The Avengers effect 

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Usually I would leave the movie stuff to Feet Banks, but after seeing The Avengers last week — officially a billion dollar movie after only three weekends — I feel reasonably confident when I say that the comic book movie genre is far from being tapped out.

If anything, movie executives will be falling over themselves to churn out even more of this kind of PG-rated entertainment.

There are a total of 12 movies in the billion-dollar club, and I'm happy to say that most of them are science fiction and fantasy titles — genres that get little respect as a rule but that I've personally always preferred to movies about real life. I go to movies to escape, not to ruminate over the fragile human condition — and it seems I'm not the only one.

Avatar tops the list, although The Avengers is on pace at this point to beat James Cameron's revolutionary 3D movie. Titanic, another James Cameron movie, ranks second, followed by the last Harry Potter flick, followed by Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, Toy Story 3, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Stars Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Alice in Wonderland and The Dark Knight.

The next 40 titles includes the other Star Wars titles, Harry Potter and Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, countless superhero movies, Pixar and Dreamworks animated films and other very visual flicks.

What all these movies have in common is technology and special effects. Even Titanic, the most dramatic title on the list, was made possible by technology.

While the plot, script and acting in Avengers was above par, it was the CGI that really stood out for me.

Just when you think you've gotten used to it, that you've seen everything, the sight of gigantic, armoured, alien insects plowing through New York (a frequent target for this kind of thing, and therefore ripe for comparison) was as big for me as seeing the liquid metal Terminator for the first time in T:2.

The Avengers was produced by Marvel Studios, which used every digital trick in the book to pull it off.

One interesting choice was the decision to film the movie in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, which allowed the camera to capture the size difference between characters as well as the scale of New York City during the alien invasion. A variety of different cameras were employed, including a digital movie camera, a Canon EOS 5D Mark II SLR and even a traditional 35mm camera.

The movie was not filmed in 3D like Avatar, but 3D was added in post-production — as was the digital re-master that allowed the film to open at IMAX 3D theatres.

The animation was handled by several different studios; Industrial Light and Magic, George Lucas's motion picture effects company, handled The Hulk exclusively, using technology they developed during the last Hulk picture to make everyone's favourite angry green monster as real as possible.

Using the latest motion capture technology they animated everything — muscles, movies, teeth, hair, body and nose hair, eyeballs and even The Hulk's tongue. Every movement and facial expression by actor Mark Ruffalo was translated frame by painstaking frame into the film. When The Hulk bends over his skin creases like you would see with a normal person.

Weta Digital, which is also the studio behind the upcoming Prometheus film and did work on Avatar, took over the animation of Iron Man from ILM, and did an incredible job with it. The new suit, and incredible transition into it, took a lot of work and back and forth between studios to get just right.

Apparently there were a few issues, including the fact that ILM and Weta use different texture mapping technologies, which meant Weta had to do a lot of the work over again.

Weta also handled a lot of the animated battle scenes including the fight between Thor and Iron Man, the animated flying aircraft carrier and other set pieces.

Method Design, yet another studio, did the closing credits, which featured a two-minute, all-animated film that introduces the character of Thanos, an Avengers supervillain who apparently orchestrated the events of the movie.

In total, 15 different special effects companies were used in The Avengers, specializing in visual effects, facial motion capture and live action affects.

The total budget for the film was around $220 million, and it's safe to say that probably half to three-quarters of the total was spent on visual effects and animation. A quick look at IMDB reveals a total of 34 makeup and hair personnel, a 132-member strong art department, a 27-person music and sound effects department, 38 special effects workers and, unbelievably, a visual effects team with 964 people — roughly the entire population of my high school.

If you haven't seen it yet, be sure to soak up the visual effects as well as everything else going on.

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