GLA Interview – Claire Niebergall, VFX Animator On CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER

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Captain America: Winter Solider smashed the box office on opening weekend, making over $96 million. The action-packed spy-style thriller has a star spangled cast, direction from Community‘s Anthony and Joe Russo, and the advice of top comic writers, but it takes even more to put the “super” in superhero movies. I got a chance to sit down with an amazingly talented old friend (we were in Pre-Kindergarten together), Claire Niebergall who actually worked on Captain America: Winter Solider as an animator at Scanline VFX in Vancouver, BC. Claire told me a little about the ins and outs of post-production on superhero movies, working with Marvel Studios, and a little about what it takes to be an animator. Be warned, SPOILERS ahead!

Geek League of America: What sort of duties did you have on Captain America: Winter Solider?

Claire Niebergall: As a junior animator, my main focus was on Captain America’s shield – making it bounce around, hit enemies, and even put it on his back and arm as he’s running around. I also animated some vehicles, other small props, some set pieces – and the Captain himself, in a couple of shots where they required a full CG digi-double.

GLA: Is working on a superhero movie different from working on another type of movie (animated, etc)?

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CN: Working on a superhero movie, or any film that is VFX-heavy, is definitely different from working on a full-CG animated film. A movie like Winter Soldier requires animators and other artists to focus on a high level of realism in both look and movement, whereas animation in a fully animated film is heavily based on acting, and can be far more stylized and exaggerated (or not stylized at all!). My next animation job is a full-CG movie with some crazy character acting, so going from prop and vehicle animation to character animation will be quite a big shift for me! Every project in the industry has its own style and requirements – no two films are ever made in quite the same way.

GLA: What are some specific things Scanline VFX did to the movie?

Scanline contributed all sorts of different VFX elements to this film. Animation, modeling, rigging, effects simulation (fire, water, explosions, sparks, broken glass, etc), camera and scene layout, lighting, and compositing. It’s a full-service VFX studio – if Marvel wants a specific visual element to be added or changed, Scanline is equipped to do almost anything. Animation is only a very small part of what they have to offer.

GLA: What was the experience of working with Scanline VFX like? Have you worked on post-production prior to this movie?

It was a great experience. This was my very first major industry animation job, and I never imagined that my first project would be a Marvel film, let alone Captain America. It’s been an enormous learning experience – school provided me with the technical skills I needed, but being thrown into a production, learning the pipeline, and seeing my animation get properly rendered and lit for the first time – it’s been eye-opening! It’s been a big confirmation that this is definitely the industry for me.

GLA: What is the coolest thing you can brag about this project?

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There’s one shot I worked on that I’m really excited about. In all of the trailers so far, you can see Cap on a motorcycle, about to go one-on-one with a Quinjet. I worked on a shot towards the end of the sequence, where his shield does an explosive double-ricochet. It looks super cool in the final film – keep an eye out for it!

GLA: What was your favorite scene to work on, if any, and why?

CN: The fight between Cap and the Quinjet was the sequence I worked on most often. I really enjoyed watching it get pushed through production – the effects and lighting and compositing departments made it look fantastic. It was also one of the more difficult scenes to pull together, but worth the struggle in the end.

GLA: What was one of the most challenging things to work on in Cap 2?

CN: Rotoanimation, in general. We had a Cap digital-double that had to be hand-animated in some scenes to replace or augment the existing footage – sometimes to cast shadows in the digital sets, sometimes to change the stunt double’s original performance. We used live-action reference to copy his motion, but it was still challenging to make the digi-double move realistically. It’s more tedious than difficult, but definitely a challenge!

GLA: What sort of programs did you use?

CN: All animation was done in Maya.

GLA: Do animators get to meet anyone else working on the project, or does it tend to be a solitary job?

CN: Not solitary at all. In some studios, the departments are divided, but at Scanline I was around people of many different specialties. If you’re asking whether or not I got to meet any actors or directors, though, that’s a no. Our work gets passed through many layers of approval before it reaches the directors. I never had direct contact with them.

GLA: What sort of process do animators go through? Do you get to see the movie in advance? After your work is done?

CN: For this one, we never saw the entire film in advance. Scanline only worked on certain sequences – if I watched them together, I could figure out the basic plot of the first half of the film. The second half, I had no idea about! But the studio does arrange for a group screening once the film is released. It’s not private – we’re mixed in with regular moviegoers, who are probably very confused when we shout and clap for the scenes we worked on.

GLA: What’s the most interesting part about working on a big name project like this?

CN: Just how absolutely huge it is. And how well it turned out, too. It’s very special to be part of a film that has an enormous fanbase, but is also considered to be a solid critical success. This will be one that people remember.

GLA: What does it feel like to see your name on the big screen?

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CN: I’ve been grinning like an idiot since I left the theater yesterday. It makes me very proud – but it also makes me feel like all my hard work during school was justified. And that’s a huge relief.

GLA: What’s the most rewarding thing about this project?

CN: Two things! One – I love living in Vancouver, and I would’ve had to leave if I didn’t get a job quickly enough out of school – this movie helped me stay. And two – watching all the little kids have a blast at the theater. I don’t even care that they weren’t thirteen yet! Seeing them have that much fun made me so happy – it’s why I went into this field in the first place.

GLA: Is there anything else you want to comment on about the movie or the animation experience?

CN: Watching Washington DC (my hometown) get digitally destroyed was surprisingly awesome. And I got to help destroy it – from Canada – after many people told me it’d be nearly impossible for an American student to get an animation job in Canada. There’s a lot of irony there that I still can’t process. It’s all just too cool.

Claire’s next big project will be working on Seth Rogan’s upcoming R-rated, animated film Sausage Party. You can see Claire’s other animation work at her website.

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About Author

Ellie Hillis

Ellie Hillis is a Heroine Addict...which is to say she loves super heroines. A comic historian and an aspiring author, Ellie wrote her thesis on the endurance of superheroines in comics, and has been published in Capes, Cowls & Villains Foul and the Gallery of Evil, both published by Spectrum Games. When she's not reading, writing, or drawing comics, she's probably watching television comedies, making costumes, listening to nerdcore, or analyzing popular culture.