As a visual effects supervisor at Lola VFX, Trent Claus oversees the artists responsible for reshaping some of Marvel Studios’ most iconic characters. Trent’s hour-long presentation at VIEW Conference 2019 covered Lola’s work from ‘Skinny Steve’ (Chris Evans) in Captain America: The First Avenger to a youthful Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) in Captain Marvel. After the presentation, Cinefex caught up with Trent to discuss the challenges of de-aging some of the world’s most famous actors.
CINEFEX – How did you first get into the visual effects business?
TRENT CLAUS – I’m originally from Nebraska. I’m a fine art major – drawing, painting, sculpture – and I was determined to not be one of the many art graduates who don’t do anything with their degree. I wanted to work in film but they don’t make movies in Nebraska, so I had to apply to anywhere I could. I was lucky that I had an ‘in’ at a company in Los Angeles – Lola VFX. They were looking for a matte painter, which was a pretty good transition from fine art. I went on to do compositing, then supervising.
CINEFEX – Specifically, you now supervise all the Marvel shows that Lola works on, right?
TRENT CLAUS – Yeah, I’ve become the Marvel guy. That’s because I’ve had a good relationship with Marvel through the years, but also because I’m a comic book nerd. My first job ever, at the age of 13, was working in a comic book store. It’s a dream come true to be contributing to those characters I grew up with.
CINEFEX – It’s not hard to see the correlation between a fine art background and the kind of work you’re known for now.
TRENT CLAUS – Almost everything we do is done by compositors, which directly relates to my 2D approach to things, and my reluctance to go full CG. I really appreciate the qualities and textures you get with the footage that was shot on set, and I try to maintain that as much as humanly possible.
CINEFEX – In your presentation, you talked about the importance of studying facial anatomy. In a way, you’re using modern techniques to do what Leonardo da Vinci was doing. He would study cadavers to inform his art.
TRENT CLAUS – It’s funny you bring him up, because one of my favourite art history classes was on the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci. You know, people often talk about there being some qualities of Leonardo da Vinci’s face in the Mona Lisa. It’s this idea that when you’re doing self-portraiture, in some way you’re painting your own features, although you’re doing it subconsciously.
CINEFEX – Is that a view you subscribe to?
TRENT CLAUS – I think it’s partially true, because when I see the de-aging comps from the 50-60 artists on our team, most times I can tell which artist did which comp. Sometimes they adjust proportions to match their own face more closely.
CINEFEX – If it’s subconscious, what’s driving it, do you think?
TRENT CLAUS – I have a personal theory. We’re ingrained from birth to recognise human faces. Not just actual faces – we see faces everywhere, in trees and forests, in a brick wall. We’re wired to find human faces whether they’re there or not, and when we find them we’re able to judge emotion really quickly.
Now, I think most of our learned responses to that data are based on seeing our parents’ faces when we’re babies. So, our subconscious ability to analyse human faces is in fact based on the structure of our parents’ faces, and that is what artists are subconsciously matching when they produce something that resembles a self-portrait.
CINEFEX – It’s a convincing theory.
TRENT CLAUS – It could be totally wrong!
CINEFEX – It’s clear the work you do at Lola is meticulous, hand-crafted stuff. That’s all very well when there’s just one artist involved. As a supervisor, how do you maintain consistency across an entire film?
TRENT CLAUS – It’s really hard. When we first get turnover from the client, I’ll go through and pick a hero shot from each sequence. I pick a single frame from that to do our initial look on, and that gives us one frame of the best shot looking exactly like we want it to. We expand that to the remainder of the moving footage of that one shot, then we expand that to every other shot in the sequence. Then we repeat that for every sequence in the film.
CINEFEX – That can’t be as simple as it sounds.
TRENT CLAUS – It’s great in theory, but of course it doesn’t always work out to just be an easy match. There’s all sorts of other considerations like lighting, angle, movement, motion blur. I have to take into account the different skill levels of the artists, their own idiosyncrasies. We have a rigorous internal review system where they get daily notes, and it isn’t until we’ve got the look nearly there, or really there, that I send it off to Marvel. The production supervisor repeats the same process and sends back more notes on things that their eye sees. Oftentimes, just looking at it from a fresh perspective, they see things that I miss.
CINEFEX – Does it help that you tend to work with the same production supervisors over and over?
TRENT CLAUS – Definitely. We’ve been lucky with Marvel in that respect. Chris Townsend was the overall supervisor on the first Captain America, the second Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain Marvel. Because we’ve worked together several times, we have a trust and a shorthand. We can speak to each other honestly and not get offended by anything the other one says.
CINEFEX – It’s vital not to take criticism personally. It’s all in service of the film.
TRENT CLAUS – That’s another skill that comes to me from fine art school, where there was pretty rigorous peer review. You would put your work up on the wall, and people would critique you and give you notes. You had to learn very quickly not to take offense because they’re not telling you you’re a bad artist, they’re just telling you how to improve. That’s a skill that all artists in visual effects need to have, although it’s something people from more technical backgrounds can sometimes struggle with.
CINEFEX – In order to keep a character on model, do you establish a broad set of starting points. Things like: “We’re aging this character 30 years so the nose is going to be three percent bigger.”
TRENT CLAUS – Nothing that analytical. No numbers, no math. It’s all done by eye and reference is king. When we’re de-aging, we bring up reference of what the actor actually looked like at that point in the past, and I insist artists keep that reference up on screen as they’re working.
CINEFEX – Your presentation included clips of a de-aged Kurt Russell as Ego at the start of Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2. You explained how important it was to find reference of him not just at the right age, but playing the right kind of character, which is why you went for how he looked in Used Cars.
TRENT CLAUS – Yeah. You might find a fantastic dramatic press shot of Kurt at that age, but if you need a big smiley Kurt that’s not going to be all that helpful. It takes some effort to go through the old movies frame by frame and find the right expressions, and also the right angles. With big actors like Kurt Russell and Michael Douglas there’s plenty of reference out there. But that’s not always the case. When we de-aged Brad Pitt for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, he wasn’t a big actor at the age we were de-aging him to. His appearance in Thelma and Louise was the closest we could get, but even that wasn’t precise to what we wanted.
CINEFEX – What do the actors themselves think about the work you do?
TRENT CLAUS – I don’t know to what extent they get approval – that all happens on the studio side – but they do get shown our work. It’s always nerve-racking because you definitely want to impress them. Sam Jackson was very complimentary and really excited about the work we did on Captain Marvel. Michael Douglas joked that he wanted to buy the company! It’s exciting to make them happy because they’re the stars, and we’re doing a very intimate thing to their appearance.
CINEFEX – Actors care a lot about how they look. Many have a preferred makeup artist that they use consistently from film to film.
TRENT CLAUS – Yeah, and we do have actors who have a preference for Lola. They’ll insist that they use us, which we love of course.
CINEFEX – This year we’ve seen two distinctly difference approaches to de-aging. There’s Lola’s 2D approach, and the fully CG work done by Weta Digital on Gemini Man. How do you see things developing in the future?
TRENT CLAUS – They’re definitely two very different methodologies, and I think there’s a need for both. I think there’s a lot of room to do it full CG, but then reintroduce some organic elements from a plate back onto it using our process. That’s something that I would like to experiment with.
CINEFEX – In Avengers: Endgame, you aged Chris Evans to portray Captain America at the age of 120, and took Michael Douglas as Hank Pym back to the year 1970. How far can you push your approach? Is there a point at which it breaks down?
TRENT CLAUS – It’s really hard when you cross the line of adolescence. The changes that happen at puberty are immense, so trying to believably take an actor past that threshold is really hard. Thankfully it hasn’t really come up, because it would be nearly impossible to do. I would definitely try to convince the production not to do it!
CINEFEX – So there’s a threshold of youth. What about old age?
TRENT CLAUS – Going the other way there’s much more free rein, because there’s no reference. I don’t think there’s any limit going that way. If we can do 120 years old for Captain America, I think we can do anything.