Supervisor James Baker leads the studio’s previs, techvis and postvis efforts on their second ‘Guardians’ and 11th Marvel film collaboration.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 marks the eleventh collaboration between visualisation studio The Third Floor and Marvel Studios. Returning to the retro-futuristic world envisioned by filmmaker James Gunn (Super) and starring a band of criminal misfits is The Third Floor previs and postvis supervisor James Baker, who helped to visualize and build action beat technical plans across the movie, including the opening credits, Space Chase and Final Battle. Other TTF responsibilities included figuring out character moments for Rocket and Baby Groot as well as conceptualizing the Quantum asteroid field. AWN recently spoke to Baker about the studio’s work on the film.
AWN: How did the director, James Gunn, and Marvel Studios VFX supervisor Christopher Townsend articulate what they were looking for when it came to previs/techvis/postvis?
JB: James has a clear idea of what he wants with each shot and, in fact, thumbnails the entire movie. Sometimes these would go to storyboard artists and then to our previs team. But, we also worked straight from his thumbnails and a pitch.
There was a lot of exchange with James and Chris Townsend as sequences were visualized; it was a fluid relationship. A lot of times in post during the editing process, James would call us over for shots he wanted to add for a reshoot or a pure VFX shot. We would create something quickly so they could see if it would work in the cut.
AWN: How detailed was the lighting, texturing and animation in your work?
JB: The lighting in our previs is pretty involved. When visualizing a sequence, we try and set the mood using classic lighting setups such as three-point lighting. On this show, we used those types of lighting techniques in the previs and then, of course, the film's director of photography, Henry Braham, and his team would work their magic when the scenes were shot on set.
In previs, textures are much lower res than in final imagery. Our amazing asset crew, led by Jordan Emerick, would down-res textures but incorporate bump and displacement maps to add detail. They pulled off some amazing work, giving Baby Groot a believable texture and making our previs environments both beautiful and fast to work with.
Our previs animation on the film is on par with the level of detail we usually deliver in previs at The Third Floor. We don't do the type of finishing that a vendor completing final shots would, but are able to develop actions and bits of character performances that often make it to the final product.
AWN: What sorts of conversations were had with director of photography, Henry Braham, editors Craig Wood and Fred Raskin, and supervising art director Ramsey Avery?
JB: Henry would be in on our previs reviews and give us ideas about camera movement and lensing. He helped our artists better understand the real-world application of our cameras and how to move them around. Henry would send us info on the camera rigs he was planning on using in the shoot so we could incorporate them into the visualized scenes.
During the shoot and reshoots, Fred and Craig would let me know about shots they wanted to see within the edit as it progressed. We would also do small reviews with James in their bays to help shape the edit.
We had a lot of interchange with the art department as we were working concurrently. Ramsey would come over with plans for a set and we would then work through where cameras could go. This was helpful for our asset team, since so many questions could be easily answered face to face.
AWN: What were some of the major technical and creative challenges you needed to solve for Groot Dance, Space Chase, Final Battle and shots featuring completely digital characters?
JB: Probably the most challenging scene we visualized was the Baby Groot opening credit sequence – our team was led by Steve Lo, one of our artists. The challenge was to map out the action of Baby Groot dancing in the foreground while a major fight takes place in the background. With shots like this, that have the feel of one long take, it’s always a challenge, since any changes in the evolution of the sequence have a domino effect. We worked on this one shot for a number of months but the end results were worth it.
For the Space Chase, one of the challenges we faced was creating a sense of scale. A lot of times in action sequences of this sort, the action takes place near a large ship that lets you show scale and speed by the proximity to a larger object. We didn’t have that luxury here, but were able to use editing and camera tricks to depict that sense of speed in the shots.
The Final Battle sequence was by far the longest we worked on and in sheer volume was pretty daunting! There was plenty to work out technically, such as how Ego's energy tentacles moved to the action with Ego and Quill, culminating in the PAC-MAN shot. The sequence was challenging both technically and creatively, as story points were being further developed as well.
A completely digital character is treated the same as any other actor in the scene. The great thing about previs is that with small characters like Baby Groot and Rocket, we could place our cameras in order to frame for them in the shoot.
AWN: How was the techvis used in decision-making regarding camera positioning/movement and lenses for Quill flying around the Abilisk and Final Battle?
JB: A big use of the techvis was for shots involving flying rigs. When Quill flies around fighting the Abilisk, we needed to keep Chris Pratt in relatively the same area with the camera moving around him to recreate the action from the previs. A similar technique was used for big sweeping camera moves in the Final Battle. In certain cases, we were able to export our camera data so that the Spydercam rigging crew could use it to help set up the actual shot.
AWN: It must have been fun shaping character moments and details for Rocket and Baby Groot. What were some of major story beats you worked on that involved those two characters and how did they influence the workflow process?
JB: A big sequence with the two characters where our team was able to contribute quite a bit was when they were on the Eclector. Patrick Smith headed up our team in L.A. while we were in Atlanta; they did the great sequence with Rocket and Yondu in the cell, with Groot bringing back various items. We helped James visualize it and see what was and wasn't working with the comedy.
Another big sequence was Southern Nights, when Rocket takes on basically all of the Ravagers with his series of traps. We really got to explore visualizing his acting and physical actions as he shows a lot of character, bounds around the trees and gets into some fun fighting.
AWN: What visual research was conducted when developing the concept for the Quantum asteroid field?
JB: We didn't use much visual research on this one. A group of artists tackled the idea of “What would a field of asteroids look like if each one was on its own orbit and disappeared and reappeared?” We went through quite a number of iterations to get a concept that worked until Daniel McCue nailed the one we ultimately used for our visualizations.
AWN: How did the music soundtrack influence the creative and technical development of sequences?
JB: The music soundtrack didn’t necessarily influence us technically but certainly the main songs were hugely influential on the previs. In particular, we would edit and animate to cues, especially with “Southern Nights,” “My Sweet Lord,” “Come a Little Bit Closer” and “Wham Bang Shang a Lang.” Music is such a huge part of Guardians and James wanted to get those sequences as fully developed as we could before the shoot.
AWN: What was the biggest challenge you face on the film?
JB: The Baby Groot opening credits sequence was probably our most challenging, but it was also so much fun. We began with basic action blocking and finessed the previs animation from there. We decided to use a simple version of our regular Groot rig that we called “Gingerbread Groot.” This allowed us to focus on his overall action rather than his detailed animation, and flesh out the rest of the background action more fully both in previs and postvis.
AWN: Is there a shot or sequence you are looking forward to audience members seeing on the big screen?
JB: Wow, just one?! That’s like picking a favorite child [laughs]. One scene that personally stands out to me is the North-by-Northwest Sequence. This is a sequence featuring Nebula and Gamora in Nebula’s ship and fighting in the caves. It's one sustained piece of visual storytelling with little dialogue or music, which was very different for the film. We went straight from James' thumbnails, with no boards, to essentially visualize the action from scratch.
AWN: Is there anything else that you would like to add?
JB: I worked on the film for just under a year and a half. During that time you develop a shorthand with key collaborators and colleagues. This was a highly rewarding experience and something I’m extremely proud of. You couldn't ask for a better team of artists and friends.