On Character Development, Sharing Assets Among Facilities, and the Importance of Eyelines

In Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy, a quartet of misfits that include, improbably, a CG raccoon named Rocket and a CG tree named Groot, zip from planet to planet as they try to save the galaxy from an evil villain. Directed by James Gunn and distributed by Walt Disney Pictures, the sci-fi action adventure achieved a 91% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and hunted down a bounty of $773 million dollars at the worldwide box office.

Overall supervisor Stephane Ceretti, special effects supervisor Paul Corbould, Framestore visual effects supervisor Jonathan Fawkner, and Moving Picture Company visual effects supervisor Nicolas Aithadi received Oscar and BAFTA nominations for the visual effects.

We talked with Stephane Ceretti. Ceretti began his career at BUF in Paris, moved to London to work at MPC and then Method. He joined Marvel for Captain America, left to help the Wachowski siblings with Cloud Atlas, and then moved back to Marvel. His Oscar and BAFTA nominations for Guardians are his first.

StudioDaily: Guardians was one of 10 films with amazing effects at the bakeoff. Why do you think your peers voted for this film for an Oscar nomination?

Stephane Ceretti: The universe we created is extensive, but I think the characters are the thing. I think they recognized that people cried when they looked at a raccoon crying because his tree friend is dead. Who would think people would be so emotional watching two CG characters crying at each other? And then all the fun things. I think people enjoyed the movie. There is a huge number of visual effects in the movie, but people liked it for the story, and I like the fact that we supported that. 

How many visual effects shots?

2400. About 95 percent of the film has visual effects. We had to create pretty much everything as we go from one planet to another to another. We created all those environments based on concept art. Even the beginning on Earth had visual effects. They built some sets, but we did extensions. We built all the spaceships. It was a huge amount of work for the vendors.

How many vendors?

We had 13 vendors plus two for previs, Proof and The Third Floor, toward the end. We previs’d pretty much all of the movie.

How did you divide the work among the vendors?

MPC and Framestore were the big vendors. MPC did 850 shots and Framestore did 600. Other vendors did one-off shots in specific environments. The main thing was that we had lots of shots with Rocket and Groot, so first of all we had to make sure all those shots could get done. MPC did early tests for both characters and did a good Groot. Framestore did tests for a very good Rocket. So we decided to use the two companies to balance the load. MPC created Groot and Framestore created Rocket and then they shared.


Did MPC and Framestore share shots?

We didn’t do combined shots. When Groot and Rocket are in a shot, the shot was all done in one place. So the main challenge was getting [the characters] to look the same despite the different pipelines and renderers. Also having them act the same way. We tried to be clever about how we divided the sequences. Framestore had a lot of sequences in the dark. MPC had more in bright daylight. We tried to make it so it wasn’t so easy to compare things, so if there was a small difference, it wasn’t so noticeable.

How did you ensure continuity in the characters’ performances?

James [director James Gunn] was really involved in the animation process. He directed the animators like actors. We had almost daily animation sessions with James, me, producers at Marvel, and animators from both companies to try to get all the stuff working and matching. We worked in a collegial way, all sharing their knowledge of the characters and discussing them together. We also had meetings between the two vendors. They sent models and setups to each other, but it was a big process getting them to match the look and performances.

How long did it take to develop the characters?

We started early. When I joined in January 2013, we had concept art for Rocket and Groot from Marvel’s concept group, and we started doing tests from that. We knew what kinds of emotions we wanted to get from the characters, so we worked on faces, eyes, all those things that define the characters. The proportions of the bodies. We had a costume designer come on board. During production, as we were shooting, we learned more about the characters and what they would do, so we were always doing tweaks to bring them to that level.

We cracked Rocket in December 2013, so it took a year, basically. That was when we said, "That’s him, now we can start." We had Groot in terms of getting him to move and look right as we started to do post in October 2013. 

In post-production, as we did lip-sync and mouth animation for Rocket, we learned about how his mouth should move. It was an ongoing process. For Groot, we had lots of specific things to work on—stuff with the cocoon at the end, legs growing, that kind of thing.


Director James Gunn (left) and brother Sean Gunn on set.

Did you use motion-capture on set for the CG characters?

We didn’t. First of all, we didn’t have the actors who would be Rocket and Groot in the end on set. But also, we felt it wasn’t the right way to go. Human to raccoon didn’t feel right for us.

On set, we had two guys in green suits: James Gunn’s brother Sean for Rocket and Krystian Godlewski for Groot. When Sean sits on his haunches, he’s exactly the height of Rocket. So we would shoot the scene with them so the actors could see where they were. Once James was happy with the performances, we’d take Sean and Krystian out, put eyelines in the set, and do the same scene without the green guys and that would be what we used for the movie. 

Later we recorded the voices of Bradley Cooper (Rocket) and Vin Diesel (Groot) and filmed their performances for the animators. The animators worked from a hybrid of what happened on set and in the booth and what James came up with working with the editors. It meant we made a lot of decisions later in the process, but we also had a lot of leeway in terms of changing things around and making the rhythm better. We didn’t have to come back to performance capture data.

Do you think the visual effects pushed the state of the art?

Technically speaking, there is nothing new, but in terms of technique, yes. People don’t think of Rocket and Groot as CG characters; they’re part of the group. People forget they’re CG. That’s quite an achievement. 

What did you learn from this experience?

That it’s really tough. It’s really hard to get these movies done. I knew about that, but I hadn’t experienced it first hand. I’ll ask my producer. [pause] She says we learned a lot about eyelines. But that’s not all. We learned that sharing assets and characters between two facilities is really hard. That’s the big lesson. That’s the toughest thing in the world.

Would you do that again — share assets and characters between two facilities?

I don’t know. I think I would try to avoid that, but sometime you don’t have a choice, so you have to just get on with it.


What was the best thing about working on the movie?

It was fun. It was very different from the other movies I’ve worked on, and it was kind of a gamble from Marvel. It was exciting. Marvel movies are crazy movies. But, they’re really fun to do.

What are you working on next?

Another Marvel film, Doctor Strange. It’s very different. Very exciting, as well.