Interview: Charlie Wen, Visual Development Supervisor of Captain America: The First Avenger

One of my favorite images to come out of last year's San Diego Comic Con was a bit of concept art from Marvel Studio's Thor. It exists as an exclusive poster depicting Thor and Loki in their climactic battle on the Bifrost bridge. This was my introduction to the painting work of artist Charlie Wen. 

Wen cut his teeth on the first two God of War games as a visual effects artist and art director before creating images like this for Marvel Studios. You can find some of his work in The Art of Thor the Movie and The Art of Captain America: The First Avenger

We had the opportunity to talk to Wen about his involvement with Captain America: The First Avenger as Visual Development Supervisor, specifically as the man behind the Red Skull. 

Included are exclusive images from The Art of Captain America: The First Avenger, available now in fine book stores. 

iFanboy:  As a Visual Development Supervisor, when does your role in the filmmaking process begin? When did you start work on Captain America: The First Avenger and what were your first steps in establishing the visual style of this world? 
Charlie Wen:  My role as a visual development supervisor begins from the first time we start talking to the director and producers about core story ideas of the films. From there, because characters are the representative icons in the marvel universe, we most often proceed by designing the main characters, usually the heroes and villains, as well as the central key frames to help visualize a look and feel of the film, or even just specific design challenges like how Iron Man's suit comes out of a suit case onto Tony. 
For Captain America, I joined the project a little bit later in the process as I stayed on Thor until the very end. So by the time I came on board, Ryan [Meinerding] had already done multiple iconic images that had helped establish the feel for the film, taken passes at most of the major characters.  My core responsibility was to come up with the design for Red Skull and help establish a look for Hydra.  As I finalized the look for Red Skull’s chief costume, it served as the pointer to what the rest of the Hydra was to look like.  
iFanboy:  Captain America is a period piece with science fiction elements. Can you pinpoint any key reference material that inspired its look in terms of historical authenticity or the characters' comic book roots? Did the WWII setting serve as a greater challenge in designing the technology than a modern setting might present? 
Wen:  In general, any kind of Nazi era designs specifically revolving Hitler’s or Goring’s costumes provided excellent reference, but most importantly, helped me define design motifs that capture the zeitgeist of the times.  As far as Red Skull’s head, Ryan had done several great designs already, of which they [director and producers] chose the version that most closely matched its comic book beginnings.  This was good for me in  that the closer we stayed to a traditional Red Skull, the more play room I had with his costume designs.  As for Captain America, the Ultimate’s version of him was the closest comic book reference to what Ryan eventually designed.
I don’t think the WWII setting presented a greater challenge in designing since there are so many references for that time period compared to other lesser-known historical times. As long as you have a wealth of knowledge for that era, it functions as a prime jumping board for designing something that feels new, yet familiar.  Part of the challenge of designing for a period film is doing the research and coming up with a hypothesis of what the general public's collective knowledge is of the period.  This helps to keep enough of what people relate that time period with in the designs, then adding supplemental elements that are time-relevant, but lesser-known.
iFanboy:  What were your key bits of inspiration and challenges in designing the Red Skull? 
Wen:  Since my core task was to help come up with the look for Hydra, it made sense to begin with the head, Red Skull.  I started with Nazi references. But the pursued look was unique in that it needed to feel like it was stemming from, yet separate from Nazi: not just another division, but an isolated, independent entity apart from it. It probably went through five or six permutations before coming to the final look of Red Skull. 
Building on the design motifs and lines of Red Skull, Ryan and I approached and started getting some direction for the look of Hydra. One of my happiest moments with Hydra is the initial helmets, which helped set a tone for the Hydra soldiers.  Hydra did , however, take a while to finalize, and eventually as the project moved to England, it kept developing there and took longer than expected to conclude on the look.  There had been multiple versions of “Nazi” designs in the video game world in recent history, that we had to be careful not to retread the same grounds.
iFanboy:  You've also created terrific images for the Thor film. We know the movies are all connected in terms of story and actor crossover. How involved is the visual design team of a movie like Captain America with the team for next year's Avengers film or any of the other Marvel Studios projects? 
Wen:  There are a couple of us from Captain America who are part of our current visual development team. Our Visual Development team here at Marvel was set up to keep a consistent look to the Marvel universe, so we are involved with all the projects here, including Avengers and future films.