In an early script draft for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, writer and director James Gunn described the opening sequence as “the greatest title shot ever.” And if you’ve already seen the summer’s first major blockbuster, you know it pretty much lives up to that lofty goal.
There are a lot of reasons behind the scene’s success, not the least of which is Baby Groot shimmying to the sounds of ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky.” But as our diminutive hero cuts a space rug, his friends are engaged in a pretty epic battle with a gargantuan eight-legged space monster called an Abilisk. The soundtrack may be what hits your soul, but the fantastical visuals are what hit you in the eyeballs.
Fast Company talked to Framestore animation supervisor Arslan Elver about the sheer amount of VFX heavy-lifting involved, and here are six things that made it one of the most difficult scenes of the entire film.
All In One Shot
The camera doesn’t cut once, meaning Framestore’s artists needed to create 800 frame-long effects, and had to run simulations that were thousands of frames long. The work was split up into 11 parts, and divvied up among the shop’s animators. It took them from the end of August 2016 until end of February 2017 to make it. “It’s one big shot, but internally we split that up into 11 pieces, and each piece is at least 500 frames, a minimum of 20 seconds,” says Elver. “Plus, in each shot, there are at least five characters–Baby Groot, the Abilisk, maybe a CG Drax getting slapped on the ground, there’s just a lot of stuff to look after.”
City of Gold
The battle takes place atop a golden city on the home planet of the Sovereign, which means the entire set is reflective. VFX supervisor James Fawkner recently wrote in a Framestore blog post that it forced the shop to develop a brand-new suite of tools to create the space cloudscapes, and have them move realistically. “The clouds move in a time-lapse, alongside bolts of lighting that needed to react within the clouds and light the city below,” he wrote. “The city itself is made of gold, which posed its own problems as it needed to reflect on everything and everyone in the scene.”
Baby Groot Dance Moves
We know James Gunn was the model for dancing Baby Groot at the end of Vol. 1, but it turns out the director once again called himself into dance duty for the sequel. “Using a reference from James of him dancing, we began to build the sequence,” says Elver. “One thing that became an issue quite quickly was that James was dancing on the spot, but Baby Groot needs to move forward. So we had to come up with some clever solutions to play with the perspective.” Like, say, riding what appears to be some sort of space rat creature.
Slowing Things Down
Just as the action is about to really kick off, the movie title hits the screen and there is a Matrix-like moment, when things slow right down and the camera turns. “That wasn’t originally planned,” says Elver. “It became clear that he was constantly dancing, but we decided to go for a slowed-down moment, to keep it quiet and subtle, just as the chaos behind him gets crazier and crazier.”
Elver says that the workflow passed various sections across different departments, each responsible for a different aspect of the shot. “First comes animation, then it moves to creature effects, where they work on how the cloth looks, or how the Abilisk tentacles intersect with the ground, then there are the people who put in all the lasers and shooting,” he says. “So there’s always this back and forth between these departments. Like if a character is not animated aiming their weapon correctly, which happens a lot, it has to be corrected.”
As VFX-heavy as it is, there are actual real shots in the scene. “Just a few,” says Elver. “When Gamora says hi to Groot, and when Drax falls next to him.” It’s understandable, however, if you still feel immersed in the intergalactic world of the movie, long after it’s over.