How VFX Made the Guardians of the Galaxy Characters Come to Life

The vigilantes in Guardians of the Galaxy are a multi-species motley crew, and naturally it took a lot of computer-based magic to come to life. FX Guide has the scoop on how a vast team of VFX artists made a mouthy raccoon, a teenage tree, and the rest of the gang look like aliens you could (almost) believe.

The VFX supervisor, Stephane Ceretti, headed up a team of more than 13 companies including MPC, Imageworks, and other big names in VFX. Visual effects were key to Guardians success, but the approach for each character was different:

"The most important thing for us," says Ceretti, "was to make sure all the acting would be believable and that the actors would be able to respond to another actor. Groot doesn't have much to say – he says 'I am Groot' most of the time (ultimately voiced by Vin Diesel), but he has a lot of expression on his face and this determines what he means. Rocket has a lot of lines and jumps around, so it was important for James to have a real actor there to bounce around with the other actors."

Speaking of Groot, he presented his own set of unique challenges. He's a tree with human qualities that only speaks one line, of course. So the way he expressed emotions became very important:

[MPC (the studio in charge of Groot)] recognized that Groot's eyes would be key. "We spent a lot of time designing and building very complex eye dynamics," says Aithadi. "We put a lot of detail into his textures and things that would be displaced in his irises – we really wanted to get shadows in there. And we worked a lot on trying to break the symmetry. When you look at humans what makes the eyes interesting is the imperfections – trying to make these two irises not aimed at the same place – trying to make them strange and look more human. I could watch a turntable of Groot for ages because he had this really piercing look and this wisdom in his face."

Rocket, the genetically modified raccoon with a real mouth on him, was a different puzzle to piece together. Because he's based on a real creature, they used actual raccoons as a reference point. But his animation is more complex than just mimicking the movements of an animal, because as you find out in Guardians, Rocket's character has a lot of emotional layers. Emotions aside, one of the key challenges was figuring out how to make his hair look right:

For this, Framestore relied on its in-house hair system. "This uses a series of filters that are built up into a network of different functions to give each hair its shape," explains Framestore TD Rachel Williams. "As raccoon fur is made up from a layer of short fine hair and a layer of longer thicker hairs we were able to separate these out so that it was possible to only simulate the longer hairs. In doing so we were able to simulate the full hair count of the longer hairs instead of using a low density set of guide hairs to drive the rest of the groom. This resulted in much more accurate simulations. The fur was also separated into sections as the different costumes created natural split points. This meant we could easily remove parts of the fur which were not visible in shot. It also meant we had more hair sets to manage, altogether the three variants comprised of a total of 22 hair sets."

There is so much more to Guardians beyond the tree/raccoon duo—characters, ships, planets, and more. Which is exactly why it required an entire army of animators to bring it from the comic book pages to the big screen. But the process was was well worth it, at least from an audience standpoint. Seriously, go see it if you haven't already. Go see it a second time if you have. And of course, read more about the rest of the VFX process over at FX Guide. [FX Guide h/t Digg]