LOS ANGELES — Deluxe’s Method Studios (www.methodstudios.com) served as a primary VFX vendor for Marvel’s new Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 film, having completed work on more than 500 shots, including the final closeup on Rocket. Set to the backdrop of Awesome Mixtape #2, the film continues the adventures of Peter Quill, Gamora, Drax, Groot and Rocket as they unravel the mystery of Peter’s true parentage.
In keeping with the visual spectacle of the first installment, director James Gunn and VFX supervisor Chris Townsend returned to Deluxe’s Method Studios, this time to create hero characters Rocket and Baby Groot for several key sequences, and to handle a broad scope of work that included large-scale destruction and spaceship crashes, full CG animation and environment design, and the feature’s final scene. Method’s VFX supervisor Nordin Rahhali led a team of more than 250 artists on the project.
“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was the most challenging project I’ve been a part of, and the end result was also the most rewarding,” says Rahhali. “It's not often that a body of work includes such a fun mixture of elements to create; from fantastic worlds filled with alien scenery and plant life, to epic space ship crashes and giant energy tentacles, to believable performances from Rocket and Baby Groot that draw on your heartstrings and emotions. With such a wide range of work to tackle, James and Chris were very open to our ideas which made for a strong creative collaboration.”
One of the most complex sequences Method created was the film’s final scene, which featured not only a Ravager fleet, fireworks and holographic lasers integrated with live action plates, but also a close up of Rocket shedding a tear. To make the CG raccoon emote convincingly, Method artists used in-house footage of Method animation supervisor Keith Roberts performing the scene for reference, studying the macro facial movements like minor eye darts or blinks, in addition to what was filmed on-set and in the sound booth by actor Bradley Cooper, who provides Rocket’s voice. Artists then translated the performance to Rocket using keyframe animation, making adjustments once his fur was added. There was no motion capture shoot data.
“Rocket is almost having a spiritual moment and it’s such a weighty shot so we were extra mindful to nail it without overdoing it,” Roberts explains. “We still have to fight against the uncanny valley and when the timing is off on even the most subtle facial movements, the viewer’s eye immediately detects it as phony – especially when it’s a raccoon crying. It’s a very brave and interesting shot, and we had a consistent feedback loop to really hone into the emotion of it.”
For Rocket, Method created its own muscle and skin simulation rigs using assets converted from production. While the character aesthetic needed to match the first film for consistency, Rocket is thrown into new scenarios in ”Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” that required new creative.
Additionally, shooting scenes with Rocket was somewhat fluid and partially improvised, with actor Sean Gunn serving as the on-set stand-in. For the full CG sequence in which Rocket attempts to instruct Baby Groot on how to detonate a bomb, Method artists really got into the act. They staged performances acting increasingly annoyed, breaking down moments like an awkward cough or arm scratch and trying out different combinations to apply to the CG characters in the scene.
The cave environment around Baby Groot and Rocket was designed to be highly geometric, comprising Mandlebulb and Apollonian gasket fractals, which also feature heavily on the surface of the red planet. Method received early creative from the art department for the vibrant red planet palace and surrounding environment, then extended those designs using mathematics as a foundation. A small hit squad of four led by Method Art Director Ming Pan set the look, expanding the palette to incorporate vibrant green, teal, and yellow in the final shots.
For the shot of the Guardians’ Milano spaceship crashing onto Berhart, some aerial photography was taken, but the majority of the shot was built from scratch. Shoots were conducted on a forest sound stage in Atlanta and in a lush state park north of Portland, which was selected for an abundance of moss-wrapped tree branches that provided an otherworldly feel. Method created three highly detailed versions of the Milano depicting various levels of damage. Ultimately, the ship plows into the ground toward the camera, uprooting vegetation as its wings are torn off. Using layered simulations, artists were able to art direct the foreground elements and balance scene elements. The sky is a matte painting based on footage from Atlanta, but given a green tint, to differentiate the planet from the familiar blue hue of Earth.
Method also created Ego’s alabaster egg-shaped spaceship exterior and partial interior. To convey the scale of the ship, artists added subsurface fine details and etching. Inlaying architectural gold sculptural elements into the ship’s surface along with refraction blur enhanced the depth, and helped unify the overall modern aesthetic. On the interior, artists extended the environment, replacing a wall with animated, depth-cued fractals and smoothing any seams.