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May 24
2017

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, VOL. 2: SECRETS OF THE STARTLING ‘EGO’ EFFECTS

Kurt Russell as Ego. Lola VFX would de-age the actor using their renowned 3D and 2D compositing techniques. (Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2) Photo credit: Film Frame. ©Marvel Studios 2017

By IAN FAILES

In James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, Kurt Russell plays the role of Ego the Living Planet, father to Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and hell-bent on spreading his influence over the entire universe. At different points in the movie, he appears in a much younger form, he shows off some unusual family dioramas, and he is shot to pieces before re-forming. Here’s how Lola VFX, Animal Logic and Weta Digital handled that work.

 

YOUNG KURT RUSSELL

They did a ‘skinny’ Chris Evans for Captain America: The First Avenger, a young Michael Douglas in Ant-Man and a de-aged Robert Downey Jr. in Captain America: Civil War. Now, Lola VFX has done it again for Kurt Russell’s Ego. Their approach drew on this previous ‘youthification’ work, starting with the principal hero plate of Russell on set. Additionally, a face double was filmed mimicking the hero performance as much as possible.

“The time-span traveled with this character was about 37 years, so it was our longest span so far in de-aging, but it was a lot of fun to work on!”

—Trent Claus, Visual Effects Supervisor, Lola FX

“We use that take as reference material, particularly for lighting reference on the different structures of the face,” explains Lola Visual Effects Supervisor Trent Claus. “Mr. Russell wore his full costume, including hair, with minimal makeup except for tracking dots. We generally prefer to avoid a lot of makeup as it can blur or hide the natural qualities of the skin that we try so hard to maintain.”

Meanwhile, at Lola, artists analyzed the reference materials for the target age. In this case, the desired look and age was around the time of Escape From New York. “Unfortunately for our purposes,” notes Claus, “Mr. Russell’s character in that film has an eye patch and a permanent 5 o’clock shadow, so it wasn’t ideal. But his film just prior to that, Used Cars, was just perfect. We combed through Used Cars frame by frame to gather reference for particular expressions, angles and lighting.”

After principal photography, Lola did an additional shoot in their proprietary lighting rig to gather high-definition elements that helped artists manipulate the hero footage. 3D scans of the actor and face double also assisted with tracking and having geometry to do projections on. “These can also serve as a reference guide, giving us registration points in difficult areas such as along the jaw line and around the Adam’s apple,” says Claus.

Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2. Kurt Russell (Ego) and Chris Pratt (Peter Quill/Star-Lord) on set. Photo credit: Chuck Zlotnick. ©Marvel Studios 2017

“The whole time, we kept asking ourselves, ‘How far is too far?’ in terms of craziness!”

—Christopher Townsend, Visual Effects Supervisor, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

The particular challenges of this de-aging work for Russell came from generating a face audiences were already very familiar with from the actor’s earlier films. Some specific shots in the sequence were also incredibly difficult, “like the wide, sweeping aerial shots while driving in the car, or the interaction with Meredith as they kiss,” comments Claus. “The extreme angles and lighting variations can make the face-double’s job of mimicking very difficult, so our additional efforts in our lighting rig become all the more important. The time-span traveled with this character was about 37 years, so it was our longest span so far in de-aging, but it was a lot of fun to work on!”

Animal Logic went through many iterations before building these porcelain-like dioramas for Ego’s history lesson. ©Marvel Studios 2017

MEET THE FAMILY

When the Guardians visit Ego’s planet, he reveals his long history of populating various worlds, mating with local lifeforms and implanting his alien seed. To tell those stories, Ego uses a series of dioramas that contain porcelain-like figures, including of his alien conquests and Quill’s mother, Meredith.  Animal Logic Visual Effects Supervisor Paul Butterworth oversaw the studio’s work on these dioramas, as well as the extremely complex fractal-based architecture inside Ego’s palace. But not before months of exploratory concepts.

“This sequence was a real challenge, trying to find a suitable visual language for the moment,” notes overall Visual Effects Supervisor Christopher Townsend. “James Gunn wanted something that was weird, that stood out, but that clearly told the story he wanted to tell.”

The dioramas included an eggshell design that wiped over and around to move onto new story points. ©Marvel Studios 2017

“That’s why the sequence went through many iterations of design,” adds Townsend, “from huge animated triptych paintings, reminiscent of the Stations of the Cross, to animated sand sculptures in bas-relief. But we ended up going with huge, kitschy, Hummel-like-porcelain, animated statues, framed by strange, floating alabaster eggs reminiscent of Ego’s spaceship; these were a dramatic juxtaposition to the ornate gorgeousness of the intricately created, almost classical-looking palace. The whole time, we kept asking ourselves, ‘How far is too far?’ in terms of craziness!”

“Because Ego was speaking throughout the reveal, we were able to play with delivering dialogue via a skull only, or half-skin half-muscle. The result is a dramatic and horrifying reveal of the antagonist as he tightens his grip on the Guardians!”

—Dave Clayton, Animation Supervisor, Weta Digital

The final statue approach was begun with only five weeks left in production. Since some live action had been filmed for the original idea of animated paintings, Animal Logic roto-mated this footage and applied the performance to stylized sculptural forms for the dioramas. They were then packaged up in-to elegantly-designed eggshell pieces that then wipe between story moments.

Weta Digital re-created a CG version of Kurt Russell as Ego for when he is blasted by Quill. ©Marvel Studios 2017

EGO RESURRECTED

Once the Guardians realize Ego’s true intentions, they attempt to take him out. This begins in dramatic fashion when Quill laser-blasts his father in anger, destroying much of his body and face and reducing the being partially back to celestial form. Weta Digital crafted the somewhat gory shots, over-seen by Visual Effects Supervisor Guy Williams, taking care to adhere to any ratings issues. At this point, too, there’s even a 3D morph to David Hasselhoff.

Later, Ego re-creates himself in human form around his celestial frame-work. Weta Digital essentially had to make a complete digital double of Kurt Russell – including his innards – to pull off the scene, which also included their elaborate renders of the planet core that were inspired by fractal and [Benoit] Mandelbrot designs.

“Ego initiates his transformation by crunching and destroying a section of the environment and then reforming it as a pathway down to Quill, who awaits trapped by tendrils,” describes Weta Digital Animation Supervisor Dave Clay-ton. “We referred to it as the ‘parting of the Red Sea’ moment. Multiple versions were created in animation to lock down the timing and composition of the effect, the amount of destruction and pieces moving and the camera framing.”

Muscle, skeleton and other layers were built and animated for Ego’ s reformation. ©Marvel Studios 2017

Ego then descends toward Quill and slowly creates his human form. The effect was spread across multiple shots and required close collaboration between the animation and FX departments to make it possible.

“The sequence (when the Guardians visited Ego’s planet) was a real challenge, trying to find a suitable visual language for the moment. James Gunn wanted something that was weird, that stood out, but that clearly told the story he wanted to tell.”

—Christopher Townsend, Visual Effects Supervisor, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

“We mocked up Ego’s physiology into multiple passes – his skeleton, organs, muscles, skin and finally clothes and hair,” says Clayton. “We then experimented with the timing and nature of the reveal of each of these building blocks, often overlapping them and playing them to the framing of each shot.

Because Ego was speaking throughout the reveal, we were able to play with delivering dialogue via a skull only, or half-skin half-muscle. The result is a dramatic and horrifying reveal of the antagonist as he tightens his grip on the Guardians!”


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