As part of our extended coverage of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol3., we have an fxpodcast with production visual effects supervisor in Stephane Ceretti. Coming up we also have a detailed discussion with Framestore’s Alexis Wajsbrot about their incredibly moving character animation, and here we speak to Wētā FX’s VFX Supervisor Guy Williams.
Wētā FX was one of the primary VFX teams that worked on the film, working on a range of sequences and scenes from the vast destruction of the earth-like planet to much of the third act in space. But there is ‘one shot’ that stands apart from almost anything else in the films for visual complexity.
The one-take, two-and-a-half-minute hallway fight sequence in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 was a masterpiece of action and choreography. It represents a high point in the action of the film, and last time the original Guardians of the Galaxy will fight together as a team.
The scene is done as one shot to the needle drop of No Sleep Til Brooklyn by the Beastie Boys. The final shot was delivered by Wētā FX, and we sat down with Wētā’s VFX Supervisor Guy Williams to drill down on a breakdown of the shot.
The sequence has our heroes Drax, Mantis, Gamora, Rocket, Peter Quill, Groot, and Nebula fighting down a hallway to free hundreds of imprisoned humanoid children on the High Evolutionary’s ship.
In reality, the one-take hallway was actually 18 separate shots that had to be stitched together. The decision was made early on to not shoot with motion control, but Guy Williams is the first to praise the extensive and meticulous work done by the DOP and on-set crew to produce the best possible material to work with.
The shot is complex for so many reasons. In addition to not being shot using motion control, the shot is inherently complex as it involves both actual actors and multiple digital characters. While there were stand-ins for the monsters, the blocking was extremely complex and even more so when characters swing from the arms of digital characters, such as Mantis does on Groot’s limb. Characters such as Nebula have major incidents with her neck being crushed, still fighting before recovering and reassembling requiring extensive digital doubles. Added to this is massive contact lighting from spotlights, lasers, stun charges, weapons fire, and sparks.
The shot involves speed ramping, whip pans, digital characters, project mapping, and incredibly complex compositing, so the shot was carefully planned out for months. “This is where having a good shooting crew and production visual effects supervisor in Stephane Ceretti really comes important,” explains Guy Williams. “It was not just pre-vis, that whole scene was shot live action. First, they had to figure out all of the choreography and action, then they had to figure out how they are going to drop a camera into it, and then they have to work out how they are going to shoot it – given there are a lot of wire gags.”
For example, Mantis needs to wear a wire for some stunts, but the director naturally did not want her wearing a wire the entire time, as it would restrict her movements. To incorporate a back flip she needed to do, they have to find a point to stop the flow of the action, put her in the rig, film the flip and then stop again to get her out of the rig, without looking like the camera has cut. “They had to figure all that out, plan all that out, and then execute it – while all the time accounting for all the characters that aren’t actually there,” Williams adds.
In the hallway not only were there the CG Guardians such as Rocket and the powerful Groot, but a vast array of attacking CGI creatures of varying sizes. Stephane Ceretti and the on-set crew not only had to figure out the movements of everyone but as Guy Williams points out, “protect the volume for the characters that weren’t there”. Some of the attackers were twice the size of a normal person, so even having stand-in stunt actors did not account for the spaces that needed to be left for CGI characters when working out the blocking and framing. Even with stand-ins and stunt actors, the on-set complexity of blocking, framing, choreography, and producing a smooth plausible single-camera motion was incredibly challenging.
The action was shot over multiple days without motion control on a wide-angle handheld Red Camera. Even if there had been space in the tightly packed space for a motion control arm, Ceretti points out that it would have been far too dangerous. “We shot with a wide angle lens so the action needs to be very close at times to the actual camera.” In fact, motion control was never considered for the sequence.
The hand-offs from each separate sequence were not done with the camera panning off to the floor or just a character moving close to the camera and thus wiping from one shot to another. In the Guardians hallway shot, “ a lot of cuts (between shots) was happening dead center in front of the camera, we were cutting in the middle of the action,” Williams points out. “For instance, Mantis jumps up at one point and swings off the extended arm of Groot, vaults onto the shoulders of a guard, leans forward and then tilts back violently causing the guard to summersault backwards as she does a flip and the guard then collides with the arm of Groot – hitting the floor and getting knocked out – the cut for that sequence was in the middle of that when she lands on the guard’s shoulders.” The ‘A-side’ of that transition had her on top of the guard with her legs around his neck but her hands about level with her thighs. The ‘B-side’ of that same cut had the guard’s arms up in shot around her legs and her arms are up around his head and then she does the stunt. “And sometimes it isn’t even the same actors on either side of a cut, as stunt performers swap in and out of the sequence,” Williams jokes. As a result, there was no concept that the Wētā team could just morph between either side of a cut. Plus the hallway has very clear lines of perspective and so even if the foreground could be made to line up, the backgrounds would never also line up. In this particular transition Wētā made a very high-resolution digital double of both the guard and Mantis, “and then we just replaced both of them for that entire vignette,” Williams recalls. This means the CG work needed to be very precise since at this point the actors are the entire focus of the audience, right in front of the camera.
In addition to the 17 complex handoffs between the 18 shots, everything is set to music. The entire fight happens with all the action timed to the beats of the Bestie Boys, No Sleep Til Brooklyn. “Our animation supervisor Mike Cousins does this fantastic job, but the first 6 months we worked on it was just figuring out how to put the action back together,” The Wētā team knew the plan, the material was shot as well as was humanly possible, but to have all the camera moves and action timed perfectly to the music over 18 separate shots was insanely complex.
On day one, the Wētā team made a list of assumption list of what would need to be digital and they had a detailed plan but it still took “6 months just working out the timing of it all,” he explains “Because Animation wants all the action to land on a beat, we were trying to fix all the issues from the shoot, plus the sequence has the action constantly speed ramping in and out of slow motion to show the action and the entire scene was shot at 200 fps and then retime even for normal 24fps sections.”
Once this initial phase was over and the timing was solved, changing anything was akin to “pulling cards out of a house of cards”, says Williams. “Changing anything changed everything.” As such the team sort lock off at the 6-month mark in a way few productions are to do so early in the completion of the shot. Once the Director James Gunn agreed, nothing substantial changed.
The final ‘one shot’ took many more months to then actually do, in fact, the team worked on the shot for a year. The final work required a lot of camera projection behind the principal actors to rebuild the hallway and thus solve having consistent lines of perspective. And this also allowed for a lot of additional lighting effects, CG character shadows, and contact lighting to be built into the environment of the hallway.
One of the biggest CG doubles was Nebula. At one stage in the action, she is hit in the head, breaking her neck, until she reforms, while still fighting. But all the characters had digital doubles even characters such as Peter Quill. Wētā also worked on another sequence in the film when Quill drops down into a hallway on fire, which was entirely CG so the team had already planned for an extremely accurate digital Peter Quill. “We don’t want to replace anything or anyone just to say we did,” says Williams. “We want to hold on the plate as much as possible, we did in the case of Nebula as there is no practical way to do the shot.” In several instances, the faces are kept and projected back onto digi-doubles that allow for hands or other limbs to be correctly re-aligned with an upcoming transition.
In addition to all the main actor work, the animation team had some real fun with the background characters, withWētā’s team contributing loads of entertaining background action happening further down the hallway. “It is almost worth seeing the film 3 or 4 times for just the gags happening in the background,” Williams jokes.