With Guardians of the Galaxy arriving on DVD & Blu-Ray on November 24, 2014 in the UK, Trevor Hogg chats with Peter Travers about the visual effects work contributed by Sony Pictures Imageworks…
An opportunity to participate in the Marvel Universe beyond Spider-Man was presented to Sony Pictures Imageworks during the production of Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). “They called us and said, ‘We need to have 100 shots in a couple of months. Can you help us out?’” recalls Sony Pictures Imageworks Visual Effects Supervisor Pete Travers. “It was right over Christmas break so timing wise it was a little problematic but we said, ‘Hey, this Marvel, whatever they want we’ll jump at it!’ It ended up going really well.” Marvel approached Sony Pictures Imageworks again for assisting in the launch of the new cinematic franchise Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). “Captain America was more of a live-action thriller where Guardians of the Galaxy is purely Sci-Fi. The Captain America work that we did was mostly compositing. We did a gunfight sequence and it all had to look photo-real and practical. But with Guardians the big thing we had to do was to build the engine room of the Dark Aster; that had a lot more design work certainly than Captain America and a lot more 3D.”
“They were top notched when it comes to deliverables of existing assets or the vision they were looking for,” states Pete Travers. “We had two months to do about 100 shots. This was heavy duty 3D work. Mostly it was environments. It’s when the heroes get into the engine room and the duke it out with a fistfight. They threw some concept art and postvis of models at us. We got flooded with data at the beginning. It was so smart.” Ideas were developed assisted by on-set photos. “They went through and said, ‘We like the danger level of this. We don’t like this aspect.’ Then you get a picture of what they’re looking for. After about a weekend we had a good idea of the style of the architecture that they wanted.” Camera positioning influenced the level of detail in the Engine Room. “The first thing you do is look at all of the plates and figure out where the camera is going to live. We didn’t worry about the bevels and rivets on things a 100 yards away. Everything is built from a character centric position. If there were shots where the client said, ‘Can we remove that column or add a column or add a light?’ We said, ‘No problem.’ That’s the beauty when you dive in and do it in 3D.”
“The one thing that was repeated in the direction was, ‘We wanted this room to feel as if it’s dangerous,’” remarks Pete Travers. “We added these huge dangerous looking columns that were spinning on top of the turbine. It doesn’t make any sense in terms of a practical engineering standpoint. Why would you do this on a power engine? It looked dangerous and foreign. You didn’t want to stand near it. At one point we were trying to figure out how to make the engine room look big. When you want something to look big you have to have layers of depth inside something. You have to have lighting that looks like it falls off to the point where there’s a sense of scale.” Travers observes, “Renders are never going to match what happens in real life with light bouncing an infinite number of times with reflections and refractions. That all being said, we’re getting good at mimicking real life with certain techniques like global illumination and radiosity.”
“You have to look at what the movie is trying to do,” notes Pete Travers. “You have to make a world that is responding to the physics of whatever the characters are doing. You can’t have floating giant heavy things if these characters are running along the ground because it blows the believability.” Lighting green screens is an imperfect science. In the Engine Room stuff we were doing, they were throwing each other against the walls that were going to be designed, lighted and rendered and put in later by us. You’re not going to be able to light that green screen without have a ton of spill on the characters because they’re literally being pushed up against it. What do you do? You make sure that the characters are lit right and then do your best with the green screen lighting and in this case not too much lighting on it. There’s always a ton of roto that is done on every movie.” Face replacements were a necessity. “We had a number of shots where we had to replace Djimon Hounsou [Blood Diamond] who had a stunt double for certain shots that were too dangerous for him to do.”
Imperfections like camera shakes were incorporated into the imagery. “When Korath [Djimon Hounsou] is blasting his gun we mimic as if there’s dirt on the lens,” states Pete Travers. “Artefacts are a big reason why things look real and not so perfect. The compositors are putting that stuff in all of the time.” Visual research was conducted via the Internet. “I found this website with a Russian video of this guy firing a gun that would shoot out sparks. I talked to Stephane about Quill’s blaster and he was using references of the old Logan’s Run  movie. I looked that up and started finding stuff. We do the YouTube thing all of the time. Most of the time what we’re looking for are natural phenomenon. How it behaves? How much it glows? How much it bounces? How much do sparks split off and what do they do? Everything we do with effects animation is constantly being framed and reframed into the context of something we can find in live-action.” Lighting was digitally created. “You can’t fire a blaster at people [on-set] so we were painting in interactive lighting on the plates to make it look like when these guys would be hit with these fiery blasts they would get lit up.”
“The sharing of assets was involved because we weren’t rendering Groot but he is in our shot,” notes Pete Travers. “We had to do a lot of back and forth with MPC because we were constantly changing the Engine Room and they needed to know so that Groot could be animated inside of it. We would build a first pass of the engine room, send it to them and they would give us back animation cache files of their first version of Groot, we would take that and plug it in and see how everything was working. We would keep doing this back and forth. Thank God we’re primarily using the same software. We all have a certain proprietary around Maya. Everybody has their own plug-ins. When we’re doing this kind of data exchange we dumb down the files so that they can bring it in, read it, and they’ll dumb it down and give it back to us. In the end, we did all of the Groot exchange, they would do a final render of Groot, hand it to us, and we’d do the final composite.”
“We did some external shots of the Dark Aster,” states Pete Travers. “We did it entering into the planet atmosphere and also there’s a shot where the Necrocraft emerge from the slits along the Dark Aster and fly out; that was a big data sharing shot with MPC. They gave us the initial Black Aster model and we had to modify it. We did all of the camera move, the rendering and the effects.” The spaceship had a unique design. “We had to R&D as to what the Dark Aster would look like if it was entering an atmosphere. It had these rotating plates along the main axis of the ship and we rotate them where it looked like they were doing air breaking. The larges surface area would be perpendicular to the direction it was heading. You had that burn effect. We used the same kind of plate in the second shot where they would lock sequentially and that’s when the little ships would fly out. We were playing with it using the existing model.” Travers explains, “We knew the context of the surrounding shots and the swarm look they were looking for so we mimicked a lot of it. You’re always trying to make it believable so we didn’t have 500 ships shoot out of the same porthole at the same time because that would look silly.”
“No one can ever guess exactly the shots that are going to take the longest,” observes Pete Travers. “Within all of that there are always places where you sit there and get to be amazed at what was accomplished.” The ability for Sony Pictures Imageworks to meet the short deadline was assisted by the attitude and approach taken by the client. “My hat is off to Marvel for being focus with their direction, cascading that down to the artists and making sure we had an opportunity to succeed.” Guardians of the Galaxy stayed true to its comic book origin. “We all grew up with Marvel. I had all kinds of Marvel comic books when I was young. There’s a lot of humour in it and there was some campiness in it but then it had some serious moments. It’s very much a comic book movie.” The project was an enjoyable experience. “It was a pleasure to work with Marvel. I’d love to work with them again.”
Guardians of the Galaxy images © 2014 Marvel Studios/Walt Disney Pictures. All Rights Reserved. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Imageworks.
Many thanks to Peter Travers for taking the time for this interview.
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Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.