Head’s Up! Part 3 – Talking Iron Man’s Heads-Up Display with Cantina Creative

By Jeremiah Hall (doddleNEWS)

In Part 3 of our interview with Cantina Creative, led by Stephen Lawes, Creative Director, and Interface Designer for Film Jayse Hansen, we find out what they used to put the HUD into the shots, and what they think of Adobe After Effects. Cantina Creative did Iron Man’s HUD (head’s up display) and the monitor screens inside The Avengers‘ helicarrier. (Read part 1 and part 2.)

We asked Lawes and Hansen how it is all put together.

Lawes says the shoots were done with the Arri Alexa and pre-color corrected at EFILM.  Then they were sent as a Stereo-D conversion of Robery Downey, Jr.’s head into 3D space.  Meanwhile, Cantina got the HUD ready with 3D tracking and got approval for the HUDs at the various points.  Then they added it in with After Effects.

Cantina used a mostly Macintosh-based work-flow.  In fact, they mostly use iMacs, with small servers within Cantina.  The software they used?  Adobe After Effects, Illustrator, Photoshop, Cinema 4D, and Nuke.  Also a lot of plug-ins for After Effects and several After Effects scripts.  Some came from in-house, and others are easy to find on the net, such as Lloyd Alvarez’s BG Render, which you can find here.

Lawes says he has used After Effects since the early 1990s.

Lawes said, “I am well aware of what it can and cannot do, and I like it for what its benefits are.”

Hansen says the render times started around three minutes per frame, then varied.

Hansen said, “It [started] almost three minutes per frame, but for the most part it was one and a half to two minutes per frame.”  He says it changed as they figured out what was causing the longer render time, such as turning off an unneeded layer.  He says the layers were rendered in full 32-bit with motion blur and depth-of-field for the camera.

The HUD rear view.

Hansen said, “You’re doubling up those graphics for the facial highlights and doubling them up for the eye reflections.  So you’re duplicating everything and compounding and compounding and adding effects on top of all that.  You’re doing some crazy, complex shots, and yet still being able to output at a decent frame rate of time.”

Lawes said, “After Effects is a creative tool for creative problem solving.”

Lawes says it’s not necessarily a production tool, but said, “. . .even though that’s what we’ve been using it for and will continue to use it for.”  He says it allows artists to not be locked in to doing a task a certain way, and gives them the ability to make fast changes to a project.

Lawes says he has had many arguments with people about the toolset he uses.  He says many people have preconceptions rather than actual knowledge of After Effects.  But, he says, when it comes to visual effects it’s the end result that counts.

Lawes said, “At the end of the day, visual effects are exactly what it is in the title – it’s a  visual effect.  It really doesn’t matter what you do, or how you do what you do.  As long as it solves a problem, that’s fine.  You can use a pencil and paper.  If it gets you the desired result and it looks correct, or looks the way you intend it to look, then [the way] really does not matter.”

Hansen says he gets the same reaction from people when he talks about The Avengers.

Aboard the helicarrier.

Hansen said, “Even long-time After Effects users are like, ‘There’s no way you did this in After Effects.  Sure, you did some stuff in it, but the final?  What did you do the final in?’  And I have to explain that the final stereo shots were delivered straight from After Effects.”

Hansen said, “I think it really works with my main tools, which are Illustrator, Photoshop and Cinema 4D.  There’s just no other kind of compositing-type animation tool that works as well with all those players as After Effects.  For me, some of this stuff was done so fast, you needed that direct kind of input-output workflow, and that’s what After Effects does.  I think it feels more like a designer’s tool then some of the other compositing apps, and that’s why I prefer it.”

Hansen says he learned from Lawes.

Hansen said, “Stephen can do anything with any tool you give him.  Some of the preconceptions I even had about After Effects, what it could do and what it couldn’t do, Stephen just blew those out of the water.  He figured out ways of doing things and making it work.  That’s a big thing I’ve learned on this as well is just bend that tool, whatever it is, to do what you want.  Find a way.  There’s always a way.”

The HUD.

What else did they learn from The Avengers?

Hansen said, “I typically do graphic design for monitors and things like that.  And it’s all very 2D, flat design, grid-based type design.  The HUD, though, you’re typically looking at your design in reverse.  You’re looking at Robert Downey, Jr.’s face, and you’re seeing the design from behind and kind of a little bit to the side, almost a front quarter-view of it.  And so the challenge there was designing for it to look its best in that view.  You’re designing your graphics to look best from behind at an angle.  You begin to think of the graphics more like a product design, or an industrial design where you’re designing the dimension of it.  And so its got to look proper.  Its got to all line up when you’re look at the P.O.V. shot, which is how Tony sees it through his visor.  It’s got to look understandable and clear at that level, but its almost got to look even better from behind.  So you’re designing it from the front, you’re designing it from the side.  And especially because we were doing a side-cut on this, it had to look good from the side, from behind and from the front.  That was kind of a unique learning experience.”

Lawes said, “Personally speaking, the thing I enjoyed most was not doing it.”

Everybody laughs.

Lawes continued, “I was able to hire really smart talented people to do it.”

Lawes says this is the largest team he’s put together since Sky Captain.

Lawes said, “It was so nice to hand things off to other people who had a different point of view, and to see it from that point of view.  It’s easy to get stuck in kind of a blanket approach to design, or your own point of view on design or visual effects.  To have other people come in and oversee this work, and do such an amazing and kind of consistent work, it’s one of the things I’m proud of.”

About Jeremiah Hall

I am a videographer living in the Cincinnati, OH area. I have over fifteen years experience, with my name on a couple of Emmys and a Murrow or two. When I'm not in front of After Effects or teaching editing techniques, I like to play with camera equipment and as much tech as I can find the time for.


  1. jason says:

    You can download layered photoshop template…It’s really cool, I am playing with it for days now. Elements are layered, so you can even animate in AE in 3D. For quick mockups just import your photos and done!