Interview: Trevor Habberstad on the Stunts in “Ant-Man”

Posted on December 10, 2015 at 8:00 am

Trevor Habberstad, a second generation stuntman, coordinated the stunts for the Marvel movie, Ant-Man. In an interview, we talked about the special challenges of creating stunts for a superhero who is only a fraction of an inch high. “We had a lot of time during pre-production to work on it. We had three months of stunt preps, and daily meetings with Peyton , our director, with Paul , even with the Marvel executives Kevin Fiege and Victoria Alonso and all of them, talking about what his limitations were and we’d say, ‘Okay, well this works, that doesn’t. That seems like it could be feasible. Let’s see if we could come up with something cool where that could play into script and into the story.’ And then maybe we would think of something that we thought was maybe really cool and then we got into it and started rehearsing the stunts and it just may not have worked. So it’s a lot of collaborating with each other and sort of figuring out what we liked, what was fun, what was exciting, what was believable, but still made the superhero a superhero.”

He is small, but he has the same power he had at full-size. The question was not how to make the stunts obey the laws of physics but how to make them seem like they do. “Okay, if he is half an inch tall but he is normally a 6 foot tall guy, 180 pounds, you take all that power and energy into that small person, so as he shrinking down, is he dense? What would happen if he gets hit? Is he really heavy when he’s that way? No because you want him to run alongside people and they would notice if he is there and he still felt like 180 pounds just crammed into half an inch. Okay so that doesn’t work, so you know what, he is a superhero so we’re just going to go with that and that’s going to be our explanation for that one. He is small but he is still really strong. Most of what we were able to come up with a logical as far as a superhero movie goes. He could punch someone but he has to be careful because with the force of my fist hitting something if I took that same amount of energy and pass it into a fist that size then I can really hurt somebody with a punch. So a part of the movie is where he trains, he learns from Hope Dyne how to properly fight so he doesn’t kill people but he can still be strong and destructive and be Ant-Man.”

Copyright Disney 2015
Copyright Disney 2015

ant-man crouchA highlight of the film is the fight on a train which is very intense — and then it turns out to be a child’s Thomas the Tanks engine toy train set. “We did all the movements with motion capture, so we had our stunt doubles, actors in motion capture suits on a sound stage and we were capturing all their movements with a bunch of cameras all over the place and they have these suits that look like pajamas with a bunch of shiny balls all over them, tracking every little movement. And then we would recreate the scene step-by-step. Our group would build a little set piece to mockup, ‘Okay this is going to be the train, and this is the engine, this is the caboose, is going to be standing here, he is standing over here.’ We were able to play pretend like you would when you are kid just on a really, really large Marvel-size scale.” One of the stunts that came out of this process was the idea that Ant-Man would run toward a door full-size, then shrink down to jump through the keyhole, and then be full-size again on the other side of the door. “That’s the awesome part for us; we get to help influence the story.”

Habberstad’s father is a stuntman, and so his first stunt job was riding a horse in the Andy Garcia film, Steal Big, Steal Little when he was just five years old.
He can do “anything movement-based, but in general I think my best skill is that I have a very diverse set of skills. I can do a little of everything and that make me more versatile, makes me more valuable to a production.” The best advice he ever got about stunts is equally applicable to any endeavor: “Shut up and watch and ask questions if you don’t know what something is. Ask because you’ve got to know what you don’t know.”

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Behind the Scenes Interview

Interview: Jake Morrison on the Special Effects in “Ant-Man”

Posted on December 5, 2015 at 3:35 pm

Jake Morrison is the guy behind the visual effects for Marvel movies like “Thor” and “The Avengers” and for Ant-Man, which is out on DVD December 8, 2015. He’s already working on the next “Thor” movie.

Copyright Disney 2015
Copyright Disney 2015

It was a lot of fun to talk to him about what went on behind the scenes. “The interesting thing about the way that Marvel approaches this stuff is that each of the films is distinct in the sense that they are superhero films but they are often a different genre. Like Captain America: The Winter Soldier is very much a political thriller and then Ant Man is a heist film at its heart. I’m like ‘Cool, we get to make a heist movie.’ So then you go through and you start looking at all the heist movies and the visual language used in ‘Oceans 11’ going way back and then because it’s a superhero film on top of that, you then get to go and mine all of that stuff. I would definitely say that the movies each one of them is very different when I starting a movie at Marvel you almost throw with the rulebook that established on the last one and you start again from scratch because they really put story first and character first and then the logistic specs to come up with the technologies to be able to make it.”

Morrison looked at the way shrinking and tiny humans had been portrayed in films going back to the 1950’s. “My main research was going back and watching ‘Incredible Shrinking Man’ and ‘Tom Thumb’ and ‘Darby O’Gill and The Little People,’ ‘Fantastic Voyage,’ ‘lnnerSpace’ ‘Honey I Shrunk The Kids,’ and ‘The Borrowers.’ These films don’t come out that often but they have been coming out over a very long time. ‘Incredible Shrinking Man’ was 1957 whereas ‘The Borrowers’ was 1997 so there is a big spread on these things. And the interesting thing about the shrinking films is each one of them the pioneered the new technology so that they could show that the audience something they hadn’t really seen before. The key for the shrinking films is always to bring people along, take them on a ride, that’s always clear, to show them a world that they are familiar in a perspective that they hadn’t seen it before. Like in ‘Incredible Shrinking Man’ they do incredible split negatives where they built two sets and that they do the math and put the cameras at the right place so he looks small when he’s interacting with a normal size actress. That was groundbreaking at the time. ‘Fantastic Voyage’ and ‘Darby O’Gill and The Little People’ used forced perspective. The challenge now is that the audience is so incredibly sophisticated and has seen so many things and believes that we can do a lot of stuff but is very suspicious of being tricked as well. All of the technology that we’ve got currently at our disposal push that forward and sort of glue it into the traditional filmmaking tool set which was to say that we built all the mini sets for real and shot them all for real and lit them for real and then glued all that stuff into the latest technology so we could then put in all the dramatic camera moves and film these action sequences the filmmakers wanted to. It’s sort of a great balance of being able to do all the stuff at the same time.”

One of the highlights of the film is a serious superhero fight that takes place on a toy train set. “For starters, it is a real bedroom, a set that was built and then we let loose our team, a lot of people for ten full days just literally with still cameras just taking pictures of everything. We call that ‘hosing it down.’ They would basically go through and shoot unbelievable levels of details to get literally the carpet threads, so that when he’s running through the carpet and he’s actually pushing carpet threads out of the way, they would actually go and shoot to that level of detail so we can see the individual makeup of the fibers in the carpet. There were literally hundreds and hundreds of thousands of images we shot for this. We had everything lit properly so you could really see what it should look like. We had a dedicated macro unit which was effectively a team of 25 people that ran for 40 days alongside principal photography who literally would shoot motion picture photography and then we do these stills and then we would scan with a little prop scanner down to this tiny level of detail and then effectively you’ve got all that stuff harvested. You have got real sets that were really built by the art department, really lit by the director of photography and then you take all that stuff and then we reassembled that entire room in the computer. We can take virtual cameras and express any shot in any language that the filmmakers would like. It’s kind of unique to say we studied films like ‘Unstoppable,’ you know the Tony Scott film, and so we would intentionally use lenses that would be used in a real full-scale action movie. So you are intentionally doing wide lenses close to people or you are doing long lenses far away as if in this sort of chase vehicle following the train. We are using framing that you would use on a full-scale epic but then at the same you’ve got all this crazy details. Like Thomas the Tank Engine has fingerprints on it. Kids’ toys are not pristine. Kids kick those things around, so let’s get these layers of realism in there. And so we started building up all these layers of stuff and shmutz and oily, greasy fingerprints and scuff on the paint. It’s just this layer of realism that you have to build in there before then on top of it you tell this impossible story. If you look at it, we have actually got helicopter shots in there, the shots where we literally fly the helicopter over the train that’s coming towards us and for those even though that’s sort of virtual helicopter it feels like it is only actually traveling about 12 inches or 15 inches in the real room, we actually went back to helicopter footage that we shot in other movies and we ran those real helicopter plates through an analysis and extracted like the real footage. Because when you are in the helicopter, the pilot is fighting the wind, the wind is pushing the helicopter to the right and he’s pushing the helicopter back to the left, the director of photography who is in the helicopter, he’s trying to lock on the target but there is a little bit of drift and there are these little zooms that they do to try to hold up the things. So all that stuff is actually real; we just applied it to the virtual world.”

Another challenge was making insects appealing, even adorable. “That was something from the very beginning that Kevin told us he wanted to make sure, about. We found one particular ant which is called the Saharan Silver and it has this beautiful coat. There is no other way to describe it. They are hairy, but what they have done to survive in the Saharan extreme temperatures they’ve developed almost like a heat shield but when you are close to it looks almost like the brushed coat of an Arabian stallion. I no other way to describe it but when you step back a little bit it actually almost looks like a beautiful polished metal. So that was the ant for us and we modeled the four different types of ant on that as a basis just to give them a little sheen and made them look prettier and then in terms of character, it’s a really good opportunity for the animators. I know our animation team really enjoyed working on this stuff because you’ve got the Bullet ants which are big bruisers, about the size of a truck to Ant Man when he is half an inch tall and these things are like an inch and an inch and quarter long. They are actually really spiny. Their movements are a very sort of aggressive start stop motion. We referred to them as the Ray Winstones of insects. Then you go all the way down to the little things, the crazy ants which are about the same size as a puppy would be for Ant-Man when he is down at that size. So we felt if we could inject maybe five or ten percent of puppy in there, so they are really playful, that would work. And it’s a very, very fine line to be able to do this to make sure it’s real or but also not too cartoony. I mean it’s a balance we work really hard at.”

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Interview: Shepherd Frankel, Production Designer for “Ant-Man”

Posted on November 30, 2015 at 3:59 pm

Shepherd Frankel is the production designer who created the world of “Ant-Man,” the Marvel film about the teeny little superhero named Scott Lang and played by Paul Rudd. It will be released on DVD/Blu-Ray December 8, 2015. I loved the design of the film, and it was an honor to get to ask him about it.

Marvel's Ant-Man Ant-Man/Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) Photo Credit: Zade Rosenthal © Marvel 2015
Marvel’s Ant-Man
Ant-Man/Scott Lang (Paul Rudd)
Photo Credit: Zade Rosenthal
© Marvel 2015

So when you come into a movie like this are you more excited or terrified at the idea that you’re going to have to create a world where somebody is the size of an ant?

I used to say, “If you’re not scared going go to work every day you are going to need to find a new job,” meaning there is an exhilaration to being nervous at the task of doing an amazing job. I definitely felt that on a day-to-day basis on “Ant-Man” but it wasn’t fear. It was more like wanting to make sure that we could take advantage of every opportunity in the script and in the Marvel cinematic universe, to bring this film into its most receivable and exceptional form. And I do feel like we did, it’s almost like I never wanted to let any rock be uncovered. I would say that this film was definitely the most fun I have had making a movie.

And I think you can see that on the screen. It was a testament to the filmmakers, the Director, Marvel, our producers and the environment that they created. When I saw it for the first time I was tickled at the visual journey that we were on which was a byproduct of many different departments and everyone’s effort. I thought it was an exceptionally fun visual journey we just went on and I felt like literally creatively — like wow! I’m happy, I just felt like I ate a great meal. So I was nervous but only nervous about wanting to make sure we fulfilled all of the opportunities and possibilities that were implied and that we came up with as a result of investing in the story and the characters.

There were two very different and very character-defining settings in the film, the house that Hank Pym, the Michael Douglas character, lived in and the lab owned by the movie’s villain, Darren Cross, played by Corey Stoll.

Hank Pym is a retired scientist and he needed to be in an older house. We wanted the house to be quintessential San Francisco. So we found a location and we ended up painting the entire thing and building a huge gate around outside so Scott could jump over it. This house was in San Francisco and the color was tied into the color palette of Michael Douglas. It felt like it was from another time. The entire inside of that house, the main story, the top story and the basement were all built on stage in Atlanta. And also the back of the house where Scott jumps off and breaks in at the window where he came up in the yard through the ground, we built that outside in Atlanta.

So basically the idea was you want it to feel like, “Oh there is some old guy living in this house.” When you meet him Scott doesn’t know he is Hank Pym, the genius. We think of him as this old guy whose house shows that his work had kind of taken over his house and it was loved and nurtured at one point but it has seen better days and it has a little clutter and so you see it and think, “What’s going on here? What’s the backstory?” And then when you go downstairs in the basement it’s like “What the heck is this?” There is a vault and a high-tech wall and a gym that was the best of its time in the 70s and that’s where Ant-Man trained.

So the challenge there was that the space had two meanings, one as we first see it but two the surprise that “Wow, this is the place that Hank Pym developed the technology for the Ant-Man suit in this secure vaulted world.” Then you counter that with the laboratory which was this mid-century old building which is where Hank Pym went after he retired the Ant-Man suit.

But then there is the lab, in contrast. The story that Darren Cross had taken over that lab and pushed Hank Pym out of his own company and created this tactical laboratory that was always like a machine, the casino that you kind of felt like you were being devoured by you are being devoured by the technology of the architecture of this building. The way Darren Cross kind of like chew you up and spit you out and like it needed be so obviously Hank Pym warmer colors, brown, wood, a Victorian home and then Darren Cross, metal and blue and glass and icy and steel and cold. So you needed two characters in one. And one of the fun things is that Hank Pym’s labs in 1970, what did that place look like and it is basement that thing was so much fun to do that in juxtaposition to Cross technology, like the future walls and the future lab.

What was the biggest challenge you had in indicating the scale as Ant-Man shrinks down?

We had to think about everything two times. First was the usual “Okay, we’re doing all these sets and the movie takes place in this like a regular world of like a Victorian home or a jail, or tenement housing and then we go to these labs,” and you’re like, “Okay that’s cool.” But then we see those spaces again when he shrinks down. So we did a lot of math in the beginning, meaning like if Scott shrinks down to this size what does the environment look like to him? And the way I lay out a set is all based on the scale and relationship of character to environment and the way the camera is going to perceive that. So when you shrink someone down and suddenly a one or two foot tile for an ant-size person is basically 400 feet. So that tile has to create interesting cinematic obstacles and depth. We were constantly thinking about how it exists for someone an inch tall in an environment that we already designed full-scale?

So I was always building set within set, the real set and then the macro set and we always shot the macro environment on the actual environment. I never built like an oversized spoon or fork or cup, everything was shot within camera of the original size set. Sometimes we would rebuild it if the schedule required us to have the macro set ready when the first unit was on the original set but ultimately we built these environments for us to capture the digital assets for visual effects, who would then have Scott and Ant Man running through these environment at that scale. It was a combination scientific and creative kind of solutions which was only achievable by virtue of new technology and Frazier lenses and various ways to capture things with cameras these days. We could not have done these like 10 or 15 years ago.

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Behind the Scenes

Behind the Scenes: Making Michael Douglas Younger in “Ant-Man” and Wigs and Makeup for Key and Peele

Posted on July 26, 2015 at 8:00 am

“Ant-Man” begins with a flashback to 1989, with Michael Douglas appearing not as he looks to day but as he looked 25 years ago. How did they do that? Special effects that are called “digital make-up.” New York Magazine’s Vulture has the story. They spoke to Trent Claus of Lola VFX, who had both the advantage and disadvantage of a ton of reference material.

Unlike on previous transformations, they had a plenty of reference material — multiple feature films’ worth — of exactly what a 45-year-old Michael Douglas would look like. To hear Claus tell it, this was both a blessing and a curse. “It helped us a lot to have that reference,” he said, “but it made us work harder, because the audience already knew what he looked like at that age. There wasn’t a whole lot of leeway.”

De-aging an actor is essentially giving them a digital face-lift, and Lola’s team do the same work with digital composites a skilled plastic surgeon would do with a scalpel. The two professions turn out to have similar ways of talking. “The most obvious thing is that the skin along the jaw in most people tends to get lower and lower and sag a little bit as you get older. Particularly around the throat and the Adam’s Apple area, you’ll get a build-up of extra skin down there,” Claus told me. “One thing we’ll have to do to de-age someone is restore that elasticity and try to not only to remove the excess skin, but pull it back up to where it once was.”

Our cheeks thin out and sink as we get older, so Lola also added a little more fat to the middle of Douglas’s cheeks. And since human ears and noses never stop growing, they also had to shrink Douglas’s back to their 1980s’ sizes, as well as remove some of his ear wrinkles. Then it came time to restore what Claus called Douglas’s “youthful glow,” adding shine to his skin and hiding the blood vessels in his nose.

Equally transformative are the “practical” (real-life) effects created by the magnificent wig and makeup team for “Key and Peele.” It is almost impossible to imagine that all of these characters are played by just two actors.

Slate has a great story about Amanda Mofield, the show’s hair stylist, and Scott Wheeler, their makeup artist. Describing the college bowl sketch, Wheeler said, “We shot the first one—we did 32 characters, made them up, wigged them and shot them—in two hours, total. The way we made that work was … we were doing very small tweaks on each character, and slowly building up the facial hair. And then when they showed the characters, they showed them out of the order from how we made them up, so they looked like bigger jumps. And that was our master plan that worked perfectly.”

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Behind the Scenes Special Effects

Where You’ve Seen Them Before: The Cast of Ant-Man

Posted on July 19, 2015 at 10:36 pm

“Ant-Man” has great special effects and a fun storyline but its real strength is the cast, several of my favorite performers.  They may look familiar.

Paul Rudd has been one of the most appealing actors in Hollywood since “Clueless” came out 20 years ago this week.  He is most often thought of as a likeable comic actor in films like “Anchorman” and “Role Models,” and as a light leading man in romantic comedies from the awful (“Dinner for Schmucks,” “Wanderlust”) to the ambitious but not entirely successful (“How Do You Know”).  He is game for just about anything, as shown in micro-budget and experimental films like “Prince Avalanche” and the web series parody of reality dating shows, “Burning Love.” He appeared in “Romeo + Juliet” as Paris, the guy Juliet’s parents wanted her to marry, and as Nick Carraway in the TV version of “The Great Gatsby.”  He was outstanding in the challenging role of an insecure but very sincere man who is transformed by a manipulative art student in “The Shape of Things.”  I think his most neglected gem is “I Could Never Be Your Woman” (horrible title), a very smart romantic comedy with Michelle Pfeiffer.

Evangeline Lilly spends a lot of time in “Ant-Man” wanting to get in on the action.  Not surprising given her earlier role in “The Hobbit,” where she is a full-on action heroine.

I’m a huge fan of Corey Stoll, who plays the villain in “Ant-Man.”  I first noticed him as Ernest Hemingway in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” a performance of great wit and verve.

He played a compromised but not evil Congressman in “House of Cards” and a sympathetic administrator of a jobs program for refugees in “The Good Lie.”

Michael Douglas is Hollywood royalty, a two-time Oscar winner (for producing “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and acting in “Wall Street,” husband of an Oscar winner (Catherine Zeta-Jones), and son of an Oscar winner (Kirk Douglas).  His career took off with the 1970’s television series “The Streets of San Francisco.”

This speech is not only an icon of movie history, it is a telling prediction that if anything understated what was ahead in the financial markets.
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Actors Where You’ve Seen Them Before
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