Interview with Adam Dewhirst Lead Modeller on Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy

Adam Dewhirst is a 3d artist working in post production VFX in film in London – his credits include The Dark Knight, the Golden Compass, Prince of Persia, WWZ and his latest film, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy which opens on July 31st. In the lead up to the films release we asked Adam to blog about a few topics concerning VFX in film. Well now that Guardians of Galaxy is out Adam talk to GS about his work on one of the biggest movies of the year.

Geek Syndicate (GS): Every Marvel film has it challenges with VFX but Guardians is by far the most ambitious so what would you say was the hardest scene in the film to bring to the screen?gotg-03

Adam Dewhirst (AD): You’ve probably seen a giant floating skull in space in the trailer – that’s Knowhere! It’s featured in the comics and the Guardians visit it in the film. The concept we were given was that it was the severed head of the giant celestial being that now acts as a space port and mining colony – your basic Mos Eisley but on a much larger scale. It is a massive, massive environment to bring to life – both at a distance and close up. I was largely responsible for the shot you see in the trailer, of the skull from the outside. It’s a massive model and only a few of our machines at work were powerful enough to handle it. We had to end up splitting it into chunks to work on it but it’s something I’m really proud of in the final shot.

I’m only talking about my contribution to that environment – the inside is even more complex! An entire city built up, down, left, right, forwards and backwards. The thing goes everywhere  and is an incredibly complex build. We had an entire team of very talented artists plot this out, and develop it over many months. It really is a feat of engineering!

GS: What is the most challenging, a CGI character or effects like ships etc and why?

AD: Oh a character definitely. A ship may be complex, intricate and take time to build but once you have built it you’re done. Who knows what a character is going to end up doing? We have to make everything that character interacts with, sculpt all his/her facial expressions, as well as little nuances like fat roll, eyes twitches and hair simulation. It is a far more complex thing to pull off so that the audience believe what they’re seeing is real and can just sit back and enjoy the film without consciously going “that’s CG”.

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GS: How many people work on various effects like a character or a battle or a ship?

AD: Well Framestore employed about 400 artists on Guardians on and off over a period of about a year and a half. So it’s a big team, and we are one of two post production houses who handled most of the film (the other is “The Moving Picture Company”). If you think of the giant space battles in the film you will have artists building different type of ships then another team to texture those ships. The ships also need to be rigged to move and then animated before being lit and rendered – and remember this is just the ships we are talking about. There is also the background effects like fire and smoke, characters and environments to consider. I mean you could easily be talking thousands of people for a shot that lasts all of five seconds but generally if we create an “asset” like The Milano (Quill’s ship) it can get re-used for most of the film, much like how claymation works, once we have created something it’s re-usable! So much of the work we do is for the film as a whole, and not necessarily for one shot, but yeah its a big team!

We had at least five or six different modellers alone contribute to Rocket – and that’s just for his build, that’s nothing to do with animating him or the fur or textures or anything. To work out how many people contributed to Rocket as a whole… well…. it gives me a headache just thinking about it!

There is a fine line between story and effects for the sake of them but Guardians seems to have blended them so well you forget that a lot of it is CGI.

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GS: How does the collaboration process work between the VFX team, director and writers work?

AD: There is a fair amount of back and forth. When a visual effects company bids to work on a film we do what’s known as a treatment or pre-vis where we roughly show the client what we envision for that shot or character, whatever is required of the VFX. Once the film gets to the production stage there is a rough plan as to how the CG will be created, so the director will know to shoot green screen or use motion capture.  You will often see shots of this in the behind the scenes and on set production photos that are released by the studio. There are normally shots of someone in a green, skin-tight, bodysuit!

Once that initial process is complete then the fun begins. The footage comes back to the studio and we know what we have to place into that shot. It’s then we can start building the sets, props, characters and anything else needed. Normally some of this will be have been begun before we even see the film footage as it’s beneficial to start to give the director and actors an idea of what they will be interacting with – it’s also good for us to get a head start. We have a long design process where we work from concept designs and directors notes, building the visual effects elements. We regularly submit images and rotating turntables of our CG models to the clients and to our internal supervisors for review and we get in-depth feedback on a fairly regular basis. The feedback could be anything from the length of a characters hair, to the depth and type of wrinkles on his backpack. It’s all very closely scrutinised with every element taken into account, which is how we achieve such realism in our characters.

When you’re working with a client like Marvel, who have very clear ideas about setting and character,  you do get good , detailed feedback about your work  but at the end of the day you are the one interpreting the brief so it’s your creation.

guardians-of-the-galaxy_stills-121GS: Without spoiling anything was there anything that was in a first draft that did not make it to the final cut that you wanted to work on?

AD: Oh sure! I mean a movie has to be edited right? We have a few characters that we thought would add to the settings who didn’t make it through to final cut – nothing major just a few fun little aliens – some of them have great names too “Mr Mad Cow Alien” and “Mr Two Mouths” – great concepts, but they didn’t make it to final cut as they just weren’t relevant to the story – still it would have been nice to model them. We’re lucky that nothing major we made was cut from the film – that’s happened in the past – I remember working on a film where the entire final act, which was mostly CG was cut from the film – it was devastating to those of us that worked on it!

GS: Rocket and Groot certainly stole the film in my opinion – How challenging was it to digitally create two of your main characters ensuring it was believable throughout and are you happy with the outcome?

AD:It’s a major challenge – so much so that Framestore only created one of those characters (Rocket). It was MPC (Moving Picture Company) who were responsible for Groot. We then shared use of the characters depending on which sequence each company worked on. Developing Rocket was a massive undertaking. He has some of the most poignant lines in the film so you have to make him a believable character, with subtle nuances and traits that represent a real person. Now a large part of that is down to Bradley Cooper’s voice work but I have to credit the excellent work the animators did on this. It’s important to note that this isn’t motion capture work, sure we film our own reference and we have a recording of Bradley reading his lines, but this is basically all manually animated by a team of animators based in London. It’s superb work to bring a totally CG character to life and make him sit seamlessly among actual actors.

guardians-of-the-galaxy_stills-62GS: Are there any Easter Eggs hidden that you can let us know about now the film is released? e.g. characters making an appearance in the background that shouldn’t be there?

AD:Well I wouldn’t want to spoil anything for those of you that haven’t seen the film. What I will say is there is a certain character that appears after the credits that is interesting. In fact there are a whole load of potential Marvel characters in the Collector’s lab for those of you that are eagle-eyed! I think you would have to wait for the DVD and pause it to spot them all. It’s a massive set and the Collector has a lot of items in his lab!

Also look in the credit list for a certain actor who makes an unexpected cameo. You won’t spot him on-screen because he’s the voice of another character so you’ve got to listen carefully…VERY carefully (in the prison sequence….cough cough) and that’s all im saying!

Guardians of the Galaxy is out on general release now.

Interviewer: Montoya @GSmontoc

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