Production VFX supervisor Christopher Townsend integrates the work of artists from around the world to wow audiences with Ego the Planet and other new digital characters in Marvel’s latest sci-fi action adventure hit.
Building upon the success of director James Gunn’s 2014 sci-fi superhero hit, Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel Studios production VFX supervisor Christopher Townsend sought to take advantage of three years worth of technological and artistic advancements for the sequel, which once again revolves around our gang of galactic misfits banding together to save the universe. This time, they also happen to solve the parental mystery surrounding their renegade leader, Peter Quill, played by Chris Pratt.
As on previous Marvel productions such as Avengers: Age of Ultron, Iron Man 3 and Captain America: The First Avenger, Townsend’s ultimate responsibility was to plan, manage and integrate the complex work of numerous visual effects studios comprised of thousands of artists across the globe, all focused on creating an expansive set of new digital characters and environments in addition to making improvements on many favorite characters from the first film.
Townsend’s first step was improving the CG appearance and performance of Rocket, the sarcastic, genetically modified and gun-toting racoon voiced by Bradley Cooper. “What was done with Rocket in the first film was really good, but one of the things I wanted to do was to bring [to his character] one more level of realism,” he explains. “I felt in Guardians of the Galaxy, Rocket was most real when he was more animalistic. He’s a wiseass character and we wanted to maintain that aspect [in the new film]. But we also wanted to give more of a photo-realistic feel to the rendering of his fur and in the way that he articulates and moves. It meant going back to the geometry of the physiology of a real racoon and looking at the shape of the head. There were some sculptural changes there which allowed us to do more natural work. We also wanted to make it feel as much as we could that the voice of Bradley Cooper was coming out of Rocket. Framestore, which built him for the first movie, went back into their original model and started adding more areas of detail in various places, particularly around the face, mouth, eyes, and shape of the head. They worked with their fur simulations and a new fur pipeline, which is two years better now, and started from there. They were creating Rocket in a way that was shareable as an asset [with the other main VFX vendors Weta Digital, Trixter and Method Studios] and that was important.”
Another key component of the Rocket redo was his facial animation. “How do you make the voice of this six foot actor sound like it’s coming from a two foot nine racoon?” asks Townsend. “That was challenging. We went part-way in solving that with new facial shapes and by having Bradley being more physical. If Rocket was supposed to turn his head when he said something, Bradley turned his head so it changed the shape of his voice box and gave a bit of a strain to his voice in a more natural way. We photographed Bradley with head mounted cameras as well as other witness cameras so we could study the way his mouth moved.”
Getting the eyes right was critical in selling the idea that the CG character was a living and breathing creature. “We were able to create a lot more details in the eye, maintaining that level of wetness using the meniscus, and making sure that the specular highlights were working correctly as the light crossed over the iris,” notes Townsend. “James Gunn wanted to have these soulful eyes. We were constantly looking at references, trying to make sure that we nailed it from a realistic point of view and once you do that, you put him on his back legs, put him in clothes and make him talk. We tried to maintain that level of realism throughout.”
Groot returns, not as a seven-foot tall adult, but reborn as a sentient sapling aptly named Baby Groot. “What Aardman Animations has done in the past, particularly with Creature Comforts, is so beautifully simplistic and efficient in its way of creating emotional moments and reactions by using a slight shift of the head or eyebrows raised or blinking,” Townsend describes. “A lot of that simplicity and efficiency of motion was what we needed to do with Baby Groot. Otherwise, if you make him too animated and create too much of a stretchy character, he loses that sense of being made of wood. That was a big challenge for us to figure out how to create a 10-inch high character still made out of wood, as opposed to being just a cute animated character.”
Townsend acknowledges some creative license was needed with Baby Groot’s photo-realism. “Young wood can often be smooth, which makes it look like plastic. There was a lot of work done in 3D trying to figure out the amount of grain that you have and how the grain moves. We had two layers. There was a textural surface underneath the wood to animate. Then there was a top layer of grain which allowed for some slight separation. We tried to do everything we could to mitigate any stretchiness. James Gunn kept saying to the visual effects companies, ‘Tone it down. Too animated. Less is more. Give him that Buster Keaton thing. Just give me a great face.’”
Motion-capture tests were conducted with a three-year-old child by one of the visual effects companies which were then matched to Baby Groot. “It looked like a motion-captured three-year-old wearing a Baby Groot costume,” Townsend concedes. “We didn’t want to make Baby Groot too anthropomorphic. We didn’t narrow his waist or give him too much of a lower lip. We made him more angular. He doesn’t have to have the same inertia [as a human] when he moved. It was always trying to find the little areas where we could take it off from being human but still make him believable as a character in the scene.”
Townsend also mentioned that Baby Groot, who like a child has a habit of being easily distracted and lost in his own world, did not always have to be the focus of attention within a given scene. “A post-production guy said to James one day, ‘I love that shot of Baby Groot waving.’ James was like, ‘What? Oh, my god! I didn’t even notice him.’ We tried to make Baby Groot as naturalistic as possible so you don’t have to draw attention to him. But there are moments where we put the camera down low to make it appear you’re shooting a 10-inch high character. It was tricky. He became part of the ensemble.”
Like with Michael Douglas in Ant-Man, Kurt Russell gets the de-aging treatment in the film courtesy of Lola VFX, the studio also responsible for creating ‘Skinny Steve’ in Captain America: The First Avenger. “For reference, we received a picture double and original photography of the main character,” Townsend describes. “Once we had a shot down of Kurt Russell and Meredith Quill [Laura Haddock] we would repeat the same scene with Aaron Schwartz [the actor used for Young Ego]. We used that as a reference for what the lighting of a younger man’s skin would look like. Sometimes that was all it was used for. Other times we would literally skin graft pieces of Aaron’s face onto the young Kurt.” Russell portrays the human form of Ego the Living Planet, who goes through various transformations over the course of the film. Townsend adds, “When we were screening the movie, people didn’t realize the association between Ego the character, Ego the Living Planet, Ego the Light Tentacles and Ego the Blob. Ego creates so many forms. We used color and light to produce a signature and consistent look for him. At the End Battle, we put Kurt’s performance onto the rock walls to remind the audience that this was Ego the Planet – we tried to bring Ego the character in throughout to maintain that.”
Townsend additionally had to content with the very notion of “How does one create a living planet?” “We wanted Ego the Living Planet to feel so out of this world,” he explains. “But, it still had to feel grounded enough that people weren’t taken out of the action thinking, ‘We’re floating through a video game. There has to be enough reference to real stuff in there that we can grab hold of and say, ‘I get it. I believe that character is really sitting in that field or floating across that environment or looking out at that scene.’ At one point, we had a much redder world until we realized that the world had to be lusher and more inviting. We went through a “lushification” process, trying to make Ego look more real and grounded, but more beautiful at the same time, while maintaining that crazy color scheme.”
The film introduces a genetically perfected race of aliens known as the Sovereigns, who have gold colored skin. “It adds one more level of complexity,” acknowledges Townsend. “With the gold people their skin needed to be smooth and they had to personify perfection. John Blake and his make-up team did a terrific job. We worked closely with him to find a gold make-up finish with a sheen that was neither too reflective nor dull and orange.”
Like in the first film, music remains an integral part of the storytelling. Notes Townsend, “While we created the computer animation, scenes were being cut together in postvis to the beat of a song. We worked closely with editorial and usually editorial was like, ‘We can shift things around once we see the visual effects.’ But there were certain scenes where we couldn’t do that. It had to be cut to that beat. The music did affect us but the musical choices were great.”
“The opening title sequence took the longest to create because there was so much planning of trying to figure out where the camera goes, which elements are live-action, what do we have to shoot, how would we shoot that, and how do we get the performance of Baby Groot down?” Townsend remarks. “We photographed James Gunn doing dance moves – he inspired a lot of what you see. There are very few non-CG shots in the film. Creating Ego the Living Planet and making that as believable as we could [was a difficult challenge].”
Overall, collaborating with Gunn on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was a pleasure for Townsend. He concludes, “We were fortunate to have a director who had a clear point of view and knew what he wanted to do. But even with that it takes an incredible and massive team of artists who work countless hours to actually put this stuff together. There’s so much heart and soul from individual animators that are up on the screen. It’s a film that I’m proud of and has been an absolute blast to make.”