Method VFX supervisor Greg Steele oversees delivery of 430 shots for the culmination of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, including upgrades for Rocket and Groot featuring hand-keyed character animation.
After the Mjolnir is destroyed by his sister Hela (played by Cate Blanchett) in Thor: Ragnarok, the God of Thunder (Chris Hemsworth) journeys to Nidavellir with Rocket and Groot to forge a new hammer to help defeat Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War. No stranger to the Marvel Cinematic Universe is Method Studios VFX supervisor Greg Steele, who oversaw the creation of the sequence and 430 shots. “We were concerned at first that there might be different sensibilities as to how Joe and Anthony Russo would play Rocket and Groot compared to James Gunn,” he comments, “but it worked out to be a holistic Marvel approach to the characters.”
Upgrades were given to Rocket and Groot. “We made great strides to change how we had previously done skin deformations around the eyes of Rocket,” Steele explains. “We also had a new skin sliding system which allowed for a lot more distribution of the skin across the surface as he move so it didn’t feel so animatronic or mechanical. It was also trying to improve the specularity of the fur and the way the light scattered through it.”
To get the necessary approvals, hard-shaded form animation that approximated the fur volume was shown to directors Joe and Anthony Russo and Marvel Studios VFX supervisor Dan DeLeeuw. “We had an internal tool called furRender that enabled the animators to run a render quickly to see what the performance was,” Steele recounts. “Once [Method Studios animation supervisor] Keith Roberts and I were happy with those we would setup the lighting and do full renders which would then be shown to the client.”
Most of the animation was hand-keyed rather than relying on motion capture. “We would start a lot of times in terms of blocking some of the locomotion action, for instance when Rocket jumps up onto a table, by getting some mocap to see how that looked,” notes Steele. “A lot of times the animators will shoot each other doing the motion themselves on video and use that as an image plate inside of [Autodesk] Maya to rotomate to in order to get the weight and gravity worked out. Production did have Sean Gunn performing Rocket in all of the shots so that the actors and camera people could work off of him. A lot of times the final performance was based somewhat on his performance, somewhat on the postvis that was done by production, and somewhat on the animator reference that we shot internally.”
“It’s such a fine line in terms of the getting the enunciation to read versus looking almost comical. Subtlety was the theme of the day.”
Getting the lip sync right was critical in making the CG characters believable. “A lot of times you would get alligator mouth with the jaw hitting all of the main notes of the mouth but not with the enunciation that you wanted,” Steele remarks. “Production head-mounted two cameras on Bradley Cooper when they recorded all of his dialogue. They would send that to us when they turned over the shot. We had that footage so could see what his mouth was doing when he was annunciating the words which was extremely helpful. Then we would build in certain blend shapes to get rid of the alligator mouth in terms of the back corners of the mouth being so far back on a racoon. We pulled those corners forward and added more deformation work to the sides of the face and also with the lips. It’s such a fine line in terms of the getting the annunciation to read versus looking almost comical. Subtlety was the theme of the day with a lot of the performance with him.”
Groot needed to look like a teenager, not elderly. “We did get it to a point where the grooves in his face did make him look like an old man, especially, around the mouth and eyes where you would see these big wrinkle lines,” Steele details. “The other thing was having him look like rubber. We tried to minimize the amount of travel on his face from expression to expression so to minimize the rubbery quality. We would make a jump between two shots to get to the new expression that he had to be in.”
The main groove lines were incorporated into the model with separation between them while each plank was rigged to be rigid. “He’s getting his first moss on his cheeks so in terms of the moss distribution we put little bits all over his face and arms. All of the different vines that go through him were separate sets so you could pull the one on the bicep and it would tug his forearm; there was a connectivity between all of them,” says Steele.
In order to ensure consistency with on-set lighting, the team of Method artists initially dedicated itself to building and dividing assets according to textures and shading. “We would shoot HDRIs for the scenes, run our light extract tools on that, pull all of the lights out, and recreate the set,” Steele explains, noting that reflections and refractions were prominent on Nidavellir. “A large set was constructed which was small portion of the actual size of the forge area. A lot of background plates were shot but we ended up replacing almost all of them,” he details. “We used [Chaos Group] V-Ray, and ray-traced the entire environment.”
The space station where Eitri (Peter Dinklage) and his assembled dwarfs build the weapons for Asgardians and other species of the galaxy was the biggest build for Method Studios. “It had to be a rigged entity,” Steele underscores. “We have a software called mForge that allows us to build complex high-resolution assets that can be rigged up to move. Thor and Rocket have to get Nidavellir turning again so that they can open the Dyson sphere in the center of it to release the energy of the sun to light the forge that would melt the Uru needed to build the new hammer. It’s this whole Rube Goldberg-type of machine that we had to get going. It had to be extremely high resolution and working either a foot away from the surface to miles and miles away. It’s the size of a small moon.”
Production designer Charlie Wood produced beautiful artwork for Nidavellir that needed to be expanded upon by the Method team. “We had a concept artist on the show full-time named Ming Pan [Method Studios art director] who was great,” Steele remarks. “Ming would take the basic art department artwork that was given to us and translate that into buildable models. A lot of times the artwork that we get from production is abstract but definitely captures a mood. We would go through and break it all down into smaller atomic pieces to give everybody schematics or building plans on how to construct this stuff. It was all made of metal and had a Pennsylvania steel mill quality about it but also a sci-fi vibe.”
The dormant rustic environment has machinery scattered everywhere and chains hanging from the ceiling. “We ended up doing all of the atmospherics in [SideFX] Houdini,” Steele notes. “We had a nice team that was able to populate all of those scenes with proper energy level of the wafting dust coming through. There was this blue particulate that was in the air. It was almost a space particle that got generated when the forge became active. It was mixed in to give it a more sci-fi vibe.”
Assets and shots were shared with Double Negative, Digital Domain and ILM. “We had simple ones with Double Negative, also one with Digital Domain where Groot jams his vines into the ground and wrap around Thanos which we had to create a whole system for,” Steele recounts, “and then there were 20 shots that we shared with ILM where Rocket, Groot and Thor show up in Wakanda to help turn the tide of the battle.”
The workflow for fur was different than for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. “We ended up building a system that worked more natively inside of Maya and used XGen. All of the fur rendering happened inside Maya using V-Ray. We use a lot of V-Ray proxies and some Maya-based instancing to allow us to render all of the geometry that needed to be rendered because it was extremely heavy. Atmospherics were broken into separate effects with certain groups of artists being responsible for each of them. We had great reference of melted iron for Uru; however, we ended up with a weird interesting chrome mercury mixed with a melted glass quality,” Steele recounts.
“The biggest challenge was building the Nidavellir asset and making sure it checked all of the boxes that the clients wanted,” Steele concludes. “It had to be able to move, be incredibly complex and have a specific look. It had to have ice on it that broke off. Working on Avengers: Infinity War was a nice follow-up to Thor: Ragnarok for the team at Method Studios. The way they’ve allowed the Thor character to be who he is, and the interaction between him and the Guardians worked out well. The film is dark and intense with a lot of fighting; the section that we were able to work on was less of that. It was a nice breath of humor.”