Charles Tait joined Weta Digital in 2000 as a senior composer on The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring. In 2004, he was promoted to Composition Supervisor and spent a year designing the look for the King Kong rampage in New York City in King Kong. Now he has over 50 credits to his name including Avatar, The advent of the planet of the apes, The Adventures of Tintin (during which he became responsible for composition), and Prometheus. Charles moved on to VFX Supervisor on The Hobbit trilogy and worked on dead Pool, Avengers: infinity war, Alita: Battle Angel, Game of Thrones, and, more recently, Marvel’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldierr.
I recently had the chance to talk to Charlie about Weta Digital’s work on the Disney + series and how they brought Sam Wilson’s high-flying action scenes to life.
So WETA Digital handled the epic opening sequence of the premiere, The Canyon Pursuit. Can you walk me through creating this sequence? I imagine you start with the script, storyboards, and concept art – is preview the next step?
Yes. We warned him, which gave us a rough idea of what the sequence should be. We had seen plate shots and live images before, like inside the C130 plane and helicopter, so we knew what we needed to do, but we started with the forecast and we got it. made ours. We have had Sidney Kombo-Kintombo (Animation Supervisor at Weta Digital) did that, and he did an amazing job, and people were getting more and more excited about the footage. During this time, it gave us time to develop the CG assets and develop our method of creating the canyon.
So you block the scenes and find that the story beats with the predictions. As for the environment of the canyon itself, is it based on an actual location? Or is it put together using pieces from different real locations to create a new space?
It’s exactly that. It’s a real canyon: Paria Canyon, which begins in Utah and ends in Arizona. It was a big canyon because it starts very narrow and widens at the end which was perfect for us. We used this real-world canyon model to give us a very natural realistic shape, and the prediction and animation was staged in that geometry. We took a terrain model of the Libyan desert and the canyon environment and united the two to create one thing. So we had a natural shape, which was definitely a good way to go, and then we added some more geometric detail to it using little bits of rocky terrain.
So you build this digital environment, create the C130 airplane and helicopters, then you have digital doubles for Falcon (Anthony Mackie) as well as the wingsuit jumpers. I know real footage was shot with professional riders, so how do you fit that into the digital environment?
They didn’t fly through the canyon – the canyon only existed in our world, but they had some really good flights and it was so good to start with real gear. They were jumping on flat ground from a really high altitude, but they did the stunt with the character of Captain Vassant, so it was pretty awesome. We had some nice footage of that, but they jumped off a light plane so we had to take it off and swap it for a C130.
The door goes past the camera as the camera retreats backwards and we see them dive down. In those snaps, there were a handful of snaps that we had basically rotoscoped the jumpers so that we could place them in the digital field. Another thing we had to do, for the sake of continuity, was determine the altitude at which each shot would take place as it had to feel like they were getting lower and lower and closer and closer to the canyon. before entering the canyon. All real skydiving footage was from multiple jumps taking place at different heights. If we had just replaced the pitch it wouldn’t have been cut properly, so it was an interesting exercise.
I can imagine. How do you explain the depth of field and how do you capture this feeling of speed of movement in this canyon?
This is something we thought about from the start. If you do something go really fast, but what’s behind it is far away, it doesn’t look fast, so that was kind of a tricky puzzle to solve. We decided to base the speed of all the flights, the Falcon, the wingsuit jumpers, on the flight speed of an NH90 helicopter. We chose 350 km / h as an easy figure to work with. The idea was that all of the animation would be based on that, so if something needed to sound faster, we would bring it closer to the pitch.
For some scenes you have Anthony Mackie on wires in front of a blue screen. Is it able to see the forecast or get real-time feedback from a monitor?
He probably would have liked that very much [laughs] but the production schedule did not allow it. These images have already been shot before starting. So actually when they shot the blue screen material for it, they did it outside, which is always good, we want natural light, that’s always going to help if we’re supposed to put it in an outdoor scene. But unfortunately for them it was pretty overcast and wet when they were pulling it, and we have to put it in a very sunny and dry environment, which gave us some issues.
We also noticed that they were shot like a sort of hero portrait of a person. He was out of focus outside of his face because he’s lying down, you know, his feet are furthest from the camera, so we had too shallow depth of field to be able to work. Composing that with the background would mean that we also had to make the background completely blurry, and then we have something that is a bit too portrait-y and not really an action camera, not the action camera. super wide lens. look that we wanted, so we got around that by using a digital double. The face is Mackie, we matched it with our digi-double and lined it up perfectly.
So it’s still his face, his performance, but we helped him make it look like he was more in the world by adjusting the lighting effects. When it spins, the sun moves around it, because it moves away from it, and it just wasn’t there before. We were able to turn it on in our sunny environment and give it that very harsh look for bright sunshine.
What does the review process look like? Are you so far down the path of a sequence and suddenly realize that something needs to change, or you need to adjust the start or end point of a scene? Or, because of the previous work, are these things sorted out well enough?
I would say we’re always prepared for that eventuality, but most of the review process is done in anticipation. We knew what we needed to do, and once you get into a rhythm and everyone is happy with the way things are going, it’s often easier to make those plans later in the schedule. Even though it looks like we’re speeding up or really pushing the finished plans back to the end, it’s because all the questions were answered by then, you know? Things have been overhauled and you really know what you’re doing and what you’re going to get.
You mix so many techniques to accomplish this streak. I think a lot of people who are new to the filmmaking process take for granted the ability to just make the impossible seem real. On a daily basis, we see things that are not possible, but that seem effortless in the way they were done. How many hours of work, how many artists are involved in this sequence?
It’s hard for me, looking outside, to see how people, as you’ve described, how they perceive what we’re doing. I’ve been doing this for a long time, so I don’t really know how people think about it. The number of artists increased with the shooting schedule, but I would say most of the time we would have had a crew of 50 to 60 people. Maybe 100-200 people have touched the streak at one point or another. We’ve been working on this for a year, and it’s the real thing people don’t realize. The exact number of crew members, because they come and go, they are needed at different times on different parts of the process, the total number of ebbs and flows. But it is really time, the global time. It’s an exciting process, it’s a lot of fun throughout, it really is, but it takes a long time.
For the finale, you also worked with Sam’s new Captain America costume. Was there anything that was particularly difficult about this Captain America wingsuit suit compared to his previous suit?
What was most important was that it had to be striking and exciting. It was a really big hit when he smashes the window and rolls up and stands up heroically, showing he’s the new Captain America. It was a big deal. It was a big deal for Marvel, it was a big deal for Eric [Leven], and for all of us. We knew that all eyes were on it and that it had to be superb, that was the main thing.
Obviously the actor is wearing a suit, and he rolls around and gets up and we did a digi-double transfer so it’s a CG guy flying up to the window and he smashes through the window of CG and rolls over and hands over and stands up like Anthony Mackie in the suit. It’s a hard blow, but it’s not something we’ve never done before, but I think what made it difficult was how important it was. You know, it’s important that it looks really perfect. I watched a lot of these fan reaction videos on YouTube and I really think we were successful because they were so excited when they saw it. It was really gratifying to see how much the fans appreciated him.
Absolutely. That sequence, and the way you revealed the costume, then the photo of him landing, angelically, looked like a cover page out of a comic book. I thought it was awesome. OK, last question. How has COVID affected the work on this streaming series? You’ve worked on Marvel movies in the past, but I imagine it was a little different.
It affected everyone’s work, but WETA did an amazing job allowing everyone to work remotely. In just a few days, 1,500 of us were working from home. We started the series working remotely for a few months as we developed things and to be honest it was fine. Everyone was really surprised at how well it worked. It affected the timeline, there were changes at the end of Marvel with when things were going to come out, the releases of their various projects, but for us it didn’t have a huge effect.
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