How complex math and sweet dance moves made ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’ fly

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The first Guardians of the Galaxy was a massive hit, proving that you don’t need to be a well-known superhero to become a household name.

So, how do you follow an act that turned a talking raccoon and a sentient tree into two of Hollywood’s most beloved big-screen heroes? That’s the question Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 writer/director James Gunn faced, and answered with resounding success, when he brought Rocket Raccoon, Groot, Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, and the rest of his ragtag tam of cosmic a-holes back for a second adventure that met (and in some ways exceeded) the high expectations setup by the first film.

Helping Gunn achieve that impressive success was a talented visual effects team led by visual effects supervisor Christopher Townsend. A veteran of four prior Marvel movies, earning an Oscar nomination for his work on 2013’s Iron Man 3, Townsend faced the task of raising an already lofty bar for visual effects set by the first Guardians of the Galaxy, which earned its own Oscar nomination for visual effects in 2015. His efforts were rewarded with a wildly successful run in theaters for Vol. 2, which became the fourth highest-grossing film in U.S. theaters last year and earned its own nomination for visual effects at this year’s Academy Awards.

Digital Trends spoke to Townsend about his time working on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, his history with Marvel’s cinematic universe, and how it takes a village to make a talking raccoon.

Digital Trends: Making a sequel typically involves chasing what you did the first time and taking it to the next level. What were some of the elements you were really focused on evolving this time around?

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Christopher Townsend, visual effects supervisor

Chris Townsend: It’s always challenging. The first movie was so incredibly successful both commercially and from a critical point of view. So as James [Gunn] put it, the challenge on the first one was getting people to know these characters and come and see the movie. With the second movie, they already know the characters and they’re going to come to see the movie because of how sequels work. The real challenge is surprising an audience all over again.

So, keeping the movie fresh was the big challenge. And from a visual effects point of view, one of the big things we wanted to do was to take Rocket Raccoon up a notch or two in terms of the level of realism … He’d been established as a crazy, wise-cracking raccoon in the first movie, and now we wanted to take him to the next level in believability.

Rocket did look significantly more detailed and realistic this time around, which says a lot, given how great he looked in the first film. What went into those improvements?

We spent a long time redesigning him from the ground up. We worked closely with [visual effects studio] Framestore, who had worked on Rocket for the first movie. We started fresh and went back, looking at the skeletal structure and muscle, and the actual shape of his head and which parts were deformable and which weren’t. The main edict was, “Let’s make him look like a real raccoon, so any single frame you look at, you can say, ‘Yes, that actually looks real.’”

The visual effects used for Rocket were split between a few studios in the first film. Was that the case this time around?

“In the first film, they had indeed split the work between a few different visual effects companies…”

Well, it was very different with Rocket this time, because he was in so many shots. In the first film, they had indeed split the work between a few different visual effects companies and James said that was really tricky, to have multiple companies working on the same character. He wanted to avoid doing it again, but we couldn’t, because it was so much work and it was spread across so many different scenes. … The timeframe and schedule we had for post-production was relatively tight — particularly for a Marvel movie — so we ended up splitting it among four different companies.

What were some of the challenges working on Rocket Raccoon? Was there anything you did differently this time around, or anything that got easier?

One of the big challenges with Rocket as a character is that you always want a single performance driving the intent of the character. In the Planet of the Apes films or with Gollum [in the Lord of the Rings films], they had Andy Serkis acting as a particular CG character. There was a single performance to base everything on, as well as everyone’s performances around him. That was incredibly important to the success of those films, but we didn’t have that luxury. Bradley Cooper [the voice of Rocket] wasn’t available to us on set while we were shooting.

We did film [Cooper] with head-mounted cameras and witness cameras, though, to get his performance and see what was going on with his face shape and such while he was speaking. That was incredibly useful. We didn’t have him on set with us, but we had Sean Gunn, who happens to be James’ brother and plays the character Kraglin in the movie. Whenever he wasn’t Kraglin, he’d dress up in a gray track suit and crouch down. He’s an incredible nimble guy, and he would get down to 3’9” height and act out Rocket. He was phenomenal.

He did that a bit in the first movie, right? 

“Let’s get Sean’s performance right.”

They had done that with the first movie, but in that film it was used more for the other actors. Having spoken to a lot of teams that worked on the first film about what they’d do differently, the general consensus was that it would be useful to have Sean’s performance be the intent for as much of Rocket’s direction as we can. So I had that conversation very early with James, and said, “Let’s treat Sean as Rocket, and do so as importantly as we do with Chris Pratt or Zoe Saldana or any of the Guardians when they’re on camera. Let’s get Sean’s performance right.”

That ended up being a big win. So we had Sean and we had Bradley Cooper. And then when things changed in post-production as they always do, we were fortunate because James is a talented actor in addition to being a great writer and director, and so we had a third person playing the character when we couldn’t drag in Sean. So we had these three actors that we had to amalgamate into a single performance across four companies and about a hundred animators. So, in the end, there were a lot of authors to the performance.

The opening title sequence really sets the tone for the rest of the film and brings you back into the world of Guardians of the Galaxy. It also appears to be almost entirely visual effects, with things happening in the foreground and background while Baby Groot dances. Was that a complicated scene?

It was extremely complicated. It took about 14-15 months for that single shot. We spent many months in the pre-visualization stage where you try to work everything out in animated form to figure out what you’re going to do and how you’re going to achieve it. It was all based on a single line in James’ very first treatment and script. The line said something like, “And then there’s the most awesome title sequence ever.”

No pressure there…

No, none at all! As was so often the case with so many of the shots, James had a vision for the film and many of the individual shots and camera angles. … So we went to pre-vis (previsualization, the process in which complex scenes are visualized before shooting begins) with directors and started blocking out the performance and the timing and it took six or seven months of pre-vis time until we figured out how to get it in a single moving camera with all of the action. Once we had that we took it to the rest of the departments and analyzed it, figuring out how to shoot it.

We eventually decided that it would be a fully CG shot with these moments when the human actors came into play. … It was an incredibly complex shot to work on. A three-minute long shot is no simple feat, so we had to ultimately split it up into multiple shots that we stitched together at the end. It was tricky, but it does smack everyone back into the world of Guardians straight off with the color, and irreverence, and the silliness of it all, and it was so much fun to work on.

So who came up with Baby Groot’s dance moves?

Well, when we were trying to figure out Groot’s dance moves, James would frequently stand up and say, “It was something like this” and do a dance. And I eventually said, “Can I film you?”

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So we set up a couple of sessions in which we shot James doing what he felt Groot’s dance moves were. It was absolutely brilliant. As a director, he threw himself into every aspect of filmmaking and gave it all. His moves inspired the animators at Framestore, and we have footage of the animators all dancing and trying to imitate his moves while they figure out what Groot would do. It was a lot of fun.

The scenes on and inside Planet Ego are really beautifully done in terms of color choices and visual effects. What sort of direction did you get in creating this alien, sentient planet?

We worked very closely with Scott Chambliss, the production designer, and his art direction team. We had lots of meetings over the look of these worlds, because James wanted a sort of 1970s, pulp art look to things. We were looking at things like album covers and various artists through the ’70s and ’80s. … We also wanted Planet Ego to reflect that it had been created or built around this one character that was a living being. So we wanted something that was an amalgamation of organic and almost mathematical order.

“We wanted something that was an amalgamation of organic and almost mathematical order.”

We came upon the idea of using Mandelbrot sets and mathematical algorithms which create these sort of never-ending fractals. We were looking at lots of fractals, and there was one artist, Hal Tenny, whose work kept popping up. James really liked the way fractals were used in his work, so the art department contacted Hal and asked him to come be a concept artist for us and share some … ideas and techniques. It turns out that a lot of the way he worked was based on using these mathematical algorithms that you write up, plunge into the computer, and it spits out these beautiful things.

So there were these forms and shapes James really liked, but the only way to get them was to work within this software package, the 3D program Mandelbulb, but it didn’t come out in a way that was friendly to the digitals effects pipeline. So we handed it over to [visual effects studio] Weta and they figured out a way to recreate those models in the computer in a VFX-friendly pipeline. They were able to maintain all of the quality of the software program in a way that could be used native to the film pipeline.

From a digital information perspective, the final product of all of this must have been immense …

All in all, I think the sets for Planet Ego took up about half a trillion polygons. It’s one of the most complex digital effects environments ever created. It’s absolutely mind-blowing how it was built. And on top of that, Weta built it as a single, continuous set. You could literally fly through it digitally and look around.

You’re working on Captain Marvel now. Is there a particular appeal to working on the Marvel movies?

It’s not necessarily the universe. I’m not a comic book fan, but what I hope is that because I’m not a comic book fan, I bring to the table a desire to make a film that anyone can enjoy. You shouldn’t need to be a fanboy or fangirl to love this stuff. I want anyone to enjoy it. Honestly, I am as shocked as anyone else that I’m still walking on Marvel films. This is my fifth film.

What it allows you to do, though, is to work at such a high level over such a broad spectrum of visual effects work. Guardians is the most extreme range of work I’ve ever been involved with, from fine-tuning the shape of a young Kurt Russell’s lips in one scene to working on a talking Raccoon, it’s this incredible barrage of variety. We’re working at such a high level with such an incredibly talented and creative group of people at the studio who are so passionate about these films. That passion is what makes it so fun to come to work every day.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 premiered May 5, 2017. The 90th Academy Awards ceremony kicks off March 4 at 8:00 PM ET on ABC.

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