Warning: Minor spoilers ahead for Avengers: Infinity War.
In a bare white room in Atlanta’s Pinewood Studios in 2017, special effects guy Matt Aitken held in his hands the entire script to. It was incredibly rare. So rare, some of the movie’s biggest stars didn’t have it. So rare, a Marvel representative had to supervise him.
Aitken was different. He was the VFX head supervisor of a team specifically brought on to create one of Infinity War’s most pivotal scenes: the one where Thanos battles a hit squad of Marvel superheroes, including Iron Man, Spider-Man and Star-Lord.
The scene is already iconic. Spider-Man pulls Thanos one way with his ultra-strong web, while Iron Man and Drax attempt to yank off the universe-destroying Infinity Gauntlet on his other hand. Mantis, propped on his head, induces his brain into a trance state. The complex battle scene utilizes the skill sets of eight characters including the reality-bending Thanos.
Directing duo the Russo Brothers had found their guy. The New Zealander’s credits included an Academy Award nomination for visual effects for 2009’s District 9, and extensive work on Iron Man 3 in 2013. They wanted him to capture the barren orange landscape of a once beautiful planet ravaged by overpopulation, a problem motivating Thanos’ quest for the Infinity Stones.
Aitken’s desire to see the entire script came down to “context,” he says: “I needed that overall understanding of how the story has to plan out.”
The reason for the “incredibly tight” security in the first place involved “a major thing that happens at the end of the film. They wanted to make sure that when people went to see the film, they were able to enjoy that as a fresh experience.”
Aside from script secrecy, Marvel and the Russos brought an “unusual” element to the special effects.
“Sometimes we work on projects where we only ever work through an intermediary,” Aitken says. “There’s always a production-side visual effects supervisor who is kind of like our main point of contact.”
The Russos, on the other hand, “were very keen to get on the phone with us, and sequence-by-sequence talk us through their goals and their visions for those sequences and potentially nuances of the character beats.
“That was a little bit unusual as far as Marvel movies go in my experience.”
It proved essential for Aitken, who not only had to shape a planet that didn’t “look too stylised,” but had to create believability in a character portrayed entirely through digital effects.
“We tried to make a more natural-looking Thanos as opposed to the more cartoonish-looking Thanos that appeared earlier,” he says. Thanos’ first appearance came in The Avengers in 2012.
“By making him more human in his facial appearance, we could empathize with him more, which was important if we were going to spend all this time with that character.”
Aitken didn’t do it alone. His team at, the digital visual effects company behind and The Lord of the Rings based in Wellington, New Zealand, consisted of 400 people, a number that rose to 800 at one time or another. They worked — that’s not to mention the other eight effects facilities Marvel employed from London, Vancouver, California and more, to create the movie’s 2,800 scenes, essentially all of which contain CGI.
With the battle scene, Aitken says, “we were able to go a bit crazy.”
One section of the scene features Thanos leaping across floating chunks of rock. Dr. Strange attempts to attack him with golden lightning. The team designed it so that when the rocks are hit, they explode into great splashes of lava.
The production built a set representing Titan on the largest shooting stage at Pinewood. They shot for weeks with actor Josh Brolin doing motion capture for Thanos, so they could “essentially superimpose digital Thanos over the footage of Josh.”
As for the other actors in the scene, including Robert Downey Jr., Benedict Cumberbatch and Chris Pratt, Aitken got a taste of dealing with an A-lister’s busy schedule.
“Scheduling the A-list actors all at the same time meant that sometimes, when you think you’re looking over Dr. Strange’s shoulder onto Tony Stark, it might not actually be Benedict Cumberbatch’s shoulder that you’re looking over. That was purely for availability reasons.”
All the hard work was worth it. “The work in it is so dense that people are going to see new things if they go a second time.”
Since the movie’s release, Aitken has been pleased with the response both the scene and. “It was very satisfying seeing how many people reacted to him. People think he’s great.”
Yet he still has mixed feelings about the whole script business.
“I was allowed to read the script while the cast weren’t — I feel a bit bad about that.”
Avengers: Infinity War is currently Hulk-smashing it in cinemas worldwide.
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