What these Marvel movies really look like before special effects are added

Most Marvel movies revolve around a mixture of superpowers, mutants, aliens and gods, but all that stuff doesn't just happen naturally: the men and women working tirelessly behind the scenes to create those illusions are the real heroes. 

When we watch a superhero movie, we're fully aware that some of what we're watching was created digitally, though the sheer amount of visual effects needed to bring a Marvel movie to the big screen is staggering—some of the more recent releases have relied on the contribution of VFX artists for up to 98 percent of total shots. 

That's a lot, but it's the Marvel way: the studio's films have always relied heavily on CGI, and we've peered behind the scenes of their blockbusters to bring you definitive proof. From MCU classics to the latest hits from Fox's resurgent X-Men franchise, these Marvel movies all look totally different before the special effects are added.

Iron Man (2008)

As the Marvel Cinematic Universe nears its tenth anniversary, the man who helped start it all still remains a pivotal figure in the franchise. Casting Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark was seen as a strange move by Marvel at the time (director Jon Favreau had to stand his ground with the studio over his choice), but it turned out to be a wise move. Downey slipped into the role of Iron Man like he'd been playing it all his life, though the character would have been nothing but grey jumpsuits and green screen if it weren't for a team of VFX artists from Industrial Light and Magic.

Favreau told Rotten Tomatoes that too many movies were overusing CGI and insisted that he opted for practical effects where ever possible on Iron Man. He and his effects supervisor John Nelson worked with Stan Winston's studios to build actual Iron Man suits, but if a shot just couldn't be achieved practically, the ILM guys would step in. "A lot of them had worked on Transformers," Favreau said. "We got to benefit from a lot of the technology they broke through for that production which really makes Iron Man photo-real. As you might know, I'm not a fan of CGI per se, so I was very demanding that we make the effects as photo-real as possible."

Iron Man 2 (2010)

Favreau also told Rotten Tomatoes that he was more than willing to return for a second Iron Man film if the first succeeded, and when it did just that, the director got his wish. The titular hero had some new tech to play with in his second outing, including his brand new Mark V suit. When the film's co-villain Whiplash (Mickey Rourke) starts slashing F1 cars in half mid-race at the Monaco Grand Prix, Iron Man is forced to utilize this mobile armor, which was designed from scratch by special effects house Double Negative.

"The Mark V armor was separate from the work ILM did and there was no overlap of the work on this project," Double Negative's Ged Wright told Art of VFX.  "Legacy built a 1/3 size model which we used as a starting place, which was then refined and added to throughout the project." Wright (who went on to work on Man of Steel and the Godzilla reboot) revealed that they were still modeling the suit and suitcase very late in the day, as the Mark V was made up of over 3000 individual pieces.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

Captain America: The First Avenger was the fifth overall MCU entry and Chris Evans' debut as Steve Rogers, a scrawny New Yorker who becomes an all-American super soldier after agreeing to take part in a military experiment. Evans got jacked for the role, though his bulky frame meant that filming the scenes that took place before he becomes Captain America were very tricky. The visual effects department were able to shrink Evans' actual body for some shots, but they also used a body double named Leander Deeny.

"Leander is the unsung hero of this," visual effects supervisor Edson Williams told TheWrap. "He was very dedicated and he was very aware of mimicking Chris' timing. It's his biggest credit and it's a role where you never see his face." Williams' company Lola turned Armie Hammer into twins for The Social Network, though putting Evans' head onto a much smaller frame proved a far more taxing challenge. "The head replacements were tricky, because you were taking the head of a rhinoceros and putting it on the body of a gazelle," he said. "The difference in muscles, in connective tissue was so vast, that it was very difficult to make the necks match up."

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Joe and Anthony Russo replaced Joe Johnson at the helm for the second Captain America movie, but the new directors decided to stick with Lola for their special effects. The London-based VFX house resurrected skinny Steve Rogers for a flashback scene, but their main task was making Cap's sweetheart Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) an old lady. Elderly lookalikes were brought in and prosthetic makeup was tested, though the results weren't quite what they were looking for.

"I said, 'Let's try something that we've never done before,'" Edson Williams told FX Guide. "I wanted to take the performance of the elderly woman that we had shot in a rig with eight cameras and project the skin onto the original Hayley footage that had been shot on set." Williams took still frames of the woman's skin and added them to the original photography, and the results were spectacular. "It looked so good," the VFX supervisor said. "The way we did it—it was amazing. You could still see Hayley, her eyes, her mouth, her underlying structure, but we just lifted the creases and cracks and age from the elderly woman and transposed it onto Hayley's young face."

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

The VFX team behind Marvel's nostalgic space opera Guardians of the Galaxy received Oscar nominations for their hard work, which most notably included the creation of two main CGI characters in Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel). "The universe we created is extensive, but I think the characters are the thing," overall VFX supervisor Stephane Ceretti said when asked about the nomination by StudioDaily. "I think they recognized that people cried when they looked at a raccoon crying because his tree friend is dead. Who would think people would be so emotional watching two CG characters crying at each other?"

While Rocket is voiced by Cooper, the American Sniper star doesn't do any of the motion capture; that part is done by director James Gunn's brother. "Sean Gunn is not a stand-in, he is a motion reference actor," the helmer said during a Facebook live chat (via CinemaBlend). Gunn explained that he uses his sibling on set because he is able to work under conditions that most actors would struggle with. "He's always been an incredibly limber guy that can to do a lot of strange physical things, and the fact that he's able to waddle around on his legs all day long at the exact height of Rocket is quite a feat and quite difficult."

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

2014 was a big year for Marvel movies, with Fox also releasing their eagerly awaited X-Men sequel Days of Future Past. As Marvel prepared to introduce Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the MCU's Quicksilver in Avengers: Age of Ultron, Fox exercised their right to use X-Men characters by having Evan Peters portray the lightning-fast mutant in Days of Future Past. The film earned rave reviews and Peters was a standout, with one scene in particular grabbing headlines.

The super slow-mo kitchen scene looked amazing, but it wasn't at all easy to achieve. The sequence had to be shot at a mind-blowing 3600 frames per second, which requires huge amounts of light to work. "It was incredibly bright," Peters told i09. "A lot of the crew and Bryan [Singer, director] got to wear sunglasses. And the actors had to keep their eyes open for a long, long time, with that bright light just blaring at you. It's like the sun. It's brighter than the sun. It's right there in your eyes. But the end result is so worth it. You just power through it."

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

If there's been one chief criticism of Marvel movies over the years, it's that they have a problem making compelling villains. In order to combat that, James Spader was zipped into a motion capture suit and given the freedom to breathe some life into Ultron, the titular villain in the Avengers' second group outing. "They had me go through a range of motions, very specific motions and movements which they captured with all these sensors and reference cameras," Spader said. "Within ten minutes the rough image of Ultron was on a monitor in front of me."

Spader's performance was so compelling that it inspired the VFX team to make tweaks to their design. "Ultron Prime's design needed to be modified to accommodate all of the acting and sophisticated motions James Spader was giving us on set," ILM's Ben Snow told Art of VFX. "The main challenge was getting the subtleties and character of James Spader's on-set Ultron performance onto a character whose face and body are made up of rigid pieces of metal—the face alone had 600 nodes of rigging."

Ant-Man (2015)

Ant-Man didn't rely on CGI quite as much as some other Marvel movies, but with 1,619 visual effects shots, it was still a huge undertaking. The trickiest part wasn't creating photo-real macro scale landscapes for Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) to scurry around on; according to visual effects supervisor Jake Morrison, it was the split second in which he shrinks that caused the most headache. "Because it's such a subjective effect—and highly dependent on the environment Ant-Man is in, the camera angle he's shot from, and the direction of travel—this proved to be one of the hardest effects to coordinate between all of the different vendors," Morrison told Art of VFX

Director Peyton Reed watched films like The Incredible Shrinking Man and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids for inspiration, hoping to create what he described as a "definitive shrinking movie" during an interview with Collider. He was more than happy with the results, praising the team of VFX artists that Morrison enlisted. "I was thrilled with where we ended up with the visual effects," he said. "One of the things with Marvel is that you're just surrounded by the top people, in all the fields. In visual effects, they did some amazing work."

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

Unlike the previous X-Men instalment, 2016's Apocalypse didn't go down well with the critics. Days of Future Past was Certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, but it's sequel was trashed in the majority of reviews, only managing a 48 percent approval rating on the website. There were some advances in technology in the time between the two movies, which allowed for "more seamless visual effects" according to Bryan Singer, but the director still chose to approach the film's big set piece as practically as possible.

The Quicksilver super slow-mo evacuation scene upped the ante from the kitchen scene in Days of Future Past, but Singer told Den of Geek that you'd be surprised just how much of it was real. "We did use certain visual effects, certain digital effects and explosive algorithms, but we also took multiple phantom 3D cameras and ran them in protective cases through physical explosions," he explained. "We blew up our sets. We waited until we were done with them, and then blew them up. We flew the cameras through at 80mph rolling at 3000 frames per second." It took six weeks to make what amounted to two minutes of film.

Deadpool (2016)

Jonathan Rothbart wasn't a fan of the superhero genre when he was sent the screenplay for Deadpool, but after reading it, he knew right away that this wasn't your regular superhero movie. "When I first read the script, I was laughing so hard," the film's overall VFX supervisor told AWN. "My wife kept on asking, 'What are you laughing at?' I told her, 'This script is amazing. It's so funny.'" Knowing that director Tim Miller had a background in animation himself, Rothbart signed up.

"Jonathan's great and he knew exactly what we were going for so I knew I didn't need to micromanage him," Miller told Art of VFX. "It was an easy alliance and because I come from the VFX world, I think there was a shorthand to problem-solving on set." One of the film's standout VFX scenes was the bridge crash, a freeze frame from which was also used in the opening sequence. Pauline Duvall from Blur Studios revealed that the accompanying titles (which instead of names included things like "a CGI character" and "a British villain") were put in place as a joke when only Ryan Reynolds had been cast, but both Reynolds and Miller loved them and decided to keep them in the final cut.

Doctor Strange (2016)

French-Canadian VFX artist Stephane Ceretti received his second Oscar nomination for the mind-blowing effects in Doctor Strange, Benedict Cumberbatch's debut as the character and the introduction of magic to the MCU. Ceretti turned to Christopher Nolan's similarly themed blockbuster Inception for guidance, but was also inspired by the work of graphic artist M. C. Escher and the psychedelic Strange Tales comics from Steve Ditko's time at Marvel. "It was going from Guardians, where we went into the galaxy, and this one was about going into new dimensions," he told Deadline. "So that was really exciting for me, trying to go into a new part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe."

Approximately 1,450 visual effects shots had to be rendered in a six-month post schedule according to Ceretti, who revealed just how tricky the process was in an interview with AWN. "Conceptually, the movie was very difficult to pull off because there were lots of things that Marvel had never tried before," he said. "The biggest challenge was to bring magic to the Marvel Cinematic Universe in a fresh and innovative way." Ceretti must have enjoyed the challenge—he went on to supervise the visual effects for Ant-Man and the Wasp.

Logan (2017)

Logan was a milestone movie in Fox's long-running X-Men franchise, not only because it was Hugh Jackman's final bow as the Wolverine, but also because it was the first time we got to see the clawed mutant in R-rated action. The levels of violence on display were like nothing we'd seen before in the X-Men universe, and this meant the VFX team had their work cut out for them. Rising Sun Pictures' VFX supervisor Dennis Jones (whose company worked on both Days of Future Past and Apocalypse as well as 2013's The Wolverine) relished the challenge.

"Logan is more brutal, visceral, and has direct consequences for the characters involved," Jones told Art of VFX. "The R rating that was confirmed from the start introduced another dynamic to play with, albeit in a restrained fashion. In The Wolverine, some of our shots had to be amended to remove blood and claw penetration, so it was great to be able to [set] the character free from these constraints." Makeup designer Joel Harlow told The Verge that "the level of physical trauma in this film is something I haven't had to contend with since the early years when I was smearing blood around."

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2's visual effects supervisor Chris Townsend wasn't part of the team that created the first Guardians movie, but he had previously worked with Marvel on Captain America: The First Avenger and Iron Man 3, receiving an Oscar nomination for the latter. When offered the opportunity to oversee the Guardians sequel, Townsend jumped at the chance to get back into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. "I'm a huge fan of the films," he told Rotoscopers. "I think from a creative and visual effects point of view, they're some of the funnest stuff out there."

For the film's epic third act, Townsend accepted a bid from Weta Digital, who picked up the action right after Ego (Kurt Russell) reveals to Quill (Chris Pratt) that he gave his mother cancer. "From that point on, it is mostly our work," Weta's Guy Williams told Art of VFX. "We go all the way until Yondu and Quill rise above the planet as it is destroyed behind them." The New Zealand-based VFX house had up to 490 staffers working on Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2 at one stage, according to Williams, who admitted to losing plenty of sleep over the highly complicated nature of the project.

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

Like Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor: Ragnarok is a film that surpassed box office expectations with an overwhelming amount of its superhero action created digitally. According to VFX supervisor Jake Morrison, there were almost 2,700 digitally enhanced shots in the movie. "I believe about 98 percent of the film passed through the visual effects department's hands," he told Art of VFX.  "We initially broke the film down into four key vendors who were with us from the beginning… By the end of the movie we had 18 separate vendors across the planet."

Morrison spoke to IndieWire about supervising such a huge visual effects department, revealing that one of the most difficult tasks was making Korg (played by director Taika Waititi in a scene-stealing role) look believable. "The trouble with a character made of rocks is, even if there's a hint of any individual rock squashing or stretching, it looks like a dude in a latex suit," Morrison said. "But if the rocks move too technically and cleanly apart, it looks like clockwork. So there's this really fine line in the artistry where you've got to build multiple layers of rocks and skin."