Oscar Effects: Creating the Iron Legion of Iron Man 3

Five films are nominated for an Academy Award in the “Visual Effects” category this year, and they each offer a nice look at the amazing tricks filmmakers and their effects teams can pull off on the big screen. In recognition of these five films and one of our favorite Oscar categories, we’re putting the spotlight on one “Visual Effects” nominee each day leading up to Sunday’s broadcast and taking a closer look at what made them stand out. 

Previously, we explored the breathtaking visual magic of outer-space thriller Gravity, the technology that brought a dragon to life in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, the process of building the San Francisco cityscape of 2259 for Star Trek Into Darkness, and the trouble with trains in The Lone Ranger. Now, we take a look at Iron Man 3 and the way a talented VFX team created an army of high-tech suits to interact with Robert Downey Jr. in the film’s grand finale.

It’s always entertaining to see billionaire playboy Tony Stark don his high-tech armor and battle bad guys, but in Iron Man 3 audiences learned why the brilliant industrialist’s mind is his greatest weapon – and why Marvel’s armored Avenger is more than just a man in a suit.

Co-written and directed by franchise newcomer Shane Black, Iron Man 3 showed what Tony (Robert Downey Jr.) was capable of without his suit after international terrorist The Mandarin destroyed the brilliant inventor’s workshop. However, fans were rewarded for their patience in the film’s exciting third act, which featured 36 unique, automated versions of Iron Man armor that come to Tony’s aid in an explosive battle atop an oil-drilling platform.

After upping the visual effects ante in each of the three previous films to feature Iron Man (Iron Man, Iron Man 2, and The Avengers), Iron Man 3 went all-in with its memorable final battle. Not only did it feature a legion of unique, armored suits flying, blasting, and smashing their way through the bad guys, but it also sported a sequence in which Tony switches from one armor to another by jumping out of and into various suits in mid-air.

In its entirety, Iron Man 3 represents the work of 17 visual-effects studios around the globe.

In its entirety, Iron Man 3 represents the work of 17 visual-effects studios around the globe, but the wild, third act battle was the creation of Weta Digital, which developed the multifaceted sequence under the supervision of visual effects supervisor Guy Williams. No stranger to Marvel’s cinematic universe, Williams previously earned an Oscar nomination for his work overseeing the visual effects in The Avengers.

“This was a tricky one,” said Williams of the frantic Iron Man 3 finale in a May 2013 interview with Art of VFX. Describing one element of the scene  – in which various suits of Iron Man armor under the control of Tony’s robotic assistant J.A.R.V.I.S. do battle with super-powered mercenaries while Tony pursues Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) across the collapsing oil rig – Williams revealed that it was the background action that gave his team some initial trouble.

“The foreground fighting and choreography is pretty straightforward. It was the background action that took a while to get right,” he said. “Animators are trained to make action as impressive as possible and bring it to the forefront. We found that early on, we were having too many interesting things happening in the background action, [and] the viewer’s eye was being drawn away from the storytelling and into the background.”

Weta addressed this problem with a mix of framing and timing adjustments that kept flying armor out of the center of the screen and randomized key moments in these background battles. The result was a series of intentionally “messy” skirmishes between Iron Man’s army and the film’s villains.

Iron Man 3 special FX 030
Iron Man 3’s “Barrel of Monkeys” scene

Still, in order to create that skirmish, the team first had to come up with a proper army to assist Tony Stark. Tasked with bringing 12 “hero” suits to life that would be featured in up-close battle scenes aboard the drilling platform, as well as another 24 suits that would be seen zipping by (or exploding) in background action, Weta began by developing highly detailed, digital versions of several suits that were designed by visual effects studio Digital Domain.

Once the “foundation” suits designed by Digital Domain were translated into highly detailed models that would withstand the scrutiny of eagle-eyed audiences (and hopefully, the effect of modern, massive theater screens), various elements of those same hero suits were then repurposed for the background, “non-distinct” suits. This allowed Weta to preserve the high level of detail for all of the suits no matter how long they appeared on the screen, and saved them the time necessary to construct new, high-detail models for each background suit. Using the gauntlet from one hero suit, the boots from another, and a fresh coat of digital paint, Iron Man’s army was quickly (by visual-effects standards) assembled.

“We found that early on, we were having too many interesting things happening in the background action.”

Speaking to FXGuide.com, Williams explained that using the hero suits as reference points for the various non-distinct armors not only made the entire process more efficient, but also allowed the team to get a little more colorful with their designs.

“[The hero suits’] textures got used on the individual suits and the only texture work we had to do for the [non-distinct] suits were distinct markings.” he said. “So the ‘Hot Rod’ suit had flames on his legs, for example. But for the most part it was changing a couple of shader parameters or group assignments – what was gold on one suit was car paint on another.”

As for bringing the hulking “Igor” and the rest of the featured hero suits to life for their up-close brawls, Weta’s animators used a combination of key-framed and motion-captured performance to create the sequences. In most cases, once the suits existed as high-detail digital models, it was simply a matter of mapping the digital models to the choreography of the combatants.

Of course, bringing a brawl between an armored Iron Man suit and a super-powered villain to life is one thing, but having Tony jump into a suit that assembles around him and out of a suit that’s been damaged in mid-flight is another task entirely. In order to maintain continuity during the third act battle, many of the suits needed to show scarring or even missing portions of armor as Tony hopped between them in his pursuit of Aldrich. With so many different animators working on the various components of the sequence – some handling background action, some working exclusively with foreground, hero-suit brawls – the team needed to prevent any important details from getting lost in the production pipeline.

Iron Man 3 special FX 007
Iron Man 3 made frequent use of other Iron Man armor designs, including Don Cheadle’s “Iron Patriot”

This requirement gave birth to the “Guide Rig Puppet.”

Developed by Weta specifically for Iron Man 3, the Guide Rig Puppet allowed animators to manipulate the digital “puppet” model in a given sequence and generate new data for it – such as transformation elements that occur around Tony as he jumps into or out of the suit and the damage inflicted on that suit – and send that down the production pipeline to subsequent animators. Normally, animators would only be able to work with a static model that couldn’t be altered during the animation process.

“The cool part was that the tools we built allowed the animator to flag down the pipeline which panels they wanted to go downstream and which panels they wanted to stay upstream,” explained Weta Digital animation supervisor Aaron Gilman in an interview with FXGuide. “So if you were working on a shot and you know that your character has been damaged four times – when you’re doing a shot that’s had four shots worth of damage – you need to very quickly load that damage from those shots to your shot, so that when you do further cuts you want to make sure you’re cutting on top of the damage that’s already been done.”

“Our guys took the lessons they learned on The Avengers and applied them to Iron Man 3

Having the time to develop such a unique approach to the animation process isn’t typical in projects like this, but Williams acknowledged that Weta benefited from having a familiarity with the visual-effects side of Marvel’s cinematic universe thanks to their work on The Avengers.

“Our guys took the lessons they learned on The Avengers and applied them to Iron Man 3,” said Williams. “The suits came together real fast and we had to do very little shot-specific cleanup.”

Still, given the Iron Man franchise’s high-tech hero, it’s fitting that each installment of the series so far has earned an Oscar nomination for its visual effects team. After all, when your series’ main character is a genius who can whip up technological marvels in the time it takes the rest of us to calculate the tip at dinner, there’s no small amount of pressure to work digital magic that takes a noticeable leap forward with each story.

To their credit, the visual effects teams for Iron Man 3 did the sort of work likely to impress even Tony Stark himself.

(Images © Marvel Studios)

Check out our coverage of the other nominees

Movies & TV

Eye-popping Alita: Battle Angel delivers a beautifully hollow cyberpunk spectacle

With Alita: Battle Angel, Robert Rodriguez and James Cameron finally deliver a cyberpunk adventure that keeps the action high with groundbreaking visual effects, even when the story falls short.

Your PlayStation 4 game library isn't complete without these games

Looking for the best PS4 games out there? Out of the massive crop of titles available, we selected the best you should buy. No matter what your genre of choice may be, there's something here for you.
Movies & TV

Stay inside this winter with the best shows on Hulu, including 'Legion'

It's often overwhelming to navigate Hulu's robust library of TV shows. To help, we put together a list of the best shows on Hulu, whether you're into frenetic cartoons, intelligent dramas, or anything in between.

These are the must-have games that every Xbox One owner needs

More than four years into its life span, Microsoft's latest console is finally coming into its own. From Cuphead to Halo 5, the best Xbox One games offer something for players of every type.

Here's how you can play your favorite PC games with a Nintendo Switch controller

Nintendo's Switch controllers, including the Joy-Cons and the aptly titled Pro Controller, use Bluetooth, which makes them compatible with your PC. Here's how to start using them for PC gaming.

Wage war on a budget with these fun and free first-person shooters

We all know about Halo and Call of Duty by now, but what about quality titles that won't cost you upward of $60? Check out our picks for the best free first-person shooter games from Paladins to Quake Champions.

I'm canceling my backlog for Apex Legends. Be back never

Live service games like Fortnite and Apex Legends are eating up everyone's time, leaving other games out in the cold. While my backlog continues to grow, it seems the gaming industry is struggling to keep up as well.

Get creative and collect 15 coins with our Fortnite overtime challenges guide

The first Fortnite overtime challenges are now available. Use our guide to help you collect the hidden coins in the featured Creative mode islands and get closer to that free season eight battle pass.
Virtual Reality

Getting into VR is spendy. Which headset is truly worth your hard-earned cash?

Virtual reality has finally gone mainstream, but how do you find the best VR headset for you? Check out a few of our favorites, whether you want the best of the best or a budget alternative for your mobile device.

Become a champion with our beginner's guide to Apex Legends

Jumping into Apex Legends for the first time? Need help becoming a champion? Our Apex Legends beginner's guide has 15 tips and tricks that will hopefully help your team make it into the champion's circle.

Buy a new Switch console and get a $35 eShop gift card at some retailers

Multiple retailers are currently offering the Neon Blue and Red Nintendo Switch console with a free $35 eShop gift card. The system still costs the standard $300 and includes Joy-Con controllers and the dock.

Thrive in the nuclear apocalypse with our Metro Exodus survival guide

Metro Exodus is a difficult shooter, especially if you're new to the series' blend of stealth, action, and scavenging. Here is what you need to know to survive the nuclear apocalypse.

Here's where Xur is and what he has for wares this week in Destiny 2: Forsaken

The weekly vendor in Destiny 2: Forsaken always brings Exotic weapons and armor, some of the toughest loot to find in the game. Here's everything you need to know to track down Xur: Where he is, when he shows up, and what he's stocking.

How do the revised Xbox One and PlayStation 4 consoles stack up?

Microsoft's new Xbox One S and Sony's PlayStation 4 "Slim" have bucked the generational gaming console trend. But which of these stopgap systems is worth spending your paycheck on?