By Duncan Evans
No sooner than Territory Studio, helmed by founder and Creative Director David Sheldon-Hicks, finished using Cinema 4D for the user interface graphics in the smash-hit 'Guardians of the Galaxy,' did the call come from Production Designer Charles Wood and Art Director Alan Payne to get involved with Marvel's big-budget 'Avengers: Age of Ultron' project.
The task this time was to help support Joss Whedon's artistic and creative vision for the film to be darker and more challenging, exploring the humanity of each of the superheroes. To do this, David was asked to create a visual brand for each character that accurately represented their personality and role within the film.
On top of this, there was an extra requirement in that Charles Wood wanted the screen user interfaces to have a more realistic look and feel, to be futuristic, but with a modern plausibility to them. It sent the Territory team researching the realms of such topics as advanced clinical technology. Of course, it's all good and well creating something from a blank canvas, but the Iron Man persona and Tony Stark within the suit has already laid down a template for the kind of graphics the audience would expect. David explained that Territory wasn't as constrained as you might imagine, "Our task was to approach the UI from a fresh perspective that supported Joss' vision for this film. So, while we worked with established color palettes for Stark and Banner, we were free to create a new look for the UI. For Tony Stark we researched state-of-the -art architectural engineering, avionics and military technology, and crafted a series of screens for Stark Lab that worked together to reflect a more rounded character. Similarly, we researched cellular plant biology and biotechnology and fed that into Banner's UI. Again, the idea was to add a visually rich layer of imagery and animation to the background of Banner's lab that supports his role as biologist. Finally, for Dr. Cho, a newly introduced character with a strong Marvel history, we crafted a UI that reflected her interests in biotechnology innovations and incorporated near-future technology references that we extrapolated from current advances in clinical applications for 3D printed organic matter."
The process of creation flowed both ways because the initial conversations about the designs took place before the script had been finalized. That meant Territory was able to advise on how best to use the UI to illustrate certain narrative points. From there the team refined the creative vision for the visual language of each character and environment with research and references from the art, costume and props department. It was important to both Joss and Charlie that Territory's screens not only gave visual depth to the sets but anchored the Avengers technology in real-world references that the audience could relate to. As David elaborated, "This level of realism was a new approach to Marvel Universe's highly stylized future-tech aesthetic and it was fun for the team to bring the two together."
Needless to say there were a number of technical challenges that had to be mastered. David revealed what was required for one of the new characters to the franchise: "For one scene with Dr. Cho, this involved extrapolating potential clinical applications from current reconstructive biotechnology and 3D printing to create the UI for a clinical technology that 3D prints skin onto a patient. Having 3D screens that looked holographic on set was a real challenge to create from the depth perspective. The temptation is that if you hear that it's going to be a background screen you don't put the quality into it but ever since we worked with Ridley Scott we knew to deliver the best quality and to give the director the option to use it as part of the narrative with a close-up."
Marti Romances, Art Director for Territory, worked on the Iron Man screens and made full use of the speed of Cinema 4D: "With the Iron Man screens I didn't have much time to spend on renders and for that reason I rendered many simple and quick passes from Cinema 4D. This gave me the option of being able to change and play with these passes in After Effects until the directors were happy with the result. Things like Cinema 4D’s External Compositing tag and the HAIR and cel renderer were very handy for these quick turnarounds."
One of the other technical challenges was receiving hi-res models from other VFX vendors who were working on the film and integrating them into the workflow. The Poly Reduce function was used to take a highly detailed Iron Man model from ILM and repurpose it for Territory's needs. Peter Eszenyi, Head of 3D for Territory, had a similar challenge when creating the Leviathan screens. Peter described the process: "We used a very dense and detailed CGI model we received from one of the main vendors. Before we were able to do anything with it, the asset needed a bit of love, stripping out the overly detailed parts, and generally organizing the mesh into manageable chunks. After this, we started to set up some crazy X-Particles magic. We used the mesh as an emitter as well as placing several other emitters around it. For other passes we used the mesh as a collider object, and of course we did use quite a number of different setups, turbulences, wind, follow surface modifiers, the whole works."
David elaborated on how his team of artists kept pushing the envelope creatively: "Often we're finding and exploring new ways of displaying 3D holograms. Thinking Particles, MoGraph and Sketch and Toon are all critical to our ability to be creative in how we approach this challenge. The team here gets tired of just showing wireframes so it's important for us to innovate and test new ways of doing things - MoGraph in particular gives us a toolset to do this."
Peter also used Sketch and Toon on the Leviathan screens he was working on, "We started the Sketch and Toon explorations, experimented with different contour settings, played with lights and shadows influencing line weights – which is an excellent and not so well known feature of Sketch and Toon – generally just trying out as many different ideas as time permitted. Once we rendered all these passes we layered some more traditional passes on top such as shadow passes and ambient occlusion. Then we tried out different tessellation methods, projection textures and so on. We ended up using 10-15 different passes, which were tweaked further in After Effects. This R&D time let us set up a structure that could be deployed on different parts of the project, so once someone got familiar with how things were working we could start producing the different screens."
In previous films like Guardians and Ridley Scott's Prometheus, Territory used UI screens live on set. Only when details or filming restrictions made live screens impractical were the effects added afterwards. That experience came to the fore in 'Avengers: Age of Ultron,' where over 200 screens across 11 sets were implemented as mainly live on-set props with the help of Compuhire, while only a few screens were delivered as VFX shots. It meant the actors were working with live screens that gave them a focus when appropriate and supported their line of sight. As is often the case on projects like this there are last-minute changes, sometimes minutes before they are required on set to be shot. David explained how it was possible: "Speed is key to our projects. Cinema 4D allows fast rendering and pulling things back into After Effects while MoGraph offers an artist-friendly, procedural way of animating. We can create complex structures and make last minute changes very quickly."
All told, Territory committed a core team of six artists for 11 months to the project, often scaling up to 10 artists, rendering out the 2k-resolution screens and creating over 80 minutes of unique animations for Marvel's blockbuster franchise movie.
Duncan Evans is the author of Digital Mayhem: 3D Machines, recently published by Focal Press
All images courtesy of Territory Studio, Marvel Studio.
You can see more of the on-set screen graphics from Avengers: Age of Ultron here: