It's decided — Captain America: The Winter Soldier is this Spring's must-see movie. The sequel has already made $500 million and solidified Marvel as the biggest movie franchise  of all time. Why is the Cap's new title film making such big waves? The movie's incredible visual effects may have something to do with that.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier takes on a much grittier, tougher, and — consequently — more human look than the first movie. We spoke to visual effects supervisor Dan Deleeuw, who revealed how the team achieved that feel with the Winter Soldier, the Captain, and the Falcon. He also shared an interesting bit on the making of one of our all-time faves Armaggedon! Below, learn how the movie's explosive visual effects came alive and take a look at some behind-the-scenes shots from the set.
PS: What kind of effects did you use to enhance the Winter Soldier's arm?
DD: With the Winter Soldier's arm, we had Legacy  [a visual effects studio] build a couple versions of the arm, including a stunt version. When the Winter Soldier was far away from camera, or he was moving very quickly, we could use the practical arm.
For close-up work, in shots where the camera could really see the arm, we had a version that was more hero, and had the right kind of reflectivity to it, that was basically a lighting reference for us so that when we went in and did the visual effects, we could use that as a guide. We also had tracking markers on the arm that allowed us to place our CG version of the arm onto his body.
What was great about our version is that it actually had articulated plates in the arm. It wasn't something that we wanted to feel like a shell. With Iron Man, there's definitely a man inside the suit. So, by design, that's a shell over a person. But with the Winter Soldier's arm, we didn't have to do that. We had it move in organic and mechanical ways.
PS: What were the challenges of working on that bionic limb?
DD: It got hard in the bank vault, when Winter Soldier was shirtless  and we had to hide the arm in his skin. So we did a lot of research on how prosthetics are attached and came up with something where If you had to work on the arm and you had to take it off, you had a medical plastic connected to his upper torso and his arm could be socketed into his whole body.
PS: And what about Captain America's shield?
DD: The shield throws are really cool. They're really integral to who Cap is. Chris [Evans, who plays Captain America] has done this several times now and is awesome with pantomiming with the shield. If there was a scene where it was attached to his back and he'd have to take the shield off and throw it, we would do reference passes on set, and he'd do the action so we could see what the shield would look like. Then we would place CG back into the shot later on.
A lot of credit goes to Chris, because you're imagining something that's not there. You're selling the fact that you're throwing, you're also selling the fact that where you're positioning your arm or your hand is believable. He had to leave enough space for the CG to be placed where the shield is in his hand, and he had a natural ability to do that.
PS: It looks like it feels really heavy on the screen. What did you do to create that sense of weight?
DD: For the weight of the shield, a lot of that would be built in with the animation. It combines with Chris selling the throw and the animators coming in and making sure that the shield felt heavy and that when it hit against someone you felt that impact.
One of the goals of this movie was to move away from the gong-type sound of the shield and give it a weighty, metallic clang against other pieces of metal or against someone before it comes back to Captain America.
PS: Can you talk about the Falcon's wings? They're red in the comics, but they've been updated in this movie.
DD: Well we wanted to make it believable. People can't fly — or as far as we know they can't fly. We wanted to make it so that the backpack was a believable object, something that's tangible, something that could possibly exist. We wanted to make it so that it was an assistive technology, maybe like what Tony [Stark] has.
This was something that was developed on a different kind of design level than some of the other tech we've seen. We've channeled the idea that it is more of a grittier film and it's much more mechanical, so the idea with Falcon is that he controls the wings. If Tony went up and flew and came back and landed, he wouldn't be winded. But if Falcon went up for 20 minutes, he'd be exhausted. It's the idea that Falcon's got his hands on the control of the wings. He's the one that's guiding where he's going to go, and there's more of an athletic requirement to fly with those wings.
He's using a backpack where the wings can be retracted and detracted from. They're made out of carbon fiber and mesh. We tried to add some red accents as a throwback to the original costume as well.
PS: What about the movement of the new modernized wings?
DD: We looked at a lot of peregrine falcons, considering that they are some of the fastest birds out there. When Falcon's diving to the helicarriers, he could fly fast enough that he could get past the artillery that was shooting at him. So when he goes into a stoop and brings the wings back next to his body, that was definitely taken from a peregrine falcon. We also wanted you to feel the flex of the wings. We wanted them to feel like a plane that could catch air and he could steer with his arms and use his body to control how he flies. You'll see he uses his body to turn, so he'll bring one of his legs forward, and bends the knee so that feels a little more like he's creating drag.
PS: OK, let's talk about the giant hover ship carrier. What was the development process for that vehicle like?
DD: It's something we first saw in The Avengers, and we started with that basic design. The idea with this one is that they are basically weaponized. So we took a lot of reference by looking at real-world weapon systems and applied them to a much larger scale to fit the comic-book-movie-type world.
The devil is in the details. When we try to scale something that big, we try to make as much detail as we possibly can. So you're going to look at all the doors, and the paint on the deck, and the rivets, and the railings. In one of the shots, the modelers put in a safety box in case you fell over the side and there were also nets to catch you. There was an incredible amount of detail that you may not be able to see, but you'll appreciate it in some of the wider shots.
You also get that sense of scale based on how they move and how lumbering they are when they first take off. The amount of effort it takes them on getting up into the air shows how massive and weighty they are.
PS: You also worked on Armageddon, so you probably know a thing or two at making these destruction sequences come alive.
DD: A lot more is done on the computer now. When we did Armaggedon, back in the day, I worked on the Paris destruction sequence. We went out to Hansen Dam, and the guys laid down steel decking and put fuller surface on top of that. We had detonating cord laid out in concentric rings so when the asteroid fired off, it felt like Paris was being thrown up into the air and it was headed towards camera. There was a lot of ingenuity involved in creating the effect. The beauty of that was when you figured out how to do it, it immediately looked real. It was much more of a physical shoot with miniatures.
Now you have more CG, but there are things that would have been incredibly difficult to achieve back in the day. So when we have the helicarriers crashing into the building, now we can have lots of other fire events happening on top of the ship and a lot of that debris is done on the computer instead of being shot practically.