Space Rocket
August 25, 2014

Space Rocket

Superheroes of all shapes and sizes have taken over theaters recently, but none have been as intriguing (and endearing) as the crew from James Gunn’s  Guardians of the Galaxy .

Labeled as one of the best Marvel films yet, Guardians of the Galaxy wrenches the comic book world into deep space with the universe’s most unlikely bunch of heroes.

Like in many superhero films, CGI is used to give the characters their superpowers. In this film, however, two of the characters are CGI throughout as they interact alongside human actors.  

Framestore developed one of those heroes in the form of Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and animated both him and his arboreal companion Groot (Vin Diesel) in the middle act of the movie that spans more than 40 minutes and 633 final shots. 

In addition to the two CG characters, Framestore also created the cavernous expanse of Knowhere – a giant, mined-out skull that’s home to a whole city – the most complicated environment ever built at the studio.

Framestore’s work was overseen by VFX Supervisors Jonathan Fawkner and Kyle McCulloch, with the latter on set at Shepperton and Longcross studios in the UK.

The artists’ first creative challenge was creating a believable talking bipedal raccoon. Rocket needed to look naturalistic, but at the same time he had to be made to do things raccoons don’t do, such as shoot people with a big gun. “If you exaggerate his performance and make him too cartoony, you’ve lost the audience; but if you go too real, it won’t be entertaining or won’t do Bradley’s voice justice,” explains Animation Supervisor Kevin Spruce.

While the VFX supervisors were leading the Look Dev on Rocket, the Creature FX team had their hands full with his fur and clothing. “Imagine you need to simulate a million hairs for a coat of fur.  Normally you might choose 10% of those as guides to drive the full groom, but for Rocket we simulated every single hair and how it collides for the first time,” says McCulloch.

“Rocket is the strongest and most central character that we have animated without a doubt,” says Fawkner. “Underneath there’s a lot more to him than just anger, and as a title character, he’s got sequences that posed really beautiful challenges from an animation and an acting point of view. We had to make sure he could hold his own on screen.” 

The VFX team’s section of the film begins with the heroes being captured and transferred to the Kyln prison. “It’s one of the biggest sets Marvel has ever constructed, but we still needed to extend it from two stories to 30. It was fully built, lit, and rendered by Framestore, which might seem like overkill for a set extension, where normally you might use a matte painting, but with the environment being viewed from so many different angles, it was essential.

Knowhere, a city inside a severed head floating at the edge of the Marvel Universe, became our most complicated environment build so far – three miles across and designed with distinct neighborhoods comprised of 85,000 separate pieces such as towers, pillars, turbines, and favela huts. The artists even brightened up those districts by hand-placing 10,000 streetlights.

Then, they had some odd creatures to animate on the gambling table and some huge visual effects problems to solve in the Collector’s lab before animating a high-speed spaceship chase that explores every inch of Knowhere.

The chase takes place at hundreds of miles an hour, and so from shot to shot, the action might travel a quarter of the way around the environment, meaning you soon see every part of the environment. The camera takes in all the geometry, from large-scale things such as the towers right down to individual little railings, light fittings, and doors.

“Our part in James Gunn’s hilarious, hyper-colorful entry into the Marvel canon ends shortly after the dog-fight. It was fantastic to work with such an unlikely group of heroes and to help create such a complex one in Rocket. The best part of this movie was James being so engaged and involved from beginning to end. He wrote it, it’s his baby, and it was wonderful to work on a project where people cared so much” says McCulloch.