Everything about Manhattan’s Milk Studios, from its clean, curving white walls and pillars, to its expansive plate-glass windows that leave the space bathed in light, breathes sleekness and smooth, cutting-edge professionalism. So Kyle McCulloch, standing on a polished wooden stage flanked on either side by two enormous flat-screen TVs, found himself in the perfect place on Saturday, September 27th.
McCulloch’s talk was the final event of HP’s Power Up Festival, a five-day event focusing on creativity and the arts through a technological lens. McCulloch is the co-Supervisor of VFX at Framestore, a London-based visual effects company with offices in the U.S. and Canada. Framestore’s achievements include designing the effects for Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘Gravity,’ a laborious four-year effort. Framestore’s most recent project was ‘Guardians of the Galaxy,’ Marvel’s latest summer blockbuster.
The comedy-infused action romp, about a ragtag group of outlaws who join forces to fight a genocidal villain, was an enormous technological undertaking. According to McCulloch, over 90% of the shots in “Guardians” contain visual effects. In large part, that’s because two of the five protagonists—Rocket, a snarky, bipedal raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper, and Rocket’s longtime companion Groot, a hulking man/tree hybrid voiced by Vin Diesel—are computer generated. The film’s VFX workload was so intense that different organizations handled different aspects of the visual effects. MPC, the other primary VFX vendor that worked on “Guardians,” created Groot. But Rocket? That was Framestore.
It started years ago, when Marvel solicited auditions from various effects-houses. Framestore put together a scene, which McCulloch played on Milk Studios’ HD TVs, in which Rocket, perched on Groot’s shoulder, bursts through the earth to emerge in a prison yard, madly spraying gunfire. On the strength of that jailbreak, Framestore got the gig. Marvel loved the clip, said McCulloch, laughing. “They just wanted us to change everything.”
So now Framestore had to think about how to build Rocket from scratch. To start, they observed a real raccoon named Oreo—its X-rayed bone structure, its movements, its personality. The fur was especially tough: Raccoons have two layers. The Framestore team soon realized that they couldn’t cheat. Without digitally creating both layers, Rocket just didn’t look right.
Meanwhile, the Framestore crew wanted to give Rocket basic animalistic tics—expressions, growls, twitches. But they also wanted Rocket to be an emotional being. That last part was hard, said McCulloch: It took a lot of effort, a lot of trial and error, a lot of time to figure out how to make him intelligibly emote through all those layers of fur.
Meanwhile, Marvel, along with “Guardians” director James Gunn, had a lot of input. “[James] made it very clear that if we didn’t get Rocket right, the film wasn’t gonna succeed, so it’s not like there was any pressure,” joked McCulloch. Gunn was very specific in his requests. For instance, Rocket’s hands had to be mobile and nimble. Gunn wanted Rocket to have an animalistic head, but not an animalistic body. Rocket’s body grew squarer, more compact. Marvel and Gunn also insisted on a perfect, not-too-bulgy crotch. That last part, McCulloch stressed, was particularly important.
Framestore hit it out of the park with Rocket, crotch and all. (The fact that I’ve never heard anyone aside from McCulloch even mention Rocket’s crotch is a good sign.) Going into the film, I initially worried that Rocket would be, well, ridiculous. A walking, talking, tech-savvy action-hero raccoon? That just sounded cartoony. But somehow, Rocket comes off as a unique, fully-fleshed out character. Part of that is the film’s sharp writing and surprisingly deft characterization. Part of it is Bradley Cooper’s hilarious and nuanced vocal performance, which projects an out-for-himself braggadocio even as it conveys insecurity and hidden decency. But just as important, Rocket doesn’t look like a cartoon or a fabrication. Framestore hit the sweet spot they were aiming for: He’s animalistic without being an animal, and anthropomorphized without being human. His mannerisms, his gait, it’s all unique and fully realized. Without Framestore’s VFX success, no amount of well-executed voice work or sharp writing could have rescued the character.
Rocket wasn’t Framestore’s only responsibility. They were also tasked with building “Knowhere,” a mining colony built inside the severed head of an ancient celestial being, where a chunk of the film’s second act takes place. Knowhere is grungy and industrial, a dismal yet bustling and energetic little society.
That all started with Framestore’s art department. Skilled artists made drawings of what they thought should Knowhere should look like. That way, Framestore’s computer wizzes had a fantastic guide before the 1’s and 0’s ever started flying. McCulloch showed the audience an initial art-department drawing of Knowhere as seen from space, and then a shot from the finished film: They were astonishingly similar.
As they were building Knowhere, the Framestore team would talk about the colony in societal terms: what life there would be like, and what kinds of people would live there. Having those conversations, McCulloch says, helped turn Knowhere into “a real and complex place that wasn’t repetitive and wasn’t boring.”
McCulloch repeatedly mentioned just how demanding it can be to design certain shots. For instance, there was this shot of a snarling Rocket crashing a tiny, resilient spaceship through the hull of a larger, more explodable one:
It took the Framestore team months to create that shot. It takes a viewer less than two seconds to watch it.
Despite the laboriousness of some aspects of the work, Framestore often had to work incredibly quickly. In one case, Marvel had them change the skin color of a minor character only three weeks before the film’s premiere. Marvel never stops working, McCulloch said: They’re always giving notes and ideas. Which is great, he said, but it means you have to be “really responsive” and be able to “make changes at the last minute.”
I’ve seen “Guardians” twice, and neither time did I think about a VFX team sweating over computers for years: I was caught up in the show. And that’s a testament to the job that Marvel and Framestore have done. The effects are seamless, and the gears aren’t showing. Audiences don’t tend to think too hard about people like Kyle McCulloch unless they’ve done something wrong. That’s why an event like Power Up is so valuable. It helps people like me stay aware of people like McCulloch: The tech artists who work like dogs to make it all look effortless.