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Hot potato and a bloody shield: Behind the VFX of Falcon and The Winter Soldier

Marvel’s The Falcon and The Winter Soldier had a tough act to follow when it premiered just two weeks after WandaVision, Marvel’s critically acclaimed Disney+ series set after the events of 2019’s Avengers: Endgame. The series followed its titular duo, Falcon and Winter Soldier, as they navigated the post-Endgame Marvel Cinematic Universe and battled the powerful terrorist group known as the Flag Smashers.

(This next paragraph contains spoilers, so Skip ahead if you haven’t watched the show yet.)

Over the course of the six-episode season, Falcon/Sam (Anthony Mackie) and Winter Soldier/Bucky (Sebastian Stan) found themselves allied with former enemies, unearthed dark secrets about Captain America’s past, and battled the Flag Smashers all around the globe. The series also saw Falcon (aka Sam Wilson) finally accept the mantle bestowed on him by Steve Roger and make his debut as the new Captain America.

Digital Trends spoke to Eric Leven, the series’ overall visual effects supervisor, about the task of bringing the high-flying, shield-slinging action of The Falcon and The Winter Soldier to life on the screen.

Digital Trends: What were some of the elements from the season that required the most extensive use of visual effects?

Eric Leven: Oh, there was so much — particularly with our big action sequences. You’ve got the big “hot-potato” desert chase in the beginning of the season, as we call it. You’ve also got the truck battle with the Flag Smashers. And then you’ve got the helicopter chase in the sixth episode with Captain America and Karli (Erin Kellyman) and the Flag Smashers pushing the truck into the construction pit. Those are some of the big, giant sequences, but there’s also the big fight in the shipyard in Madripoor, too.

There’s just so much stuff in every episode. I think our series had more visual effects shots than Avengers: Endgame. There’s a ton of shots.

Was there a particular scene or episode that really challenged you more than the rest?

They each had their own challenges. The hot potato scene in the first episode was challenging because there were so many moving parts in terms of how we filmed each bit. Some parts were done with skydivers, some were done on a practical C-130 plane at an Air Force base, and some were filmed with a blue screen. The helicopter chase in the sixth episode was like that, too.

The truck fight scenes were complicated from a story perspective, because we had to figure out how to film a fight with eight people on two trucks with everything moving around.

Was there anything special you learned from working on this series? Something that forced you to change your strategy and adapt to while working on the show’s visual effects?

I definitely learned a lot on this one. When we did the the truck chase scene early on, for example, we went into that thinking we were going to be able to shoot the background plates (the environment behind the action), which is what’s usually done in visual effects-driven car chase sequences. We thought that was going to work, but then it turned out that it was just not going to work. You can’t sell an Atlanta highway as a German autobahn. So, that was a big to-do, because now we had to make a complete digital world around all these people on the truck. So that was that was a big deal.

Is there a particular element that people would be surprised to learn is a visual effect? Something that’s invisible to the casual viewer?

I’ve had a lot of people ask me where we shot the hot potato sequence in the first episode. What desert we shot at, and all that. There was no desert. It was all completely digital. Every shot. The backgrounds were all 100-percent digital.

That’s also the case for New York. We shot aerial plates for the helicopter chase in New York, but as the complexity of that scene grew, it became clear that was all going to have to be CG, too. So you’re looking at an entirely digital New York City when Falcon is flying around there.

Two of the big elements everyone focuses on in this show are Captain America’s shield and Falcon’s wings. How were visual effects used with those elements? Did you run into any challenges with them?

The shield was an interesting element. I haven’t checked on this, but I think we threw the shield more on this show than in any Marvel movie. There’s a lot of shield stuff in here, and it’s usually a digital shield, because the practical shield didn’t always look right in scenes. In the fifth episode’s big fight between John Walker (Wyatt Russell), Falcon, and Bucky, they were using a stunt shield because we couldn’t use the real shield for that. The blood on the shield is always digital, because we couldn’t get the right amount of blood on it on the set.

That’s a lot of work by a lot of people that goes unnoticed, but it’s tremendous, because it’s basically invisible and it looks great.

What about Falcon’s wings? How did you approach that?

Yeah, that was challenging because we had two sets of wings to figure out. Falcon has a new set of wings for the first five episodes, and then Captain America has another new set of wings. Different facilities worked on the different types of wings, and they were basing them on everything that came before in the previous movies, but also making them feel different. It was an interesting conversation to have when it came to the material of each wing — whether it’s more metallic for Captain America’s wings or more carbon fiber for Falcon’s wings, for example. There was a lot of back-and-forth to figure out just the right look for those wings.

Is there a particular vibe on Marvel projects that makes them different from others you’ve worked on in the past? 

Oh, for sure. Working for Marvel is always very, very collaborative. There are a lot of voices, and everybody is just continually pushing everything to be as great as it possibly can be. And if that means you’re going to take extra time and extra money to make it great, they’re going to take the time and money to do it. So it was actually really nice to be continually iterating to make stuff as good as it possibly could be.

I always like to ask anyone who works on a Marvel project about the rumors and speculation surrounding the films and shows. What’s that like on your side of things, as someone on the inside?

It’s fun to listen to the rumor mill, but you also have to learn to disconnect, because we’re not making the story of some crazy conspiracy theory that’s out there, we’re making this story, and we want people to be entertained by it. So you get a little chuckle here and there, and nine times out of 10, everybody is wrong or there’s a kernel of truth they extrapolate into something that isn’t true. So you don’t pay too much attention to it in the end.

Marvel projects are so interconnected, with everything calling back to past films and shows. Does that affect your approach to the visual effects in any way?

Yeah, you absolutely need to know the mythology. You need to know everything that’s ever happened in the MCU forward and backward. You need to know what Bucky’s arm has looked like, what it’s capable of, and what it can do. It’s important, because there will be conversations like, “I don’t think Bucky’s arm could do that.” “Why not?” “Well, because in The First Avenger, it did this…” and so on.

So you want to make your show as good as it possibly can be, but you need to respect what came before you. We’re all sort of standing on the shoulders of what other people have brought to the MCU in the past. So it’s nice to be part of that world.

Getting back to The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, what’s the scene you’re most proud of from the series? 

It’s so hard to answer that question because there’s so much work that was done and so many great people who worked on so many great things. I’ve been telling people that I’m really proud to have been a part of the hot potato sequence — the desert chase in the beginning. That was the first sequence we started working on, and it took around 16 months to finish it. It was just an unbelievable effort through a variety of different departments. That one was really fun.

The entire season of The Falcon and The Winter Soldier is available on the Disney+ streaming service.

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