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Framestore Takes the Road to ‘Knowhere’ on ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3’

Led by VFX Supervisor Stephane Naze, the company’s Montreal studio, alongside its London and Vancouver facilities, created Groot, Cosmo, their severed Celestial head HQ known as Knowhere, and the fight with Adam Warlock on Marvel Studios’ smash sci-fi adventure hit.

Framestore Montreal, led by VFX Supervisor Stephane Naze, collaborated with teams at company facilities in London and Vancouver to produce Groot; Cosmo; Knowhere, the Guardians’ HQ within a severed Celestial head; the fight with Adam Warlock; and the final party scene, for the smash Marvel Studios’ hit, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.  “I know Marvel Studios VFX Supervisor Stephane Ceretti well because we started in the industry together in the same year at BUF,” states Naze.  “Working with someone you know well helps a lot. But Stephane knows what he wants. It’s not based on technical choices but on what you want to tell and see.  Then from that you choose the right tool. That’s my approach as well.” 

In the film, directed by James Gunn, Cosmo is a dog in a Soviet astronaut suit who talks through a speaking device.  “When we got the concept art it was not the right dog and not necessarily the correct costume,” explains Naze.  “Then you got the picture of the right costume but not with the right dog so it was not like we had one source.  We did a bit of concept to also design the speaking device.  The idea was to simplify the costume because you don’t want to distract from the storytelling.  James Gunn was keen for the CG characters to have an actor onset emoting and delivering the lines.  Then he said, ‘I want to recognize the actress.’  But quickly we concluded after the first few tests it was about the timing and analyzing what she is emoting not giving her exactly the same facial features and reactions.”  The prevailing question was what does it mean for a dog to be upset?  “It’s us interpreting the visual as a dog being upset,” Naze notes. “In other words, it was not having the dog being human but having humans interpret the emotion in the way that we wanted and matching back to the actress.  That was important.” 

Part of creating Cosmo was to give her animalistic moves. “The idea in animation was not to have same flexibility but not to push the other way,” remarks Naze. “The key question was, ‘Do you want to see a dog walking in a painful way because it’s wearing a costume, or it doesn’t matter, and we adjust the dog with the costume?’” The groom was one of the most challenging parts of the character.  “When we did some tests with groom it was quickly not looking like the dog.  We came to the conclusion that the skin layer and bone structure were wrong.  The idea was to rely on the Internet to try to find a Red Golden Retriever with a minimal volume of the groom.  The idea was to define how the dog would look like without any groom because it was the most important base.  We did a lot of back and forth with the groom and modelling to define the bone structure.  We did an updated groom on it and it was suddenly looking so different.  The secret of doing a CG dog is to know what you have underneath and not just do the groom.  The groom is some of the best work of the company.” 

James Gunn was worried about the CG dog being distracting, especially with Cosmo also appearing in the Christmas special that was releasing before the movie. According to Naze, “James kept saying, ‘I want to see the dog.’  I told Stef that Cosmo would have to wait another three weeks because we had to come up with the answers to show that we can do him. When James saw Cosmo, he went, ‘This is amazing.’”  


Groot went through significant character development as he was now in his early 20s and had different variants throughout the movie.  “We developed the original version known as Young Adult Groot,” Naze reveals. “It was quite a sophisticated process to avoid any stretching and to play with all the vines. You have the bone structure and muscles were replaced with pieces of wood.  Instead of any stretching, the idea was to create gaps sometimes between the different pieces when they have to move to keep a maximum of the rigidity.”  The goal was to have Groot looking the same as in the Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1.  “I was expecting a lot of back and forth about what type of wood but they were keen to recognize Groot. It’s not just about the design because the face is quite different because he is way younger. To recognize Groot is in terms of the wood, colors, and moss that you have on the different parts of the head.” 

Lighting Groot was particularly challenging. “We had to review the character in different lighting contexts,” Naze says. “In general, we used sunny, overcast, and nighttime to see how the shaders reacted.  Most of the surprises came from the moss, which would start to look super black when you’re in the shadows or nighttime.  The idea was to find a Groot that didn’t look too bright in the sun and not too dark in the shadows or nighttime.”  The moss adds an overall volume to the character, Naze adds, “breaking the silhouette, outlining the small branches, and helping in not making it look like polished wood. The moss catches the light in a completely different way.” 


Music is critical to the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise.  “When you review shots, it’s impossible not to listen with the music because it has an impact,” notes Naze.  “At the beginning of the movie, you follow Rocket on the steps of the main street in Knowhere where you have this transition from baby racoon to adult.  At one point he goes into the bar called Boot of Jemiah. You have this long shot of 1500 frames. It’s a mix of two plates at one point.  There was some complexity to merge the two plates because the cameras were not in exactly the same spot.  We knew at one point that we had to keep the number of frames at the end because there was a song on the top.  We spent five months just to establish the layout of the camera and the correct timing because it’s the shot that introduces all the characters.” 

There is also a dance sequence for the party that occurs at the end. “The dance party was quite stressful because we did most of it at the end,” Naze says. “The hard part was Knowhere being destroyed. Originally, we were not supposed to handle that but then they asked us to do it because Framestore established the Knowhere asset. It was something we shared with different vendors.  The challenge was establishing the look of Knowhere being destroyed.”  Only the ground level of Knowhere’s main street was practically constructed. “We had to feel an evolution in terms of how Knowhere looks [compared to the original movie],” Naze continues. “Technically, Knowhere is a big CG environment.  It’s not like a 2.5D digital matte painting.   We decided to split Knowhere into three parts.  Main 01 is the set extension, what you want to merge with the plate, like the parts of the buildings that were not finished.  Main 02 was the city behind which are the extra buildings you want to see.  Main 03 was everything else and the biggest part because you have two kilometers.  We rendered a cycle and adapted depending on the context of the shot.”                  

“For the fight between Adam Warlock and Gamora, Drax and Groot, there was quite a lot of retiming to get something dynamic,” Naze shares in describing one of the film’s key sequences. “We kept the face of Adam Warlock and did the rest of him in CG because of the cape and how the gold reflects on the environment. In the plate you have the main street but don’t have everything around.  Also, when Adam Warlock is fighting with Drax, he is on a rig with three guys around him in order to fly and do his things; there were some limitations in terms of height and his movements.  Therefore, it made more sense to replace the body and keep the face to get the maximum flexibility.  The character had to able to sit in the plate.” 

Postvis was crucial in guiding the creative process.  “What I love about this kind of collaboration there is no rigidity because sometimes you work with clients who say, ‘We spent six months to do this postvis.  Change nothing.’    That was not the plan.  Stef said, ‘We like the postvis but make it better.’ It’s amazing when you can do that because you’re also coming with your input.”

Trevor Hogg's picture

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer best known for composing in-depth filmmaker and movie profiles for VFX Voice, Animation Magazine, and British Cinematographer.