June 24, 2011
Ridiculously early on an Autumn morning at Shepperton Studios, England. SuperHeroHype is being shown around the Captain America: The First Avenger ‘Art Room.’ Covering the walls are hundreds of impossibly detailed concept paintings . As we wander around, producer Kevin Feige explains the images to us, giving tantalizing details of the film’s story.
“95% of this movie takes place in the past. The bookends are in the modern day. The very first scene of the film is the discovery in the arctic. If you know anything about Cap, you might know what that discovery is.”
As we move throughout the room it becomes evident that the images are from every scene of the film, laid out in order – a giant, ornate storyboard, currently being narrated by Feige.
“We meet young Steve Rogers, scrawny Steve Rogers, trying to enlist. Classic origin story, right out of the first books. He runs into a little trouble, and isn’t very good at handling it himself. He and his friend Bucky, who was not labeled ‘4F,’ and does go off into the war, spend his last night in New York exploring the ‘World of Tomorrow Expo,’ in which they get a glimpse of a young guy named Howard Stark, who’s working on trying to get a car to fly.”
Feige gives details of what we can expect, while production designer Rick Heinrichs explains some of the designs.
“One of our guys, Daniel Simon was a car designer originally, and so we’ve been able to utilize a lot of his knowledge and skill in developing a lot of the Hydra inspired design aesthetic; which is based, a little bit on German fascist sensibilities, but pushed into a fictionalized villain stylisation.”
The pair continue to explain the drawings on the walls, occasionally checking themselves so as to not give too much away. As we finish our tour of the room, Feige directs our attention to a series of paintings of HYDRA vehicles, several tanks, a train, and finally a coupe. The drawing includes a number of people to give an idea of the scale of the vehicle. It dwarfs them.
A few minutes later we’re on a soundstage, looking at the real thing. It’s colossal. The room is full of props from the film, a tank in one corner, the rebirth chamber in another, HYDRA bikes, gun turrets and control stations scattered around, and even more concept art lining the walls. In spite of all of these distractions, the coupe, with dimensions not too dissimilar to a train carriage, still dominates the space. Walking around it, it’s somewhat surprising that it exists in the real world, and hasn’t simply been rendered in a computer. It’s that unreal. It’s even more surprising that it actually drives. Remarkably, the two other vehicles on display in the room, the HYDRA bike, and the HYDRA tank, also drive, although it’s impossible for the stuntmen inside the tank to see out, so they must receive instructions via radio.
What’s striking about all of these vehicles and props is how, in spite of looking very sci-fi, and retro-futuristic, they also seem appropriate for the 1940s setting. Stephen Broussard, co-producer on the film, sums it up perfectly, “We’re not making ‘The Thin Red Line’ or ‘Band of Brothers’ or anything else like that. What we can do that those films can’t is the Marvel version of the time period, peel back the layers, and suggest that there’s a secret history, with secret good guys, and secret bad guys, that you never knew about and that are sort of lost to history.”
Eventually we are ushered towards a screen on the far side of the room, where Feige introduces a very rough cut of the sequence in which Steve Rogers is transformed into Captain America. The footage is impressive. It has the same, pulpy feel as “The Rocketeer,” both in appearance and in tone, and, at least in those few minutes, Evans feels the perfect fit for Rogers. That this little snippet works, in spite of being out of context, and having only temporary effects in place, bodes well for the finished movie.
In another stage, across the lot, we are introduced to VFX supervisor, Christopher Townsend. This is the man whose team are charged with taking that footage of a normal-sized Chris Evans, and turning him into a pre-serum Steve Rogers.
“We decided after much research that we really wanted to use the character, and use the actual performances we were going to get out of Chris Evans, who is our Captain America. We did a lot of research trying to figure out how we were going to do that,” reveals Townsend, “We thought about doing full, computer-generated versions of the character, we thought about using a different actor, all that kind of stuff. We eventually came up with this idea of doing a real combination of a multitude of things, really trying to capture the essence of Chris Evans’ performance in everything we do, so that when people go to see the movie at the beginning, they get used to seeing this character of Chris Evans as Steve Rogers, then later on he’s transformed, and there’s that revelation of who he becomes, as Captain America.
“One of the things we really wanted to do was to be able to use all of Chris’ performances’. With the help of some test shots, Townsend explains the process that the VFX team have created to make this possible. “So what you’re looking at here is that muscle guy, and he’s been shrunk. We’ve scaled him down, and we’ve thinned him out, we’ve taken off his muscles, we’ve reduced the shading underneath his pecks, and around his abs to make him look as skinny as possible.” Flicking between two shots the difference is remarkable. In one image we see a tall, well-built man, in the other a much smaller, more frail version. And yet neither looks ‘unreal,’ and they are both clearly the same person.
“It’s still a work in progress, but it proved a point that we could actually take the performance of Chris Evans, and scale that down.” Townsend is clearly proud of the technique his team have developed, “It’s quite interesting when you compare the difference between the two, that that’s what we’ve done, we’ve taken that big guy, and literally scaled him down. It’s something we’ve never seen before, this technique in visual effects. It’s been done just making people look a little bit thinner, make them look a little bit more muscular, that sort of technique has been done, the digital plastic surgery. What we’re doing here is really taking it one step further to really transform the body and make him look totally different.”
As important as it is to get the look of ‘Skinny Steve’ right, and as exciting as the vehicle designs are, the thing that we are really anticipating on the set is the suit. Thus far we’ve seen paintings of it and watched Evans’ stunt double, in costume, on a monitor, but as we walk through the doors of the costume department we’re confronted with three different versions.
The first, the outfit Rogers wears while a part of the USO show, is straight out of Captain America number one. Made of wool, impractical, and utterly ridiculous, it’s a perfect real-world interpretation of an outfit from the Golden Age comic. For costume designer, Anna Sheppard, this costume was “the easiest one.” Having decided to base it directly on the costumes from the comics, Sheppard’s job was fairly simple, as she “[couldn’t] really go away from the original design that existed.”
Opposite the USO show costume is an outfit that Sheppard refers to as “the intermediate costume.” While it retains the top from the USO costume, the outfit looks much more practical, with a standard issue helmet (painted blue, with the letter ‘A’ sprayed on, a pair of khaki trousers, and a brown leather jacket. This was much more difficult for the costume department to realize, as Sheppard explains, “This one took us quite a while, because this is his costume when he escapes the USO show and goes to rescue Bucky. It has to have elements of military, obviously. We kept [the top from the USO show] underneath. Even his trousers were a big discussion point, and we went finally for paratroopers’ trousers, with paratroopers’ boots.”
Finally, taking pride of place in the room is THE outfit. Made of heavy duty fabric, and covered in webbing straps, it has a real ‘army issue’ feel about it. To achieve this was a surprisingly difficult task for Suit Builder Whitaker Malem and his team. “It’s not like a regular superhero thing where it’s a cast surface. All the work’s right in front of you… it’s from the world of reality in that it’s work wear or military derived, so it’s quite cool, but it’s got a very functional aspect… it’s retro, but slightly futuristic, but also very functional, and I think that this kind of tough fabric, actually a very heavy material helps get over almost like a jeans, work wear vibe to it.”
Evans certainly seems to like it, as Sheppard explains, “Chris was pleased with his costumes. After he tried his USO [outfit][ he was very relieved to have something more manly… It looked very different on the mannequin, and putting it on the right body, and right actor really helps. It’s given it life.”
Leaving the costume department, we head to the main stage, where Evans and Weaving are filming. Evans had described the scene as “kind of my battle with Red Skull on his giant plane… we’re in this monstrous cockpit… it’s a lot of stunt work, and bumps and bruises,” which does the actual sight before us little justice. Almost the entire floor of the stage is covered in scaffold towers, holding an enormous rig about fifteen feet up in the air. On a separate scaffold tower a grip controls a wind machine, at its base, a pulley team stand ready to hoist actors into the air on command.
Inside the structure is even more impressive. All over are arches, and gangways, pipes, railings and control consoles. On the central walkway Weaving, in full Red Skull costume, sits in a chair at the front of the ‘aircraft,’ while Evans approaches him, brandishing his shield. In front of them, Johnston and his camera crew prepare to shoot. Meanwhile the two gantries either side of the central walkway buzz with the sound of other crew members getting ready for a take. It seems like everyone is here, sound recordists, VFX crew, art directors, prop builders. So many, in fact, we can’t help but think some of them have simply found an excuse to be there so they can watch the scene being filmed.
And then it begins. The AD calls ‘standby’ and a silence falls over the room, quickly replaced by a low roar, as the wind machine starts up. As it builds up speed the noise increases, until it makes it difficult to hear much else in the room. The cameras roll, the sound starts recording, then ‘action.’ Evans moves first, charging towards Weaving, shield in hand. Weaving stands, braced and ready to face his opponent. The fight between Captain America and Red Skull begins…
As the images from the Captain America set began to leak out a few months ago, the question on the lips of many fans was “when will we see the Red Skull?” It’s not surprising really. Not only is the character at the core of the Captain America mythos, he is also one of the more visually striking in Marvel’s pantheon, and one of the most difficult to successfully realize in live action.
Getting the Red Skull right was very much a team effort that began early on in the production process. Once the concept art had been approved, and Hugo Weaving cast in the role, it fell to Prosthetics Designer David White to translate the drawings into something tangible, as he explains.
“It took a while to get to what we really needed. I think it was a question of it being a, not an ugly kind of look. It had to be kind of slick and clean, but also menacing. It had to have all these different feels to it, but it didn’t need to look gory in a way. It has a kind of clean finish to it, and that in itself, to get together and make sure all the lines were sweet and smooth, without all the wrinkles and too much visceral attention to muscles and veins… it’s more difficult to do a cleaner, smoother look.’
With the design finalized, White had to actually create the makeup. Starting initially with a lifecast of the actor, White sculpted the design of the makeup. Once he was satisfied with this, his next task was to break the makeup down into several component pieces, which were then used as the basis of molds. “It means a lot of people and a lot of time, and we have to process all the pieces,” reveals White. The end result, though is a series of bright red-tinted silicone makeup pieces, ready to be applied.
In addition to this silicone face mask, White’s design also required Weaving to wear contact lenses and a set of bottom dentures that, according to White, “just kind of protrude at the bottom a little bit… so he has a mean underbite.”
While the effect that can be achieved by White is quite remarkable, for Red Skull to truly translate properly from page to screen, it requires additional help, which is where VFX supervisor Chris Townsend and his team take over.
“This is a great start, what David White in prosthetics has given us, but obviously because Hugo is a regular human, he’s got a certain amount of fat on his face, he’s got a nose, which is unfortunate, so what we’ve done is put tracking markers over his face, and we’re in the process of looking at what he would look like once you remove the nose, what he would look like if you were to square up his chin a little bit more, if you were to make once of his eyes a little bit bigger, or both of his eyes. Or if you were to make all of that a little bit more extreme, and make his face much thinner.”
The collaborative work between the two departments has created a design for Red Skull that looks like it has come straight from the comics, but designing the look of the skull was only one minor part of creating the character. Equally important was the costume, a riff by costume designer Anna Sheppard on the uniforms worn by the Nazis during World War II, a striking look, but one that didn’t make life easy for Weaving.
“If you look at Red Skull, this coat weighs a ton,” Sheppard reveals, “even if I tried to make it light, I wanted leather, and this is the kind of leather that is thinnest, but still works in this, but it’s such a construction to follow the design that it’s unbelievable. It’s probably about 10 Kg. It looks OK on the mannequin, but poor Hugo… really feels the weight.”
Sheppard was restricted in the materials she could use, “I didn’t think it could be made out of plastic, it wouldn’t look the same. You actually need the weight for the coat to hang correctly, and it looks fantastic, the movement. There’s a big fight between him and Cap on the high gantry of Hydra’s factory, and on the back it’s all pleated, and really moves beautifully, and for that you need weight. So I couldn’t cheat on that, it couldn’t be made any lighter, but they’re not easy costumes for actors. Lucky they understand they have to look this way.”
Unfortunately for Weaving, it wasn’t only the costume that made his life uncomfortable. White took considerable pains to reduce the time Weaving had to spend in makeup, by painting each of the silicone pieces before they were applied to Weaving’s face. Even still the makeup process took up to three hours. “It’s just such a smooth finish, very streamlined, and there’s a lot of different angles,” and while that meant more time in makeup for Weaving, for White it did have some benefits, “In certain lights you get some lovely effects. It’s like a Cadillac. In certain shots it’s got a lovely quality to it. It just takes a lot of time to get everything in the right place.”
In addition to the massive technical effort involved in creating the character of Red Skull, there was also the human element, and for actor Hugo Weaving, that began by deciding how the character should sound, “I listened to a lot of Werner Herzog talking… also Klaus Maria Brandauer. I thought Klaus Maria Brandauer’s accent was probably more interesting in one way, but the more I listened to Werner Herzog, the more I found him amusing. So I sort of started to lean more towards him. There’s something wonderfully mad about him.”
The end result, with the prosthetics work by White, the VFX abilities of Townsend and Sheppard’s costume, this created what is sure to be a truly iconic villain, and one that is a suitable match for Chris Evans’ Captain America on his first cinematic outing for Marvel Studios, a fact not lost on Weaving. “I think the major difference between Skull and Cap, they’ve both had the serum, and the serum seems to augment certain qualities that each of them have. Cap is much more in tune with other people I think. Schmidt is in tune with himself, and his own needs, and his own ego, so I suppose it augments that. From that point of view, they’re quite opposite.”
SuperHeroHype got a chance to talk to Chris Evans on the set of Captain America: The First Avenger, an interview you can read below:
Q: You’re playing one of the most iconic superheroes in the Marvel universe. How did the suit affect your performance? Did it change your idea of who Cap was when you actually strapped it on?
Chris Evans: Sure. I think wardrobe in general’s a pretty big deal for any character. Not to knock the magnitude of the suit down to any other film, but whenever you put on the clothes of the character, it certainly helps bring the character to life. Of all the characters I’ve played, superhero or not, I was most excited about putting this one on. It absolutely lends itself to the role. There was a lot of build up for me to do this, more so than anything else I’ve done, and deciding to do it was a big thing, and nerve wracking, lots of sleepless nights, and then finally putting it on, I was like, “am I going to feel good about this, or is my body going to reject this? Too late,” but it felt fantastic. I love it. I never want to take it off. I have trouble with the fly though.
Q: What’s the source of those sleepless nights?
Evans: I’ll be candid with you. There’s a couple of factors. One, I’d already done the superhero thing, I didn’t know how people were going to respond to the fact that I was doing it again, and I was in a really good place in my life as far as finding a happy medium of working, and navigating this profession, but still having anonymity. The paparazzi doesn’t follow me. I can live my life and do this, which is a tricky thing to kind of balance, and this movie, obviously nothing’s a guarantee, but this is certainly a potential game changer. There’s a giant commitment, I could be doing these movies, I’m sure most of you know there was a huge number of multi-pictures they wanted, theoretically I could be doing these into my 40s, and that was a crazy thing to wrap your head around. Was I ready to make a decision for that much of my life. I love acting, but I want to do other things, I’d love to direct, I want to write. Who’s to say, in ten years, maybe I just want a break. You can’t take a break if you do this, you’re in, and that’s a very stressful thing to pull the trigger on, it’s a big chapter of your life you’re saying yes to.
Q: Has there been anything that that informed the way you created the character of Steve Rogers and Captain America?
Evans: Obviously I went and read as many comic books as I could find, but I think the most helpful thing in the comic book world was finding out who he was before. This is an origins tale, and I think, if at the first film you still see little Steve, little ‘Skinny Steve,’ that’s the guy you relate to, and that’s the guy that you always see in Steve Rogers. I think that’s what the audience will like, that’s what I, certainly will like. On a more personal note, I have a friend who is a comic book nut, and he loves when I say this, he’s the best human being I know. He’s an Eagle Scout. To be an Eagle Scout, I don’t know if you guys know what an Eagle Scout is, it’s like a boy scout that did it way too long, until they were 19, 20 years old. I remember going to this Eagle Scout, he’s just a good man, he does the right thing. He would rather, not even tell a white lie. He’s not pious, he’s not condescending, he just would rather do the good thing, his morals are intact, I’m amazed that people like him exist. Even his demeanor is, I don’t know, noble and honorable. He is Captain America to me.
So I told my buddy that I was basing it off him, and I wish I could do his reaction, it’s hilarious, it’s what Steve Rogers would say if you told him you were going to base him in a movie. So on a personal level, that’s who I’m ripping off, but obviously the comic books are the best information.
Q: As an actor, how do you feel being modified by CGI?
Evans: It’s certainly a different animal, you don’t have the tangible world to play off, but I think most actors probably started out as little kids in their back yard playing make believe anyway, so you’ve just got to tap into the pretend part of your brain, and just have a little fun, be willing to look a little silly. It’s kind of fun actually, when you let go, and you really go for it, you really are eight years old again, wearing a Captain America suit. It’s ridiculous. You’re a kid all over again, it’s a lot of fun.
Q: Captain America’s very morally upright. We’ve seen over the last few years all of these cynical, and tortured, and wisecracking heroes. Is this reclaiming the superhero from that direction?
Evans: Sure, I suppose. Great way to put it. I don’t know how I can elaborate on that, it’s a wonderful way to put it. Most superheroes get their powers by accident, or they were born with it, this guy was chosen, he was picked, specifically because of his moral fiber, and that’s a great thing, that’s a great thing to reward. So you want to make sure he’s not just morally sound, but likeable. It would be a unfortunate if the guy was a real, true noble guy, but a bland, boring person. I think it’s a great way to put it though, I really can’t add any more to that.
Q: How’s it been using the shield? Did it take a lot of getting used to?
Evans: It’s good, it’s tricky. They had a bunch of different shields. Some of them are the real heavy, legit shields that look fantastic on film, some of them are, if you guys have seen, a bit rubbery, when you’re doing dangerous stuff, and you don’t want to get hit in the face with it. So each one has a different weight to it. It’s always strange, but it’s always great sliding it on, it just feels cool. It’s strange seeing a stuntman dressed up and thinking, “is that what I look like? Alright! That’s fantastic!” you forget. But the shield is kind of the icing on the cake.
Q: Are you looking forward to giving orders to Robert Downey Jr?
Evans: I don’t know. I’ve been asked that a couple of times. I just met all those guys for the first time at Comic-Con, and they all seem so fantastic. I don’t know what Joss [Whedon] is going to do with the script, I don’t know what level of leader they’re going to make him right away. I know in a lot of the Avengers comic books he’s sort of the quarterback in those scenarios, but that’s up to Joss. That’s out of my hands.
Q: Can you talk about where you see Captain America’s place in the present world?
Evans: Well, Ed Brubaker had that great quote where he said, in modern comic books you have those left-wing people who want Captain America to be speaking out against George Bush, and against Washington, and you have right-wing people wanting Captain America to be in Afghanistan, fighting the war. Obviously I think, in the ’40s, it was pretty clear-cut who the enemy was. Does that mean that the morals, and the man you have to be as Captain America is a little bit less black and white, more grey? Probably. I’m sure it’s a lot easier to say “Nazis are bad” than it is to say “Republicans are bad.” It’s just not that clear cut anymore. But again, like my friend Charlie, he lives in a world of grey. I think that’s what makes people morally sad, there isn’t a harsh black and white, there’s an understanding – his name’s Charlie, by the way. He’s going to love this – I can’t see him coming down on either side of any situation quick and easily. I think he would weigh the options and listen, and I think that translates, at least currently to a whole different type of climate.
Q: Can you talk about Steve’s relationship with Bucky?
Evans: It’s been great. I really like it actually. It’s a little bit different from, at least, the original Captain America comic books. The original comic books, Bucky was a young guy, kind of a sidekick, kind of the one Steve had to look out for. We do it a little differently, but the relationship is still very well developed. I think it’s one of the best ones in the film, you really care about these two guys. They’re friends before Steve gets this injection. I don’t want to give too much away, I think I’ll get murdered by Kevin Feige.
Q: How grounded in reality is the action?
Evans: Good question. When I came into it I was interested about, “what are the extent of his abilities. Can the guy jump over mountains? What can he actually do?” because I think that will affect how cool the movie looks in the end. You want him to be someone who is obviously superior, obviously able, but you don’t want the guy punching through brick walls. They basically equated it to, he would crush the Olympics. Any Olympic sport he’s gonna dominate. He can jump higher, run faster, lift stronger weight, but he can be injured. He could roll an ankle and be out for the season. He’s not perfect, he’s not untouchable. So a lot of the effects, if I’m going to punch someone they’re not going to put them on a cable and fly them back 50 feet, but he’s going to go down, probably not getting back up, which I think humanizes it. It makes it something that, again, I think everyone can relate to a little bit more, which I really like.
And last, but certainly not least, here is our conversation with Marvel Studios’ Kevin Feige on the set of Captain America: The First Avenger:
Q: How much of a role does Bucky play in the movie, and how much do you guys set up for the eventual Winter Soldier storyline?
Kevin Feige: He’s a main character in the movie. He is his best friend throughout the whole course of the film. We don’t do too much, directly, but he’s not a 13-year-old camp mascot with a mask, and he does use a sniper rifle occasionally.
Q: You mentioned the international concerns. How serious a concern is it that Captain America doesn’t play as well outside the United States?
Feige: Well, there’s been research that the studio’s been working on that shows it’s not as big a concern as pessimists would think. I think they’re just being conscious of it. Frankly, like any of the Marvel characters, it’s about Steve Rogers. It’s the emotion you get when you see that kid, who up to that point in the movie you will have seen as a very scrawny young guy for the first act of the film, coming out of the pod like that, the wish fulfillment, hopefully identifying with him, regardless of the fact that he’ll wear red, white and blue throughout the film.
Q: My instinct would be to have a big orchestral piece for this.
Feige: Of course. If any score screams out for a big orchestral piece it’s this, and that’s what Joe wants.
Q: How earnest was the tone for this?
Feige: It’s earnest when it needs to be, I think. Some of what you saw in there was earnest, but I wouldn’t say it’s overly earnest. On the flip side, I wouldn’t say it’s overly jokey just because we want to get some zingers in. It doesn’t play like that. Much of the humor from the first half comes from how out of place Steve is. There’s a whole sequence between when he’s selected for the program, and when he actually goes to Brooklyn for the procedure. He’s not quite as agile as the other candidates. There’s some humorous moments in there, but this is not Chris Evans being Mister One-Line. The script that these guys have written over the last two years has humorous moments, has fun where appropriate. A lot of this comes from Bucky and the other commandos, all in appropriate moments.
Q: Are there challenges to placing this film in the larger Marvel cinematic universe?
Feige: Not really, because this is where it all starts. There are a number of things that were retconned over the years, like Howard Stark’s participation around that same program that they did in the books, decades later, so it was almost laid out for us. We’ve tied in Skull’s MacGuffin, and given it a cosmic, so to speak, origin, that you don’t necessarily learn in this film, but again most of that is right out of the books. In that sizzle piece we talk about how the movies connect, not that we’ll do that in the marketing at all, of the movies, but to retailers, people who think “Iron Man sold on my toy shelves last year, this is connected to that, this’ll sell too. Buy the toys.” I think all the movies will stand on their own.
Q: In terms of franchise potential for the characters, presumably anything you do following on from this won’t be set in World War II?
Feige: Well, not necessarily. If audiences tell us they’re exhausted with it, then maybe, but this movie, taking place over almost three years, two or three years, we don’t see everything Cap and Bucky did over that time period. We track his very specific Hydra, Skull-oriented missions over those two-and-a-half, three years, but you’ll see many, many gaps that can be filled later, specifically so we can go back and explore. I love the way [Ed] Brubaker, the first few pages of one of the comics, will be a World War II adventure, and inform whatever his present day adventure is. I think that could be a fun model if we should be so lucky to do two or three of these.
Q: Can you talk a little about choosing the costume, because it’s a big part of the character like most Marvel superheroes, but I really like how you’re incorporating a lot of World War II into the outfit. Can you talk a bit about exploring the different things, like when you decided to kick the wings off the head and stuff.
Feige: We wanted to track it – he’s had so many cool outfits in the comics of late, like in Ultimates, like in the [Bryan] Hitch run, even the modern day, with straps, with pouches, with things that made it less foam-rubber, spandex of the ’90s – taking him through a journey from what establishes the costume in USO, to his very first adventure in it in that Hydra factory, to the final version. He has the assistance of Howard Stark, which allows him to have maybe slightly heightened elements, like the helmet, than would have been appropriate in the period. But Anna [Sheppard] our costume designer did an amazing job of making it feel period. The same with [The Invaders] we upped them just a little bit, so they weren’t just standard soldiers standing next to him, but when there were hordes of other soldiers behind them, it all feels of a period.
Q: How much of the movie is going to feature the Howling Commandos?
Feige: Almost the whole second half.
Q: So there’ll be a men on a mission vibe to the movie, it won’t just be Cap running around?