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Movie Magician

Daniel DeLeeuw creates special effects that bring movie superheroes to life

©MARVEL STUDIOS 2018

How do filmmakers make impossible things—like a superhero soaring through the air or landing in a spaceship on an alien world—possible? They rely on people like Daniel DeLeeuw. He’s a visual effects supervisor at Marvel Studios, the studio behind the recently released movie Avengers: Endgame. DeLeeuw uses computers to create fictional characters and worlds for some of the biggest blockbusters.

Along with the Avengers movies, DeLeeuw has also worked on the Iron Man and Captain America series. During his time at Marvel Studios, he’s helped pioneer new techniques that have improved how computers animate characters’ facial expressions so they look more realistic. DeLeeuw spoke with Science World about how he combines a love of movies and advanced technology to create mind-blowing onscreen imagery.

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FACE MAPPING: Dots on Brolin’s face allow software to animate Thanos.

What inspired you to become a visual effects designer?

I grew up loving the Star Wars and Indiana Jones series. They made me realize that filmmakers can create things that never existed before. And that can have a huge impact on how an audience feels while watching a movie. For me, visual effects are a kind of magic.

What are the steps involved in developing special effects?

First, I’ll sit down with the directors to talk through each shot of the movie. If there’s an explosion or action that can be photographed, we’ll film it for real. We call these practical effects.

For effects we can’t create in real life, like the Quinjet aircraft used by the Avengers, we start by having the art and visual development departments come up with ideas for how they’ll look. Then we build rough computer models of those designs so we can plan out our shots. As the movie’s development progresses, the resolution, or level of detail, of the digital models improves. We continue to add more elements to the designs and use more sophisticated programs that simulate things like sunlight, shadows, and textures.

For some shots, an actor is playing a character who will look completely different in the final cut of the movie. We’ll have the actor wear a motion-capture suit, which has dots on it that computers carefully track as we film. That allows us to overlay a computer-generated character that precisely follows the actor’s movements. It might take between six weeks and six months to do the visual effects for a single scene, depending on how complicated it is.

Are there any new technologies you’re using to create visual effects?

In Avengers: Infinity War, we used machine learning for the first time for visual effects. That’s a type of data analysis that trains a computer program to recognize patterns, so it can make decisions without human input.

This technique helped us create the physical appearance of the villain Thanos, played by the actor Josh Brolin. We used a computer program that analyzed Brolin’s facial movements while he was acting and came up with a re-creation of him as Thanos. We’d tell the program whether the animation looked right and make modifications as needed. The software built up a library of correct versus incorrect decisions and got better at getting Thanos’s face to look natural. By the end, we were able to create this giant purple alien that shouldn’t, by all rights, look believable—but it did.

What advice do you have for young people interested in a career in visual effects?

The field is populated with people from a variety of professional backgrounds. I’ve got a computer science degree. But I’ve worked with civil engineers, aerospace engineers, traditional artists, and animators. The goal of the visual effects team is to make things look as awesome and real as possible. So you can follow your passion in many fields and end up working in visual effects. We look everywhere we can to pull in ideas, science, and art to get the job done.

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