Special Report: 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
Issue: September 1, 2014

Special Report: 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

As summer 2014 comes to an end, we need to acknowledge not only the number of blockbusters released in theaters, but also the huge role visual effects played in so many of this year’s films. From Godzilla, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Edge of Tomorrow to Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Into The Storm, the post production industry raised the bar with some outstanding and truly-noteworthy VFX.

While Post has covered many of these films throughout the season, including our “VFX Wizards of Summer” feature in last month’s issue, it seems that the biggest thrill ride came at the end of the 2014 summer season with Marvel Studios’ and Walt Disney Pictures’ Guardians of the Galaxy. Grossing an estimated $251,884,000 at press time, surpassing its $170 million dollar production budget and going strong into September, Marvel Pictures fully created entirely new galaxies, alien heroes and villains with high-octane VFX. More than just a film, Marvel, along with director James Gunn, created a franchise.

Guardians of the Galaxy, which stars Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, and the voices of Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper, is an outer space, sci-fi thriller filled with aliens, heroes, space ships, and large-scale epic battles, with characters that include hero Earthling Peter Quill and the completely CG characters of Groot (a talking tree) and Rocket (a gun-slinging, foul-mouthed, genetically-altered raccoon). 

In order to bring Guardians of the Galaxy to life, it took more than five VFX studios in an impressive collaborative effort.  Here, Post speaks with Nicolas Aithadi, VFX supervisor with MPC (Vancouver) about how his studio completed 857 shots, including the full CG character Groot, environments and spacecraft, and how his studio worked closely with Framestore on bringing Rocket Raccoon to life; as well as with Pete Travers, VFX supervisor with Sony Imageworks (Culver City) on completing 88 shots, including the engine-room sequence, the Dark Aster ship and Howard the Duck in the final credits.


What were MPC’s VFX contributions for Guardians? A lot of character work? 

“It was that — we had several things. First it was character work. We did design and blocked Groot – when I say design, we started with concepts from Marvel and evolved the character to the point of where he is in the film now.

"Meanwhile, Framestore was doing the same thing with Rocket Raccoon, it was the blocking of Rocket in the film, and at one point we had to actually exchange assets. So, they gave us Rocket and we gave them Groot, and we had to match their Rocket and they had to match our Groot; those were the big ones. 

"We also had a lot of environment work because we had the opening sequence in Morag, the title sequence at the beginning of the film, the temple with Quill at the beginning, plus the chase after the temple sequence, and then we had to do the Xandar planet and environment for the sequence when all the characters meet.

"We had this massive battle sequence where we had to do the spaceships and all the fights, the explosions and the crash, where the ship crashed through the city. In all, we did [857] shots.”

Can you discuss Groot in more detail?

“The Marvel art department had all of these designs for Groot and that was the one that was used in the Comic-Con teaser last July. When it was time to think about the film, there were ideas that Jim [Gunn] had about how he wanted the character to be more relatable; he wanted to make sure that people were falling in love with the character. And so, there was this idea that Groot would look very gentle and agreeable, and at the same time, can turn into a feared, very angry and quite-powerful character. There was a challenge there.

"The original concept for Groot was very tree-like — a little bit too much. It’s difficult to relate to a tree [laughs]. One of the first things we did to change the design, to humanize him a little bit, was to change the proportions slightly, still keeping with the idea that it’s a tree; he still had a lack of symmetry, but trying to bring him back to the human realm in terms of the shape.

"Also, what we thought was one of the most important things was his eyes. I’m stressing this because we spent a lot of time working on Groot’s eyes and we never go into that much detail into creating eyes — it was everything. We were looking at eyes all day for a month, trying to understand why, when you look at the human eye, you know it’s real. It looks through you. But when you look at the CG eye, it’s just dead. So we tried to bring as much detail as humanly possible in the time we had on the eyes. We made sure that the eyes weren’t symmetrical — because CG will make them perfect, but people are not perfect, and I think that’s one of those things we brought to Groot — and that helped him a lot. We really ended up giving him a nice look. His eyes were fantastic. I remember looking at the screen for like 30 minutes, at his face, it was just beautiful.

"It was quite important that the character needed to be understood through his facial expressions. These characters [Groot] were more complex characters than we ever built. Because he is made of branches and not just carved into one chunk — we actually decided to do every branch individually, so the whole body is made of hundreds of individual branches and all these branches, when we were rigging the character, we made sure that they wouldn’t bend like rubber, but like wood.

"Ultimately, we had to do five different Groots, because we had the one from the film, the main Groot; then we had the Groot with these little, tiny arms; then, after the crash, we had to do Groot 2, which was a twig; then we had what we called Groot bud, which was the tiny Groot in the ship at the end; and then we had to do tiny Groot which was the one that was dancing at the end credits. The Groots were fantastic.”

How closely did you work with Framestore?

“Once we did all that, we shifted to Framestore to replicate it, obviously because we didn’t incorporate the tools, the only thing we could give them was the model and a couple of animation tests and cache that they could use, but then they had to replicate every aspect of the rigging and everything that wasn’t compatible between the two systems. It was a big, big task.

"I think that was the best collaboration we ever had with another company. We actually worked hand in hand for a couple of months. We were going to them and they were coming to us. We were discussing their Rocket, they were discussing our Groot. It was important that both studios got the characters right, because they are both hero characters and so they’re required to look exactly the same every time.” 

Can you discuss your work on Rocket?

“When we did Rocket, that was the most complex. Groot was complex technically, because the rigging was extremely complex. For Rocket, it was the fur. Framestore gave us the model and pictures and then they were sending us a data file that contained the fur, and Framestore is using Arnold to render and its own proprietary software for fur. At MPC, we are also using our own proprietary tool for fur, called Furtility, and using RenderMan to render and those are very important software tools that are crucial to fur. 

"One thing we didn’t want to do was get the groom from Framestore and then, if we wanted to change something, we’d have to ask Framestore to change it and then they’d send it back to us. We needed to bring the groom in, and retain control of the groom and be able to change the length, the thickness, textures, whatever we needed to have control over so we wouldn’t be dependant on Framestore. We knew they would be very busy and we would be very busy, so R&D people managed to bring the cache into Furtility and make sure we were able to keep control over it.

"So, I think three months — and that was like a daily thing for three months straight, we were working on matching every single details on Rocket, be it the costumes, the fur, the reflection in the eyes, reflection in the nose, the way he moved, everything had to be exactly the same. Even though it was two different software tools, they had to match — it was quite interesting.”

What tools did you use?

“All the CG was done in Maya — we used proprietary that was in Maya all the time and all compositing was done in Nuke, and we used RenderMan for rendering. We used V-Ray to render as well.”

What would you say was your favorite part of the project?

“My favorite part of the project was, hands down, working on Groot. I love Rocket, but Groot is my baby." 


What were Imageworks' VFX contributions to the film?

“Coming in fairly late in the game, we totaled something like 88 shots in the whole movie. There was some spill over work that needed to get done — it was like a 911 situation.

"We just kind of dove right in. This work was very 3D and the bulk of our shots mainly lived in the engine room of the Dark Aster, the big ship, and we had to kind of build this fully-3D atmospheric engine room where these guys have hand-to-hand combat. 

"What’s tricky is trying to establish a rapport rather quickly [with the studios already working on the film] because they’ve been at it for at least a year, and the director maybe two years or longer, and we have to dive in and start speaking the language. That actually ended up being very easy to do for so many reasons. For instance, Marvel, and James Gunn the director, were extremely receptive to us. Also, on some shows you work on, you’re always asking for the data and it’s hard to get it because they’re under the gun. But in this case, they barraged us with all of the necessary data we could possibly need. We got the post visualization models of the engine room and we basically re-built it. But at least we had a starting point. We had about two months to do the work and we just dove right in and started building in 3D, a full-blown engine room with moving parts, everything.”

What tools did you use to build the 3D models?

“Maya. We’re all compositing in Nuke, and a lot of places use RenderMan for rendering, and we use Arnold. In these kinds of things, where there was a lot of shared data with MPC, because they created Groot, they were rendering Groot, and they needed to render Groot in our environment. 

"The standardization of the tools helps immensely. But nevertheless, every facility has its own proprietary stuff, plug-ins, whatever, and so that, when the data exchange happens, all of that stuff has to be dumbed way down into some kind of bare bones model in Maya that you can load up anywhere and that’s the kind of tricky stuff with it.”

In what format was the data you were working with when you received it?

“Well, with Marvel, you get the plates. The first order of business in all shows is color space — you have to figure out the color space they are working in. The color pipeline that they were using, color grading, etc., was very similar to when we worked with them on Captain America.

"But still, color is an 800-pound gorilla in the room because every camera has its own color space, the file format and the resolution and all of that. You combine that with color grading, you have to get what’s coming out of the camera neutralized to get it into a proper color space, and then you have to color grade it based on what the desired color sequence needs to be. It’s a challenge but also necessary.

"The trick with this stuff is not so much about getting enough money to do it, but getting enough time to do it. As nonlinear as we have become with our processes, we had to build a full-blown engine room and with only about two months, we had to be very careful because every calendar day mattered. And we’re sitting there going, ‘the models have to be done on this day, then we have to start the texturing and then we have to do the shading’ and it’s hard to add texture when you don’t have a model. 

"So anyway, there’s all this different order of events. But really, if I can be impressed by my own facility, that was the part that amazed me, that the guys were able to jump on things and stack and coordinate as quickly as they did.”

Can you talk more about the engine room?

“We ended up having a lot of back and forth with James, the director, on the look of the engine room, but at a certain point, we just needed to try and get into his head as quickly as possible and go, ‘OK, I have a feeling this is what he’s looking for,’ and that’s what comes from the experience of doing this a long time. We had a lot of great conversations, talking about things like, ‘There’s a certain level of danger in the engine room,’ so that means we need dangerous spinning turbines. You want to get the overall impression and the best way to do that is to run something through the pipes, so in some ways, actually doing some of this 911 work where you move really fast you get to the finish line quicker. Because the only way to know if you have the right thing is to push it through the entire pipe, comp it, put the foreground characters in, do it in a number of shots, get a feel for what kind of architecture is in this room that you’re seeing over the course of whatever it is, 70 shots, and then see if it’s good.”

Didn't you also create a Howard the Duck character for the end credits?

"Yes, we were on a conference call with Marvel, and they said, ‘We need you to build a character.’ Then the artwork came in and I was like, ‘Oh my God, they’re bringing Howard the Duck back.’ So, they basically said they had the artwork [for Howard the Duck] and they needed it in one shot, and we had to build a character. And honestly, talking about what’s impressive, the engine room was absolutely impressive, but we built a character that had cloth, fur, it was animated, talked, everything. In two weeks we had final renders — from start to finish. All we got handed from Marvel was a piece of artwork, an image. Animate it, model it, texture it and they needed it right away. But that’s the stuff I love. Honestly, just watching people of different skill sets work together to figure out a solution of how to get something done so quickly and successfully.”