Shrinking to sub-atomic size, visiting the Quantum Realm and riding atop flying insects might seem like big feats for Marvel’s tiniest heroes, but the real superstars in bringing these sequences from Marvel Studios’ Ant-Man and The Wasp to life are the talented visual artists and technicians, under the guidance of Stephane Ceretti, visual effects supervisor.
Ceretti has had many adventures with Marvel Studios, beginning as second unit supervisor on the shoot of Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger. He went on to work again as a second unit supervisor on Marvel Studios’ Thor: The Dark World, before becoming visual effects supervisor on Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy, for which he garnered Academy Award®, BAFTA and Visual Effects Society Award nominations. He then tackled Doctor Strange, again receiving Academy Award, BAFTA and Visual Effects Society Award nominations for his visually innovative work.
For Ant-Man and The Wasp, Ceretti says they tried to be a bit more playful with the change-of-scale effects. “We were just trying to really mix it and play with it,” he says. “There are lots of different scales for Ant-Man in the film, way more than we’ve seen before.”
Thanks to a collaboration with Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) visual effects supervisor Russell Earl and the ILM team, one of the tools that Ceretti and the ILM VFX team used in Ant-Man and The Wasp was BlockParty, a procedural rigging system from Lucasfilm’s award-winning special effects division. It’s been used in hundreds of feature films, helping characters from Lucasfilm, Marvel Studios and The Walt Disney Studios come to life onscreen. These include such characters as the “digital” versions of the Avengers; K-2SO, the droid voiced by Alan Tudyk in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and Davy Jones in the Pirates of the Caribbean films.
In recognition of this innovation, ILM received its 31st Scientific and Technical Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences earlier this year. BlockParty streamlines the rigging process through a comprehensive connection framework, a novel graphical user interface and volumetric rig transfer, which has enabled ILM to build richly detailed and unique creatures while greatly improving artist productivity. Receiving the award were Jason Smith and Jeff White, for the original design, and Rachel Rose and Mike Jutan, for the architecture and engineering.
Jutan, an R&D Engineer at ILM, explains that BlockParty is a tool that 3-D artists utilize to develop the bone structure that exists within 3-D characters. “To essentially make them ‘animate-able,’” he says. And he’s not just referring to ‘living’ characters, either—BlockParty was also used on the spaceships in Rogue One, such as the X-Wing Fighters. “These [X-Wings] go through the same standard process as a creature character goes through,” he says, “even though this is a metallic, non-organic object. If it needs to move, and if it needs to animate, it’s still done in the same way.”
Rose, Lucasfilm R&D Supervisor, details, “We worked very closely together as engineers, architecting a system that would allow artists to build a wide range of amazing rigs, reuse work that had already been done on other rigs, and focus more of their time on the art of rigging than on the technical complexities of the process; but we also made sure to build a solidly-engineered system that would be able to grow over time and support the ever-changing rigging needs at ILM.”
“There have been a lot of interesting uses of BlockParty over many years,” Jutan points out. “One memorable film example is The Avengers—there are lots and lots of interesting characters in there: You have the Chitauri aliens, and you have the Leviathan alien ship that flies through and destroys all those buildings in New York and has those metallic flipper things on the side. And then you have Mark Ruffalo turning into the Hulk, which is a fully digital character, motion-captured by Mark with a BlockParty rig.”
BlockParty was also utilized in the scene where Hulk chases Black Widow, played by Scarlet Johansson, and swipes her off to the side. There’s a split second where the special effects team switches from Johansson over to her “digital double”—a digitized version of her—which relies heavily on BlockParty, which enables digital characters to have lifelike movements.
For Ant-Man and The Wasp, BlockParty was used to rig the digital (double) versions of both Ant-Man and The Wasp characters, such as when the heroes shrink down into the Quantum Realm.
“Marvel Studios films are meant to take you to worlds you’ve never seen before,” says Kevin Feige, producer and President, Marvel Studios. “That’s what we deliver on all of our movies from Guardians of the Galaxy to Captain America: Civil War. Ant-Man, in particular, when you got down to the micro realm and then go into the Quantum Realm, is not dissimilar to the dimensions we explored in Doctor Strange. I think global audiences like to experience the unique and unexpected.”
“One of the really satisfying things about my work on BlockParty is that it is used all of the time,” Rose says. “Anything that moves needs a rig. And BlockParty is flexible enough to be able to build every rig—something that we only dreamed would be possible when we started the project.”
For Rose, receiving the Sci-Tech award was an amazing honor. “The BlockParty project was such a great project to work on because of the fun and interesting technical challenges as well as the wonderful team that was assembled to work on it,” she says. “Having the opportunity to be recognized for something you love so much alongside others who you truly enjoy working with was a dream-come-true.”