Organizing the Work of 10 VFX Studios and Getting Ideas from 20th Century Pulp Art and 21st Century Fractals — Not to Mention One Silent Comedian
Oscar nominee Christopher Townsend was the overall visual effects supervisor for Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2. This is the second Oscar nomination for Townsend; his first was for the 2013 film Iron Man 3, which resulted in VES and BAFTA nominations for best visual effects, as well. His 13 award nominations also include VES nominations for Guardians Vol. 2 and Captain America: The First Avenger.
Townsend began his career at Industrial Light & Magic as a CG artist on the 1995 film Congo, and became a sequence supervisor with Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. At ILM, he contributed to the next two Star Wars films and many others before leaving to become visual effects supervisor for the stereo 3D film Journey to the Center of the Earth. His first stint at the helm of a Marvel blockbuster was for Captain America: The First Avenger and followed that film by supervising effects for Iron Man 3 and Avengers: Age of Ultron before taking on the Guardians sequel.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 once again sends a bizarre group of raucous, irreverent intergalactic criminals traveling through the cosmos. The action-packed sequel stars two CG members first seen in the previous film: Rocket, a talking raccoon, and a small tree named Baby Groot. Together the Guardians help their leader Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord, find his father, Ego the Living Planet (Kurt Russell), and deal with the consequences. James Gunn returned as writer/director of this film, which stars Chris Pratt as Quill along with Zoe Saldana and Vin Diesel. Bradley Cooper provides Rocket’s voice.
In addition to the Oscar nomination for best visual effects, the film has received an Annie award nomination for outstanding character animation and VES nominations for virtual cinematography and outstanding visual effects. It achieved an 83 percent positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and a worldwide box-office tally of $864 million that topped the first film’s take.
Daniel Sudick, Guy Williams, and Jonathan Fawkner received the Oscar nominations for Best Visual Effects along with Christopher Townsend.
StudioDaily: Why do you think your colleagues voted for Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2 to receive an Oscar nomination?
Christopher Townsend: I think one thing we always aim for is to maintain a standard of quality throughout; to maintain that overall look. That was a big challenge on a movie with this scope — the variety and scope of the work is far beyond anything I’ve ever done before. We had everything from reducing the age of Kurt Russell frame by frame to full digital environments to a talking raccoon. I hope that was one of the reasons they voted for us. Also, it’s a colorful, humorous, fun film with heart. At the end of the day, the visual effects have to support that, even when they are front and center. Hopefully that’s what they saw. It’s an honor to be nominated. I’m thrilled and excited to be part of this group of films. And, I love that we’re the fun, bright, colorful silly one.
Are there any shots in the film without visual effects?
Fifty-nine. There were so few it became a running joke. We had 2,301 shots with visual effects, so that’s 97.5 percent. But don’t forget those 59 shots.
How many studios worked on the film and how did you divide the work?
We had 10 studios — Weta Digital, Framestore, Method, Trixter, Animal Logic, Lola, Luma, Technicolor, Scanline, Cantina Creative — and a small in-house team. We try to cast visual effects companies. We look at their strengths, what they’ve done before, and what they’d love to do. Then we try to divide the film by sequences as much as we can. Also, characters. In this case we had two major CG characters, Rocket and Groot. Any sane company would have one studio work on them, but we couldn’t have just one. So we split them across Framestore, Trixter, Method, and Weta.
What was the schedule?
We shot from April, 2016 to the end of July — 94 days. Then we had seven to eight months in post-production. It wasn’t a short schedule, but it was short enough with all the complexity and variety of work. We were 100 mph every day.
What was the brief?
It’s always hard to follow a first film that’s successful commercially and aesthetically. It was fresh, and we had to continue that. But we did certain things differently. We had a slightly more refined color palette until the last act, which is an explosion of color. But other shots are more considered and restricted, with two lead colors in a sequence. Also, we tried to make things look as real as possible, Rocket in particular. We wanted to take Rocket to the next level because the technology and artistry had moved on.
How did you take Rocket to the next level?
We didn’t have to discover the character. We based everything on what had been done. But we stripped Rocket to his bare bones, recreated muscle systems and hair simulation. We re-sculpted him to so we could give him a cleaner performance and he could enunciate better.
What about Baby Groot?
Baby Groot was an interesting challenge. James [Gunn] said that from an animation point of view, he is cute enough, so don’t make him more cute. We tried to refine him and reduce his performance to a bare minimum. We looked at Buster Keaton and early Aardman animation for reference and gave him a head tilt and eye wipe.
The third act is wild. What was the idea behind the Ego planet?
James [Gunn] was keen to create a world that was not similar to earth for the Ego planet. Somewhere we couldn’t go and shoot. Somewhere totally alien and quite interesting for the story point. Ego built this planet around himself and created what he wanted, so we came up with the idea of organic meeting mathematical.
What did you use for reference?
James was very keen on sci-fi pulp art from the 70s and 80s, so we looked at a lot of that. The production designer created beautiful concept art, so we had that for inspiration, and we often ended up with things that looked similar. We looked at natural things. The challenge when you’re trying to create something we’ve never before seen is to have something viewers can relate to. If you put things like peacock feathers, flower petals, and snail shells in a different context, you see natural forms in an abstract nature.
When we looked at art on the Internet, we kept coming across one artist, Hal Tenny, that James liked. So the art department contacted him and employed him to share his algorithms and formulas. We gave those to various visual effects companies and they built their own versions, using that same Mandelbulb math algorithm, but each in a different way.
So the studios built the planet with 3D fractals?
They used a lot of Mandelbulb 3D fractals to create pieces of the planet. They’d plug in numbers, hit a button, and the algorithm would calculate a new form. Method created the fantastical surface. Scanline created sequences when Guardians dive into the cave. Weta created the interior of the cave and Animal Logic created the interior of the palace. The planet Ego as a whole — the environment of Ego — has half a trillion polygons. It was one of the most complex we’ve ever created.
Was that complexity difficult to manage?
Weta created the most complex environment, and they found when they created these beautiful Mandelbulb sculptures, they could never fit them into a VFX pipeline with the resolution and look they wanted. So they modeled set pieces in Mandelbulb, rendered them in 4K or 8K, and then captured still images. They did photogrammetry on those stills, brought the geometry into their modeling system, and built on that. It was the only way they could build and render the environments at high resolution with the edges and quality we needed. It was a very innovative way to take the result from one piece of software into another to get a complex environment into a VFX pipeline. They built an entire set that we could fly around to see all the locations.
How do you make something so abstract believable enough to draw the audience in?
Use loud music.
Ultimately, you have to have a story that carries it. All this stuff, visual effects particularly, need a story with heart, drama, character arcs. What James Gunn created was fundamentally a good idea for a story. Our job was to build a visual world around it, but never get in the way of those story beats. Our visual effects are very front and center, but they play second fiddle to the drama, the characters, the acting. As soon as a film becomes all about the visuals, we’ve taken a wrong turn. What Guardians managed to do was to have a good story at heart so it could carry crazy ideas. A talking raccoon? Yeah, whatever. We used the opening titles to throw the audience back into that world.
Was this film shot in 8K resolution, and did that affect your work?
We had five Red Weapon 8K cameras when shooting. The beauty of the Weapon 8K is that it has a small camera body, so we could use it almost exclusively in all locations and environments — handheld, steadicam, crane, picture vehicles, tight faces — all the same camera. Very practical, very good. We wanted that high resolution so we could have all the detail. We had a lot of blue screens to pull, so we wanted the best resolution. But the studios could work at 4K or downscale and work at 2K; we scaled the 8K down to a 4K working resolution. Sometimes they’d ask for 8K to have the extra detail, but the master was 4K. The delivery back to us was 2K, so they had flexibility.
What did you learn from working on this film?
I learned that having a plan and a director who has a point of view and knows what he wants makes everything go so much better. This film was challenging because of the complexity of the work, not because of the way it was set up. We had a script before shooting and that’s the movie we ended up with. Sometimes you try to find a story for a long time, but this director was clear about what he felt was right and wrong, so we had fun. He gave it his all. He’d act out Baby Groot’s dance.
The best thing?
I loved working on a film that allowed us to work in so many disciplines, aesthetically, at a time. I was blown away by what artists around the world were doing. My mind was stretched in so many ways. I loved it. I’d open up shots and had no idea what I would get. Hoots of joy. It was like Christmas every day. I was very happy. It was a very happy film to work on.
What were the hardest shots?
Well, all of it’s hard. It was difficult to get our heads around the expositional piece where Kurt Russell’s character is in the palace. It was tricky to tell that story in a way that was as interesting and as odd and crazy as the rest of the film. We ended up with porcelain statues in these eggs. The opening title shots were challenging. And to have the same performance and characterization from Rocky with four companies animating him. We discussed whether to bring someone in as an overall animation supervisor, but we already had four animation supervisors, James Gunn who had a clear idea, and me. So six voices. In hindsight, I’m not sure I’d do it the same way. It’s very difficult to have that many artists touching a main character. But James was very good at articulating what he liked and didn’t like.
This is your fourth Marvel film — you’ve been with Marvel now for about 10 years. Do you love comic books? Superheroes?
What I love about this business is that I get to do a little of everything. Each film brings new challenges. And I love working with Marvel, the passion, the sense of everyone being a filmmaker making the best films they can. I think it shows up on the screen. They’re all filmmakers at heart and want to make a great film. They respect and understand how visual effects are used in the film, and we are very fortunate that they bring us to the table at the beginning. Victoria Alonso [EVP of physical production] and Kevin Feige [producer, and president of Marvel Studios] work as hard as anyone else. They set the standards. They roll up their sleeves and are part of the team. At the end of every show, I don’t know if they’ll want me back, I don’t know if I want to come back … and then they ask me to come back.
What are you working on next?
Captain Marvel — Marvel’s first female superhero.
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