Vision getting ahead in WandaVision

WandaVision is a playful, mysterious, and action-packed series from Marvel on Disney+. It picks up shortly after Avengers: Endgame. Tara DeMarco was the VFX supervisor tasked with producing for the small screen all of the visual effects and ‘synthezoid’ complexity seen in the major tentpole feature films. DeMarco is an award-winning VFX supervisor known for her cutting-edge work as a flame artist. Her 18-year career in visual effects is grounded in high-end commercial work, having composited on Emmy, Cannes Lion, and DA&D award-winning work. She had a 14-year run at The Mill, as well as freelancing with several other studios such as Method, Brickyard and Psyop.

Paul Bettany, portraited or was the basis of multiple versions of his Vision character in WandaVision, from a dead dismembered synthezoid to a new rebuilt white Vision, that fights,.. well Vision.

6 years ago Fxguide spoke to Trent Claus of LolaVFX when the company did the first Vision in Avengers: Age of Ultron, and it was this version of Vision that DeMarco and her team used as their ‘definitive Vision’. They also extensively referenced the closeups of Vision in the Avengers: Infinity War (2018).  “We knew we had to match the features, and that Vision had to have the same feel for black and white and for color,” explains DeMarco. “That being said, we had several vendors execute Vision in this show and we didn’t insist that they all follow the same methodology.”

In the Age of Ultron, Vision’s look was nearly entirely done by LolaVFX. For WandaVision, DeMarco had multiple vendors in the TV series. Lola VFX was joined by Digital Domain, ILM, Monsters, Aliens, Robots, & Zombies (MARZ), and others, all of whom worked on hero versions of Vision across the series in his various forms. “Each facility has artists with different strengths. So we insisted that key parts of Vision look the same, meaning the amount of the CGI that you see in the depth of his panels and the sheen of the skin or the sheen of the metal all had to be the same, but we let them work out their own methodologies to achieve that,” she adds.

Purple Vision (B/W vision)

Unlike in the original Vision approach, Paul Bettany did not wear a prosthetic headpiece for filming the B/W version of Vision. The actor himself requested to not have the headpiece fitted that would have covered his ears, so as to better be able to hear and react on the set. “MARZ did episodes one, two, and three, and they’re a wizard CG tracking facility,” DeMarco comments. “MARZ did that amazing mirror mask for Watchman (2020) and they did some tests for us.” Based on those tests MARs and Screen Scene VFX both came on as sitcom Vision vendors in addition to Lola VFX.

The first episode of WandaVision was filmed in front of a live studio audience and finished as a 4:3 black and white master. The production sort to make the early episodes as faithful as possible to the genre of early sitcoms, even the actual crew were in period costume on the sound stage set. Cinematographer Jess Hall used 47 different camera lenses for the seven different time periods covered in WandaVision, many of which were modern lenses custom-modified to keep characteristics of the actual period lenses. Lighting was adjusted to align with the periods being portrayed. Tungsten lights were used in filming the 1950s-1970s era episodes, as they were commonly used in production during that period, where LED lights were used for scenes depicting the modern era.

Since these early episodes featured black and white scenes with Paul Bettany looking like the modern-day Vision, the production settled on a purple makeup rather than the traditional Vision Red for the actor. This seemingly odd color choice looks more believably like the tones one would expect from Red. It was not uncommon back in the era of B/W television for such tricks to be used, even down to using blue or purple lipstick on female lead actresses instead of red.

Onset Bettany had a set of tracking dots that were used to track on the correct visual elements of Vision. MARZ used advanced machine learning tools to do the dot removal along with extensive compositing. The process was complex as DeMarco was highly focused on maintaining Bettany’s performance as closely as possible. This required complex 3D, digital makeup techniques and compositing.

Unlike in the feature films where Bettany had worn a prosthetic in addition to colored makeup, for WandaVision, there was nothing covering his ears or the top of his head. “We found that because we were replacing the prosthetic anyway, and because the final metal crown and the panels of Vision are slightly narrower than the prosthetic would have been, that there was no point,” explained DeMarco.  “Each vendor would be doing some paint cleanup of the background anyway. It was Paul’s desire to be more comfortable and to hear better onset.”  The production did compromise with a bald cap that had the same hue as his actual final skin color, and a tracking marker pattern based on what the artists would need to track later.

For these ‘classic b/w’ episodes references the production studied practical effects from the early days of visual effects in television and film. In the first three episodes, says DeMarco, “we used puppeteered props, practical film cuts, and rewind effects.”  While filmmakers leaned into the effects used during the era that inspired the episodes. “We used contemporary technology to help remove the wires and smooth the cuts,” says DeMarco, “but many of the effects were shot in-camera. We occasionally used CG to bolster the storytelling in a beat where we were missing a wire gag. For example, Wanda’s kitchen in the first episode is a blend of practical puppeteered floating objects and CG ones created later to fill out the scene.” DeMarco had done numerous SuperBowl commercials prior to WandaVision, and even with the huge budgets associated with such key spots, “we wouldn’t use wire work all the time because you just don’t have time to create every object in CG,” she comments. “If you know that you’re doing on something with a short turnaround, we might make a prop ahead of time and then have someone hanging it on wires for a character to grab or have contact with… I just never thought I would be doing that with Marvel,” she laughs.

Red Vision

The color episodes of WandaVision meant Bettany returning to the red makeup for the later episodes. In all cases, the production was exacting in making sure that anything that was replaced with CG matched the plate performance of Bettany. “Sometimes it meant going back to his original eyelids and then beauty paint smoothing of the skin underneath, – but keeping the makeup. And sometimes it meant replacing sections with a CG panel. It really depended shot to shot on the execution,” DeMarco comments. “We had a second supervisor on the show, Sarah Elm, who was full-time on Vision for a very long time.  Sarah was intimately familiar with all of the parts of the face and what needed to be preserved or where we might want to maintain a specular highlight from the makeup and which parts get fully replaced.” Generally speaking, the VFX crews kept Bettany’s eyes, his nose, and mouth – and replaced pretty much everything else.

One interesting aspect is Vision’s eyes. In line with the original design, Vision has complex digital radial graphics in his actual eyes. This required in many scenes digital contact lenses to be composited into Paul Bettany’s eyes. While Bettany normally wears glasses, he did not have any actual contact lens all of Vision’s eyes were done as visual effects composites.

Paul Bettany did do a FACS session and the effects team accessed prior data scanning of the actor. One of the advantages of the Marvel effects producing team is its effective archiving and data management that allows both key data such as facial scanning to be accessible but also sensibly shared between different facilities.

The complexity of Vision’s ‘skin’ is highlighted by its need to match the actor’s skin folds and wrinkles in making sure the actor’s facial expression is accurately mapped to the final synthezoid face. The material of Visions surface skin can move but it needs to never look like human skin with red makeup on its surface. This means the face needs to contract and stretch but without having pores or wrinkles.

White Vision

White Vision features prominently in the final battle episode. Digital Domain’s digital double team travelled to Atlanta to help supervise the elaborate final battle. “Digital domain did digital human versions of both red Vision and white Vision,” says DeMarco. “They took the model from the last film and updated it and gave it some more modern fidelity for red Vision.” The base data was meant to be the same for white vision, but it turned out to be virtually a whole new character. “The design is quite different for what is happening in the panels on his head and also in the costume.” Even with the “great digi-doubles” that were created, “Paul has so much in his performance that we needed to preserve, absolutely whenever possible.”  When white Vision faces off with red Vision, the production did film everything with him twice, once for red and once for white.

The base Vision data was re-purposed from an existing scan of the actor, with the addition of the FACS session. Most of the significant actors in the show were scanned by the production as standard. Digital Domain set up their own scanning station in Atlanta and did their own additional Vision scans to get the skin texture and fine detail data they needed.  Digital Domain’s VFX supervisor was Marion Spates, and the Digital DFX was R. Matt Smith. This final Digital Domain Vision was then shared with all the vendors but without Digital Domain’s custom rigging which, like nearly all facilities, is highly proprietary. For example, ILM and RodeoFX both had access to the Vision data to work on the synthezoid’s near destruction by the Hex, as he attempts to leave the town.

The digital double of both red Vision and white Vision were required for the flying/fighting scenes in the last episode of the season, and the stand-off in the library.

The Third Floor was behind the previs, techvis, and postvis work on WandaVision. Patrick Haskew was The Third Floor’s visualization supervisor. The Third Floor has extensive experience with working within the MCU, having done a vast amount of previous Marvel projects, and the company prides itself on providing far more than just simple Previs. The Third Floor was instrumental in helping us figure out what we needed to film practically what we absolutely had to have with an actor onset, and what we could do later in CG,” complements DeMarco. Thanks to the complex pre-production, the director had a very strong idea on set what he wanted to achieve, and the DP knew in advance how the lighting needed to match the particular narrative at that point in the series.

DeMarco comments that it was “nice to have something to match from the previous films for Vision. There are so many looks in the show that we developed fresh. The sitcom look and Hex look and Vision’s coming apart and reforming on the operating table. With all the new things we had to establish, it was lovely to have really great references to match for some of Vision’s LookDev.”

Degrading and Disintegrating Vision

Rodeo FX took on another challenge, that of having Vision start to disintegrate when he tries to leave Wanda’s illusion and pass through the town’s Hex barrier.

Rodeo FX used a range of 2D and 3D passes to build up the complex visuals that denote Vision degrading outside the barrier. Rodeo FX was given great creative freedom to explore a large number of styles by DeMarco. Chief amongst the challenges was to not make Vision’s disintegration look like the ‘Snap’ from Avengers nor cross over into looks generated for the metaverse in Antman or the magical mystery ride visuals of Dr. Strange, or any of the other complex forcefields, magic, weaponry shields seen in other films such as Guardians or Black Panther. To be honest, the main goal was to not look like any of the previous movies,” comments Rodeo’s VFX supervisor Julien Héry with a smile.

Pixel sorting is the process of isolating a horizontal or vertical line of pixels in an image and sorting their positions based on any number of criteria. For instance, pixels’ positions may be sorted by each pixel’s luminosity, hue or saturation. The resulting streaking effect was found to produce an important look that was similar to video tearing from VHS days but in a fresh and modern way. The pixel sorting was key but only one part of a highly complex visual language that Rodeo’s Héry had to develop and use to tell this most unusual of Marvel stories. Developing the unique ‘television’ signature of the Hex and how it interacted with Vision and characters such as Monica Rambeau, took Rodeo nine months. The company contributed to eight of the show’s nine episodes.

One of the issues was turning very flat or 2D visual effects such as pixel sorting into a 3D effect that could be seen to be pulling at the solid form of Vision. “Everything was started in Houdini but then it was a lot of custom build effects base on the concept art, and the mood board we prepared,” explains Héry. “We had to engineer the 3D effects into more of a volumetric solution, so we had perspective and depth on all those lines.” The net result was a narrative impression of almost breaking a fluid’s surface tension.

As with the other vendors, Rodeo tried to preserve as much as possible of Paul’s performance as possible, “whenever you see his face, it is his lips, his eyes, and what we did is a lot of cleanup work to make it seem very smooth and then adding all the CG panels,” Héry explains. Unlike other vendors, Rodeo had to disintegrate Vision.

The main breakup of Vision’s body has strips coming away, like giant pixels – fracturing the surface of Vision and leaving a smoldering, almost burning edge. “There is almost an ash, as much as we tried to stay away from fire and ashes (to avoid the ‘Snap’ look), and this is combined with a smearing layer, and a moire pattern in the barrier itself,” Héry outlines. As many of the Rodeo team are talented young artists, not all of them had extensive experience with analog broadcast equipment so Héry got a giant magnet and physically played with a CRT or tube television to allow all the team to see for themselves some of the reference effects and chromatic distortions from the old days of television referenced by WandaVision.  This sense of a magnetic attraction then influenced the look of Vision pulling away from the void, “almost like a wind tunnel effect, but the trick was for this to actually drive the smearing layer in comp in Nuke,” he adds.

The Hex barrier was highly complex as it needed to be visually solved differently for Vision’s attempted breakout compared to Monica Rambeau, who breaks into the town. Teyonah Parris plays Monica Rambeau, who was introduced to audiences in Captain Marvel. In WandaVision she inhabits the town in several of the sitcom periods and as such when she breaks back into the town Rodeo FX had to represent all of these states in a barrier that had depth or thickness not visually seen in the Vision shots. Whereas Vision was of the Hex, Rambeau needs to seem like she is being enveloped by the Hex as a volume.  Héry’s logic for this sequence was therefore somewhat more agile than for Vision. “When we started this sequence, we did not know creatively where we were going to finish, so we wanted it to be primarily a compositing solution that was as procedural as possible so it could be flexible and quick to change,” he explains.

The raw plate started in Nuke for greenscreen extraction, the clip then went into Houdini to produce the various layers of elements triggered by the live action. These multiple layers were then compiled together in Nuke, and the smearing between each of the different Monicas was performed. Finally, the shot was transferred into Flame “where we built the whole environment and finished the shot”, Héry explains.

Rodeofx completed 348 shots, over 17 sequences with a 343 crew. The work was both technically complex and visually challenging, involving extensive experimentation to produce the original imagery that is both connected to the main MCU and yet nothing like anything that has been done before.

Many solutions were explored, including perhaps a more literal LiDAR or Point cloud approach for the barrier, but while it looked “really cool against a black background,” says Héry. “Against a more colorful environment you kind of lose what made it look cool, and we were meant to have a very bright and colorful background world. We started with point clouds and volumetrics, but you could not really tell what you were looking at in the end, so it was missing out on important storytelling, so we did something very different”

Away from Vision:

Filming began in Atlanta, Georgia in November 2019. In March 2020, production was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Character scanning and LiDAR was done by SCANable. The company performed 3D scans of sets, actors, props, and other items for the series. Digital asset management handled by 5th Kind. 3D scanning was done by Gentle Giant Studios.

Major additional visual effects work was provided throughout the season, in addition to the companies above, by companies such as Rise Fx, Luma, Mr. X, Capital T, Weta Digital, Cantina Creative, and The Yard VFX who all did extensive work. These companies did VFX across the show, especially major sequences without Vision such as Wanda’s fight, the Witchcraft, genre transitions, and slow speed Quicksliver effects.