Avengers © Keystone

Five Swiss super talents in the Marvel Universe

Where would Stan Lee's superheroes be without Switzerland? The 2019 blockbuster 'Avengers: Endgame' called for no end of Swiss prowess. Indeed, even the heroes in tights seem drawn to our country...

So just what is it that ties the Marvel Universe to the Swiss Confederation? Because although this may come as a surprise, our country has apparently served as fertile ground for quite a number of its superheroes.
Fans will probably remember how in the first Captain America, Tony Stark's father Howard – while sitting at the controls of a plane flying over Switzerland in the middle of the Second World War – suggests that the super soldier make a stopover in Lucerne for a fondue. Then we have Iron Man 3, which starts with a shot of the Federal Palace in Bern – where Tony, half-drunk, has just given a lecture. And in the TV series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, one of the main characters is whisked away to Zurich for medical treatment...

Marvel ©Unsplash@cmreflections

Clichés galore

We could go on like this for some time. "Switzerland has always been a big hit with Marvel" explains Luc Grandsimon, a specialist in comics at the Fnac store in Lausanne. "For an American audience, things need to be easy to understand. And with Switzerland, there's a host of clichés writers can easily tap into – mountains, fondue, Geneva and its international conventions, Swiss neutrality..." Flashes of Switzerland that can mainly be found in the original Marvel comics. "Don't forget, when Marvel Studios launches a new film, specialist staff who know the entire Marvel Universe by heart are on hand to analyse every aspect of the screenplay and see if it can be tied in to something from one of the original comics" says Marc Atallah, director of the science fiction museum Maison d’Ailleurs in Yverdon. "If there's a particular scene in one of the comics that takes place in Zurich, it has to be filmed in Zurich too. The fans would be in uproar over the lack of consistency otherwise." It is also in the comics where we learn that the Scarlet Witch (played by Elizabeth Olsen in the films) once lived in a Swiss Alpine chalet, for example, and how a certain scientist's obsession with gamma rays led to his death at the hands of the Hulk – in a castle on the Jungfrau.
Less well known perhaps are the hidden Swiss talents behind these superheroes...

Avengers: Endgame and its five Swiss superheroes

  • 1st super talent Lara Lom

A young visual effects producer from Geneva who always dreamed of working in the film industry, Lom – armed with a bachelor's degree in film, theatre and literature, followed by a master's – was involved in the last two Avengers for Cinesite, one of the most respected companies in the VFX industry. Her job is to deliver visual effects that are both flawless and on time. Skyfall and Patriots Day are among some of Lom's other successes, but she surpassed herself with Avengers: Endgame, where she was in charge of a team of 175 –  which should come as no surprise: a three-hour film needs a lot of special effects!

  • 2nd super talent Beat Frutiger

This first-rate production designer from Zurich has been working in Hollywood for almost 25 years, bringing his magic to the sets of such blockbusters as Star Trek and Captain America: The Winter Soldier as well as more intimate films like Elizabethtown. Key to Frutiger's work are research and design.
The scenes he worked on for Avengers: Endgame were from very large sets, such as the scene in Avengers: Infinity War, where Gamora, still a child, meets Thanos on his planet. In Endgame, he also put together a 1960's set for the Captain America flashback scene...
Frutiger always tries to leave small details in his sets that hint at his homeland, like a picture postcard of Switzerland on a fridge or a book by a Swiss author on a shelf.

  • 3rd, 4th and 5th super talents: Markus Gross, Thabo Beeler, Bernd Bickel

The first appearance of the purple titan Thanos – who would go on to give Captain America and his buddies such a hard time – was in a post-credits scene in the first Avengers film in 2012. Since then, this super villain has established himself as the most successful in the entire Marvel Universe. One reason for this is the psychological: his motivation is deeper than the usual bad guys. In Avengers: Infinity War for example, Thanos arbitrarily wipes out half the world's population with a click of his fingers to solve global overpopulation, erasing many superheroes from the face of the earth at the same time. But the other reason is how visually fascinating he is, with his enormous square jaw and stony skin texture incorporated into the features of the actor portraying him, Josh Brolin. It isn't just the quality of the visual effects, but how the actor manages to convey a rather impressive range of emotions.

Thanos © Marvel Studios 2018
Thanos © Marvel Studios 2018

The Oscars' sci-tech award

The key to this success story is a technology that was created and developed in Zurich, the result of close cooperation between ETH Zurich and Disney Research Studios, set up on the university campus ten years ago. The Medusa Performance Capture System – which was developed a few years ago by Markus Gross, Thabo Beeler and Bernd Bickel from Switzerland and Derek Bradley from the US – is a facial capture system that can reconstruct the three-dimensional shape of the human face at very high resolution, making it possible to transpose an actor's body movements and facial expressions to just about any type of creature. In fact, the work of these four men was deemed so important they won an Academy Scientific and Technical Award in 2019.

Award © photo Cyrill Beeler
Award © photo Cyrill Beeler

The project started in 2014, at a time when motion capture was booming but it was still difficult for scanners to reproduce certain aspects, especially for actors with facial hair. But this is where Medusa excels – particularly when it comes to reproducing a person's eyes, which are crucial to conveying emotions. The system contains hundreds of scans that have captured the various movements of a face – its skin, muscles and bones. Based on these scans, a machine learning algorithm then models the creature's movements according to the actor's expressions. More than 130 actors have sat in front of the camera and lighting set-up known as the Medusa rig, including Andy Serkis for his role as Supreme Leader Snoke in Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

This article first appeared in Le Temps in April 2019.