If you love the type of movies we cover most on Screen Rant, you owe some thanks to Christopher Townsend. From serving as a digital effects artist on the first Mission: Impossible and second Jurassic Park film early in his career, Townsend moved on to help with the Star Wars special edition re-release, the entire Star Wars prequel trilogy.
Add in a Pirates of the Caribbean here and a Chronicles of Narnia movie there to his impressive resume, not to mention a growing list of Marvel movies, and many of the largest currently active film franchises Chris Townsend had a hand in helping on the visual effects side. Townsend joined the Marvel Studios family to serve as a VFX supervisor on Captain America: The First Avenger before moving onto Iron Man 3 and most recently, Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Next up for Townsend is Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and we had the opportunity to chat with him last week about the home video release of the Avengers sequel and what went into designing the complex special VFX for its most visually complex character in the Hulk.
I read one of your interviews earlier this year where you spoke about some of the previous Marvel films you worked on and how the first Hulk was one of the most challenging characters you had to work on to bring to life. Now that you’ve done him in Age of Ultron as well, how does this new Hulk, which Marvel already did The Incredible Hulk and revised him with the first Avengers with the Mark Ruffalo version, compare to that very first time you had to work on him with Ang Lee’s version?
Chris Townsend: I think The Hulk still remains an incredibly difficult character to create on the screen. I think what Marvel did on the first one, on the first Avengers, was probably the most successful version of him. Ang Lee’s version way back when was a different concept in many ways than what we see today on Avengers. He was very, very green. And what Ang tried to instill in him was a different sort of character than what Josh and Mark Ruffalo brought to the character in Avengers.
So it was equally challenging, but in other ways. What I wanted to do was to, in many ways, strip the first Avengers Hulk down to the bare bones, literally. And we cast Industrial Light & Magic, who did the work on the first on and the second one, to sort of really rethink how they created him and to rebuild him. And they recreated the skeletal muscle system, recreated the skin, and the shading, and the hair, everything. And then they re-sculpted him to create slightly different proportions to him to try to make him a little less odd looking, particularly the length of his neck, that kind of thing.
So he looks similar, but he is quite different than the first Avengers. So it really was rebuilding him from the ground up. And the reason for doing that is to try and bring him closer to our level of reality and closer to being one of the ensemble characters in the film rather than just this weird green CG character in the movie. There were moments that, obviously, Joss wrote into the film with very quiet moments between, particularly, Hulk and Romanoff, Scarlett Johansson’s character.
So I think there were moments where we saw some tenderness there which really allowed us to sort of show some acting chops. The Hulk obviously was based very closely on Mark Ruffalo’s performance, but ultimately it’s all hand animated by incredibly talented animators at ILM led by Mark Chu, their animation supervisor. So it was a huge task to try and recreate him. Hopefully he is closer to being believable. It’s always difficult—he’s big and he’s green. And that’s always a challenge to try and make something big and green look real. But hopefully we got one step closer.
With Mark Ruffalo performing detailed motion capture work with it as well, does that make it easier for the VFX teams and the other VFX companies to work with, or does that add another level of challenge? Because now you have to sort of get all the finer details of the emotions and expressions right as well.
Chris Townsend: Oh, it’s hugely important to have that as a base, as a grounding. And what it gives you is not only you can then look at something and see those finer details and you have something visually to reference, but also it gives you an intent, both an active and a directive intent, and that’s what we’re aiming for.
So whether you use it as a direct one-to-one or you just use it as a reference, either way it’s incredibly valuable to have that performance and to get that fine detail in the subtleties that he brings. Absolutely.
Perhaps the most memorable action sequence of the film involves The Hulk. It’s the whole Hulkbuster set piece where we see Iron Man and Banner's new tech. I read another interview with Wired who spoke to the ILM team, who did a lot of work on The Hulk for this, and they mentioned that originally there was an idea where Hulk would become grey Hulk from the comics as a result of Scarlet Witch messing with him. But obviously they kept him green throughout the entire film. Were there any effects or shots developed for this other version of Hulk?
Chris Townsend: Yeah. What Joss wanted to do was he said, “I wanted to have a Hulk that’s this berserker Hulk.” Berserker Hulk was this Hulk that Hulks out, was what we had come up with on set. And then we sort of started talking about, “Well what are those extremes?” And ILM started playing with a deformed body with a deformed face with one eye larger than another. You know, like crooked teeth, and drooling, and red eyes, and all this kind of stuff.
Then we started playing with color and we started to de-saturate him and give him sort of red around his eyes and made him look strung-out heroin addict Hulk was the idea. Sort of like where he has totally lost it and he’s gone totally crazy. And then we gradually tended towards a grayer and grayer version till effectively we got gray Hulk.
We tried a few shots in the film with that sort of much grayer version. And then we’re thinking, “Will people confuse this with the gray Hulk from the comics? And is that a good thing or a bad thing?” Eventually, I think we backed off a little bit of that and made him greener so that…we didn’t want to confuse people in creating a new character, per se, in that way. So we ultimately backed off. But we had gone pretty extreme in the looks for him.
A lot of ideas and sequences like that obviously don’t end up making the final theatrical cut. Were there any scenes on Age of Ultron that required a lot of VFX work that didn’t make the theatrical cut that you really wish were in there?
Chris Townsend: There were an awful lot of shots that don’t make it into the cut, generally. But I think that what we try and do…obviously, there’s a huge amount of attrition as you sort of mold the movie and you try and craft the movie towards the end of post-production and you try and make the very best film you can. And so, there are things that get cut out. We try and keep that to a minimum. I’m trying to think if there was any one particular scene. There was no particular scene, I don’t think, that we lost wholesale.
There were scenes that we had worked on…there was a confrontation initially between a few of the characters in a totally different location and we built a full virtual location for it and then, ultimately, that was scrapped. So that was very sad because it was a beautiful location we had created in the virtual world.
But, generally, even though, as I say, there’s a lot of attrition, you try and stop things as soon as possible so that you don’t lose too much.
Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 begins shooting next year. Are you already in the pre-production process of that? If so, how does working with James Gunn compare to working with Joss Whedon?
Chris Townsend: Yeah. I’ve just started, so I’m sort of in the early days with James. But he’s incredibly enthusiastic. Like Joss, he knows his characters really well in terms of the Marvel world. But James is working in a very different world, in many ways, than Joss with The Avengers.
James has an incredible enthusiasm and passion. And he clearly is such a huge fan of this film and these characters. He loves his characters and he’s so passionate about it. It’s very exciting to be working with him.
Thanks for your time!
Marvel's Avengers: Age of Ultron is now available on Digital 3D and Digital HD and releases October 2, 2015 for Digital SD, 3D Blu-ray Combo Pack (3D Blu-ray+Single Disc Blu-ray+Digital Copy), Blu-ray, DVD and On-Demand.
Marvel Studios unleashes the next global phenomenon in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. Good intentions wreak havoc when Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) unwittingly creates Ultron (James Spader), a terrifying A.I. monster who vows to achieve “world peace” via mass extinction. Now, Iron Man, Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo)—alongside Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) —must reassemble to defeat Ultron and save mankind… if they can! This action-packed adventure is a must-own, mind-blowing blast!
Captain America: Civil War opens in theaters May 6, 2016; Doctor Strange – November 4, 2016; Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – May 5, 2017; Spider-Man– July 28, 2017; Thor: Ragnarok – November 3, 2017; The Avengers: Infinity War Part 1 – May 4, 2018; Black Panther– July 6, 2018; Captain Marvel – November 2, 2018; The Avengers: Infinity War Part 2 – May 3, 2019; Inhumans – July 12, 2019.