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May 25
2021

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

TAKING FLIGHT WITH THE FALCON AND THE WINTER SOLDIER

By TREVOR HOGG

Images courtesy of Rodeo FX and Marvel Studios.

Anthony Mackie reprises his role as Falcon/Sam Wilson in the miniseries The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.

Initially meant to be the first small-screen venture for Marvel Studios on Disney+, the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent production lockdown caused The Falcon and the Winter Soldier to follow after WandaVision. The miniseries provided an opportunity for showrunner Malcolm Spellman (Empire) and director Kari Skogland (Condor) to explore the relationship between the two heirs apparent to Steve Rogers as Captain America and the consequences of reversing the Blip,  which resulted in half of the world’s population returning after a five-year absence. Even though not meant for theaters, the production had a blockbuster budget with each of the six episodes reportedly costing $25 million and featuring a total of 2,500 visual effects shots supervised by Eric Leven, who previously worked on The Orville.

“Most of the other projects I have worked on have been creature-character based, so The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was a treat, because I always wanted to work on giant action sequences,” states Eric Leven. “The most important thing I remember Malcolm Spellman talking about was having this moment where a black superhero saves a truck going over the edge of something. We tried to make that as powerful as he wanted it to be. Kari Skogland was cool because she brought a different visual language to show. Kari wanted to go for this GoPro-mounted helmet-cam stuff that you see in all of these stunt videos.” Something that was unplanned for was the emergence of COVID-19.

Ayo (Florence Kasumba) visits Winter Soldier/Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) with a mission to kill Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl). (Photo: Chuck Zlotnick)

“It wasn’t like we had to figure out a new look for an energy beam or something like that. It was to make this photographically real. … Just trying to figure out if you were shooting something for real, how would you photograph it? Where would the camera be? How fast would the camera be moving? We orchestrated two aerial units. We had a helicopter plate shoot in New York to capture plates for Episode 106 and then we had the skydiving unit for Episode 101. Stunt guys actually had a day when they went out on real trucks, drove down and pretended to fight just to see what that would look like.”

—Eric Leven, Visual Effects Supervisor, Rodeo FX

“As horrible as the pandemic has been,” Leven observes, “it gave us a five-month break that allowed us to make these already-created sequences even better.” Very few additional visual effects shots were caused by the travel restrictions, he says. “Any location that we didn’t go back to we either found a way around any issues that came up through a rewrite or an ADR line. We didn’t have to make anything totally whole cloth digitally that we didn’t expect to.”

No extensive R&D was required. “It wasn’t like we had to figure out a new look for an energy beam or something like that,” notes Leven. “It was to make this photographically real. I showed a lot more people than I care to admit in Blue Thunder because it’s one of the great practically-done helicopter movies. A lot of reference of skydivers and wingsuit pilots. Just trying to figure out if you were shooting something for real, how would you photograph it? Where would the camera be? How fast would the camera be moving? We orchestrated two aerial units. We had a helicopter plate shoot in New York to capture plates for Episode 106 and then we had the skydiving unit for Episode 101. Stunt guys actually had a day when they went out on real trucks, drove down and pretended to fight just to see what that would look like.”

There was no room for error when creating the digital doubles of Sebastian Stan and Anthony Mackie because the actors are known worldwide.

A digital double of Captain America/John Walker was created by Rodeo FX for the sequence when he jumps out of a window in pursuit of the Flag Smasher responsible for killing Battlestar/Lemar Hoskins.

Weta Digital created the dramatic Hot Potato sequence that opens the miniseries where Falcon/Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) attempts a dramatic aerial rescue mission.

Principal photography took place in Atlanta, and Prague was subsequently altered to make it look like the action occurred in Germany.

A digital double of Captain America/John Walker (Wyatt Russell) and a helicopter were created for a high-flying action sequence.

“The wingsuit pilots were phenomenal to watch. Not only are they making these incredible maneuvers in the air but also photographing themselves doing it with just the right camera angles and action, and doing multiple takes during the freefall.”

—Eric Leven, Visual Effects Supervisor, Rodeo FX

Key collaborators were Special Effects Supervisor Daniel Sudick (Black Panther) and Supervising Stunt Coordinator Hank Amos (Doctor Strange). “The special effects department has done every Marvel movie, so they know how to do everything,” states Leven. “I remember talking to Hank Amos, the stunt coordinator, about a scene in the Hot Potato where it is scripted that there is a guy strapped to a skydiver and they’re going to jump out of the plane together. I asked him, ‘Do we need to put in a digital double on another guy’s back?’ He was like, ‘We can do that for real.’ The wingsuit pilots were phenomenal to watch. Not only are they making these incredible maneuvers in the air but also photographing themselves doing it with just the right camera angles and action, and doing multiple takes during the freefall.” Falcon (Anthony Mackie) flies through a helicopter to grab his intended target. “There are two parts to that,” Leven explains. “There is a wide shot where it is all digital. Then there is a closeup. We had the stuntman playing Captain Vassant sitting on a chair with a wire pull. He was pulled out and then we added a digital Falcon on top of that. Somewhere when he gets pulled out, we transition to a digital Captain Vassant. So easy!”
One of the vendors recruited for The Falcon and The Winter Soldier was Rodeo FX, which contributed 504 shots across four episodes and two trailers with the highlights being the Truck Battle, the introduction of Madripoor and the Super Soldier fight. “We needed to come up with an easy solution to make sure that continuity worked in the Truck Battle,” remarks Rodeo FX VFX Supervisor Sébastien Francoeur. “We built a virtual eight-kilometer-long highway that the truck can drive at 120km, so we’re never going to see the same part twice.” Complicating matters was the need to make footage shot in Atlanta and Prague appear to be taking place in Germany. “The beauty of having this actual physical eight-kilometer highway environment meant that we were able to change a camera on a shot if they switched the position or went to a different plate,” notes Rodeo FX VFX Producer Graeme Marshall. “We could just drop that into our scene and it would automatically update.”

There was also a matter of the trucks being stationary 90% of the time. “Rather than having our truck moving at 120kms down a CG highway, we moved the CG highway at 120kms past a CG version of the camera to get everything to match up,” reveals Marshall. “Subtle bits of details like stones, dirt and puffs of smoke going by added to the sense of realism.”

A couple of continuous shots appear in the scene. “When the shield gets thrown away and Bucky [Sebastian Stan] grabs it, that was a big stitch with two or three plate elements,” remarks Francoeur. “In the plates he wasn’t grabbing anything and his hand was too high. We needed to remove the arm and put in a CG arm grabbing at the proper height so we can see the expression on his face.” Not all of the actions were safe or physically possible to perform. “When you’re doing digital doubles for well-known actors such as Anthony Mackie or Sebastian Stan, you’re one brush away from not making them recognizable. The cyber scans were key in ensuring that we created high-quality digital doubles,” says Francoeur.

Hong Kong was a key reference for Madripoor. which appears for the first time in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier courtesy of Rodeo FX.

To create the impression that the stationary trucks were going 120kms, Rodeo FX moved the road at the required speed while adding bits of rocks, dirt and dust being kicked up.

A dented roof as well as breaking windows were digitally added to the car to sell the impact of Captain America/John Walker.

“Rather than having our truck [in the Truck Battle sequence] moving at 120kms down a CG highway, we moved the CG highway at 120kms past a CG version of the camera to get everything to match up. Subtle bits of details like stones, dirt and puffs of smoke going by added to the sense of realism.”

—Graeme Marshall, VFX Producer, Rodeo FX

Madripoor was inspired by Hong Kong. “Hong Kong is a nice city with weird-shaped buildings, but Madripoor needed to feel like a pirate city,” states Francoeur. “Something dark and heavy but with lights. We were two or three lights away from making it look like Las Vegas.” An economic class division is reflected in the cityscape. “They wanted us to push the contrast between Hightown and Lowtown,” remarks Marshall. “You want to be able to see the slums where dark criminal activities are going on and the high-rises where the rich and affluent people live.” The establishing shots are entirely CG. “We came up with an architectural language with some weird-shaped buildings, and by looking at the comic books were able to see how Madripoor was built around the bay,” explains Francoeur. “The main buildings are standalone. But we instanced the smaller-scale buildings. However, we scatted stuff on the top or elements around them so to create variation. That building might have a light pattern. The other one doesn’t. This one has a billboard. That kind of stuff that breaks up the repetition.”

“When you’re doing digital doubles for well-known actors such as Anthony Mackie or Sebastian Stan, you’re one brush away from not making them recognizable. The cyber scans were key in ensuring that we created high-quality digital doubles.”

—Sébastien Francoeur, VFX Supervisor, Rodeo FX

Digital doubles figure prominently in the Super Soldier Fight in Episode 104. “John Walker [Wyatt Russell] jumps out of the window and lands on the roof of a car to run after the Flag Smasher that just killed Lemar Hoskins [Clé Bennett],” states Francoeur. “All of this was a digital double of Walker running. The camera is behind Walker as he’s running and jumping through the window – that was a CG John Walker. In camera, Walker was running and stopping, but we needed to make the run continuous and have him slam through the window and land properly on the roof of the car. We had a stunt double falling on the car, but there was no dent on the roof. The face needed to be changed and the shield updated. To get the proper impact, we ended up having a full-CG digital double and replaced the roof of the car. We had a nice simulation to get the proper intensity of that smash and added those exploding car windows. Those are cool shots.”

For the Truck Battle, Rodeo FX created an eight-kilometer-long highway environment.

The only asset that Rodeo FX leveraged from the Marvel Studios archives was Bucky’s arm.

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