Exclusive: Method's VFX Breakdown for Guardians of the Galaxy
Koen, can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your role in supervising the CG for Guardians of the Galaxy?
I was the CG supervisor, which means that I mostly deal with all of the 3D departments. This involves everything having to do with animation, lighting, and modeling. I was on the project from the beginning, helping with asset building and developing the look of models. For most departments, I’m the first line of defense before it moves up to the VFX supervisor (Greg Steele). I work closely with the VFX supervisor to ensure that everything looks right. On the technical side, I make sure that all the tools are in place, all the software is working, things like that.
At what point in the film’s production was Method brought in produce their part of the CG/VFX work?
We were brought in at a later date. Framestore and MPC had been developing a lot of the movie before, and also they had begun creating the animated characters. We were brought in about 3 or 4 months before the end to pick up several sequences that required things we’re great a solving. So, it was more of the design things like designing the holographic look of the table in Nova Corp and creating the Collectors lab sequence. So we were involved more at the end of the movie, after the shooting.
Method was responsible for completing more than one shot a day (170 shots in 150 days) for the film. How many days passed until your first shot was finished and how do you begin organizing and planning for the production of that much work?
Well, we split it up by sequences that needed specific things. There were a lot of shots that were just compositing shots where we needed to replace a background or perform some beauty fixes. Those are basically what we call “low hanging fruit,” which are shots that you can get out of the way fairly quickly because they have less iterations. So they can go fairly fast.
Then we moved to some of the bigger sequences, like the Collector’s lab. This particular shot, for us, was a little bit off the beaten path in the sense that almost every shot we had was a one-off shot and required a lot of development that wouldn’t be dropped into many other scenes.
The Collector’s lab was the most challenging in that respect because it has all of these floating windows, and in every window we had to create something that would maybe appear in one or two shots to tell the history of the Power Stones. So for those shots, we would first concept out. We have a design department at Method that helped us out in the beginning with a lot of sketches and a lot of designs. We had some artists just doing paint overs and quick sketches because it’s much easier to iterate in 2D and to bring the ideas across to the client.
For something like the Collector’s lab sequence, you start a whole build, VFX starts developing, and comps starts to put some stuff together. Although the departments all work in parallel, those shots could take months to deliver in the end.
How was the work load spread across the Los Angeles and London studios?
Half way through our project, there were some re-shoots being done in London. And they called for the re-creation of several CG environments. One of those sequences was handled in London where they built the whole environment and added the effects that were needed to complete it.
Another part of the spaceship that needed to be built was created here in L.A., which also included a lot of the black fire effects and the main bad guy, Ronan. Yeah, we split that work up and it ended up working out really well. One of London’s shots, involving a big explosion, was split between the two studios. We ended up doing one part here, and they did another there.
Since you had to deliver more than one shot a day, you had to hit the ground running. With VFX, though, there’s always going to be technical challenges that can cause delays. As a supervisor, how do you plan for these issues ahead of time so it doesn’t slow down your ability to deliver shots at such a fast pace?
We had a great working relationship with the supervisors from Marvel. We would show them quick sketches just to see if it was going in the direction they needed. The one catch to working with such a short time frame is that if you go too far down the rabbit hole and and it turns out the client sees something else in their head, that’s going to be a big change. So, it’s important to put everything in a very presentable state early on so that you can start discussing then what your client is expecting, that’s a big deal.
Of course, there are curve balls that get thrown, and you just have to sometimes change course. It’s important to be very flexible when dealing with those. Then there’s roughing in new ideas quickly to see if they’re going in the right direction. In a short schedule like this film, once the design is done, it’s fairly straight forward because you can better plan on how to execute it.
One of the shots that was a bit more predictable, for example, was the orb’s metal pieces with the claws, which was also in the Collector’s lab. That’s just animation, so we know how it’s built. It’s a little bit easier to schedule if you know exactly what you’re going to make. So, you can run that as your recurring theme, and then on top of that you get your weird stuff where you have to design things. But the important part of supervising is to remain flexible and to prepare your artists for changes later on.
Method created the digital cosmic landscape for a flashback sequence between Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) towards the end of the film. In one of Method’s green screened plates, it looks as though the scene was combined from two separate takes of each actor. Was there a reason why this scene had to be combined in this way as opposed to one take with both actors?
That was a story change later on in the movie. Originally, Quill was going to see his mother instead of Gamora. They also changed where the transition would occur. So, in the end that cosmic landscape became a big collage of elements that allowed for the flexibility of the composition and timing.
That scene in particular was mostly handled in a 2.5 D solution, with a lot of matte painting projected, and then a 3D foreground. The live action stuff actually fit in pretty well, the challenge was with some re-framing. It turned out that we didn’t have enough of Gamora’s leg, so we had to add that. It’s a bit of patch work that one, but I think it worked really well.
Another shot included the large holographic display at Nova Corp’s command center. Since the display is largely VFX that actors on set have to interact with, can you explain how that was achieved? Was the design for the display done first or was the display designed around the actors’ interaction with it?
The design was done later. The actors kind of knew what actions would be taking place. The hologram table shows the metal ring that runs on outside and that had been extensively pre-vized. So, the main actions of what we would be seeing in the shot was sort of determined.
Originally, everything was going to be a bit higher up and nothing would be flat on the table. When we came up with the city being on the ground, we had to do a lot with the eye lines of the actors. We had to make sure that there were always elements that we could put in the right place where the actors had been told some action would be happening on the set.
For example, when they’re pushing buttons on the set, they said “just push in the air,” and we’ll make it work. So, we designed the interface elements around that, and the action was designed around the plates that we got. It was more of a back and forth between what was in the plate and the story we needed to tell.
What was the most technically challenging part of the shot when the orb opens to reveal the Infinity Stone?
Some challenges were that, as you can see in the before and after, originally the Stone was planned to be red, So all of the interactive light was red. Later it was decided that purple might be a better color, so we had to switch to purple and also deal with all of the interactive lighting.
One of the challenges for us was that it’s a very simple shape. It’s a bit of an egg, and we still wanted to make it look very interesting. By adding a lot of interior detail that would reflect the light, that would bounce off and create interesting colors, we tried to give it an interesting appearance. In the end, I think the client and Method were very happy with the look that came out of it.
Overall, how much freedom was Method given for the look and design of the shots for the film?
We were given quite a bit of room to come up with nice designs. For example, for the hologram table we did a lot of tests ranged from completely hologram, distorted images to ones that looked more realistic. Early on, the director imagined the table as more photoreal than we had originally thought that the hologram table would be. So, that was a case where they had a design idea that we added to with different elements and outlines. We playing around with the shot just to see how it would look.
But the video screens in the Collectors lab went through many design iterations. We came up with ideas that we thought would work well and then ran them by the client. They would give us suggestions on where they think it should be going. They would give us a rough outline in the beginning, and we would play around and throw out some ideas. Together we would whittle it down to the final look.
CG supervisors come in all shapes and sizes, from overseeing production of major studios like Method to smaller independent projects. As a CG supervisor of more heavily financed work, what advice do you have for others who oversee smaller, more indie projects?
I think the main thing is to try to find a great way to communicate with your client. Try to get a relationship with them that makes it easy to understand where they want to be going because you’re going to have to translate that to the artists that then have to execute it. So, getting a little bit in the head of the client and understanding where they want their movie to end up. I think that’s a very important part of the process because in the end you’re the translator between all the artists sitting at their computers doing their work and the client who has the movie in their head.