With Guardians of the Galaxy arriving on DVD & Blu-Ray on November 24, 2014 in the UK, Trevor Hogg chats with Greg Steele about the visual effects work contributed by Method Studios..
“At the vendor level most of the stuff is fairly dictated to you in terms of what they want you to do,” explains Method Studios Visual Effects Supervisor Greg Steele when discussing home much creative freedom the VFX company had with Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). “At the same time we would have to do artwork, mock things up and try to give them different variations so they could work it out to the point where you need to put something into production. There was a lot of interesting collaboration and creative back and forth that happened so it was fun.” A virtual face to face communication workflow was implemented. “Even though they were in Burbank and we are in Santa Monica, it was easier to do a Skype call or a cineSync. We would sit down and go through the shots, circle and describe things. Stephane Ceretti [Visual Effects Supervisor] wanted to make sure that we could see each other in Skype during the cineSyncs so he could use his hands and gesture.”
“We worked on four different sequences,” states Greg Steele. “The first was The Collector’s Lab. Framestore did the set extensions for the whole environment but there is a scene where The Collector outlines what The Orb does and what’s inside it; he creates a big video screen around them. Also, the mechanical arms and the orb on the table were all CG. The second thing we focused on was the Nova Corp command centre where Glenn Close [Fatal Attraction] is overseeing the battle and helping them strategize how to fight off Ronan [Lee Pace]. We did all of the set extensions outside the windows and the holographic table top which showed what was happening with the battle above. The third thing was the Cosmic Landscape. It’s the scene at the end of the film where Quill [Chris Pratt] is surrounded by black fire and he has a flashback to his mother in a space environment. The fourth thing was a sequence that was added later in the game which takes place in the Dark Aster where Ronan double-crosses Thanos; he is talking to him on the video screen on the wall and keeps the Power Stone for himself. Ronan puts the power into his body and transfers it into the CosmiRod. There were other miscellaneous things like matte paintings that we did. We did about 140 shots and there were a lot of interesting one offs type things in there so it was busy for sure.”
“The Collector puts The Orb into this mechanical device where he uses claws to grab and rotating it,” remarks Greg Steele. “They built a mock up of the whole thing but it couldn’t rotate so we had to replace all of that and the table top with CG. We had a CG orb and arms which we animated unlocking. We had some concept art of what the orb was and what it looked like inside but there was nothing dealing with what the motion would be. We started doing tests. Stef explained it was like a Rubik’s Cub mixed with a Russian doll where as it twists and unlocks new layers are revealed that are doing interesting things. We mocked it up quick on the fly in Maya. We did a bunch of different variations where it would rotate in a rough walk-in type state. Once the client gave us the approval we built up the real asset.” MPC provided a 3D model of the outer shell of The Orb. “We took that and had to redesign the inside of it. They done some artwork to show what it looked like but we had to go in and rig it to allow us to make it move.”
“The concept that we got was cool,” remarks Greg Steele. “It was a huge galactic screen reminiscent of an old map of the world with lines connecting everything. We started from there but the concept turned out to be too busy. The real point of the shot was the content on the screen so we ended up taking a minimalist approach. The content included a huge 8K Big Bang in Houdini that cascaded through all of the screens. Then it went to the creation of the galaxy and the Infinity Stones. We had to design and render some of the Infinity Stones. There are six of them. Each of them has a backstory for each of the films. This one was the Power Stone. It was transitioned into a scene of the Celestial which is a huge being about 2000 feet tall who smashes down his sceptre onto a planet and destroys it. On a planet level we can see him and the people being destroyed. It transitions to an exterior of the entire planet being encroached by this black fire that the Power Stone has. We did a scene of a couple of monks who have grouped together to harness the power of the Power Stone thinking working as a group they could control it but they face the same demise when they all burn up; that was Houdini simulations with particles and fluids.”
The Nova Corp Sequence was assisted by MPC providing some Xandar backgrounds. “We touched up some certain areas based on how close we were looking at it,” states Greg Steele. “We put spaceships flying around and adjusted some of the skies. We replaced the top of the table and created a hologram effect. The effect was interesting because originally the concept art was for a light based hologram. But they wanted more of a photo-real look than a light effect. We ended up getting MPC’s assets of the city and recreated it in 3D. We rendered it to give the hologram more of a photo-real look and on top of that we put a light base. We put screen graphics all around, and did lines and some ships down to the table so the hologram didn’t look like a strange table top miniature.” The action takes place during the daytime. “It was a bright environment so we didn’t need to spill too much light onto the actors so we reflected some onto the table. Oddly enough they didn’t touch it very much so we were able to getaway without any heavy interaction with the table. The first shot there is a man who points his hand up and we put a graphic where he was pointing to make it look like he was pressing some buttons and turning some things on. It worked out well.”
“We put together a psychedelic cosmic landscape which had planets rotating, gases and nebula of stars which cause heavy flaring that gives it a slightly unreal shot,” remarks Greg Steele. “It was a handful of shots but it was a neat little piece and beautiful looking in the end. It was a fairly unbelievable scene but at the same time you want the lighting to match and all of the colourizations in the specular on the skin to tie-in with the illumination from the environment itself. There were practical lens flares that we had in our library which we were able to use but it was mostly the Peter Quill and mother elements. We roto out the Gamora [Zoe Saldana] element from one of the other plates and stuck her in there.” Steele observes, “The Cosmic Landscape could have gone in any direction but luckily we had some nice concept art that we stuck with. The compositors who put it all together did a beautiful job giving it a certain dream-like quality which everybody liked. The Cosmic Landscape went easier than we thought it would.”
“The Double-Cross was a reshoot,” explains Greg Steele. “We had seven weeks to do the whole sequence. It was amazing too because they shot over a weekend, had an edit within four days after that, and were able to give us some postvis right after that. It was a set that existed that they shot in London but they decided to reshoot and give it a different storyline. We had to recreate the environment that they had shot in London and put it around our green screen actors Ronan, Nebula [Karen Gillan] and Korath [Djimon Housou] who were talking about The Orb and on the screen behind them on a big wall was a hologram projection screen of Thanos. Thanos was created by Luma and they were kind enough to provide us with those elements; we put that on the wall, stretched it and tried to make it like a big screen type of thing where he is talking. We built the environment in 3D and with projections of matte paintings, blending the two when needed. Ronan grabs The Orb and all of a sudden bolts of energy and concussive waves start coming out of him; his skin starts burning up as he tries to handle the power that the Power Stone contains. Ronan transfers the Power Stone into his CosmiRod with plans of using it to destroy Xandar. We ended up doing a full match move on him so we could have a good track on his body. We created in Houdini the whole veining system that would go through his body as the power surges through him. Every time the power would hit certain spots there would be little bursts of fires which were fluid simulations. The compositors wrangled it all together and there’s a distress fluid under the skin working its way through Ronan.”
“We also did a matte painting of a communication centre when Drax [Dave Bautista] is outside the bar at one point he looks over and sees it,” states Greg Steele. “It was a wide shot. What they originally shot was someone in a hallway. We were able to scale that down and build a whole city out there. We had plate material that we could use as the basis for the matte painting and we also had some elements that Framestore had done of the city background of some shanty buildings. We modified it by adding blinking lights and some spaceships flying around that Framestore had used in Knowhere. We grabbed some people walking around down this little alleyway that production had shot at one point on some green screen. It was a mishmash of a whole lot of different things.” Steele adds, “We did a couple of other sequences in the Nova Corp building with the ambassador up on the screen. We took that green screen footage of the ambassador and put some buildings behind him as a matte painting. Pretty much any time you’re in the building you are looking at the views of Xandar that we created.”
“MPC were kind of enough to put the camera up where it should have been in Xandar and do a full panorama for us which gave us a lot of good material to work with,” notes Greg Steele. “It’s not just throwing the model over to us it’s time and effort to package things up to make them usable for other vendors. The visual effects community is good in that way. We’re all in it together.” Various options had to be developed. “You don’t take the one piece of art that we have and go from there. It’s more about giving Marvel and the production team options and helping them come up with creative solutions. It was challenging but is also the fun part. In terms of actual challenge it was probably more the timeframe at the end when the sequences grow and the extra work happens. Our London office took on one of those extra sequences at the end too about 26 shots I believe. It was a sequence when Nebula and Gamora are fighting; they did some set extensions and electrical charges from the staff when they’re hitting each other. That was run through production as a separate vendor so we didn’t get involved very much with that.” Steele remarks, “We didn’t do a lot of shots in the show about 140 shots but there were a lot of interesting one offs and creative challenges with all of the different elements. It was a pleasure working with Stef. Marvel and the production team were fantastic, collaborative, fun, and clear in their directions so it was a great experience.”
Guardians of the Galaxy images © 2014 Marvel Studios/Walt Disney Pictures. All Rights Reserved. Courtesy of Method Studios.
Many thanks to Greg Steele for taking the time for this interview.
Concept Art from Guardians of the Galaxy
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Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.