Health

Kumail Nanjiani Says He's Buff for a Role—But Movie Muscles Are Mostly CGI

We know the bodies we're seeing on the big screen aren’t real because the people who make superhero movies already told us.
Katie Way
Brooklyn, US
January 5, 2021, 9:18pm
Superhero looking at view from city rooftop
Photo via Getty Images

Some of the buzz around Kumail Nanjiani’s physical transformation, which the actor said he underwent to prepare for a role in upcoming Marvel film The Eternals, has felt a little… off. Not just because Nanjiani’s fans believe his new, bulky appearance has received outsized scrutiny and “body shaming” compared to white actors like Chris Something or Hugh Jackman who’ve had similar #fitness #journeys. But according to people who actually edit television and movies, it’s extremely common for visual effects studios to alter even humanity’s most jacked specimens to be even bigger on screen. It’s a good time to remember that not much we’re seeing is real.

It now feels par for the course that once an entertainer snags a role in an upcoming Marvel or DC project, they’ll be bulking up accordingly in order to achieve that vein-popping, didn’t-know-there-was-muscle-there comic book look. But it still is never enough: A 2014 Mashable feature and a 2016 Vulture story on the same subject dug into the intense, extensive, and expensive work that goes into editing actors’ faces and bodies both in movies and on TV—the kind of close-up beauty editing work that’s more commonly expected and discussed in still images like ad campaigns, spreads in fashion magazines, or a member of the Kardashian extended universe’s Instagram feed. 

In the Vulture piece, VFX artists discuss lengthening torsos, erasing acne, correcting eyebrows and grafting famous faces onto “fitter” bodies with ease. One also offhandedly remarks: “We can easily enhance muscles.” And once you get into the realm of people editing the Hulk and the Infinity Glove into the picture, the VFX get truly extreme. In early 2020, a feature from Cartoon Brew broke down the way animators brought Josh Brolin’s Thanos, too ripped for this world, to life: By Frankensteining Chris Hemsworth’s muscles onto Brolin and then blowing them up even further.

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“Out of all the people, we had so much footage of [Hemsworth] without a shirt on or with exposed arms, and that guy just has so much muscle movement happening on every little twitch that he does. A traditional muscle system doesn’t really help you there because when an arm goes down, nothing much is going on. So really we ended up exaggerating [him] and art-directed those muscles to taste,” animation director Phil Cramer told Cartoon Brew. That’s right: The most muscular guy on a Marvel set still was not muscular enough to play another character in the same movie. Dare I say unrealistic beauty standards? 

If any VFX artists would be interested in sending us before/after reels of muscle enhancement, please reach out via email to katie.way@vice.com.

The physical transformations of male actors have long captivated the general imagination, especially when they’re perceived as the result of hard work and dedication to craft. Christian Bale’s rapid gain-and-shed routines (the American Psycho to Machinist pipeline is real!) and Daniel Day-Lewis’s notorious commitment to character acting are more than just trivia; they’re touchstones for how we understand the two men as actors and artists. Less revered are the actors who do the same thing for a check from Walt Disney. 

But at the end of the day, judging the bodies of people who change their appearance for a living is boring, because thanks to computer animation, we’re never going to see the real thing anyway—just a super edited version.

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