CGI animation is an incredibly painstaking process that’s why movie outfits spend millions of dollars on special effects. Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films are some of the most CGI heavy movies in the history of filmmaking and each release features only the latest in CGI technologies.

MCU movies could be broken down into two categories, standalone films (Ironman, Thor, Captain America, etc.) and the Avengers movies, which feature an ensemble cast. The Avengers movies tend to be more expensive compared to standalone Marvel movies because every character’s unique traits and powers require extensive CGI effects. The CGI effects in standalone MCU films cost about $100 to $200 million while Avengers movies are at least $350 million per release! About 98% of MCU films’ newest releases were CGI’d.

It’s not surprising that MCU’s latest movie, Avengers: Endgame, is the most expensive movie from the franchise, costing Disney an eye-watering $600 million. Of course, we all know that Endgame’s budget is just a fraction of what the film earned in the box office ($2.18 billion globally, surpassing Titanic), thanks to the hysteria over the story’s conclusion, which MCU has been telling for 11 years now. With that said, which are some of the most unforgettable CGI scenes in MCU?

Avengers: Age of Ultron Final Battle Scene

Avengers: Age of Ultron had an estimated budget of $365 million and a huge chunk of the budget was spent on special effects. One of the most expensive scenes in this particular movie is the final battle where Earth’s mightiest heroes square off with Ultron and his swarm of homicidal robots in fictional Sokovia.

Two things, one: the scene featured some of the new Avengers members, Vision, Scarlet Witch, and Quicksilver. Each of these characters has their own superpowers, which made the visual effects even more complicated. Two: Ultron and his swarm of deadly robots were attacking a floating city.

Focusing on the large-scale action, highlighting the superpower/s of each Avenger, Ultron’s swarm of robots attacking the city, all these stunning effects in one scene! Avengers: Age of Ultron had over 3,000 VFX shots, which had more shots than any other film in the MCU franchise when the movie was first released.

Captain America: The First Avenger Skinny Steve Rogers Scenes

During the first hour of Captain America: The First Avenger, viewers were introduced to Steve Rogers before he became a super soldier, a 90-pound asthmatic (described succinctly by Tommy Lee Jones’ Col. Chester Phillips). Although the “Skinny Steve” scenes were not as CGI intensive as other scenes in the movie, it was a hard stunt to pull because it involved two things: the de-aging of Steve Rogers and scaling Chris Evans’ body down to believable proportions, which required a precise, frame-by-frame approach.

CGI scenes in MCU
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Shooting the Skinny Steve scenes was a breakthrough in CGI. Lola Visual Effects, headed by Edson Williams, developed a new technique to achieve realistic results: 2D image manipulation. Mesh warping was done on a still image of Chris Evans to shrink his size. Williams explained that Chris Evans’ head was set onto his lanky body double’s body (played by Leander Deeny).

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“The head replacements were tricky because you were taking the head of a rhinoceros and putting it on the body of a gazelle,” Williams told The Wrap. “The difference in muscles, in connective tissue was so vast, that it was very difficult to make the necks match up.”

While film critics made the Skinny Steve a butt of their jokes, the viewers were sold on the scene. The Skinny Scene ended up being one of the most complicated, not to mention, expensive, scenes in the movie.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’s EGO Planet

Well Ego’s paradise-like planet was quite the eye candy, wasn’t it? It certainly wasn’t easy, creating an entire planet and making its far reaches believable and astonishing at the same time. And let’s not forget, the character was the planet so the demands of the scene were something that the franchise never dealt with before!

Shooting the scenes requires different sets; most of them are composed to look like alien environments, which was critical to selling the scene. The viewers must see an entirely different landscape, a paradise that’s just too good to be true.

Visual effects supervisor Chris Townsend oversaw the special effects for Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2. “I’m a huge fan of the films,” he told Rotoscopers. “I think from a creative and visual effects point of view, they’re some of the funnest stuff out there.” Weta Digital’s Guy Williams and his team handled the epic third act, saying it took 490 staffers to create the final scenes of the Ego planet.

According to director James Gunn, making the EGO planet was perhaps, the “biggest visual effect of all time,” a feat that hasn’t been seen in any MCU film. It took over a trillion polygons to create the EGO planet scenes and the VFX work was incredibly complex.

The Avengers Epic Hero Shot

The first Avengers film is the culmination of the franchise’s work, having introduced key characters in standalone films in previous years. There were so many iconic scenes in the film, most of which were done with stunning visual effects but none came close to the final hero shot. In this iconic scene, Earth’s mightiest heroes have assembled and worked as a team for the first time, taking all the internal conflicts aside to duke it out with the invading Chitauris in NYC.

The scene was action-packed from the get-go (all Avengers got their hands full) but the party didn’t really start until Iron Man led one of the Chitauris leviathans to the rest of the team and it being knocked silly by the Hulk (who, by the way, transformed in such a fluid, seamless way, it was amazing). The epic scene was designed to look like a single shot, moving from Avenger to Avenger in one fluid motion with the camera circling around the team. Of course, the scene took several shots to take. It was comprised of many moving pieces, all of which were a challenge to render.

In a interview, associate visual effects supervisor, Jason Smith said, “We had never created a digital city on this scale at ILM (Industrial Light & Magic) before, so it was certainly a humongous challenge to undertake. However, it was also something we were looking forward to working on because it’s such an iconic movie.”

He said four different teams traveled to New York to shoot the photography needed for the project. Overall, the teams shot 275,000 photographs, which were stitched together to create a VB (virtual background) sphere.

When asked what was the most challenging part about creating the VFX for the Avengers movie, it was the creation of the Hulk.

” We knew we had to nail that for the movie; we had to get it exactly right. We had an actor that everybody knows – Mark Ruffalo – playing a big character that everybody loves. The Hulk is my favourite character in the whole Marvel universe, so I was adamant we’d get him right.”

Thor: The Dark World Battle Between Realms

Thor: The Dark World was the least popular movie from the saga but it did feature some of the most insane CGI effects by the franchise. The scenes jumped from one dimension to another, which made the CGI work complicated as it is but it’s the final battle where extensive effects were made to add realism to the scene. In the final scene, the nine realms were converging just as Thor and Malekith the Accursed confront each other.

As they battle it out, Thor and Malekith fell through various dimensional portals. In one scene, Thor was summoning Mjolnir and the poor super hammer races to catch up. Although Thor: The Dark World was one of Marvel’s weakest movies, if not the weakest, you simply cannot deny how visually stunning and exciting the final battle was.

As explained by visual effects supervisor Jake Morrison, “In the fight scenes there are times when Thor and Malekith are portaling all over the place, quite frankly. We made sure we always kept up the momentum and never stopped the fight. It was a way of making sure the audience weren’t conscious there was an effect going on.

We ended up calling this ‘time toffee’, so as you punch through from one realm to another, it’s almost like cling film or a slightly gelatinous membrane you have to pass through. It bends a little bit then rips and spits the person out.”

“We had some aerial photography from the side of the mountain that production had shot in Iceland and some elements of the vehicles,” says Method visual effects supervisor Chad Wiebe. “But the final shot is a fully digital environment with digi-doubles and digital cars, dust, and rocks.”

Avengers: Age of Ultron Iron Man vs. The Hulk Scene

The Iron Man vs. The Hulk scene is just one of the many action-packed scenes in the movie but it stands out because it’s ridiculously expensive to create. In this memorable scene, Iron Man revealed the Hulkbuster armor, something that fans were eager to see for a long time.

The fight was a turning point in the movie. The city was destroyed, the Hulk was not holding back and neither did Tony Stark. Buildings were thrown and structures were leveled throughout the course of the fight. The relationship between these Avengers was established early on, they were friends and they respected each other, which makes the epic battle even more bittersweet.

Although the effects were a challenge to create, the hard work and sleepless nights paid off. The scene became one of the most memorable in the franchise.

ILM VFX supervisor Ben Snow explained how the scene was created:

“We had some prop pieces to help us with the lighting for Hulk and the Hulkbuster. We set off some explosions but all of the damage that the characters do to the city we had to add in later with CG. There was some challenging stuff with simulations of them tearing up the road and smashing into buildings.”

As Snow explains, “Some of the art development and testing we did was to visualize when the Hulk punches Hulkbuster. It’s like two immovable objects smashing into each other. We ended up developing a hybrid 2D/3D shockwave that sets off car alarms and smashes the structures.” A complication occurred during the DI process. As Snow describes, “The Hulk Buster Fight had a heavy post-production colour tweak which made it a lot more yellow. If you put green under the yellow, the colour is going to go odd so we had to compensate for how the Hulk was going to look in the final movie.”

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

As with all Marvel movies, Captain America: The Winter Soldier was heavy with CGI effects. Two scenes from The Winter Soldier stand out for different reasons, the elevator scene where Cap took on a horde of armed men as he leaves the Triskelion and the old Peggy scene.

The scene was a challenge to shoot because of the challenging settings and sequences. It took a combination of live-action effects, flawless choreography, green screens, and CGI to sell the wild shot. A locked-off green screen elevator was used for the scene. The scenes were created using a combination of stunt glass in and not in place, which meant Scanline artists have to figure out how to apply the proper reflections and play of light of two separate panes of glass. To do that, Scanline built the entire environment in NUKE and then integrated 3D renders of the elevator parts.

Scanline visual effects supervisor Bryan Grill explained, “We gave them camera angles based on our sequence where we would see parts of the building and they rendered out high res single frames. On top of that, we would do a paint or render of CG trees and we would do a big pan and tile setup because of the fight – there were a lot of quick cuts and we were able to get away with a lot of projections.”

Grill added, “When he jumps out, everything is completely fabricated when he’s out of the elevator. We had to take the Triskelion and do CG renders of it up close too. It was concrete and you’d think that would be simple, but when you’re that close, there are certain qualities that make things look real.”

The “Old Peggy” scene looks deceivingly simple compared to the effects done for the elevator scene but it was quite hard to pull off. The task was entrusted to the same effects firm that created the Skinny Steve effect.

In the scene, Cap pays an elderly Peggy Carter a visit. Initially, elderly lookalikes and old age prosthetic make-up were used to create the old Peggy character but these were scrapped because the results weren’t as convincing.

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In the end,  Lola VFX’s Edson Williams’ came up with a new technique to achieve an organic, more life-like result.  

“I wanted to take the performance of the elderly woman that we had shot in a rig with eight cameras and project the skin onto the original Hayley footage that had been shot on set.” Williams and his team transposed the skin and facial features of an elderly actress on the face of Hayley Atwell. Artwell performed her lines with zero makeup and only a few tracking markers.

“The way we did it—it was amazing. You could still see Hayley, her eyes, her mouth, her underlying structure, but we just lifted the creases and cracks and age from the elderly woman and transposed it onto Hayley’s young face.”

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