The Marvel Cinematic Universe has racked up its fair share of Oscar nominations over the years, but until now, only one trilogy had secured at least one Oscar nomination for each of its films. However, like Iron Man before it, Guardians of the Galaxy can boast the Oscars trifecta, with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 up for Best Visual Effects at the 96th Oscars.

The third and final installment in James Gunn's Guardians trilogy tells the origin story of Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), as the gun-toting, trash-talking critter faces off with his maker, the villainous High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji). Meanwhile, the Guardians are sent on an epic cosmic adventure that takes them to new alien planets where they encounter new alien creatures.

Visual Effects Supervisor Stephane Ceretti oversaw the VFX team, which brought together multiple vendors — including Wētā FX, Framestore, and Sony Pictures Imageworks, amongst others — to execute more than 3,000 visual effects shots. (3,066 visual effects shots to be exact.)

"Each company has hundreds of people working on it, thousands across the entire film, but the technology allows those people to focus more on the art," explains Wētā Visual Effects Supervisor Guy Williams. "The goal is to free everybody up so that they can tell the best visual story and service the director's and client's needs as much as possible. We're all working to make the best movie. We're not spending all our time and effort trying to overcome the technology."

In conversation with A.frame, Ceretti and Williams, along with Visual Effects Supervisors Theo Bialek and Alexis Wajsbrot, break down Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3's most challenging shots and reveal why this particular ending came at the exact right time. "I'm not sure we could have done some of the stuff in the movie as well as we have if we had tried to do it back then," Ceretti tells A.frame.

A.Frame: Star-Lord himself, lead actor Chris Pratt, endorsed your nomination and expressed his gratitude to you all for your work. How does it feel?

Stephane Ceretti: It's very lovely of Chris to do that. It's inspiring for us to have him come out publicly and talk about what we achieved. I worked on the first Guardians of the Galaxy, I didn't do the second one, but I returned for the third, so we've been working together for 10 years. You rarely hear the leading actor of the movie talk about visual effects, so having him come in and tell us what he thinks about our work and try to understand a little bit more about our process was exciting and interesting as a conversation.


So many of the teams who worked on this were in different locations around the world yet had to share assets. How did the process work so smoothly with a project as large as this, especially when it came to the big set pieces?

Alexis Wajsbrot: At Framestore, we were mostly in charge of creature works like Rocket, Groot, and Cosmo, so we frequently shared those assets with my friends at Wētā and Sony. The process has become more manageable now that we have new file formats that are used globally across the industry, but a lot of work is still involved. However, it's not like we are doing Rocket at Framestore, and suddenly, Sony can click a button and add it to what they are doing. Most of the time, we use proprietary software; we don't all use the same, so Steph has the job of ensuring that the asset looks the same between the sites. A great example is when I worked with Guy on the stampede sequence, where all the animals are in this exploding spaceship. Wētā was building this asset with a massive amount of detail, but at Framestore, we only needed to do a small section of it, which was still an enormous amount for us to redo for what we needed. We constantly collaborated to make it work the best way possible.

Guy Williams: We had hundreds of people working on this film at each company. The industry is small enough that of the 300 or 400 people that I have on the film, a lot of them used to work at Framestore or Sony or somewhere else, so not only did we share assets, but we also shared talent and crew. Because of that, there's this beautiful ease of communication between the various teams. We all know each other outside of the professional workspace, which plays into something like the big oner action scene in the corridor.

You mentioned the stampede sequence. Another sequence I think of is the oner aboard the Arête, where the Guardians fight the High Evolutionary's creations, which seems incredibly complex. What was it like working on that?

Williams: Communication was critically important in that case. We have to have that same level of communication with the production as well. We have to be able to talk to Steph, who is talking to the stunt coordinator, who is talking to the cinematographer, who is talking to James Gunn. There are so many moving parts that have to come together. If we do our job, you don't know half the work we have to do on a film. Honestly, you probably don't know two percent of it. The fight sequence was filmed over three or four days, and there are 18 different shots. There's no motion control. Everything was done using what we call 'poor man's motion control,' where you eyeball it, and then we have to put it all back together in post. All the stuff that was learned during the shoot and the conversations leading up to it, Steph communicated to us, so we're stepping off from that point and building on it. We're not just starting over from scratch, and we're not making it up as we go. This beautiful continuity of thought and process builds up on everybody's work in the chain. Hopefully, what you get at the end is this great result based on the collaboration.

Ceretti: In the section in the movie where all the animals are escaping the Arête, the High Evolutionary's mobile laboratory, we intercut between shots from Wētā, then cut two shots from Alexis, and then we have the Abilisks — these giant tentacled monsters that Framestore did for the second film — falling down into the Arête. They gave the Abilisks to Wētā for their sequence, and then it went back to Alexis. Things are constantly moving back and forth. As the VFX supervisor for the production, I'm the hub of all that air traffic control and ensuring the looks and animation styles are consistent. It's a big part of my job to ensure everybody has the right assets and information and that communication flows between everybody.


Theo, the fleshy space station was a big project for you. What conversations were you having?

Theo Bialek: The Orgoscope, the space station headquarters of OrgoCorp, was a pretty big challenge — technically, artistically, and subjectively. Technically, it's a large-scale environment primarily constructed of organic matter, so it has a lot of subsurface. Traditionally, that's really difficult to do, because of the computation required. Artistically, the design of it is supposed to be pretty grotesque, but to figure out compositionally how to arrange that so it's not too off-putting and it's just the right kind of foil to the dialogue that the characters are having. It was definitely a learning experience to figure out how to compose the shot so that you focus on the right thing at the right time. With such big films like Guardians of the Galaxy, it takes so much energy and thousands of artists, that I think we're all happy to share, knowing that collectively, it'll make for a better film. 

With a huge movie like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, people often focus on the epic set pieces, but much of your work goes into the minutiae. Alexis, you had to work across a timeline of Rocket's evolving physicality. What did you focus on to age and de-age him convincingly?

Wajsbrot: When we started, we didn't know exactly what the right process was to de-age Rocket and make him look younger. We knew it was not purely about scaling him. Early on, we received a picture of a raccoon that James Gunn loved, and we said, 'Well, that's a great start. Let's do that.' As soon as we progressed, it felt like the picture was a bit cartoonish, because it was overly cute. So, we returned to the drawing board. Steph created a version of Rocket as a runt in the first Guardians film, so we used that as the starting point, and obviously, we had our endpoint. There were sketches from the art department of Marvel of the different ages of Rocket, but as soon as we started trying to do them like that, it was tough to make sure they felt like Rocket with a slight variation.

At the opening of the movie, there is a shot where you transition from the runt to adult Rocket, so that was an opportunity to do a blend shape and see if we learned something. Steph and James collected a benchmark of different sizes they wanted Rocket to be during the movie, so we took snapshots of the blended shape at various points and looked at how much things like the shoulders and legs had changed and grown. Even with the facial features, there is a slight variation between the runt, which is slightly more elongated, and the adult Rocket. After a few months work, it looked great. Steph also said that maybe the groom, Rocket's fur, should be brighter and less dense when he's younger, and then at older age, it goes a bit darker and thicker. We also had to design all the different implants and make sure they made sense for Rocket's various ages. There was a lot of designing involved.

Ceretti: We had that growth that we could see, but the key for James was to incorporate the different steps of his evolution in terms of the operations he had on his body done by the High Evolutionary. For example, he has metal parts that are breaking his shoulders and making them more like human ones, because raccoons don't have them. For all of these beats, we selected these moments for specific reasons. Other examples are the first time his hands go from paws to a human hand or the implants he's getting in his face as he's starting to talk and articulate. It was vital that we not only go through that study with Framestore of the different ages and sizes but also make sure that it would fit into the story. Every moment of the evolution would be one where we could feel the pain of the transformation he had gone through. 

Guy Williams, Stephane Cerretti, Alexis Wajsbrot and Theo Bialek at the 96th Oscars Nominee Luncheon.

Technology has advanced considerably since the first Guardians movie came out. In terms of developing and executing the VFX here, how much more complex is Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 than the previous films?

Ceretti: I was talking with James Gunn the other day and what he was saying is that since the first film and even the second film, things are much faster now in terms of iteration and quality. We get to the goal much faster than we used to, even though it's still hard and he always finds ways to challenge us. From the first film, there's been a huge advance in all fur simulation and interaction. All that stuff is much more manageable now. It's still complicated, but at least we can do it at scale.

Wajsbrot: Framestore worked on Guardians 1 and 2 as well as this one. I was involved in the background for the first two, but I can tell you that it was a massive challenge to build the planet Knowhere for the first movie. With this one, we basically rebuilt it, because we had new software and because we had a new design — it is supposed to be burnt during the events of Avengers: Infinity War. So, we rebuilt it and it was a lot more efficient than the first one, which was really, really hard. That almost killed us, and this was a lot more manageable.

Ceretti: It's more complicated now, but we never had any trouble rendering all the shots we had. Everything is challenging because of the scale, but the shot that was challenging on this one was the animal stampede at the end. That involved something like 500 or 600 furry animals running around.

Wajsbrot: I think it was 600, and they were interacting with each other, and then there was the key actors, and this ship is exploding! These days, we try to render everything together, so when you have 600 animals running and a ship exploding in the background and you're trying to render that all together, and you have many passes, so you render all of that multiple times, and the render are 2.5K or 3K and sometimes 4K — for the furry characters — it's massive. Some of these things took six days to render just one shot!

Ceretti: We were supposed to do this movie in 2018, but it got pushed slightly. As sad as it was, it might have benefited us, because the technology has improved so much in the last three or four years alone. I'm not sure we could have done some of the stuff in the movie as well as we have if we had tried to do it back then. That turned out to be a blessing in disguise for us in terms of the technology and how we could achieve what James had in his script. There are things that we would have really struggled to do.

A.frame, the digital magazine of the Academy, is excited to celebrate and honor the nominees of the 96th Oscars across several branches by spotlighting their nominated films, craftsmanship, and personal stories. For more on this year's nominees, take a look at our Oscars hub.


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