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Immersed in Movies: It's All About the Hulk in 'The Avengers'

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood May 3, 2012 at 11:20AM

Leave it to Joss Whedon to round up the Avengers in rip roaring fashion and momentarily stave off superhero fatigue as we head into the summer season. He certainly knows how to handle ensemble pieces...
Hulk in The Avengers

Leave it to Joss Whedon to round up the Avengers in rip-roaring fashion and momentarily stave off superhero fatigue as we head into the summer season. He certainly knows how to handle ensemble pieces, witness the success he's had with "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Firefly," and the recent "Cabin in the Woods," and does an expert job of juggling the Marvel "freak show": accentuating the dysfunctional family motif for a fresh spin and throwing in droll humor to lighten the load a la "Star Trek." As he said at the press conference, the interaction between them is "just booze and candy all day."

Whedon smartly took his lead from the success of Robert Downey Jr.'s snarky Tony Stark/Iron Man. It was the only way these super egos could get a word in edge-wise. And the Hulk is the wild card that makes "The Avengers" work, with Mark Ruffalo as much a daring risk as Downey Jr.

"I met with Joss Whedon, and he said he really liked 'The Incredible Hulk' TV show and what Bill Bixby did with him," Ruffalo recalled at the press conference. "So I rented those with my 10-year-old son. And after the third episode, he turned to me and said, 'Papa, he's so misunderstood.' And I basically based my character entirely on my 10-year-old boy, who has all of the force of nature, like, screaming out of his body while at the same time having everyone around him telling him to fucking control himself."

Concentrating on the anger and rage and animating the Hulk in the image of Ruffalo were the keys, according to ILM's VFX supervisor Jeff White. ILM, if you recall, animated the dour yet cartoony-looking version of "The Hulk" directed by Ang Lee. But Whedon wanted a more likable and believable beast. Ruffalo plays scientist Bruce Banner as witty, compassionate, and seemingly under control. In fact, the moment he consciously turns into the Hulk after a witty aside is one of the highlights.

Then he's an unstoppable force we can't wait to see in action against the intergalactic bullies. "We really wanted to utilize everything we've developed the last 10 years and make it a pretty spectacular Hulk," White suggests. "One of the great design decisions was to incorporate Mark Ruffalo into the look of him. So much of Hulk is based on Ruffalo and his performance, not only in motion capture and on set but down to his eyes, his teeth, and his tongue. We collected a huge amount of data and, thankfully, Mark is just the most agreeable person for the series of trials we put him through. We did many different types of image capture and he did a life cast of his head, hands and feet for us."

This Hulk not only looks good around the eyes but has body hair, arm pit hair, and nose hair. He had to be more than just CG skin. And he couldn't look like plastic. ILM desaturated the green so he fit in better with the other Avengers, and they added beard stubble and salt and pepper graying around the temples to match Ruffalo.

Whedon also wanted a wrestler physique and vibe, but the Hulk also has his soft spots. He's actually got a bulge around the waist. He weighs around 1,500 pounds and when he gets angry there was plenty of room to pop those muscles and veins.

The Hulk was additionally built with ILM's first procedural shading project in which the technical directors had control of the skin qualities in different areas and had the ability to dial up or down dust or scorch levels depending on the mayhem. They even dialed in the sweat level, relying on beaded droplets instead of broader sheen.

"Every pore and every blemish came from Mark, even his fingerprints," White says. "It was great not having to make everything up."

No wonder there's talk of a doing another standalone Hulk movie: Ruffalo could be as fun and endearing as Downey Jr.

This article is related to: Immersed In Movies, Box Office, Franchises, Hulk, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey Jr., Features

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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.