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Creating The “Justice League” CG Villian Steppenwolf: Animatrik’s Motion Capture

Justice League finds DC Comic heroes Batman (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Aquaman (Jason Momao), Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and The Flash (Ezra Miller) uniting to overthrow supervillain Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds).  Interestingly, Hinds never stepped foot on set in the role of Steppenwolf – rather, the performance was pieced together via numerous motion capture shoots overseen by motion capture provider Animatrik.

Animatrik built a specialist stage on the Universal lot in November 2016 for the motion capture work. The team coordinated an isolated, six-day shoot; providing the motion capture and virtual cinematography that made Justice League possible.

“The main focus was on Steppenwolf, but we also delivered on a number of other shots,” recalls Brett Ineson, president and CTO of Animatrik.  “It was a fantastic opportunity to work closely with director Zack Snyder, as well as the film’s producer, VFX supervisor and director of photography. It was an intimate, creative moment, with big results up on screen.”

In Justice League, would-be world conqueror and lieutenant of arch villain Darkseid, Steppenwolf, unleashes an army of parademons on Earth so dangerous it forces the superheroic DC icons to team up.  The character’s menacing, otherworldly appearance – a craggy face, alien heritage and dramatic blade-like helmet – prompted his fully CG digital creation.  A wide assortment of technology was used to deliver these lifelike replications of Hind’s performance, with different solutions tracking different elements of his physiology, as Brett explains:

“Animatrik recorded subtle body movements and facial expressions alongside our partner DI4D. We used a Technoprops helmet to capture the actor’s face with stereo pair, and then did surface reconstruction with the DI4D system. Then we used OptiTrack Prime 41 cameras to capture the body and the LEI/Giant system to solve it in post.”

Animatrik’s work on the shoot was actually less focused on action-packed fight scenes, as was the case in David Ayer’s Suicide Squad, and more about focusing in on performance detail, including walking, talking and facial gestures.  Stunt capture was minor in comparison to the more intimate details of facial gestures and Hind’s subtle performance work.

Working away from the chaos of practical film set, and within the more ordered confines of the isolated motion capture set, Brett and team were able to place all of their concentration on Steppenwolf. This allowed Snyder to keep his attention on the subtle expressions and gestures that evoke Steppenwolf’s personality.

Although working with a small and focused crew, the Justice League’s motion capture team worked with focus and efficiency.  Animatrik was able to seamlessly integrate with staff at the Universal lot, adapting to the director’s vision and consulting on best motion capture practices where necessary. The shoot, originally scheduled across eight days, ended on the sixth. 

“It was a chilled, relaxed shoot,” concludes Brett. “We had the time, there was no need to panic and it was a small crew. We really knew what the director was looking to get, and we were focused on getting it. That resulted in great, emotive facial performances, from the worst villain these heroes have had to face yet.”