Not viewing himself as a comic book fan when he interviewed for 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, visual effects supervisor Christopher Townsend was surprised that he got that job, and even more so, that his relationship with the studio has continued through several films.
Townsend’s collaboration with Marvel would be a rewarding one—receiving his first Oscar nomination several years back for Iron Man 3, the VFX supervisor finds himself back in consideration this year for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, an audacious and inventive blockbuster involving 10 VFX companies and 2300 VFX shots, some of which took over a year to complete.
In Louisiana at time of reporting, scouting locations for Captain Marvel—“a film to be proud of, as Marvel’s first female superhero movie”—Townsend’s challenge on Vol 2. was to help director James Gunn refine certain aspects of the Guardians universe’s visuals, crafting a new, more discriminating color palette and an improved characterization of Rocket Raccoon, while introducing a new variant on a fan-favorite character with Baby Groot.
What did James Gunn convey to you about his vision for the second installment of Guardians, as far as its visual effects?
It’s always very tricky, doing a sequel to something that did very well, critically and commercially. In my first meeting with him, James said, “We want to surprise the audience all over again,” and it’s obviously much harder to surprise an audience the second time around.
I think the challenge before was, they had characters that they had to introduce to try to get the audience to like. Now, we’re in a world where hopefully, people already love the characters that we established in the first movie, and because it’s a sequel, there will be a lot of hype about it. Now, it’s a matter of surprising them, and giving them just as much fun the second time around.
He just wanted to make everything even better. He really wanted to improve Rocket’s performance, particularly, in his characterization. The first one does a terrific job in creating him as a character, but we really wanted to rebuild him from the ground up and make him more believable—and introduce Baby Groot.
We introduced a character that is essentially very, very cute, so how do you make an incredibly cute thing out of the box? It was a challenging animation, to try and give him a personality, but have him be a very understated character, and hopefully believable as part of the ensemble.
What was the thinking when it came to the color palette for Vol 2.?
Before we sort of used all the colors all the time, and we wanted to keep it to two basic colors per scene, so there’s very much of blue and gold, and orange and teal. We tried to have it a little more consciously designed in that sense throughout the film. He speaks about how he used too much purple in the first film, so he said, “Use any color you like, but let’s not use purple.”
As someone who’s not an avid comic book fan, did you look to the Marvel comics as your primary source for visual inspiration?
Yes, absolutely. I think you always look at all the comic books, because that’s the original theme that you go with. The Guardians’ world is pretty colorful and out there in the comic books, as well. But James had a very strong aesthetic that he wanted to bring to it, that we discussed at length with production designer Scott Chambliss.
Something James was after was 1970s sci-fi pop art and enormous album cover art—that sort of Roger Dean feel to things. There were very strong graphic compositions and crazy, psychedelic colors. Some of them were very muted and looked almost faded, but had that sort of vintage feel. So it was a lot of album cover art, book cover illustrations, and also looking at things like Flash Gordon. Those were the aesthetics we were going for. Scott Chambliss and the art department created this incredible concept, and that was what we used as our basis.
Guardians features VFX-driven protagonists in Rocket and Baby Groot. Were these characters crafted through motion capture processes in the case of this second go-round?
In this film, we didn’t do any motion capture, so the challenge with one of our key characters, Rocket, was that we didn’t have a singular performance from an actor to give us the intent. With the [Planet of the] Apes films, they had Andy Serkis giving this singular performance that all the animators looked at and used as a reference.
We didn’t have that. We had Sean Gunn on set—he’s in the film as Kraglin, but he also acted as Rocket, getting down to the correct height. He was the reference performance on set for cameras, and also for the other actors to act with. I said to James going in, “If we’re going to use that, then I really want to use it. When you’re doing a take, make sure you get the emotional beat that you want as much as you can. Even though we’re going to replace him, we need you to buy into that.”
Sean was incredible as Rocket, but then you have a second character, which was Bradley Cooper, the voice. Obviously, Bradley’s an incredibly talented actor. We took him into an ADR stage and mounted cameras on his head, pointing at him, and then we also used other witness cameras to record his performance as he delivered his lines. We almost exclusively used that for facial performance, what he would bring to the table in terms of his acting. So we had a great reference to lip sync for whenever Rocket talks. That was really useful.
But sometimes in post, James would look at something and say, “You know, I look at Sean’s performance on set, and Bradley’s reading of the line, or his look, and really what I want him to be doing is scratching himself, or looking around.” He would then start giving very specific direction for what that would be. James knows his characters inside out and it was such an honor to work with somebody who had that passion and vision. He was able to give a very specific direction on how Rocket should move, and that was like a third performance that we had to try and work into everything.
Coupled with the complications of working with those three performances and trying to find a single intent, because of the complexity of the work—the volume of shots that required Rocket and the schedule that we had—we decided that we needed to have more than one company work on Rocket. In the end, we had four companies [Weta, Framestore, Trixter and Method Studios], three performances, and about 100 different animators working on a single character, trying to create a single performance.
Baby Groot was a similar thing, trying to create this 10-inch high character. Then, we had things like the Kurt Russell character, Ego. That, again, was using a lot of visual effects to, frame by frame, digitally smooth his skin, giving him a bit of nip and tuck to try and make him look the way he was 30 years ago. The overall challenge was to keep track of everything as we were going through the 2300 shots that we had to do on the film, with all these different companies.
What was the process in crafting the spectacular one-take tracking shot that opens the film?
The opening title sequence was incredibly fun. It took about 15 months to do that single shot. It’s three minutes long and it was created from the outset as a single shot. The original script treatment said something like, “Then, we have the most awesome title sequence ever.” [laughs] He then describes this sequence, and I’m thinking, “Okay, no pressure.” But he was very specific in the kind of camera moves that he wanted.
Initially, we based it on these stick boards that he created. They were these little scratchings on paper that were very descriptive, considering how crude they were. They were incredibly precise. We took that and handed that to our pre-vis company, The Third Floor, and they spent about 9 months working on the pre-vis for that one single shot, trying to create this performance following Baby Groot, tying into the titles, and compositionally giving enough room for the titles, while allowing all these major action beats of this incredible sight going on behind Baby Groot as he dances obliviously to this song.
Once we got that pre-vis, we started talking to the production designer and director of photography, and started negotiating, “How do we actually shoot this? What do we shoot?” Initially, the cinematographer had said, “Well, I think we can shoot most of it.” And I was thinking, “I don’t think we can.” The move was so complex, and James was after this incredibly fluid move throughout. He wanted to go from appearing like he’s on a crane, to steadicam, to a bungee cam, to a dolly tracker, and he wanted it to be this constantly moving camera where the camera itself is nearly as much of a character as the characters onscreen.
We broke it down and ended up saying, “Anywhere that you see the actual actors, whether it be Peter Quill character, or Drax, or Gamora, those characters, we will photograph.” We would set up and figure out exactly where the camera should be—its height, and its distance from the characters—and what the characters should be doing. We photographed them against blue screen, and then we had all these little pieces and took those back to Third Floor, who then did post-vis, taking all those pieces and putting them back into that sort of single-camera movement, trying to stitch it all back together again. That took another 3 months.
After that, we handed all that off to Framestore, and Framestore started building the entire world digitally, stitching together all the little bits and pieces to fit into one single camera move. It took a lot of back and forth to get the flow correct, to get the timing and pacing of the camera to move exactly the way we wanted it.
Once they built this world out, they then created another full-on alien creature—we call it “the Abilisk”—this pink sort of squid monster. We did incredibly complex simulations of not only the rolling cloud in the background that had to surround the entire CG environment, but also the matter waves and the splatter waves, the multicolored, huge rays and destruction elements that come out and cause explosions all around our heroes.
So it was an incredibly difficult, challenging shot to pull off, but I think the aim of it was to throw the audience straight back into the world of the Guardians. It had to be incredibly bright, colorful, crazy and wacky. I love the shot. I think it’s one of my favorite shots that I’ve ever been a part of.
Was the prison sequence with Yondu’s arrow whizzing around an equally complex endeavor?
With that whole sequence, we broke it all down and photographed a lot of elements, particularly of Ravagers falling in super slow motion and being killed. We shot the whole scene where Yondu is walking across this vast space along the gantry and his arrow is flying around, killing all these people as he walks. That again was multiple elements that we photographed, all shot on a blue screen stage, so the entire world is digital other than the gantry that he’s walking on. Trying to find the language of what that arrow does and how it moves was another interesting challenge, creating this sort of sensual red line that follows it around.