Vancouver and Los Angeles facilities deliver 550 VFX shots for the latest Marvel blockbuster, including key CG character sequences with Rocket and Baby Groot, large-scale destruction and spaceship crashes, environment design, and more.
Director James Gunn and VFX supervisor Chris Townsend recently tapped Deluxe’s Method Studios to handle a broad scope of work for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which continues the adventures of Peter Quill, Gamora, Drax, Groot and Rocket as they unravel the mystery of Peter’s true parentage.
Method VFX supervisor Nordin Rahhali explained that the company handled a few shots on the first film, building a relationship with the director and VFX supervisor. “When this film came, we were able to get in very early on as one of the primary vendors and of course had a large part of the film carved out for us,” he says.
Rahhali led a team of over 250 artists that delivered roughly 550 shots for the film, or 40 minutes of work. He noted that the work crossed several disciplines, including “a lot more character work than we've done in the past at Method, which was something I personally was very excited to do.”
The work included creating hero characters Rocket and Baby Groot for several key sequences, as well as large-scale destruction and spaceship crashes, full CG animation and environment design, and the movie’s final scene.
“So, we had a lot of hard work right across the board,” says Rahhali. “You can't just call it an effects film. You can't just call it a creature or character film. It really had a little bit of everything. That's what made it a challenge and made it exciting.”
The work was divvied up 60/40 between the company’s Vancouver and L.A. studios respectively. According to Rahhali, the artists had a lot of creative reign and freedom to explore ideas in the process. “James doesn't always have a clear picture of exactly what he wants, but he knows what he likes when he sees it, and he knows when it's not there yet,” he reports.
Rahhali credits digital effects supervisor Sean Konrad with keeping things flowing smoothly in Vancouver, while he himself was going back and forth between the two facilities.
For 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 as well as inlayed architectural gold sculptural elements into the ship’s surface along with refraction blur to enhance the depth, which 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.
One of the most complex sequences Method created was the film’s final scene, where Yondu's ashes are released into space as the Ravager Fleet arrives to pay their respects. Rahhali explained that the script called for the Ravager salute, but no one really knew what that would look like. “There was a loose idea that lots of ships come from all the corners of the galaxy and there's some kind of light show,” he notes. “So, based on that very loose description, we started culling something together with dozens of ships. It was like, ‘Dozens of ships?’ That's not right. I mean, this was supposed to be huge. So, we put in thousands of ships.”
But cinematically that wasn’t working either, so they eventually scaled it back to hundreds of ships, and then back to dozens again, coming full circle. “Sometimes that’s how the creative loop goes,” Rahhali says. “The whole idea was that these guys are space pirates and they pillage and steal. Their ships are made of technology from all sorts of different sources that they've gathered together. So, we were able to be very creative. Each ship is unique. And each ship kind of has its own way of doing things. The result is that light show you see at the end. James just loved when we had more color and more variety and more variation on what those were made of. We had some that looked like fireworks, some that looked like laser shows. That was a really fun, creative process to do.”
The end result includes 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.
Rahhali describes, “We shot a lot of reference video. What we would do, basically, is cut together mini-edits that had facial performances or body performances with a number of different animators. It was just a nice visual reference that the animators could use. And it was also a fun exercise to do. Anytime you can get an animator to actually act, it’s a lot of fun.”
“And we had a great animation team that was led by Keith Roberts, the overall animation supervisor on the show. We also had Daniel Mizuguchi as our supervisor in Vancouver and Chris Perkowitz down in L.A. Those three guys were just absolutely key,” he adds.
Overall, Rahhali noted that the biggest challenge was building the company’s character pipeline to accommodate the number of shots, and the high quality demanded. “I think we're known for environments, compositing and effects work,” he notes. “But we have a great character team. We just haven't really had much character work. We've done some in the commercials division. We've done some things for features as well, but just not to the scale that this feature required.”
The throughput and quality of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 required a lot of R&D and the development of new tools. In particular, the character Groot, (essentially an anthropomorphized tree) brought a whole set of unique challenges in terms of rigging. “Wood is a complicated thing to make move believable and not feel like a stretchy rubber thing. So, there were tools that we had to write for that work,” says Rahhali.
In addition, the character Rocket -- a talking racoon -- called for a custom pipeline to handle fur rendering, giving the artists a high-quality preview, without having to go through lighting and rendering.
Explains Rahhali, “Even though it wasn't fully simmed, we could get a representation of what the fur would look like, because you give the character eccentric facial expressions on a GL-shaded and high-res mesh, and it might look great, but then you put a soft, furry thing on top of it and it doesn't read the same. We didn't want to have to go through lighting just to tell if that expression was close or if it wasn’t going to work.”
He concludes, “We're doing shows now that are using those tools and we’re developing them further. But, a lot of those things weren't in place [on this film]. That was definitely one of the big challenges, just how to deal with characters on a show with hundreds of shots. The pipeline is very different when you scale to that many shots or that many characters.”
Scott Lehane is a Toronto-based journalist who has covered the film and TV industry for 30 years. He recently launched VRNation.tv -- an online community for VR enthusiasts.