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Tiniest Details: Jake Morrison talks about Ant-Man

Marvel Studios VFX supervisor Jake Morrison discusses getting the tiniest details right for its latest big-budget release, Ant-Man...

Marvel Studios VFX supervisor Jake Morrison discusses getting the tiniest details right for its latest big-budget release, Ant-Man...

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Rather than take a cosmic perspective, Marvel Studios decided to explore the world at the macro level with filmmaker Peyton Reed (Bring It On) and Jake Morrison (Thor: The Dark World) who was responsible for supervising the visual effects for Ant-Man (2015). Like previous shrinking movies such as Tom Thumb (1958) and The Borrowers (1997), Morrison sought to make the best use of current technology to magnify the tiniest details on the big screen.

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Three major issues had to be addressed by the production team, which were ensuring that Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) did not get lost in the frame, retaining a high level of detail, and conveying a sense of scale. "The great thing about the Ant-Man suit is that it has some red in it and a shiny helmet that were helpful,” notes Jake Morrison. "Depending on the environment you played up whatever was the best complimentary color or tone. If Ant-Man is in the bath tub we would make sure to play up the dark in the suit. If he's in a prominently honey-colored helicopter we would punch up the red."

A youthful Michael Douglas, created with the help of Lola VFX © Marvel Studios

"We have fights that take place outdoors in sunny environments, and for those we would take a strong specular ping off of the helmet.” A sense of vulnerability and size was influenced by the height and angle of the cameras. "For framing, we always try to shoot down on Ant-Man. On any of the wider shots we went with a deep depth of field so that the audience gets to see more of the environment that he is in.”

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An inherent perspective problem needed to be resolved involving the manner in which Ant-Man attacks and retreats. "He shrinks and then jumps at you,” explains Jake Morrison. "However, the human brain thinks that he's going away from you. The same happens with shots where he is running away from you and then expands. That doesn't make sense either because even though Ant-Man is in the distance he appears close to the camera.”

The source material was helpful in devising the solution known as the ‘disco trail'. "In the comics when Ant-Man shrank you would see the full size silhouette and on the same page four or five silhouettes were superimposed on each other with a flash. It's more complicated in motion but the main thought process still held. In the snapshots that you see it's usually one frame echo ahead of time and maybe two frames back. We did a bright flash for each one of them and highlighted the leading edge of it. We left those like a footprint in the air so you'll see a cone of travel.”

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Miniature segments of sets were constructed for the scenes occurring at the macro world level. "We convinced the production crew to assemble a macro unit,” remarks Jake Morrison. "The approach was similar to commercial pack shots where we built a revolving stage with multiple platforms that we could move from one to the other. On each one of them Jann Engle (Three Kings) would build a six-by-eight section of whatever piece of set that Ant-Man was supposed to be in. Jann built them 1:1 but with more detail because the real set is not designed to be scrutinized that closely.”

A scavenger hunt ensued for discarded rusted pipes, old wooden boards and cobwebs. "The crazy thing about the macro world is the amount of detail that nature gives you for free. You might as well capitalize on it so we did.” Lighting was also a major element. "Rebecca Baehler was our designated macro unit director of photography and she worked under Russell Carpenter (Titanic); so she was able to take Russell's general lighting from the scene but then go into a slightly sweeter version and dress it for the macro set.”

"We had an ALEXA on a motion-control arm and used Fraser lenses which allow you to get a much deeper depth of field for shooting,” remarks Jake Morrison who wanted to have everything in focus and blur elements later in post-production. "However, we couldn't get close enough to the surfaces. We discovered that the motion-control was going to effectively give us aerial shots for the macro world. We set up three Cannon 5D Mark IIIs on a Dr. Clauss RODEON Head system for motion-control photography, and used Canon 100 mm macro lenses so you are looking at a tiny slice of whatever set you were shooting."

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"It's impossible to have everything in focus at the same time with macro photography, so we would shoot three focus brackets (for shadows, mid-tones, highlights) and tweak the focus of the lens so that the next thing in the frame would come into focus and the thing you just shot would fall out of focus. The motion-control head would then pan a tiny bit to the right and you would get a third of an image overlap with the tile you had just shot. We did that for multiple positions and we had three heads running at the same time. It built up this incredible dense texture library of the real set.”

"Double Negative built a tool called Jigsaw which would take those exposure brackets and concatenate all of the different focus brackets so it gave you a single tile which had infinite depth of field,” explains Jake Morrison. "It would stitch together these massively detailed macro panoramas. We give those to other vendors with a 3D scan of the environment and the motion picture photography. At that point you can go through and you can put the camera wherever you like.” The photo-realism extended into the digital double performances. "We went the motion-capture route for all of the stuff with Paul Rudd (Prince Avalanche) and his stunt double Colin Follenweider (Divergent). We created a generic library as well as specific performances for the beats throughout the movie."

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"For moments where Ant-Man is running towards the camera, we needed to have the real Paul Rudd visible through the helmet and the flexibility to redesign camera moves later. We built a five camera rig with a centre, top-left and right, and bottom-left and right cameras, all of which were shuttered synced and running at 48 fps. We were able to get the performances from the different cameras photogrammetrically onto 3D versions of Paul's head.” The Ant-Man suit was also photographed. "The vendors had to do cloth simulations to make sure that all of the wrinkles were in the right place and it moved like the leather in the real suit.”

"There's a scene where we run through an architectural model,” states Jake Morrison. "We hit on the idea that if you bring in a Phantom camera and shoot at 1000 fps, it's amazing the amount of physics that goes on in the macro world at that rate. Special Effects Supervisor Dan Sudick (Furious Seven) went away and started building this extraordinary architectural model that you could fire squibs through. There was lacquer that held stuff in just so much, and once that lacquer broke there was a layer beneath. Dan had the whole architectural model rigged to explode in the action scene. We had previs to help out in figuring out what coverage we needed and our second unit supervisor Evan Jacobs really ran with it.”

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An issue had to be resolved. "If you are shooting at 1000 fps almost no matter how fast you push the camera it looks like an incredibly slow-walking speed dolly. What we ended up doing was to bring in The Bolt, which is the fastest motion-control system on the planet. The camera moves like a bullet and as it fires off all of the squibs explode. The whole thing took less than two seconds. When you go back and play the footage at a 1000 fps it's amazing. The camera is swooping through all of this debris and we've got miniature cars in the architectural model that had hits beneath them. All of the cars flipping, trees exploding and bullet hits are real. Then we took motion-capture for Ant-Man doing stuff like doing a hood slide and jumping off just as the car flips over. We render all of that photo-realistically and composited him over the plate.”

"Marvel Studio President Kevin Feige said we needed to find a way to make ants not creepy and for people to love them,” reveals Jake Morrison. "The other thing was that the ants needed to be photo-real. We found the Saharan Silver Ants which are absolutely stunning; they've adapted over the years to survive in incredibly high temperatures and have done it by having this silver hair that covers the entire body which is highly reflective and bounces all of the heat off. When you pull the camera back the hairs merge and it looks like the ant has a beautiful suit of armor.”

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Ant-Man rides a flying ant. "We figured that Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) can miniaturize things so why can't he build a saddle full size, miniaturize it and strap it on an ant. The main flying ant has the same proportions to Ant-Man as a horse.” Bullet ants which have a venomous stinger serve as the heavies for the movie. "They're big beasties, about an inch and a quarter. Bullet Ants naturally have hairy spikes in all directions which were broadened at the base so they became like studded armor. To reinforce their threat and make them look more solid, we made sure that they were completely opaque."

"On the other end of the scale we have these tiny Crazy Ants that in real life can conduct electricity. They're almost like bags of water and are super refractive and honey-colored. The Crazy Ants are about the size of a puppy to Ant-Man so we decided to imbue them with a bit of cute puppy character.”

A showdown takes place between Ant-Man and his nemesis Yellowjacket (Corey Stoll) on a Thomas the Tank Engine toy train set. "We were delighted to see that appear in storyboards,” enthuses Jake Morrison who welcomed the chance to do something different from planet level destruction. "The battle on that and around there enabled us to channel our inner Tony Scott (Unstoppable) by going for these awesome helicopter moves. We would fly over that train that was coming towards us and do a lot of long lens tracking shots. We would do the same cinematography style as the 1970s and 1980s thriller disaster movies with the whole thing taking place on this tiny train. It's not the sort of opportunity that you get often. We jumped in with both feet.”

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Another fight takes place between Ant-Man and Yellowjacket within a corporate helicopter. "If you have three people in there, it's tight, but the minute you shrink down to half an inch it's a cavernous space. There's a gag in there where Ant-Man appears full-sized at the window, punches a hole through it, shrinks down, and flies through the hole that his fist has made.”

The miniature superhero also races across a pistol. "Luma Pictures did that. It's a chancy move by Ant-Man because he jumps over the open barrel. Running along the top of the gun just after it recoils gives a good sense of scale. You have to have the scale cue present in every single frame and a Glock 9mm semi-automatic is a good one. It's funny and hopefully action-packed at the same time. It's cool imagery.”

Not all of the visual effects were associated with the macro world. "We have two characters requiring age reduction and another one needing age addition,” mentions Jake Morrison, who recruited Lola VFX which was responsible for ‘Skinny Steve' from Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). "Michael Douglas (Romancing the Stone) would perform a take and our young Douglas stand-in named Dax Griffin would say the same line at the same cadence. We had perfect reference for what that younger skin looked like under that lighting condition, performing the same moves.

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Lola did a secondary pass where Dax did a shot-to-shot performance in a multi-camera rig that had LED panels, which were able to light the actors similar to how it would be on-set. We also had a highly detailed 3D scan of Douglas and Dax. Lola was able to lock the 3D skull of Douglas and Dax to their performances. "Using an object match move, we re-projected the skin and all of the facial characteristics from Dax with Douglas so it lined up perfectly. You take any pieces that are needed and paint them in motion.”

"If you smooth out the wrinkles you lose pore detail and all of a sudden you make this jump into this plastic world where the subsurface scattering doesn't work properly. You get around that by using real flesh behaving correctly to light and doing skin grafts piece-by-piece. It's a breath-taking process that Lola has really refined.”

© Marvel Studios

"The biggest challenge for the movie was being able to convey a completely photo-realistic environment for Ant-Man to be in and have the audience believe that there is a man in the suit standing in front of a giant rat or in a bathtub,” states Jake Morrison. "The first time we saw one of the proof concept shots in the little girl's bedroom by Dneg, (Visual Effects Producer) Diana Giorgiutti (Australia) and I both breathed out. It was definitely a moment where we were like, ‘Okay. It's going to work.'” Artistic flexibility was critical. "If the director and studio required the camera to move in a certain way to tell the story to elicit a response from the audience, we wanted to be able to do that without limitations. We wanted to be able to provide a full kit of toys for the creatives here to be able to play with. We feel that we delivered that.” Morrison adds, "We want to get the word out that the IMAX 3D laser projection version of Ant-Man is going to be the one to see.”

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