Exclusive Interview – Avengers: Age of Ultron VFX Supervisor Chris Townsend

Visual effects supervisor Chris Townsend talks Avengers: Age of Ultron VFX!

With the Avengers: Age of Ultron Blu-ray arriving in stores today, it seems like as good a time as any to reflect on an aspect of the film that got a bit buried under its avalanche of characters and plot points: The visual effects. Granted, that’s how it should have been, as effects should never supersede a story, although much of the CGI work in director Joss Whedon’s sequel is so invisible we thought it only fair to let visual effects supervisor Chris Townsend (Iron Man 3, Captain America: The First Avenger) talk about the enormous amount of work that went into the Marvel Studios sequel.

In our exclusive chat with Townsend, the former ILM employee-turned-freelancer talks about what went into the stunning transformation of actor Paul Bettany into the God-like superhero The Vision, producer Kevin Feige’s input into the process, as well as early work on James Gunn’s upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2!

SuperHeroHype: They released a short clip that gave us a glimpse at what The Vision looked like before you guys worked your digital magic. Were those facial textures done in CG with the tracking dots to save time with make-up application or did they genuinely necessitate that process?

Chris Townsend: It necessitated that process, because one of the things we were going for with Vision was to create a perfectly machined synthetic human. We tried working with prosthetics initially, skull caps and all that kind of stuff on his face, and they have to be applied by very talented make-up artist, but even so there’s a human element and things are slightly off or they’re not quite perfect. Just having a latex or rubber prosthetic is, in itself, a flexible medium so it means the cut lines are never perfect. What we wanted to create was something that was absolutely perfect, looking almost generated on a computer. That was the intent of going to create something that was surreally perfect. We tried doing it with prosthetics and it was clear we weren’t gonna get to the level of detail and perfection we were after so we opted to go with a visual effects solution.

The VisionSHH: It’s pretty seamless. I looked at it and thought it was make-up. On movie sets the audio guy will always tell you that if he does his job wrong everyone complains, but if he does it right no one notices him. Despite all the work you guys put into “Age of Ultron,” a huge effects shot count, the major conversation in the press was around story points and characters as opposed to the effects. Is that a sign of success for you?

Townsend: Yes! Ultimately what you want in our world… obviously it’s nice from an ego point of view if people start talking about what you’ve done, but from a story point and a filmmaking point you want the work to be seamless. It’s like good typography in a book, you don’t want to be recognizing it, you just want to be following the story or the article in the magazine. Ultimately visual effects are there to support the story and make the best film that you can. You want people talking about the film and the narrative and how successful THAT is rather that, “Oh it looked pretty.”

SHH: Right. Obviously with “Age of Ultron” Joss Whedon was onboard from day one, though it’s my understanding that on Marvel Studios films set pieces are often pre-visualized before a director is even brought in. Can you talk about how much work you guys do on one of these films with Kevin Feige and others as opposed to the designated director?

Townsend: I’m sure that has happened in the past but generally you obviously want the director’s vision up on the screen. I know that with “Avengers,” Joss was involved from day one with the creation of all those set sequences. There may be times when the studio and Kevin and everyone have an idea for something, but ultimately the director is very influential in terms of how he or she wants the film to go.

SHH: Obviously, and not to diminish the role of the director, but it’s pretty well-known that Feige is very hands on and these projects exist for years in an active pipeline before directors are brought on.

Townsend: Yeah, absolutely. There’s basic storyline things that are often scenes that Kevin and the gang want to try to pursue, but the real work gets done once the writer and director, or in this case the writer-director with Joss, is onboard. Kevin is incredibly hands-on, he’s fantastic as a producer and one of the key creators on all of the films.

SHH: What else can fans expect to see on the Blu-ray to give them a glimpse inside what you did, which was apparently almost two-years of solid work.

Townsend: Yeah, it was. I haven’t actually seen the Blu-ray. It was a long time ago when I was interviewed for it, but you touched on Vision and I think Vision was something that was a real challenge to figure out how to do that creatively and also technically, trying to create something that hadn’t been seen before but was done–as you said, in many ways successfully–to give people the thought that it was just make-up. In reality it was anything but. It was a huge collaboration between working with the make-up department and prosthetics, then the visual development department here at Marvel creating the character initially, then Lola VFX which was the company that did the work. It’s a real collaboration of all aspects of filmmaking, which is really great to see. Also the scope of the work and volume of work was huge, certainly the biggest film Marvel has ever done. It’s 3100 shots, so it’s a massive amount of visual effects work. That in itself is something I’m very proud of, to be a part of that, it’s an amazing team effort. It was a huge undertaking and hopefully we pulled it off.

rocket-raccoonSHH: Can you talk a little bit about the differences between working with Joss on this and working with James Gunn on “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”?

Townsend: It’s different personality, different filmmakers, different temperaments, but they’re both writer-directors, which is kind of interesting. Seeing how they both approach problems in a different way is very fascinating. I’m very new to the James Gunn world at the moment, I’ve only been working on it for a little while so it’s really hard to compare, but so far it’s really exciting to work with him. He’s an incredibly passionate guy who loves what he does. It’s great to be in the room with him and have that energy.

SHH: Are there any specific technical problems you’re trying to solve? Anything groundbreaking?

Townsend: It’s a movie set in outer space, and unfortunately outer space doesn’t exist, so we’ve got a huge environment that’s very visually challenging. We’re trying to do that, to make something which people haven’t seen before. There’s a lot of space movies out there and coming out, obviously, and we’re trying to create something unique and interesting and fascinating that helps tell the story. It’s all of those things bundled together, really.

SHH: Since Lucasfilm and Marvel are both under the Disney umbrella, are you able to compare notes to make sure there’s no overlap or identical scenes? 

Townsend: No. I think they’re very unique properties and different films, and even though I know a lot of the teams that are working on “Star Wars,” we don’t discuss and collaborate. They are individual films created independently. We’re aware of the “Star Wars” world as well as the “Star Trek” world and the “Prometheus”/”Aliens” world and all the other “star” movies out there, and we’re trying to create something unique with “Guardians.”

You can purchase Avengers: Age of Ultron by clicking here. Also, don’t miss the 10 great reveals from Joss Whedon’s Age of Ultron commentary.