Captain America: The Winter Soldier – Reaching New Heights

With Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Marvel advances the story of WWII super-soldier Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), now a key player with S.H.I.E.L.D. but also struggling to come to terms with his modern-day transposition.

Directors Anthony and Joe Russo created a number of challenging settings and sequences that introduced a new character – the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). Many of these sequences would call on the innovative services of visual effects supervisor Dan Deleeuw and visual effects producer Jen Underdahl and their teams of effects artists, including locating S.H.I.E.L.D.’s new headquarters on the Potomac River, crafting a digital make-up solution to depict ‘Old Peggy’, delivering a digital arm for the Winter Soldier, and bringing to life the flying Falcon character and orchestrating the flight – and destruction – of three massive new Helicarriers.

In this article, we explore several of the major shots and sequences in the film, focusing on the visual effects by ILM, Scanline, Lola VFX, Luma Pictures, Whiskytree, The Embassy and the previs completed by Proof.

Dueling with a Quinjet

Action: Rogers encounters a S.H.I.E.L.D. Quinjet that blocks his exit on the bridge.

Innovation: Scanline transposed footage filmed in Cleveland into a composite view of D.C. with the Triskelion, and delivered a CG Quinjet that Rogers ultimately brings down.

Scanline had been part of Washington D.C. plate shoots with ILM, including filming on the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge that reaches into the Triskelion. “We were able to shoot for two 30 minute chunks so that we could film without any traffic,” says Grill. “We took a RED camera out there for ground level footage like moving cars on the shoreline, too. At some points we even used the real water, but mostly it was CG.”

“What was interesting about that sequence,” adds Grill, “is that it was shot on a bridge in Cleveland that had not as many lanes. We ended up extracting pretty much all of Captain on a bike and putting it into our completely synthetic bridge.”

Rogers throws his shield into one of the Quinjet’s turbines then launches himself onto the vehicle – a model Scanline adapted from ILM for the sequence. “That was all shot just on a buck out in a parking lot,” says Grill. “We used footage of a stuntman doing flips and hanging off the edge of the Quinjet and then it was a nice mix of real footage and full CG for the final shots.”

Since the Quinjet was low to the ground and also ‘shot up’ the road near to Rogers, Scanline added heat distortion, smoke effects and other atmosphere into the shots. “I love being able to dirty stuff up in visual effects,” describes Grill. “When you’re shooting with a camera, things hit the lens, especially smoke or charges. Because there was one shot where they had charges on the road and stuff hit camera, that set the tone from the practical shot. We took that and ran with it.”

Facilitating Falcon

Action: Scenes of Wilson in his ‘Falcon’ winged exoskeleton play out predominantly in the Helicarrier sequence.

Innovation: ILM brought Falcon to life, drawing on a mix of greenscreen wire work and digital double creation.

An important consideration for Falcon was to consider his flying style. “We wanted to make sure no matter what he was doing that he was in control of his wings,” says DeLeeuw. “When Falcon flies and lands he’s exhausted. There’s a mechanism that helps him but it’s actually his muscles that are controlling the wings.”

“It’s very easy to have a lot of fun with Falcon in terms of what he can and how he flies,” adds DeLeeuw. “He won’t be as fast as Tony Stark as Iron Man, say, but he was definitely nimble enough and flexible. Flying is second nature to him just like walking down the street.”

With this in mind, the production enlisted Proof to previs Falcon’s flights – especially for a sequence in which he is chased and shot at by a Quinjet amongst the Helicarriers. “There was a concept drawing we were given of Falcon being chased by a Quinjet,” states Proof’s Monty Granito. “I gave it to my guys and I asked everyone to do a Falcon shot that was in the spirit of the concepts – and we did it for Comic-Con. And then most of the shots ended up in the final sequence. Marvel’s so great, they just let you really have a lot of freedom.”

From the overall previs, production established which shots might be suitable for a wire work and greenscreen shoot, and which could be achieved as digital Falcons (either partially by retaining a live action head or as a fully CG hero). Some individual shots were achieved via wire work against greenscreen. “It was pretty impressive wire work,” recalls ILM animation supervisor Steve Rawlins, “but it was too slow so they did a re-time in editorial to speed it up to give it the energy. Our plan was to put the wings on this, but you get this footage in and because it’s sped up it has that high frequency motion you get when things are sped up that gives it away.”

ILM then continued the Falcon development, including in relation to the operation of the exosuit wings. “The wings have a mechanical quality so we had to deal with the fact that they fold up,” says Rawlins. “Once they’ve unfolded they become more like a hang gliding wing, more of a membrane. We had to deal with the technical issues of a rigid set of objects that would unfold, Transformer-like in a way, but more mechanical. Then once they were out it would be deforming in a flexible way.”

See how some of the live action for Falcon was filmed.
“So our layout department would match-animate him,” says Rawlins, “and hand it over to us (in animation). We’d clean it up and take off all those high frequency movements that would be those giveaways. It turned into an all-CG Falcon but we had that basis of something that was real to use, so we weren’t inventing a performance from nothing.”

In order to create digi-doubles, each of the main characters including Wilson was scanned – some using the Light Stage – and also heavily photographed. “We set up a controlled environment,” explains Earl, “where we had still cameras, light boxes and you would put the actor there on a turntable, they’d go in on a neutral position, we’d rotate the turntable 15 degrees, take another picture. So you had calibrated photographs – you know where the tripod is and you can shoot a calibration object. Then we would do close-ups of the face, polarized and non-polarized so we could go back and use those to generate the textures we needed.”

The digital character was animated in Maya and then the wings and exosuit rendered in V-Ray. ILM’s animators mostly worked with a low resolution proxy of Falcon. “It had pretty much the accurate form and shape of the wing,” says Rawlins, “but without all the details of the internal mechanism and the way it would deform.”

Earl considers Falcon one of ILM’s standout achievements in combining digital double work with the live action photography of Wilson, and incorporating him into the frenetic Helicarrier battle. “My philosophy is, well if we can shoot something, let’s shoot something. It’s always great to have something real. We built the digital double and there were shots where they’d come up and I’d be ‘Is this a digital one?’ I couldn’t tell the difference!”

Winter Soldier ambush

Action: Rogers, Romanoff and Wilson are ambushed by the Winter Soldier and engage in a fiery road battle.

Innovation: Luma Pictures re-orchestrated Cleveland plates for downtown D.C. and also provided extensive CG arm replacements for Winter Soldier.

“We plotted a course on Google Maps and used that as reference to re-create these industrial buildings seen in the shots,” explains Luma visual effects supervisor Vince Cirelli. “A lot of them had to be 3D along the road because of parallax. Where we could keep the backgrounds, we would, but we’d have to lop off skylines and buildings because you couldn’t have tall skyscrapers in the middle of D.C.”

Luma contributed a number of hero CG elements, including a bus that Rogers flies through after getting blown off an overpass. Digi-doubles of each the characters also feature in the sequence. “We had moments where Black Widow jumps off the bridge and she’s entirely CG as she swings from a grappling hook to safety below,” says Cirelli. “A lot of the fire pyrotechnics were CG or enhanced, too.”

For the Winter Soldier, Legacy Effects had crafted a prosthetic arm piece to be worn by actor Sebastian Stan and stunt doubles on set, where it was covered in a few tracking. Both Luma (and ILM for other Winter Soldier sequences) then worked on a CG replacement arm that would articulate as slatted metal. “He moves so fast that there were so many actions,” comments Cirelli. “It was a real tech challenge to get the arm so that it was in not too many broken pieces but allowed rotation and twisting and all the things you’d expect.”

See b-roll of the hand to hand fight between the Winter Soldier and Rogers during the ambush sequence.
Since the arm had to be completely integrated into Stan’s body, Luma had to also establish the appropriate blend location for the CG appendage. “Sometimes that can be more complicated than just doing a full character replacement,” notes Cirelli. “Because if you have close-up shots of a character moving with cloth, and it’s rotating and twisting, well that begs the question where do you split in the CG? How far up the body? So along with the arm actually came cloth simulation and other sorts of texturing and modeling for the seamless operation of the arm.”

Despite its rigid metallic nature, Luma’s arm rig allowed for muscle bulging. “What we had,” says Cirelli, “was a rig underneath that allowed for contiguous skin and then it would deform and expand for muscle. That skin would drive the slats and how they move. It was a multi-tiered system similar to Destroyer from Thor but a little more complex because the Winter Soldier was lightning fast – jumping, rotating, twisting, moving. We found we had to have a more robust system so that when the arm twists and bends, it does so so quickly so the rig doesn’t blow up! We had lots of renders where it looked like he had two arms coming out of his elbow.”

Luma also detailed the interior of the arm, adding a layer underneath the exoskeleton of moving rods and mechanisms – elements that were more visible in a later lab sequence in which the Winter Soldier’s arm is being repaired. The studio relied on its Maya to Arnold workflow for the CG work.

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