverence about the whole film. I think they did a great job.
In true Marvel fashion, are you planning on upgrading Rocket and Groot for Vol. 2?
There are obviously going to be changes depending on the story. I can’t say too much about it, but I think there are some exciting things to come.
Were you a fan of Marvel in general before you started working with them?
I mean, I’m not a comic book fan in terms of the way I grew up. I loved the first Iron Man movie particularly, and I think that was a real game-changer in the way that superhero movies were depicted. I think from that point I was fascinated with what Marvel was trying to do in creating these characters and trying to bring a grounded reality to them, which was something I really appreciate. I think I’ve been very fortunate to have worked on a few of these films where they’ve been very grounded, so now it’s exciting to be working on a film which is pretty outside my conform level in many ways, with the new Guardians film, because it isn’t going to be as grounded as the rest. We’re going to try and bring a sense of reality to it. But it’s a big challenge.
Are there are films that continuously inspire how you do the effects in your projects?
There are so many films in the past that you look at and admire. It really would be difficult. There’s no one particular film out there that makes a clear influence. I mean, there are so many of the classics, anything from Godfather and Apocalypse Now, those types of films, and Lawrence Of Arabia in terms of framing and light and shadow and the way that the camera is used. Those kinds of films are influential in that they’re always in the back of my mind when I’m trying to get that sense of grandeur and things to shots, or the subtleties that those bring. But I think generally there are so many films that you always reference in photography, art, real life and other films. In everything we do we’re always looking at what’s been done before and not trying to copy it in any way but always being very aware of that to see if there’s a particular thing that somebody else did, or that we see in a photograph or in architecture or anything. So you have to keep your eyes open all the time for any influences.