The Playa Vista compound of Digital Domain, one of the most famous visual effects shops in film history, is unassuming from the outside — a low, two-story building with a row of darkened glass doors in front — but step through the entrance and you quickly realize that you’re at the center at one of those legendary laboratories that has created cinematic magic for 25 years.
Just a stroll down the poster-lined halls, once you get past the display case full of Oscars in the lobby, reveals the extent to which Digital Domain has shaped modern filmmaking over the past quarter century. Founded by James Cameron, Stan Winston and Scott Ross in 1993, the company’s illustrious history includes projects like True Lies, Titanic, Apollo 13, The Fifth Element, Armageddon, Thor, several X-Men and Transformers movies, Deadpool, Suicide Squad, Spider-Man: Homecoming and many more.
The reason for Den of Geek’s visit is to commemorate the release on Blu-ray and digital of Marvel’s epic Avengers: Infinity War, with a special emphasis on the astonishing work that Digital Domain did to bring the movie’s powerful villain, Thanos (Josh Brolin), to life via groundbreaking motion capture techniques.
Our visit opened with a look at the bonus features on the Avengers: Infinity War Blu-ray that were focused on the creation of Thanos, introduced by Marvel visual effects supervisor Dan Deleeuw and Digital Domain senior visual effects supervisor Kelly Port. Digital Domain was one of many effects houses that contributed to Avengers: Infinity War (Weta Digital, ILM, Double Negative were a few of the others) and one of its main priorities was the creation of Thanos. Here’s our interview with Deleeuw and Port:
A simple screen test — using motion capture to film Josh Brolin saying a few lines of dialogue — was enough to convince Marvel execs that Thanos could be envisioned on screen with all the nuance, subtlety and complexity that Brolin was capable of bringing to what had to be Marvel’s most fearsome yet multi-dimensional super-villain yet. That allowed the filmmakers to feature even more of the iconic Mad Titan in the movie than they had perhaps originally envisioned.
Also on the large Digital Domain stage (one of two on site), we were treated to a demonstration of the mo-cap techniques themselves, with an actor (not Brolin, heh heh) wearing a full body capture suit, head mounted cameras and facial applications so that we could see exactly how the actor’s moves and expressions translated to images on a nearby monitor.
We were also given the opportunity to don a VR helmet and find ourselves in a virtual recreation of Vormir, where the immersive VR allowed the wearer to feel as if he or she were standing on the edge of the same precipice where Thanos makes his terrible choice to obtain the Soul Stone (there was an actor standing next to us who appeared as a full-sized Thanos in the VR viewer, which also contained rather odd dancing avatars of Gamora and the Red Skull, who’s got a few surprising dance moves).
And yes…we all got to try on a full-sized recreation of the Infinity Gauntlet! It’s quite heavy, as a weapon capable of obliterating half the life in the universe should be.
Here are 10 things we learned from the rest of our visit about Avengers: Infinity War and Digital Domain:
1. A total of 13 effects vendors around the world worked on the film.
2. There are 2,703 shots in the movie, of which 2,623 have some kind of visual effect in them — only 80 are untouched.
3. There are 18 major digital characters in the film, and many digital doubles and set extensions.
4. Brolin would stand on elevated decks so that the eye level with the other actors would be correct.
5. Digital Domain completed about 500 shots for the film, with a total of 350 people working on it for two years.
6. The first screen test of Brolin as Thanos featured dialogue with Loki that is not in the finished film.
7. Brolin needed two hours every day he was working to have the motion capture dots applied to his face.
8. The software used to capture Brolin’s facial expressions is called FACS (Facial Access Coding System).
9. Pre-visualization for Avengers 4 was being done as Avengers: Infinity War was in front of the cameras.
10. Avengers: Infinity War was the 140th film that Digital Domain has worked on.
Avengers: Infinity War is out today (Aug. 14) on Blu-ray.