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The Marvel of Guardians of the Galaxy

COW Library : TV & Movie Appreciation : Tim Wilson : The Marvel of Guardians of the Galaxy
CreativeCOW presents The Marvel of Guardians of the Galaxy -- TV & Movie Appreciation Editorial
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Guardians of the Galaxy - Trailer

"Don't screw this up!"

That's what Sony Pictures Imageworks VFX Supervisor for Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy was thinking as he started work on the first of his jobs for Marvel in the summer of 2014: Captain Amercia: The Winter Soldier.

Pete has supervised work on a number of films for Imageworks, including Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, The Matrix Reloaded, The Aviator (for which he won a Visual Effects Society Award and was nominated for a BAFTA), Watchmen, and 22 Jump Street.

(Yes, that's a third movie in the summer of 2014. Plus one more, actually: Blended. A busy summer for our man Pete.)

The stakes for Captain America: TWS felt particularly high, though, for a number of reasons. One, even though Imageworks has a long relationship with Marvel, this was Pete's first time working with them himself. Two, even though SPI wasn't the primary house on the film (that would be MPC), he hoped that if things went well with Imageworks, he'd have another opportunity to work with Marvel soon. Things did in fact go well, and as noted, Pete's next opportunity to work with Marvel came immediately thereafter.

Marvel's Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Taken on set during filming of Marvel's Captain America: The Winter Soldier. ©2014 Marvel

Three, it all feels a little personal. Like many of us in this business, Pete read Marvel comics as a kid. This raised the obvious question: was he familiar with the Guardians of the Galaxy? "My mom kept all the treasured toys from our childhood, so recently I asked, 'Hey, did you keep all the comic books?' The answer was, 'Yes,' and I said, 'You know what, it's time to fly back to Atlanta and take a look at what we have.'

Marvel comics cover: Guardians of the Galaxy
"And sure enough, I did actually have a Guardians of the Galaxy comic book. It was one with the original characters -- pre-Rocket, pre-Groot. These new characters change things for the better, I think, but it just felt like fate."

The fact that the Guardians were minor characters for Marvel illustrates what to Pete is the remarkable advantage that Marvel has at its disposal: 50+ years of story development and audience testing, with the comics acting almost as story boards. Marvel has used the unprecedented scale of their resources to not just create a storytelling universe, but multiple universes to pull stories from.

Scale is something that Pete is also aware of when he talks about Imageworks: despite the stereotype of aircraft carrier-sized companies being slow and difficult to change course, Pete's experience has been exactly the opposite of that. "The idea is that an aircraft carrier is very, very powerful, but it can't turn on a dime. I believe we are aircraft carriers, but I also believe we can turn on a dime.

"The advantage that we have is we have a facility of very experienced people from top to bottom that know exactly what to do when data comes in. We also have a lot of people that we can put on a problem very quickly. All the talented people that have worked on projects at Imageworks retain that experience for the next job.

"For Guardians of the Galaxy, we had just a couple of days to ramp up. I would have been really nervous had I been taking on the same exact work if I was working with a small facility."

What exactly was the work that Pete supervised for Imageworks on Guardians of the Galaxy? Eighty-eight shots, plus a digital character from start to finish, in two months, May and June 2014, for an August 1st release: their fastest turnaround for a client yet.

CREATIVE COW: Tell me about Captain America and Guardians of the Galaxy.

Pete Travers, Sony Pictures Imageworks
Pete Travers
PETE TRAVERS, SONY PICTURES IMAGEWORKS: My first reaction to working on Captain America was "Don't screw this up." [laughter] "Do this right, treat them like you'd want to be treated, go all out, and get it done."

I am used to being the visual effects supervisor on big movies, but I am absolutely happy for me and Imageworks to play a supporting role to not only the other effects houses, but on these two movies -- primarily Marvel. Whatever you guys need, throw it our way. And it went well, and they were, I think, very happy with our customer service.

What I mean by that is, making a movie is a very sloppy science. Things are constantly changing. I could imagine if I'm directing a movie, I'm going to want to reserve as much time as possible to make changes to polish, to finesse.

Once you understand that as a service provider, it's like, if they sent something through three weeks ago and they change their minds, who cares? That's what they want for the film, so dive in and say, "Yes, please." We essentially, all vendors, are being paid to create, you know what I mean?

Now, having said this, these guys on Guardians of the Galaxy were very precise: James Gunn the director, and Stephane Ceretti, the visual effects supervisor for the studio. They were barraging us with the data, 'cause the river was already running fast, we had jump right into it. [laughter] But everything was so clear about the direction they wanted to head in, and thank goodness for that. This is easily the most ambitious work I've ever done in a 911 kind of fashion.

We built characters, we built environments, and we even had character from concept JPEG to final. Final everything, rendered, comped, in two weeks. I've never done that before.

That's insane!

Yeah, it really is. I've been around long enough that I know if it's not the record, it's pretty close.

Here's the thing, it never would of happened if they weren't as diligent and precise with their direction as they were. So, we were working seven day weeks, but the show was actually pretty much a breeze -- but only because we knew what they wanted.

Was there a point at which you were thinking something like, "Every Marvel picture is an event, but this one feels kind of special."

My first reaction was questioning whether it was going to work. It is easily, to me, the boldest thing they've tried. It's not the most recognized Marvel franchise, and it's in space, and it's got a raccoon and a tree as some of the main characters.

It felt almost like cliff diving or something like that, with the degree of difficulty that they were taking on. I was thinking, if they pull this off, I don't know what they can't pull off. And they did.

I only had just a few conversations with James Gunn, the director, so I didn't have the luxury of spending too much time talking to him. But what's obvious from the end result is that he knew what he was doing and, in my opinion, he hit a home run.

So what kinds of things did you get from them in a creative brief for Guardians of the Galaxy?

We had set photos. We had other shots in the movie from other vendors, primarily MPC, which provided reference. We even got full-blown characters and textures for stuff that we weren't sure we were going to need, that they weren't sure they were going to need, but they sent it anyway. The first order of business was evaluating what had been working, and what might not have been working already.

Stephane being very experienced, and in some ways a very laid back guy, he and I developed a shorthand pretty much immediately.

The bulk of our work centered around a big fight in the engine room inside the Dark Aster [ed note: the ship belonging to the film's baddie, Ronan] toward the end. Seeing the film recently and looking back, I can say, "Okay, well this is a very clear segment to break off because the foreground is primarily green screen work, and then one big build services 70 shot." It sounds logical, but that didn't make it easier. [laughter]

Stephane gave us some comps pointing out which pieces of the Dark Aster that they wanted to explore, so we pulled all that together and said, "Okay, let's just start the models." Ideally, what you want to do is build them all, but you don't want to start texturing until the model is approved. And, of course, there's that back and forth that happens on every movie. But when you only have two months, you got to start really stacking things on top of other things. We had to start texturing before models were even approved.

Plate for SPI's all-CG engineroom. Click for larger view.

Match Move Pass. Click for larger.

Anything that could be going absolutely in parallel was going in parallel. On a show, we you usually start with one artist, then it's two, then it's five, then it's ten and then, eventually it gets up to a hundred. We had at least 30 artists come on in the first week, doing things like prepping the plates and wire removals before the modeling began. Then we could render masters for every single shot -- not just sending the model for approval, but sending the entire sequence back to them with the full model animated.

It's the only way you could do it. Working with MPC, they would do Groot renders, but they needed to render Groot in our environment. So we needed to give them cameras with a temp environment right away, so they could start animating. Then we'd give them the final environments, they'd give us back a render, then we'd do the comp.

Then all of a sudden textures started coming in. Once we had kind of a first base pass at texture, we render every shot and send it over. And then they say, "We like this, we don't like this," and we'd change what we needed, because no matter what, this idea of getting approval on things before you've seen them, it just doesn't work.

We understand that in order to truly approve, for example, the textures on an environment, you need to see the textures in the context of every major camera angle. Sometimes the levels of the displacement in a wide shot don't work at all when you get into the close-up shot. So we were polishing, and all the while too, we're running in parallel with effect simulations.

While we were working on all this, we weren't even sure if the edit was locked. We didn't know if there were going to be additional shots coming with different camera angles. So, we said, "We just need to build this thing 3D from the beginning."

What I mean by that is, if you take a traditional matte painting approach for approvals, you almost have to be explicit about the placement of every pixel. But what happens if they don't like the design of the architecture in the matte painting? Well, you're painting another painting.

The advantage of rendering things as models from the beginning is that you can just try things... "I think we need to have a little light here."

I want to let the computer do that work. You get so much for free if you set all of this up right the first time, that if you were forced to direct every single pixel before it could get on the screen, you'd never finish in time. I have seen time and time again when you try to put band-aids on things and try to fix it just to get it through, it's never actually the fastest way, and it never looks good.

I think when CG took off in the late 90s and early 2000s ran parallel with the advent of Maya: procedural animation, procedural rendering, procedural everything. We don't necessarily store things in an explicit fashion anymore. We don't store the baked cake that was made from three eggs. We store the recipe. So if we have to add another egg, it's no problem.

I'm simplifying it, but it lets us work until the last moment, keeping the main structure, especially when there's a breadth of shots that we were able to some economies of scale on -- you want to hold onto the elegance of the process as much as you can.

Engineroom shot layout. Click for larger.

...and Final composite. Click for larger.

The elegance of the process. I like that, this idea of letting the computer do the work, after you did the work of setting up everything procedurally. There's this idea that computers are a thing that's separate from creativity, but if you think of them as just these things that do a lot of math, procedural approaches make a lot of artistic sense, even though they seem technical.

I was really good with math when I was a kid, and I could also draw really well, so there's this experience of what people call "both sides of the brain." By the way, that's total BS. Some of the most brilliant, creative people I have ever met in my life in this industry are programmers. And as far as I'm concerned, that is the highest form of creativity. Because not only do they have to figure out how to make something look good, they have to figure out how to build a world where other people can make something look good.

It's not that I'm saying people that claim to be artistic aren't as creative. Creativity comes in all forms and everything we do is extremely creative. But over the past 20 years, this industry has been built upon the creative, brilliant minds that go into developing the software so that everybody else can use it. That's where the brilliance was, and still is.

The big caveat is that, with amazing software and people that don't know how to use it, you still get garbage. But it's the brilliance of the software in combination with the brilliance of the current talent is why such amazing things can be accomplished nowadays.

That's why I really have a tough time separating "creativity" from" technical." I think they're actually the same thing.

What were the other sequences you worked on?

Beyond the engine room was the exterior of the Dark Aster, which was two shots. One was where it enters the atmosphere of the planet Xandar. We were a couple weeks in when Marvel called and said, "Can you do these shots too?" And the answer was, of course, "Yes please," because they were just exciting shots.

Dark Aster Ship Sequence
Dark Aster Ship Sequence: Avid Reference.

Of course, there's existing energy that has been put into these shots. MPC were the ones that had done the model and the textures for the Dark Aster. We had to only modify them a little bit in order to get them to work in our shots because the angles that we were on the thing.

The Dark Aster Ship Sequence: Final Composite

Above, first and second FX pass for the Dark Aster Ship sequence

But then building the planet, building all the effects that come of the Dark Aster as it enters into the atmosphere -- these are wild shots. And I'm thinking, "Jeez, we only have like a month and a half. You know what? We'll figure it out." We had a client that was very willing to work with us on it. We went back and forth, we got them done, and they look really beautiful.

We did another sequence with the Dark Aster, a raking shot along the side of it, with little scout ships shooting out of its ribs. We weren't even sure at that point in time which part of the ship they were going to use for this shot, so I said, "Hey we'll just give you the whole thing." We did a 200 frame version, and said "You can use whatever it is you need." They wound up using a 70 frame or so section in the middle, and I think it came out beautifully too, in incredibly little time.

In this business, we're pushing the envelope, not necessarily with brand spanking new stuff, but the breath of R&D, the number of environments, the number of characters. In some ways we've made things difficult for ourselves by accomplishing everything in every movie, making it look great.

Just look at any of the movies that have come out this year. Pick any one. If those exact movies came out 10 years ago, they would be landmark achievements in visual effects. But now, it's almost expected that we can take on anything, any environment, however many characters and get it done.

You can't just hunker down and yell, "Okay, we're gonna work even harder!" There's no point to that. You have to figure out a way to be nimble, and I think Imageworks has done that. Being able to turn around every single shot like that is a major advantage of working at facility as polished and large as Imageworks is.

That's what I meant when I was talking about that misperception, "Oh because they're a smaller facility, they can be more nimble." That can be true, but there's no factual reason why it has to be true. A big facility can operate with a small facility kind of mindset. I'm really happy with our crew, what we were able to accomplish.

Marvel's Guardians Of The Galaxy. Howard the Duck (voiced by Seth Green). Photo by: Film Frame. (c)Marvel 2014
Howard the Duck (voiced by Seth Green). Photo by: Film Frame. ©Marvel 2014

I'm assuming we can talk about Howard the Duck now. That was the character I was referring to that we had to get from concept JPEG to comped final scene in two weeks.

He actually ended up appearing in three shots. In two of them, he was in a distant little tube in the background, where you're looking at The Collector, Benicio del Toro in the foreground. The main one is at the end of course, when the tube has broken.

Marvel security is pretty serious stuff, you do not want to mess with it. And Howard the Duck showing up was like maximum level security. Honestly, I gotta say, I was deathly afraid of it leaking out. I'd be at my monitor work thinking, "Okay, I can't go to the bathroom and leave Howard the Duck up and have somebody kinda wander in. We really had to be on lockdown. The only people who knew it was going on were just the people that were working on it.

Unfortunately, I was out of town so I missed the cast and crew screening, but I heard that they even excluded it from the cast and crew screening. When they actually put it in the theaters, that's the first time that anybody saw it.

The nice thing about all of this stuff is that when Marvel puts in these shots at the very end of the credits, people are finally reading our names. [chuckle] In my opinion, though, these shots are kind of the glueware of their multiverse. I was thrilled to be part of it.

All images ©2014 Marvel Entertainment, LLC, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company, and is one of the world's most prominent character-based entertainment companies, built on a proven library of over 8,000 characters featured in a variety of media over seventy years. Marvel utilizes its character franchises in entertainment, licensing and publishing. For more information visit:

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