SFX Whizzes Make the Incredible Hulk a Credible Hulk

An image from Marvel Studios/Universal's 'Incredible Hulk'

Bringing the Hulk to life on the big screen has been a difficult challenge for visual effects artists. While some top-notch work was done for the 2003 Ang Lee version, a more grounded approach was taken by Los Angeles visual effects facility Rhythm & Hues for The Incredible Hulk, which comes to DVD and Blu-Ray on Oct. 21.

“We looked at the first movie with a lot of respect,” says Kurt Williams, visual effects supervisor on the film. But five years on, Williams says they had more options and a mandate from Marvel to create a more realistic, grounded version of the Hulk.

“The whole idea was to return to some of the core material,” he says. “We really wanted the skin not to be so ‘gamma green.’ We wanted to incorporate some things that were very natural, that you find in nature, so you would believe it.”

Visual effects work on the film began nine months before pre-production, going through an intensive period of design for both the Hulk and his opponent, the Abomination. Rhythm & Hues, which won an Oscar last year for its work on The Golden Compass, created about 700 shots for the film, collaborating with Giant Studio on motion-capture and finishing the film with the latest in computer animation.

As high as the stakes are for an effects-heavy movie like Hulk, the high-def Blu-Ray format adds even more pressure for visual effects artist. “People are becoming a lot more sensitive to the ability in Blu-Ray to stop and start,” says Williams. “It was very important from frame one to the end frame of this movie that you can stop anywhere you want and see it’s real.”

Among the extras found on the two-disc version of the DVD and the Blu-Ray release (a single-disc DVD edition also will be available) is an alternate opening for the film in which a desperate Bruce Banner has ventured to the Arctic in an attempt to isolate himself and try to end the threat of the Hulk once and for all. Williams says the sequence was difficult to shoot and required a lot of visual effects to finish. “We actually went up on a glacier with Edward (Norton) and shot the majority of the scenes there,” he says. “The rest of it was an environment that we created form photos and other materials we received from up there.”

Williams would only say he could “neither confirm nor deny” reports that a frozen Captain America appears in the scene.

Rhythm & Hues visual effects supervisor Betsy Paterson says the 2003 Hulk film provided some useful guidance for the work on the new film. “It was like having a heavy-testing phase before we even started,” she says. “We knew from the beginning that we wanted to have him a little more grounded in reality and the physical world.”

Developing the look of both the Hulk and the Abomination was a long process that began work nine months before production started, Patterson says. Rhythm & Hues not only developed a new virtual musculature for the Hulk, they explored new body proportions and a many different shades of green.

The same attention was paid to the Abomination, who was a more difficult character to figure out. “It was important to Marvel that the Abomination, when he did appear, was physically superior to Hulk,” says Williams. That meant making the Abomination a good two feet taller than the Hulk, while also giving him an exoskeleton and a slimy exterior. “We were really able to come up with what we felt was a unique gamma creature that made Hulk a real underdog,” Williams says.

While the final look of the Abomination deviates from the version seen in the comics, Williams says the comics were key to finding ways for the Hulk to connect with other characters in the film.

“The hair almost became a character for us as part of the Hulk,” he says. “We went with the longer hair, the (Mike) Deodato Jr.-type of look for Hulk, and that was something we thought would be appealing, and make him approachable to the audience.”

Having nailed down a look for the character in pre-production, the character’s movements were created both with key-frame animation and real-time motion-capture captured by Giant Studios.

Demonstrating the procedure was Matt Madden, Giant’s VP of development and production. Using a setup involving 80 motion capture cameras, a performer wearing a special suit with 50 digital markers ran across the stage, flipping over large wooden boxes as he went. On a nearby monitor, a simple model of the Hulk mimicked the performer’s every move, running through a street scene flipping cars as he ran past them.

Norton took part in facial motion capture and worked with the effects house to get the Hulk just right.

“Edward was here quite a bit, acting out scenes with Louis [Leterrier],” says Patterson. “We really worked with him through the whole process, so the Hulk really is his performance. He created it — we animated it, but the intent he wanted to give it as an actor is pretty well represented.”

But motion capture was often just the starting point for the process for shots such as the car boxing sequenced headed up by lead animator Amanda Dague.

“Motion capture was done, but I only used it to place the characters and figure out the timing — and then it was mostly key frame,” Dague says. “The mo-cap just didn’t have the finesse, it didn’t have the superhero poses, it didn’t have the superhero quality.”

Patterson says some thought was given to doing the film in 3-D, but was quickly dropped due to the extra complexity it would add to the process.

Williams and Patterson says their digital version of the Hulk was built before they knew what the character would be required to do in the story. So they built him to do anything they could imagine, which would serve them well should the character reappear in either a sequel or in the Avengers movie planned for 2011.

While no one could say what future plans Marvel may have for the movie Hulk, Williams did say there was an effort on Marvel’s behalf to have a look that was consistent with its other movies.

“I don’t want to speak too much for Kevin [Feige] at Marvel, but one of the things that he did impress on us in this movie is there is a certain style and feel for Marvel movies,” he says. “We were asked to kind of get back and return to some of the core material.”

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