As much anticipation as the film had, few could have guessed a year ago that Marvel’s The Avengers would manage quite the dramatic box office take that it did, grossing more than $1.5 billion worldwide. What’s more, the film is now officially an Academy Award nominee and could very well bring home the Oscar for Best Visual Effects at the end of the month.
ComingSoon.net sat down with two of Marvel’s The Avengers‘ key behind-the-scenes contributors, Special Effects Supervisor Jeff White and Producer Victoria Alonso to discuss the the years-in-the-planning journey it took to bring the Avengers to the screen and what the film’s success means for the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
White, who was primarily concerned with realizing the CGI motion-capture Hulk, works with Industrial Light & Magic and has been responsible for effects on major projects like Transformers, Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest while Alonso has been with Marvel Studios since the first Iron Man and is heavily involved with upcoming projects like Guardians of the Galaxy and the studio’s first live-action television series, “S.H.I.E.L.D.”
Check out the full interview below and watch the 85th annual Academy Awards on Sunday, February 24.
CS: Let me start by just congratulating you. The world was excited for The Avengers, but I don’t think anyone anticipated it doing as phenomenally well as it did at the box office.
Victoria Alonso: It’s pretty cool. You look at the three biggest movies of all time in the history of filmmaking and “Avengers” is number three. You think, “Remember this time in your career, because it may not happen again.” (laughs)
Jeff White: I do feel like I’ve peaked out. (laughs) It’s all downhill from here.
Alonso: When you think about it, you can have a dream, but this went beyond. My dream was to produce movies and make good imagery and tell good stories. For it to be that successful and that well received and then to rank among the top films ever at the box office, it’s overwhelming.
CS: One of the things that Joss Whedon discusses on the commentary is how tricky it is to get an FX-heavy film made. There are times, he says, when certain special effects scenes are being worked on that, while the script can change around them, end up becoming a locked part of the screenplay simply because of the massive amount of time and work that have to go into creating them.
Alonso: The FX team is the first team and the last team. It’s a team that we bring on at story, even when the story isn’t fully fleshed out. In these movies, special FX are intrinsic to the story. The action sequences are very much part of the story that we’re trying to tell through our characters. Their journey is not something that you can start three weeks before your release. It’s one of the very first teams that shows up and the very, very last team that goes home, well after everyone else when you’re still finishing the stereo-conversion. The visual effects team is still there, checking DCPs and making sure that every color is right in every spot and everything is where it should be. We had 2,300 shots in the movie and 2,200 were visual effects shots. We touched just about every frame. It’s a leap of faith. Sometimes you finish the sequence and you realize that the movie’s too long. A beautifully-realized sequence ends up having to be cut down for the better of the film. Joss used to say that doing this is like killing your children. It’s painful. You don’t want to do it, but you understand the need.
CS: It makes for an interesting balance, having certain segments that are locked because of effects and other scenes, especially dialogue scenes, that play very loosely and feel like they’ve benefited from having lines tinkered with up until the very last minute.
Alonso: Actually, I’d say “The Avengers” had very few things that got rewritten on set. We were pretty religious to a script that was very, very well-outlined and structured by Joss from the beginning. Of all the films we’ve done, this was probably the one with the least amount of changes to the structure of it. We had a length issue, but you always do in these movies because there’s so much to tell that, eventually, you have to pare down. I think that freshness comes from the fact that we have some of the best performers in the world. They come in and they do their jobs and they wow you with it.
CS: Jeff, when you get footage from the production, what’s the very first step you take?
White: We were really fortunate to be working with Dan Sudick on this, who was the effects supervisor. With Hulk, our big thing was that it has to feel integrated. It has to feel like he’s there. With all these scenes where he’s running through an office or running through the Helicarrier smashing things, he built us these phenomenal rigs that he would just pull through the set. We’d start with these plates that already had sparks and glass and debris flying everywhere. That, in the end, makes it so much easier to feel like that character is really interacting with that environment instead of having to create anything.
CS: Since these 3D models exist in a computer, do you sort of feel like, by building the perfect Hulk, you’re creating the ultimate toy box of Marvel action figures?
White: It’s amazing how, over the course of a production, you’ll reveal every flaw. With Hulk, we really started from the ground up again as far as building our digital humans. We put everything into it and found a lot of problems along the way. It’s great to get to that point as a platform to launch off of for the future.
CS: Does it change your fondness of the character? Are you now the number one Hulk fan or, at this point, would you rather be looking at absolutely anything else?
White: That’s the amazing thing. There really can be character fatigue after working on something for a long time, but not with the Hulk. He’s one of those characters that we just enjoyed every shot, studying and trying to figure out what needs to happen to make it look realistic. He’s such a great character. For us, the dream is not just to create great visual effects, but to actually create great characters. I think anybody would jump at an opportunity like that. We were very grateful to Joss for writing that into the script and knowing what an audience is going to want to see. Any time you hear scene-stealing around a CG asset, that’s an exciting thing. That’s a dream come true.
CS: So if you move on to another Marvel film are you going to jump at the chance to do the Hulk or would you like to try your hand at another character?
White: No, anytime you get a chance like that, you take it. To revisit it would be a dream come true. Like I said, you build a foundation. Once you have that, you see where else the character can go.
CS: What has been your favorite fan-interaction since the film hit?
Alonso: We are just so happy that they received our little jewel as we saw it. You take your babies and you put them out there in the world and hope that they can walk and talk and survive. We were just so happy that our dream of creating this Marvel universe through all these origin stories was welcomed. We are indebted to them. We work really hard for people who take our characters so seriously. It’s for you that we work every day.
White: Yeah. The internet can be a little critical from time to time. To have a character like Hulk is a bit nerve-wracking because he’s just so popular. Everyone has an idea of what he should be. To have him come out and be so positively received is just really gratifying after such a long collaboration.
CS: What was the biggest change the Hulk went through in bringing him to the screen this time?
White: By the time Hulk got to us, his design was really locked in and I think that helped us a lot. I mean, there were still a lot of problems to figure out in turning it into a 3D moving asset, but it was really well laid out in terms of what we wanted Hulk to be.
Alonso: The biggest change was that we recast the role. That was a big challenge, to find a new person who could embody this character. A gift from god, Mr. Mark Ruffalo.
CS: Victoria, you mentioned that the script stayed pretty much as-is and, of course, part of the charm of Marvel Studios is this cinematic universe you’re building. How important is it for you to now plan your next move years in advance?
White: It is as important now as it has been. You can’t ever do enough planning. Planning is always the key to half of the success you will find. The other half is just the sheer brute force it takes to make these movies. But you have to plan and you have to have down every single aspect of the plan to make sure you have Plan A, Plan B and Plan C. Sometimes you get rained out or winded out or stormed out. You have to have plans. It’s incredibly important.
CS: One of the great things about these movies as a series has been their great special effects. Of course, that’s something easier accomplished on a blockbuster budget. As you make the move towards television with “S.H.I.E.L.D.,” is that something you’re finding you have to balance?
Alonso: It’s always a challenge. We hope that the new venture we have now with a TV series can be as successful as any TV show out there. We’re still in the early stages of knowing what that would mean, having something in primetime once a week and then having a couple of releases a year of features. We don’t quite know yet how all these different mediums are going to speak to each other, but it’s the great next step I guess.
CS: “The Avengers” going from comic books to the screen is something that people have wanted to see since the title debuted in the 1960s. What would you say is the reason that this is all finally happening?
Alonso: Marvel had a new approach since it was bought after the bankruptcy and the those different steps and chapters they went through. I think that, when we first started with “Iron Man,” the idea all along was to create origin pictures that could at some point collide into a group picture. Whether we could do it or not depended on the success of each and every origin picture. You ask, “Why now?” Because we got oh-so-lucky and so blessed. The origin pictures found a place with the fans so they wanted to see more. When you do have an audience that says, “Yes, we are ready for you!” you have the doors opened to Avengers. I’m not sure if it’s any other combination of things other than that these origin stories resonated. The style and the texture and the way that we brought them to life was, at that point in time, what the fans were ready for.
White: Absolutely. The fact that they all had an origin story was important. You can watch “The Avengers” without having watched any of them and it’s still a great movie. But you roll into this having watched and loved all of them?
Alonso: Or maybe you haven’t seen the movies but you’ve maybe heard about them. Or you’ve heard about Robert Downey Jr. playing Iron Man or newcomer Chris Hemsworth. You say, “Oh, that was Thor!” It’s little seeds that get planted along the way.
CS: It seems like the comics have now become a really great proving ground for upcoming films. The Guardians of the Galaxy were sort of re-introduced just before the film was announced. Do you get to participate going the other way, having a hand in what happens to characters on the printed page?
Alonso: No, I’m not involved in the comic part of it, but it does affect us. That would be a Kevin Feige conversation!
CS: Victoria, as someone who was working on films prior to the Cinematic Marvel Universe, do you ever feel you might take a break and try something non-Marvel again?
Alonso: If I take a break, I’ll be out of a job! (laughs) Because I’m a Marvel employee, I can’t take a break.
White: “The Avengers” was my first project working for Marvel. Just the collaboration and the way they approached the project, it really felt like we’re all in it together to make the best thing we possibly can. I would be up for anything else they have to offer.