With Guardians of the Galaxy arriving on DVD & Blu-Ray on November 24, 2014 in the UK, Trevor Hogg chats with Stephane Ceretti about supervising the visual effects work required to bring the cinematic vision of James Gunn and Marvel to the big screen…James Gunn
“Before we met, James had written a 15 page document of references and visual things he had in his mind,” recalls Stephane Ceretti who was called upon to produce the visual effects for Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) under the direction of filmmaker James Gunn (Slither). “He always wanted to do things where you had a mixture of beautiful and ugly within the same frame. We talked about Forbidden Planet  and all of these classic Sci-Fi movies that were colourful and vibrant. The emphasis was on the characters all of the time, and getting Rocket and Groot to look good and be animated in the right way.” Music plays a big role throughout the space opera. “First of all James and Tyler Bates [Watchmen] had already written some of the score of the movie before we started shooting so while filming we were playing the music which was reminiscent to what was done on Cloud Atlas . It created a rhythm to how we were shooting things and how the actors were reacting to things. Also, in the previs phase it was important for us to use some of the music. For the entire opening sequence where Peter Quill [Chris Pratt] is dancing through the temple, the Kyln Escape and the Final Battle we were always using some music to be able to get some nice rhythms.”
Charlie Wood [Production Designer] had a huge number of concept artists working for him and some of them were people from visual effects companies; he had Kevin Jenkins who is the head of the Art Department for Framestore creating the look of Knowhere and Framestore ended up doing it; that was the type of collaboration which was going on. A friend of mine Olivier Pron who knows Charlie helped to develop the whole look of Xandar and is working for Method Studios in London. There were lots of props and weapons that had been designed by people in the Art Department from MPC. Charlie understands the process and used 3D tools to design the sets. We used their models in the previs so it was a huge collaboration. Charlie and I know each other because I had done Thor: The Dark World  where he was the production designer as well. Charlie is a fantastic and crazy genius.”
“There were a lot of action scenes that we wanted to prepare from a rhythm and technical point of view because we have some completely CG characters,” explains Stephane Ceretti. “We wanted to get as much done as possible with the Escape from the Kyln or the Xandar Battle when they all meet for the first time in previs so that everybody could understand where the CG characters would be.” Getting the right framing was an issue. “We did an animation test early on in pre-production because wanted to figure out the best framing and how to shoot the stuff. Sometimes we couldn’t frame for everybody because we had a tall and small guy. We made conscious decisions not to always to frame correctly but to keep them in frame somewhere so you can feel their presence.” Lighting was another concern. Ben Davis [Cinematographer] wanted to make sure that he was lighting the CG characters as well as the real actors that we had on-set. We made sure that every time we were setting up lighting for the scene that we had references like a puppet raccoon and also a stand-in so we could light them and get a reflection in the eyes. Afterwards in post we could use that lighting and make sure that everything was being lit correctly and matching that Ben had setup on-set.”
“During the shoot we didn’t have much interaction with Fred Raskin [Film Editor] besides what the scenes were,” remarks Stephane Ceretti. “We had a postvis team in London and then in L.A. that he was involved with; that was important for them because they had to understand the reasons for the scenes. We did some postvis animation so that they could cut the movie. They were doing a first pass of cutting the movie but we were putting CG characters in there so there was a lot of feedback between the postvis department and editorial to cement the edit based on the postvis work. It was a lot of collaboration between visual effects, postvis and editorial to get the rhythm for the scenes.” Alexandra Byrne (Elizabeth: The Golden Age) handled the costume designs. The beautiful thing that Alex did for us is that she made real Rocket costumes for us so that we could give them to the vendors. Alex did fantastic work in sourcing all of the right fabrics and materials for us to reference for the costumes that we built.”
“I had done three things with both Paul Corbould [SFX Supervisor] and Steve Dent [Stunt Coordinator] so it was a good collaboration,” remarks Stephane Ceretti. “The previs was key because we were having pre-production meetings twice a week. We had so much material coming through. We were analysing the previs and saying, ‘Steve you’re going to be doing these guys as stunts. These are going to be CG people so don’t worry about these.’ We were always trying to find the best way to mix CG and real stuff together so that we could get a good balance between the two. Paul built all of the gimbals for the spaceships. We had a lot of discussion when we were prevising the Final Battle and the Pod Chase in Knowhere what we do in terms of the motion base for the gimbals. We were exchanging information about the type of motion that was requested, what he could and couldn’t do, and the type of camera move he would have to do. Paul was keen on doing all of the geysers in Morag so we did a lot of work on getting them right as effects on-set which we also had to extend in some places.”
“The Kyln was going to be overly complicated to plan without the set build,” reveals Stephane Ceretti. “For Xandar, we had not much built. There was also the issue of using either of blue or green screen because we had so many blue and green aliens. It was crazy trying to figure out what screen colour we would use. The person we had most of time was Gamora [Zoe Saldana] who is green but we also had lots of blue people in the back; the rotoing was not that much of a problem because she has dark hair. Most of the time we used green screen but it was a bit of a nightmare with blue people in front of blue screen and green people in front of green screen.”
“Sean Gunn [Super], the director’s brother, was there all of the time with the actors doing the part of Rocket,” states Stephane Ceretti. “He did a fantastic job and that made things simpler because he was a real actor delivering the lines so the interaction was good. The first thing we did was to get the cameras and lighting in place and block the scene with all of the stand-ins. Once that was done we brought in all of the actors. We would shoot a pass with the actors delivering their lines and once James was happy with the performances we would take Sean and Krystian Godlewski [portrayed Groot] out. We put markers and white lines. Sean was still behind the camera delivering his lines and we shot another pass with the actors doing the scene again; that was the one which was to be used in the film. We were also shooting references. It was time consuming but that allowed everybody to get into the rhythm, understand the scene and get the timing correct. We didn’t have any motion or facial capture going on for Rocket and Groot.
“For Rocket, we had a raccoon come into our offices in London,” reveals Stephane Ceretti. “We had all of the people from MPC and Framestore come into that session with James. It was an interesting session because we learned a lot about raccoons and that created some ideas for us about the way Rocket does stuff when he grabs things. Raccoons use their sense of touch extremely well and are agile so that was driving a lot of the animation that we did later down the line in the movie. The fur we analysed as well during that day.” Rocket unlike Groot speaks more than three words. “We worked a lot on the look of the mouth to make it look real but not human. Bradley Cooper [Silver Linings Playbook] talks quickly when he plays Rocket. We had to work around the various motions that are in the mouth. We toned it down quite a bit because when he was talking too fast it looked artificial and mechanical.”
No real life reference was available for the humanoid tree bounty hunter Groot. “We had the design from Charlie Wen who designs all of the characters for Marvel,” remarks Stephane Ceretti. “The model and rigging were detailed because we didn’t want him to bend too much. Groot is a tree and is strong so we came up with the idea of having all of these branches and vines pulling and pushing and not bending too much. We did some facial features that made him appear strong. The main thing was to study the character. How was Groot behaving with the other people? He can only say three words so that limits the amount of expression we get out of simply talking which was a good thing because that forced us to make sure that the eyes and face were expressive. Groot is a sweet character but he can become a big killing machine at the same time.” As for evil presence that makes an appearance in Guardians of the Galaxy, Ceretti states, “Thanos was shot with a stand-in on the day. We did a facial capture for that performance and used the model that Luma did. But as soon as we knew Josh Brolin [No Country for Old Men] would be the actor we started integrate some of his facial features within the design of the character.”
“We had a big challenge ahead of us because we had so many shots with Rocket and Groot together that we couldn’t leave that all for one place,” reveals Stephane Ceretti. “After talking to MPC and Framestore we came up with the solution of splitting the build of the characters. Rocket ended up being built by Framestore but Framestore would give their Rocket to MPC at some point when the model was ready and we had MPC create Groot and they gave their model and rigging to Framestore. We couldn’t do all of the animation shots at once. That put MPC and Framestore on an equal level in regards to how important they were to the process. Framestore uses Arnold and MPC uses RenderMan so that was a challenge to make sure that everything was lining up. The animation supervisors [from the two companies] were working together even though the directions from James were clear to make sure that they came up with the same characters.”
“In terms of the amount of work we said that Morag is going to be MPC because they’re good at water simulation and we’ve got these geysers,” continues Ceretti. “MPC would do the Final Battle on Xandar because they’re good at huge environments. Framestore ended up doing the Kyln which was a lot of animation with Rocket so that made sense as they were building Rocket. Also, Knowhere and the Pod Chase which made sense because Framestore had their Art Department working with Charlie Wood on the design of the place.” Along with Luma Pictures creating Thanos, Method Studios was responsible for the Cosmic Landscape and the holographic images displayed at Nova Corp as well at The Collector’s Lab. “Sony Pictures Imageworks did the battle at the end with Korath [Djimon Hounsou] where you have the wheels spinning in the engine room and shared a few shots with MPC for Groot animation. The tattoos on Drax [Dave Bautista] were prosthetics laid on skin and were wrinkling quite a bit so Lola had to fix them in many shots.
“Charlie and I discussed what things in real life that we could look at and in turn grow from [for Morag],” explains Stephane Ceretti. “We ended up looking at the White Desert in Egypt which had these strange rock formations and was a seabed that ended up becoming a desert. Morag is supposed to be planet that used to be underwater but is now dried out. During pre-production we flew to the White Desert to take some pictures and references. We also brought back some sand and rocks which we then gave to Charlie; he built a set in Longcross Studios which was in the backlot. We also did some photographing of canyons in Arizona. We built up a library of textures and shapes that MPC used to build the environment of Morag; they also added a lot of features like these arches that you see on the planet. We wanted the ground to be wet and dark but the sky vibrant.”
“Xandar is a water planet. We referenced buildings in Dubai and Singapore, and a place called Garden by the Bay which has lush vegetation. We also referenced buildings from all over the world. MPC had so many buildings to build. The Xandar Mall is based on a train station in Liège, Belgium so that building was photographed, scanned and built as a CG asset. James wanted to add a lot of colours to the buildings and vegetation. We wanted to have the Final Battle in the atmosphere so it’s in daylight. We previs most of the Final Battle but kept on adding and changing it in post-production. When the Starblasters are all connecting to each other was added late into the process around April so MPC Vancouver helped with finishing that sequence.”
Knowhere is situated within the decapitate head of a celestial being. “James wanted a mixture of organic matter because we’re inside a skull,” states Stephan Ceretti. “We looked at real skulls, how they look and how bones are looking from inside them. It’s also a mining operation so we looked at mining places with tall refineries and Rio because we have all of these people living around the skull. We had lots of atmospheric lighting and smoke inside the skull so we could play around with the lights during the Pod Chase to make sure that it was readable. There is a lot to look at but you still want to be focus on the chase itself and what’s happening to our guys. We had to find a right balance with Knowhere. Because we’re flying all around Framestore had to build the entire place which was a huge asset.”
“We had quite a few different types of spaceships and they all had their own ways of flying,” notes Stephane Ceretti. “We wanted people to identify who was who. The way they move, look and the colours were important so that people wouldn’t be completely lost. Also the way they shoot and the colours of what they’re shooting were all different. We did a lot of work on all of these different elements.” A standard futuristic technology makes an appearance. “There are different holograms in the film. The first one we see is Peter Quill using a mapping device to find The Orb. We always try to make something fresh but at the same time there are so many that have been done before. We used the colours a lot and tried not to be too fancy as well. We tried to make it simpler to what you usually get. Also in the Nova Hub with Glenn Close (The Big Chill), we wanted the holograms to feel real so we added small models of the ships flying on top of the table. The holograms were real-time 3D projections of what was happening in the sky.”
“When Groot grows the cocoon around them in the end is a magical moment,” believes Stephane Ceretti. “We had the Art Department build a cocoon with branches. It was really good because we shot everything within the cocoon. We ended up replacing most of it because the cocoon and leaves had to grow. It was a beautiful reference to have the actors in there because Ben could light it in a way he couldn’t have if it had been in a green bowl.” The CG character was responsible for another memorable scene. “It was magical when Groot opens his hand in the Dark Aster and there are these spores coming out of his arm. We always thought it would be a good sequence but once completed it was cool.” Baby Groot joyfully moves to the music of the Jackson Five. “James ended up miming Baby Groot dancing so we gave that to MPC and they imitated what James did. The animation supervisor at MPC told me at the end he couldn’t hear the music anymore because they did so many iterations but it turned out to be fun!”
A comic book character makes an unexpected cameo appearance as a treat for audience members. “It came up late in the process and was a fun idea that they had. They asked, ‘Why don’t we bring Howard the Duck into the movie?’ I said, ‘Howard the Duck! Are you crazy!?’ They were serious so Sony ended up doing it. Once they did it they gave it to Framestore so he could end up in one of the boxes in The Collector’s Lab. The first shot of the Collector when he turns around in the far back is one of the moments you can see Howard the Duck.” Black fire had to be created. “It was difficult because we had many vendors doing the same effect. We had Framestore doing the black fire in The Collector’s Lab, Method doing the black fire in the scene when Ronan [Lee Pace] grabs the stone puts it into his rod, and we had MPC doing the black fire at the end when they all join together and fight Ronan for the last time. If a vendor had a good idea we were trying to get it across to the others so we could keep all of the effects consistent throughout the film.”
Guardians of the Galaxy images and video © 2014 Marvel Studios/Walt Disney Pictures. All Rights Reserved. Courtesy of Marvel Studios, Walt Disney Pictures, Framestore, MPC, Method Studios, Sony Pictures Imageworks and Proof.
Many thanks to Stephane Ceretti for taking the time for this interview.
To learn more visit the official websites for Guardians of the Galaxy, Framestore, MPC, Method Studios, Sony Pictures Imageworks, Luma Pictures and Lola VFX plus read the insights of Charles Wood at the CGSociety and Territory Studio at 3DTotal.
Concept Art from Guardians of the Galaxy
Engineering Danger: Sony Pictures Imageworks & Guardians of the Galaxy
Cosmic Landscape: Method Studios & Guardians of the Galaxy
Branching Out: MPC & Guardians of the Galaxy
Knowhere to Go: Framestore & Guardians of the Galaxy
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.