By ED OCHS
By ED OCHS
The mission was clear: The opening sequence for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 had to be one for the ages. That’s what it said in the script. Nothing short of mind-blowing would do. From the first frame of the film to the end of the opening credits, Framestore’s VFX team faced an onslaught of non-stop, complex challenges and shot-by-shot detail, knowing the final result had to be spectacular and seamless.
“The set was made of gold which we replaced entirely in every shot,” says Jonathan Fawkner, VFX Supervisor. “Every plate element, every furry creature, every ‘scattery’ skin alien, every explosion, weapon-blast energy effect and all debris needed to be reflected in the set. There was nowhere to hide any of the usual compositing tricks. Every element needed to be traced against set and reflected in it, and the sheer number of elements and layers made it a very challenging sequence to comp and to render.”
Right off the bat, Framestore’s army of resources was called into action. Commensurate with the heavy workload and personnel demands was the concern for maintaining quality while ensuring smooth transitions. Marvel also had its requirements to factor in.
“There was a single five-minute-long shot on which the titles were to be placed alongside Baby Groot dancing. Obviously, we could not put over 4000 frames with a single individual artist,” Fawkner says. “A huge amount of care needed to be taken to make sure that the work is cleverly shared and artists hand off in a sensible way. Knowing the way that Marvel wants to keep options open to the end, we had to be careful about layering to offer the most options, but the burden of that falls on comp.”
The high-octane flurry of live action, CG, animation, effects and colors fulfilled the director’s mandate for a super-charged opening that never quits. It also confirmed that a mark of great VFX lies in the undetectable unification of diverse and complex elements.
“We had 160 individual layers for any one shot, and when you consider that reflections are all de-focused separately from the surface they are reflected in, the complexity is hugely magnified. And that is to say nothing of the animation, the creature FX of fur and skin, the destruction and battle effects, the continuous camera, and all the rainbow colors we would cram into every frame to make it ‘the most awesome title sequence of all time’, which was, frankly, the only guide we had from the script.”
“The set was made of gold which we replaced entirely in every shot. Every plate element, every furry creature, every ‘scattery’ skin alien, every explosion, weapon-blast energy effect and all debris needed to be reflected in the set…”
— Jonathan Fawkner, VFX Supervisor
ANIMATING KEY ASSETS
The opening sequence was just as challenging from the animation point of view. “We had to figure out how we were going to come up with a performance that’s coherent with Baby Groot’s character, but also make it funny and entertaining,” says Arslan Elver, Animation Supervisor. “The video reference of James Gunn dancing was fantastic as a starting point. We then pushed it further to be able to accommodate crazy camera movements and distances to cover, which was a challenge for such a small character. We split the sequence into 11 pieces for one continuous camera. The Abilisk also proved itself a tough character to animate with its eight tentacles.”
Elver explains another big challenge. “We used an animation-driven approach where we had control over hundreds of space ships within a swarm. It was tricky at times to make sure we got interesting silhouettes out of the sovereign omni-crafts. Also, animating spaceships and making sure they moved in a dynamic but realistic way was a tricky thing to adapt yourself.”
Entrusted with the fate of the studio’s hugely popular animation-driven characters, Elver acknowledges an obligation to preserve their arc through consistency, and he feels the team met and exceeded that bar.
“As the company that created the assets of Baby Groot and Rocket, our overall challenge was to keep the performances of these two main characters – show-stealers, if you will – consistent. I think we managed to keep the performance solid across our sequences by carefully studying the footage we were given of Bradley Cooper and Sean Gunn, and by shooting our own reference inspired from these performances. We are proud of our work being 100% keyframe animation.” The opening sequence called for cascades of effects. “The environment for our opening sequence included a tumultuous roiling storm,” Fawkner adds.
“We played it as if shot overcranked, emboldened by the license afforded us by being set on an alien planet. But plate photography was not an option. The camera soared up toward the low cloud base at times, and the shots were very long, meaning we needed 4,000 frames of high resolution, evolving and traveling 3D clouds. We developed a system that enabled us to model clouds as low-resolution geo, and to art direct the placement and density, animate their shapes and translate them across the sky, all while lighting them with a physically accurate blue sky and bright sun voxelizing at render time. Lightning bolts were volumetric, meaning we could obscure and scatter their light and illuminate beautiful cloud structures within an ever-changing and evolving storm that could fly over our head or we could fly right through.”
Guardians’ top unreal characters continue to grow more real, in greater detail. “The solid performances of our two main CG characters were based on a hugely collaborative team effort,” Elver reports. “I think without using mocap or without labeling things as mocap, you can still get great performances out of animation. We worked hard with Rocket to update his fur, shapes, shaders and cloth sim. He looks so real, you want to reach out and touch him.”