How’d They Film That? Avengers: Age of Ultron Production Designer Explains
You might imagine when you see Avengers: Age of Ultron that nearly everything is CGI. Yet Joss Whedon, when at all possible, wanted practical effects and real sets. Much like JJ Abrams has reportedly done on the upcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Whedon prefers to build as much of his world “in camera” as he can.
What does “in camera” mean? It’s the question we asked production designer Charles Wood (Thor: The Dark World, Guardians of the Galaxy), who used the term when describing the film’s sets, from the Avengers sky-high HQ in midtown Manhattan to the Eastern European city of Sokovia, where the film’s third act takes place. It comes as no surprise that both locations are completely made up—in the film, the Avengers HQ, formally Tony Stark’s corporate location, has a world-beating view of the Chrysler Building, and there is no such country as Sokovia—but real sets and locations were conceived of and created by Wood, the art department, and the hundreds of craftsmen and women who worked on Ultron. So much of the stuff you see on screen was filmed “in camera” rather than created on a computer.
So where did they film these epic scenes, and how? We spoke to Wood about the incredible effort that went into building the world of Utron, location by location.
Spoilers below, proceed with caution!
Let’s first talk process—how do you start to work on a film of this scale?
I suppose the process is the first thing is you sit down with the director, get to know him and vice versa, and then after that, quickly, in this case, you start reading the script. It usually takes some time to digest all that information. Then you just talk a lot about the overall look and the general feeling of the film. Then it’s time break down the script into what one would build, going through all the locations, and these are generally intense discussions.
What was the general feeling you were trying to create with Ultron?
This was a more global film than the first, we knew we were going to be in many different countries and it would have a more international look to it. Joss was looking for a film which was maybe somewhat grittier, and he wanted to delve more deeply into the characters, so we were looking at a lot of different environments to express that.
Okay, let's start with our first location.
Location: Hydra Facility, a massive fort nested deep in the woods
This scene was shot in the woods in the UK, but we had to add all the snow you see. The actual location of the giant Hydra fortress was really in Italy, so this was a combination of two worlds. Luckily the location in Italy also had forested areas around it, so that helped. The exterior of the Hydra fort was, in fact, this fantastic fort called Fort Bard.
The snow was all added in camera, a special team went in and added it all, which took days. We use this environmental paper snow that you wash away afterwards. Then when you go inside the fortress in Italy, we’re now back in the UK, in the Dover castle. The whole film is stitched around these multiple locations, and a major challenge is just trying to ensure it’s not jarring.
Location: Avengers HQ (also known as Stark Tower), Midtown Manhattan.
Most of the big sets were built at Shepperton Studios, or in a place called Long Cross studios. Avengers HQ was built in Shepperton, and it's a very large set. The lab, the main living area, that whole world was built. What we did was build the laboratory over the living area, and that was all on a big raised rostrum, and then the whole set was wrapped in glass, and beyond that was a giant green screen, so that's where they put in the Manhattan skyline onto that screen.
It was a big live action composite set, there was no CG set extensions on that set, only what you see outside the window. The things we do in these films are pre-determined by the story as well. You know there’s going to be an aerial fight at the Avengers HQ set (once Ultron makes his entrance), so you have to take that into account when you’re designing a set. It needs to serve the story, and because you’ve got multiple characters fighting in an aerial battle, and flying at a great speed, they cover a lot of ground quickly, you need to accommodate all of that. Everything we build is based around how these action sequences.
Location: Hawkeye's home — a beautiful farmhouse kind of thing, somewhere on the east coast of the United States.
That was Joss’s idea to build a real home. So we find this estate in England owned by the Duke of Wellington, situated in a beautiful valley. We took the producers there, and asked them if this could be somewhere on the east coast on U.S., and they said it could. So we did a lot of conceptual work, did a lot of models, and we built the exterior of farmhouse on location in the UK. So when the Avengers come into the house, part of it was built on location, then the whole upstairs, the living room, etc., was all built on a stage back at Shepperton. You wouldn’t find that period of architecture in the UK.
For that environment, Joss was specific of how it should feel and the shots he wanted to achieve. He wanted it to feel very real, as any American farmstead should feel, he didn’t want to over-emphasize it, he wanted it to play very naturally and to fall into the landscape.
Location: Sheild Helicarrier
That really was all established in the first film, the Helicarrier in our story has been mothballed and brought back, but we simply reproduced the one from the first film in UK. The life rafts were designed specifically for this film. For those life rafts, when you look at a machine like that, there’s a quasi sci-fi element, but we wanted to try to keep things grounded, so we looked at helicopters, life rafts, jump jet designs, and we tried to amalgamate all these different machines into one machine, and all of the decks where everyone runs onto them, all the deck levels, were built in camera.
Location: Sokovia, Eastern Europe — a beautiful, ancient-looking city nestled among a mountainous terrain.
One of the major challenges was creating the third act set piece, this Eastern European city of Sokovia that we were going to film. We knew part of it was to be shot in Northern Italy, in the mountains, but we knew a good portion also had to happen in the UK, and it was very complicated trying to tie the Italian locations and the UK locations into a single environment which would feel like one city. That whole third act sequence was actually filmed all over the place, and it was a challenge to shoot in a mountainous town in Italy and tie that into the UK location and making it feel seamless.
What you're actually seeing different locations shot by shot—you’re on in a street Italy, then you round a corner and you end up in Hendon, this police training academy in London (Hendon Police College), which was disused at the time, and we had to make both of those locations work in tandem, and yes, we weren’t in an Eastern European location either. So one environment was historic (Italy), whereas the UK location was probably built in 1961.
We began by doing a lot of concept work, and, where necessary, relied on the visual effects department. We set up a lot of green screens in both locations, so when we filmed in the UK, we might have a green screen set up to the right, so when you looked right you’d be in the Italian location, and vice versa, but you have to be very careful with it because if you get it wrong, it can be very obvious in the film.
Final questions — how many people were on your team?
It’s a giant job (laughs), we had a lot of people, within the art department alone you probably had six or seven art directors, concept artists, an army of prop builders, set decorators, etcetera, and beyond the art department, you have all the trade skills—carpenters, painters, plasterers, finishers—so that ended up being many hundreds of people. The wonderful thing about a Marvel film is it’s never one thing—you can cover so many different looks and environments in one film—you do a farmhouse, a jet, the Avengers HQ, an Eastern European city, the inside of a tanker, you’re never board, you're always challenged, it keeps you going.
Featured image: A scene from 'Avengers: Age of Ultron,' that was filmed both in the mountains of northern Italy and in England. Courtesy Marvel Studios.