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  • Orbitae Films

The Art of CGI Capes

Updated: Jul 5

While everyone’s talking about the new Superman suit and debating whether it’s a good fit, if the color is too bright, or if they like the return of the red trunks or not, we thought we’d focus on capes… or more precisely, CGI capes.

Man of Steel | © 2013 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures Funding

As you might know, capes are a defining feature for many iconic characters, adding dramatic flair and helping define their silhouettes. From Superman’s iconic red cape to Doctor Strange’s mystical Cloak of Levitation, this flat piece of fabric is an essential part of superhero lore (and other characters, such as Kings or Spartans). But translating capes from comic book pages to the big screen is no easy feat. Practical ones can pose real dangers for actors and performers, or haven’t you tried to put a blanket on and go for a spin on your bike? Trust us… it’s not a good idea.

Despite this, capes remain a staple, thanks in large part to the magic of CGI.

Real capes can be cumbersome and dangerous. They can easily get caught in machinery, doors, or underfoot, posing significant risks during stunts and action scenes. Additionally, they don’t always move as intended, leading to continuity issues and sometimes behaving unpredictably in wind or water. In the past, directors worked with shorter capes, used lighter fabrics to make them billow, or relied on other techniques to add drama to the scene. This was the case with Burton’s Batman, whose cape had an internal structure to give it the iconic bat-like shape. However, not all heroes needed such shape. Therefore, filmmakers increasingly relied on CGI to bring capes to life on screen.

CGI Capes
Batman | © 1989 Warner Bros

It seems to be in 1995 when a superhero first heralded a CG cape. It was for “Batman Forever”. Given the numerous scenes with elaborate stunts, they needed a better (and safer) way to add the cape. As explained in Befores and Afters, “the digital Batman, complete with cape, would ultimately be considered one of the first photoreal full-body digital stunt performers in a film, paving the way for so many synthetic superheroes to come”. This set a precedent for future superhero films, demonstrating how CGI capes can enhance storytelling and character depth.

This new capability to direct how a cape moves made it possible to bring characters such as Spawn to the screen in 1997. This was particularly crucial for this antihero because his cape is a powerful, almost sentient part of his character, capable of morphing shapes, extending to great lengths, and providing both defense and offense. Therefore, a CGI cape was used in several sequences to accurately portray the aforementioned abilities. Another more recent example of a cape with emotions that needed more animation than just dramatic flow is Doctor Strange’s Cloak of Levitation.

Spawn | © 1997 New Line Cinema

Even when capes don’t have expressive qualities, rendering them in CGI allows for consistent, dramatic visuals, especially during action sequences and flight scenes. Superman's cape is a prime example of this. In Zack Snyder’s "Man of Steel", CGI was used to give the floor-length cape an epic movement of its own, allowing it to billow heroically as he soared through the skies, creating memorable shots. This created a sense of grandeur and power that would be impossible with a practical cape. Similarly, Homelander's cape in "The Boys" is frequently rendered in CGI to ensure it moves in a specific way, enhancing his intimidating, menacing, yet dynamic presence.

"Anytime  [Homelander]'s doing anything crazy like wires or flying or anything like that, we're gonna pull the cape and go CG. We want to control the physics of it when he's flying because that's a big tell for which way the wind's moving”, visual effects supervisor, Stephan Fleet, on Corridor Crew.
CGI capes
The Boys | ©Amazon Content Services LLC

Now, bear in mind that creating a CG cape is still not just “click and drop”. It involves several essential steps to achieve a realistic effect, such as creating a 3D model of the cape, adding cloth dynamics to ensure it moves realistically, and texturing it to look like actual fabric rather than a strange blob of color, just to mention a few. Depending on the shot, VFX artists either animate the cape or use advanced cloth simulations for it to move exactly as the director needs. Oh, and you'll probably need a digi-double too.

This does not mean you need a CG cape all the time! On the contrary, as we always say, it's the mix between real props and CGI that creates the illusion. Chose your shots wisely and decide when and why to use the 3D one, rather than the real thing.

Pro Tip: When incorporating a cape into your hero design, prioritize its role in the story. Decide if the cape should have expressive qualities or if it primarily serves an aesthetic purpose. Collaborate closely with your VFX supervisor early in the pre-production process to ensure the cape enhances your character’s presence throughout the movie. For expert guidance on when to use CGI versus practical effects, and to get comprehensive solutions, consider reaching out to Orbitae. We’re happy to help!

So, in the end, and despite Edna Mode’s aversion to capes, 3D technology has given these iconic accessories a new lease on life in superhero films and beyond. Now that you know, the next time you see a superhero’s cape fluttering majestically on screen, remember that it is likely CGI bringing these legendary garments to life.

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