The red skull in Captain America: The First Avenger

Captain America: The First Avenger

Captain America: The First Avenger was released in the US on July 22nd 2011 and in the UK on July 29th. Based on the Marvel Comics character, Captain America, it is the fifth installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The film was directed by Joe Johnston, produced by Kevin Feige and Amir Madani, and stars Chris Evans, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving and Hayley Atwell. Well received by critics and audiences alike, Captain America grossed an estimated $65.8 million on its opening weekend, knocking Harry Potter's final outing off its top spot at the box office.

Performance Capture
Effects Simulation
Visual Effects Supervisor
red skull from captain america the first avenger in a dimly lit room looking down menacingly

Boneheaded Brilliance

Production began in June 2010, filming in several UK cities as well as in Los Angeles. As one of five UK facilities involved in the films post production, Framestore was delighted to help put the bones on the flesh of the Captain's arch enemy, Red Skull.

Captain America: The First Avenger tells the story of Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a sickly man from Brooklyn who is transformed by a serum into super soldier Captain America to help the war effort. However, Captain America must stop Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), Adolf Hitler's ruthless head of weaponry and leader of a terrorist organization, who intends to use a mysterious tesseract energy-source for world domination. Weaving's villainous character starts out as one Johann Schmitt, a leading Nazi scientist. However, it is revealed that an early form of the serum that transformed Rogers into Captain America was tested on Schmitt, hideously deforming his face and transforming him into Red Skull.

It was hoped that we could accomplish most of this in 2D, but it was clear that the volume of shots and the complexity of movements involved necessitated the production of a 3D version of his head.
Jonathan Fawkner
VFX Supervisor
red skull character from captain america looking directly into the camera and shouting

Visual Effects Supervisor Jonathan Fawkner led the Framestore team for much of the projects eight month, 80 shot schedule with the company. "The original brief from the client was for a relatively simple nose replacement - essentially CG cosmetic work designed to complement an extremely well-crafted piece of prosthetics," says Fawkner. "His nose had been simply left black by make-up, and we had to paint that out replacing it with a CG cavity complete with sinewy tissue in his sinus."

"But it soon became clear that more would be needed from us. The mask is a beautiful piece of work, but, ultimately, it sat on top of his face, with all that that entails. It bulged over his neck, over the back of the head, it had too prominent a chin in some shots, his lips were his real lips and they stuck out - not a particularly skeletal attribute. Hugos performance pushed the mask into places which prosthetics couldnt anticipate - places where it was going to bulge in the ‘wrong' areas and make itself look ‘rubbery'. On paper all we had to do was make negative impressions into his skull, sculpting into his face to make it concave, trimming the odd bit of excess rubber here and there. It was hoped that we could accomplish most of this in 2D, with a bit of warping and paintwork just to tidy up the odd crease. By first turnover, however, it was clear that the volume of shots and the complexity of movements involved necessitated the production of a 3D version of his head."

red skull character from captain america the first avenger looking menacingly while holding a gun

A small, highly dedicated team was brought together under Fawkner and CG supervisor, Mark Wilson, to achieve the required high-end look. Key members of this team included Compositing Supervisor, Alex Payman, Chris Johnston, whose tracking formed the basis of all the good work that was to follow, Rigging Supervisor, Nico Scapel and Lighting TD, Jason Baker.

Continues Fawkner, "We produced and rendered a full Red Skull of our own. It wasn't based on any mask because it had to be tightened up, have a squarer jaw line, lose the rolls around the neck - anything which made it look like a rubber mask. This CG Red Skull was also then used to project the photography onto. This gave us two basic assets to use in the composite."

The cosmetic touches continued. "We painted out all of his eyelashes on every single shot," Fawkner recalls, "we sunk his eyes in a little bit more. Sometimes we had to reduce the volume of his head, because his skullcap and his hair made the proportions of his head look slightly wrong - pinhead like." Most of the work - apart from the nose - is completely invisible.

red skull character from captain america the first avenger looking angrily towards the ground

The team had to be able to track the whole head accurately. Tracking was made trickier for Johnston and his team by the paucity of markers on Weaving's head. "Once they'd got a very good object track for the skull and jaw", says Fawkner, "they could create a deformation track. The deformation track moves the nose and the cheeks ever so slightly, giving it an extra bit of life and verisimilitude. Creating that was much quicker because, having got a great head solve, they could unwrap it in 2D and watch all the markers dancing around. As soon as youd tracked those markers in 2D on a flat surface then you could distort the face on top of that."

Fawkner feels that much of his role as head of the team consisted of picking the optimal blend of these elements in order to retain the essence of Hugo Weaving's performance. "Having assets which matched really well, it was a case of choosing the most useful bits in compositing to, for example, reveal a smile line or not, and making sure that we retained as much of Hugo's original performance."

Two shots that stand out for Fawkner are the moment where Red Skull first reveals his true face, hitherto hidden under a ‘human mask.' "Its the one shot in which hes a fully CG Red Skull. Hugo Weaving, on a clean plate and unmade up, mimed pulling the mask off, pushing his skin around in a very good performance. We replaced the bottom half of that wipe with Red Skull (which had to match to a reference shot two shots later), and then we also distorted Weavings real skin above to make it look like it was part of a ‘human mask'. Then we added a big distorted chunk of mask as well."

doctor arnim zola and red skull from captain america the first avengers standing next to each other. doctor arnim zola is wearing a suit, bow tie and fedora as he looks directly into the camera and red skull is wearing a leather suit holding a gun and looking to the right

"The hardest shot we did was a very long one. Shot from underneath the Red Skull mask, and actually coming over his military collar. So his neck fat was displacing his collar and when we got rid of that bulge, we had to replace and reconstruct his collar, which of course was moving in ways that resulted from being pushed around by the old neck fat. That involved massaging it in 2D until it felt right. At the same time, he had a glass of water from which he was drinking and through which you could see his nose and his face, and all the refractions that entailed, and then he turns round and you see the back of his head. We had to chuck everything we had into that shot."

Often dismissed as mere vehicles for visual effects, projects such as Captain America: The First Avenger actually stand or fall with audiences through qualities such as direction, casting, script and general panache - elements far beyond the control of post production facilities. What Framestore can bring to the table is the highest level of supportive craft, attention to the minutest detail, and a determination to provide its clients with work - even so-called ‘invisible' work - that enhances every aspect of the film it touches. And that includes bright red, skull-headed Nazis.