Take a closer look at some of the effects that DNEG created for Marvel’s “Ant-Man and the Wasp” with Visual Effects Supervisor Alessandro Ongaro…
Not all superheroes obtain the fame of Spider-Man or Captain America with a prime example being the small-time criminal with big aspirations getting shrunken down in size with the release of Ant-Man (2015). The misfortunes have not changed for the inept and well-intentioned Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) who has to share the spotlight upon the release of the sequel Ant-Man and the Wasp. New contributors to the franchise helmed by filmmaker Peyton Reed were Marvel Studios VFX Supervisor Stephane Ceretti (Doctor Strange) and DNEG Visual Effects Supervisor Alessandro Ongaro.
Approximately 550 visual effects shots were produced by DNEG. “Stef was pragmatic and clear on what Marvel and he wanted,” notes Alessandro Ongaro. “We were asked to create a new version of the flying ant from the first movie called Anthony. He said, ‘Make it look more realistic. Add in the extra detail that you would expect when seeing an ant in the macro photography. Show me what you’ve got.’ That was great because you are free to experiment and push the quality.” Detail previs was produced by The Third Floor for the Car Chase that occurs on the streets of San Francisco while concepts were developed in compositing rather than with artwork for the performance-driven character of Ghost portrayed by Hannah John-Kamen.
No new tools needed to be developed. “We used Maya for all of our visuals and layouts, Nuke for compositing, Houdini for effects, and Clarisse for shading and lighting,” explains Ongaro. “It was more of a combination of tools to get the job done.” The antagonist has been infected by a secret government experiment which causes her to be in a metaphysical limbo between the real world and Quantum Realm. “Ghost has this ability to phase through objects and make multiple copies of herself as phantom images.”
“That setup was complex as it touched every department from body tracking to compositing to animation to effects. On her body was an effects simulation that was done by James Charles, one of our FX TDs, which added displacement to the body. It was quick and lasted three or four frames in certain areas. The simulation identified what the previous frame displacement value was and made sure that the next frame was either more or less displaced. Each shot that we see Ghost in the film is run through it; that was all in Houdini and rendered in Clarisse.”
A signature action sequence is the car chase which was mostly shot in Atlanta. “Because most of the shots were complex camera moves with a lot of parallax we couldn’t get away with just plates,” notes Ongaro. “While in Atlanta shooting I had a team from DNEG led by Xavier Bernasconi, our DFX Supervisor, and Clear Angles Studios from London, spending a week and a half capturing LiDARs and high-resolution photography of San Francisco streets. We mapped out the car chase. This is where we’re going based on interesting locations such as iconic Lombard Street and the previs. Then the environment team at DNEG Vancouver, supervised by Pedro Santos, had to build the city for every shot. It was challenging because being a car chase there were a lot of big one-offs where we kept only the street in the plate. Everything else was replaced.”
It’s a small world
“For the shots in the macro world we had a set of Frazier lenses that were hooked up to the Panasonic cameras; those lenses have a pipe that you can bend and go down on the ground,” reveals Ongaro. “They’re not a macro lens but have a deep focus. In 90-percent of the cases we still had to re-project to go even lower on the ground, which created some other problems. You lose some of the details so in many shots we had to digitally rebuild or repaint parts of the street and buildings.”
A van driven by Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) shrinks and drives underneath a pursuing vehicle which flips over when she returns to regular size. “That was fun. It’s tricky to give the impression you’ve shrunken down a car and then enlarged it again because as soon as you go down to the macro scale everything looks fake. We had to add extra details such as particulates, and were constantly re-racking the focus to give a sense of microscopic scale and depth. We did that stunt with a practical rig but you could see in the plate that the SUV was pulled not pushed, so we ended up doing that all in CG.”
Sting of the Wasp
Wasp flies inside the vehicle where she delivers kicks and punches to her pursuers. “We shot that on a green screen in a completely broken up SUV so the camera could move through the ceiling,” states Ongaro. “We did a few passes with a stunt double to get the performance right and then we did a clean plate work. They did a great job of redoing the performance without anyone being there. Then we did all the keyframe animation. It was important that the timing was right and to read the kicks and punches.
Because Wasp wasn’t physically there to help the integration in compositing, we deformed the backseat when she grows to her regular size.” Complicating matters was the stunt double for Ghost not wearing a hood and having an open mask. “We thought it would be simple but the eyeline wasn’t working anymore when you put the full mask and hood on. In many shots we had to completely takeover the performance”.
It’s a large world
While shooting in Atlanta, cast members were photographed both in and out of costumes in a three-light setup: key, fill, and back. “DNEG was in charge of Ghost so we took care of getting all of the data for her while Ant-Man and Wasp were done by Scanline,” states Ongaro. “We did cyber scans and HDRIs to capture the specular qualities of the costume that we could use when painting textures.” The lighting changes based on whether Scott Lang is Ant-Man or Giant-Man. “We were dealing with Ant-Man at 1.5 cm so metallic parts at that scale get much brighter and glow so you lose a lot of the fine detail. Then you have to make sure that the detail in the costume is represented later on when he grows. We had a shader driven by scale that allowed to adjust the properties of the material.”
“Anthony had a wing system that was setup on the first film so we took was done before adjusted it,” explains Ongaro. “What we normally do is add multiple set of wings to help with the motion blur to give a nice quickly blurry effect but also allows for control and extra specs. For Wasp we inherited the wing system from Scanline. We just added an extra couple of wings to help with the motion blur which was challenging because based on the direction she was flying sometimes it broke the system. We had to go back and change the animation cycles to make sure it was blurring correctly.”
“Ghost has a hard time to control her phasing effect which is more like a disease than a power,” notes Ongaro. “She has this containment chamber in her own house that is later on plugged into the Quantum Tunnel. Ghost is absorbing energy from the Quantum Realm in an effort to heal herself. But in doing so she could break the tunnel which would prevent Hank Pym [Michael Douglas] and Janet van Dyne [Michelle Pfeiffer] returning from which the Quantum Realm.” An effort was made to avoid having a vapour effect within the containment chamber. “We took inspiration from some of the concentric rings that are in the Quantum Tunnel as well as the corrugated glass in the chamber.” A huge lab set was built in Atlanta. “I was blown away by the level of detail and scale.”
The phasing gets more out of control when Giant-Man punches and breaks the mask worn by Ghost. “When we get to the final battle in the lab we play with the craziness and franticness of the Ghost images,” states Ongaro. “It’s such a dramatic moment with a great performance from Hannah John-Kamen; she is out of control so you see all of these alternate poses with her screaming and crying. Each shot was unique in its own way. In some instances, we were able to steal Ghost’s poses from some other plates, do some rotoscoping and composite all together rather than go full CG; a process that was beautifully accomplished by our composting team, supervised by Jennifer Meire and Farhad Mohasseb.”
A conscious attempt was made not to cover the face of Ghost. “We played the elements in a way that you see and understand what’s going on but don’t take away from the performance.” Because body tracking is time consuming, the decision was made to go straight into keyframe animation. “We were able to enhance the performances.”
Ghost Diversion is the moment in the film where Ant-Man keeps Ghost busy so Hope van Dyne and Louis (Michael Peña) can escape with the lab. “It’s this moment where you see all the capabilities of Ghost because she goes through walls and splits up while trying to catch-up with Ant-Man,” remarks Ongaro. “It’s a funny sequence because she can travel in a straight path going through walls and obstacles while Ant-Man has to run around and go left and right. We used the sequence to polish and finesse the Ghost treatment because so many scenarios were there.” A full feather system needed to be built for pigeons that attack Scott and Hope. “It took long hours to render, but allowed us to make sure that the feathers flowed exactly with the body. Because we’re in the macro world, extra grains of sand were added throughout the feathers. We needed to push it to the next level, even with the detail in the eyes because you see them full screen.”
The challenge was the variety of work that was needed to complete the work. “Every scene has different challenges whether it be macro or giant size. We have full digital doubles, CG vehicles, Ghost Phasing and the Quantum Tunnel,” observes Ongaro. “I love every scene but the car chase and the interior lab finale are the two biggest sequences that I am looking forward to seeing on the big screen.” For the car chase there was a lot of work done with the second unit and stunt team because there’s a beat where Giant-Man is on the flatbed truck. “80-percent of the shot we managed to use a practical truck on the day because they built a hydraulic system that allowed the driver of the truck to remotely control its suspensions. That was a timesaver. We didn’t have to swap it for a CG version except for a couple of unique shots. It’s been a big collaboration on every level from the shoot into the post.”