There are plenty of sequences in Captain America: Civil War (opens in new tab) that feature a ton of special effects, and one of the more impressive bits of visual trickery occurs in a flashback sequence of sorts early on in the film that has a de-aged Robert Downey Jr. playing a young Tony Stark. At a recent Q&A to promote the Blu-Ray release of Civil War (via IGN (opens in new tab)), film editor Jeffrey Ford, visual effects supervisor Dan Deleeuw and sound editor Shannon Mills talked about the work that went into creating the scene:
"We went through and we put a kind of catalogue together of his earlier films", Deleeuw explained. "Part of the process was deciding what Robert should look like, as this younger version of himself. And we settled on kind of a mix between a couple films. It became more of a young Stark, than a young Robert, in a way".
"You actually take Robert’s face and warp it. You’ll go into your computer and you’ll take his face and basically massage it so areas as you age, that we’ve all experienced, you know, that kind of distort from when you were young—then kind of distort those back to when you were young, at an earlier age".
"The imagery you’re working from, there’s a fine level of detail and as the face gets warped, a lot of that detail gets washed away. So then what you’ll do is you take a double, fairly close in facial structure, but then you’ll photograph that double in the same positions, [for example] how the face is oriented to camera. And you’ll steal detail from that younger person’s face, then reapply it to Robert’s face. And then you go and do clean ups on the hair".
"Part of what made the shot even more challenging", Ford added, "was the length of the shot. The idea that the guys wanted to do it as a 'oner', one long shot. You kind of wanted to set up the idea that there is something off about the scene. He comes out and as it plays longer and longer—if it played like a normal scene, you would have cut. Normally that helps us out because if it’s a shorter shot, you can split that up between more people and get the work done quicker".
Finally, Mills noted that "it’s a combination of incredible visual effects, but also acting, because he performed it. He had to be that guy for that moment as well, because all the technical stuff in the world isn’t going to work if he didn’t act that. If these guys didn’t get a performance out of him. It’s that combination of those things".
Civil War isn't the first time Marvel have tinkered with the age of their actors - we saw a young Michael Douglas in Ant-Man, and Hayley Atwell was made to look older in that film as well as Captain America: The Winter Soldier - and with each subsequent film the effect gets more and more convincing. Given that one of the Infinity Stones Thanos is hunting is called the Time Stone (which has the ability to age and de-age beings), there's a good chance that Downey Jr. won't be the last actor in a Marvel film to be given the specialist VFX treatment.
Directed by Joe Russo and Anthony Russo, and starring Chris Evans, Robert Downey, Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Chadwick Boseman, Tom Holland, Anthony Mackie, and Sebastian Stan, Captain America: Civil War is available on DVD and Blu-Ray now.