One of the most well-known Marvel characters, the Hulk still struggled in his first two blockbuster film outings. Fans often deliver mixed testimonials regarding Ang Lee’s Hulk and Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk but Marvel Studios and Universal Pictures were both unimpressed with final box office tallies for each movie. As a result, when it was confirmed that the character would once again return to the big screen as part of The Avengers ensemble, comic book lovers and studio executives both held their breath to see if director Joss Whedon, armed with a talented roster of visual effects studios, could finally do the character justice. Fortunately, Whedon delivered.
However, as positive Hulk movie buzz reached an all-time high, so did talk of a long-in-development ABC TV series (rumored to be a prequel story without Mark Ruffalo) from Guillermo del Toro. Now that the bar has been raised for what viewers will expect from future iterations of the mean green machine, is it even realistic for del Toro to attempt a weekly TV series?
We had a chance to sit down with Industrial Light and Magic’s Jeff White, a Visual Effects Supervisor for The Avengers, to discuss their well-received approach to the character (look for that interview soon) – as well as what challenges del Toro will likely face if he centers an entire TV series around a “different” Banner/Hulk storyline:
I think we’d have to have a lot of Banner. You know I think from beginning to end we got much faster at doing shots. We learned a lot about the process and about how to light him and how to make him look good. One of the things that was interesting was when we started off we kind of took our typical approach of really art directing the lighting, like rim, rim, rim, you know super stylized. And he really looked fake and kind of popped out. And what we found is that we ended up having to kind of flatten out his lighting to get him to sit in there with the rest of the Avengers. So I think after learning things like that, you know we could – if you’re talking about a TV schedule and how fast you need to turn around production, it would be a matter of, you know trying to build off everything we did for the movie and then, you know get him in there, get him lit. You wouldn’t have time to do the – you know all the really detailed shape, you know per frame corrections that we do.
After several iterations of the character, each one looking more believable than the last, White also addressed the challenge of meeting raised expectations. After an overwhelmingly positive response to The Avengers Hulk, fans aren’t going to want to see the character take a step backward in terms of on-screen performance. We’ve seen similar characters brought to life on the TV screen but none have come anywhere close to the quality of the latest big screen Hulk (Doomsday’s season on Smallville is one especially underwhelming example).
I think that would be one of the big challenges. How do you turn that much animation around and still have it be believable? Because there is like animation, then simulation then, you know sort of hand correction after that. And I think where we found the biggest time suck ends up being is all the facial work, getting the eyes to look right and then how much that changes once you start lighting him.
Of course, some fans will quickly point to the fact that Marvel already has computer assets for the Hulk, not to mention the compiled knowledge of the various effects teams that contributed to The Avengers. However, it’s not realistic for del Toro to simply copy and paste The Avengers Hulk into a potential TV show – even if Marvel has all the computer models. Aside from the technical challenges of fitting the digital character into live-action environments, there’s one especially big problem – The Avengers Hulk was designed specifically for Mark Ruffalo’s body and face.
In the one on one portion of our interview, White clarified that (assuming the show is a prequel set in the same universe) the TV effects team could possibly “youngify” the Hulk model (the visual supervisor even joked about “Muppet Baby Hulk”) but the character would still be based on an entirely different actor (unless Ruffalo signs on for the show – which is extremely unlikely). It’s a problem that would, as hinted at earlier, undoubtedly be a step backward in terms of onscreen character quality. White believes that the biggest success of The Avengers Hulk was the subtle visual connections to the man behind the monster. The bridge between Ruffalo and Hulk was one of their biggest hurdles (and could be a potential deal breaker for using any version of their character model on TV):
[Even if you could youngify him], it would still be a challenge because you’d really have to put some thought and design work into it. For us, some of the hardest shots were not Hulk or Banner but what does he look like when he’s half-way there because on one you have a reference of a real guy and on the other you have all this artwork and then half-way in between there’s this weird amalgamation of how much brow and how much cheek and what do his eyes look like. For us, those were some of the more difficult shots was figuring out the half-way in between. Especially because Joss didn’t just want the transformations to be like either a slider or a guy who is a balloon. So that ended up being quite difficult.
Some fans might still complain that the movie versions don’t encapsulate key aspects of the comic character or that the on-screen CGI model looks too “plasticky”; however, for many, the Hulk (along with Ruffalo’s portrayal of Bruce Banner) was one of the most enjoyable aspects of The Avengers. It’ll certainly be interesting to hear how the potential Hulk series comes along but, as indicated by commenters on the site, as well as professionals like Jeff White, Guillermo del Toro and ABC are going to face some serious challenges if they actually move forward with a series. While it’s understandable that ABC would love to get more spots on The Avengers money train (especially with a S.H.I.E.L.D. show also on the network), Marvel will need to be especially vigilant about the quality of the potential show – especially if they want to ride the positive reception of the green machine in Avengers and deliver another solo Hulk film after Avengers 2.
For more on ILM’s work on the Hulk character, be sure to check out The Avengers Blu-ray (read our review) and check back soon for more Avengers interviews.
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The Avengers is now available on 3D Blu-ray, Blu-ray, and DVD.