Creative studio Framestore was thrilled to collaborate once more with director James Gunn for Marvel Studio’s The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special. The Academy Award-winning VFX house added festive flair as Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and the rest of the Guardians embark on a Christmas adventure. Led by VFX Supervisor Alexis Wajsbrot, Framestore’s teams across London, Montreal, Vancouver and Mumbai delivered 271 shots for the Disney+ special, which primarily takes place in the Guardians’ celestial home, Knowhere. “The Holiday Special was a really fun project for us,” comments Wajsbrot. “It’s a perfect package of characters, environments, and effects, all wrapped up in a really heartwarming story.”
All roads lead to Knowhere
The Guardians rally to give Quill a happy Christmas, in an attempt to cheer him up after the loss of Gamora during Avengers: Endgame. Their loose understanding of the holiday means that hilarity soon ensues, with Mantis and Drax kidnapping Quill’s childhood movie hero Kevin Bacon as a gift, while the rest of the team set about decorating a rebuilt Knowhere.
Wajsbrot and team created the new Knowhere by extending the existing set and adding layers of festive decor for the later sequences in the film. “This Knowhere is slightly different from the iterations in other Guardians films, as the version we knew was destroyed by Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War,” explains Environment Lead Zakaria Boumediane. “The version we see now has been rebuilt by the community, after the Guardians bought it from The Collector, so it had to feel a little more patched together. We added cranes all around the city to reinforce the idea of a reconstructed Knowhere. The lighting also had to represent the lack of life in the far background - we had a few rounds in making it darker and less inhabited.”
“This Holiday Special was a departure from other Marvel projects we’ve worked on,” comments Lighting Lead Andre Hitsoy. “The focus on character, dialogue and emotions resulted in sequences allowing for more time spent on artistic choices and subtleties lighting-wise, supporting the characters' performance and bringing them to life in a slower-paced edit than the Guardians’ usual brand of chaos.”
A Paw-fect Companion
The Guardians couldn’t pull off Quill’s seasonal surprise without the help of Cosmo the dog. “Cosmo was such a fun asset for us to build,” says Wajsbrot. “She’s a photoreal dog, but is able to talk via speakers in her space suit. This means that while there’s a need for facial expressions and performative cues that reflect the speech, we don’t need her to move her jaw in order to ‘talk’, which helps the audience maintain the belief that this is a real dog. It was also tremendously helpful to have plate reference of Maria Bakalova on set as Cosmo, as this really helped add nuance to our CG character’s performance.”
The team began with a mountain of reference footage, creating a skeleton and muscle structure for the labrador-type breed, before concentrating on her facial features. “We found moments from the real dog reference footage that accented the dialogue,” explains Animation Supervisor Nathan McConnel. The team intentionally underplayed Cosmo’s facial performance, with the occasional more extreme expression or facial tic added sparingly. “The synergy of this animation performance with the beautiful, realistic renders from such a talented group of artists really helped elevate the character to a very high level” summarises McConnel.
“Cosmo is the most realistic CG dog I’ve ever seen” agrees CG Supervisor Dan Neal. “Our Animation and FX teams did an amazing job at simulating the muscles, that vibrant rust coloured coat, long haired tail, and costume to give her the final level of realism she needed. They even added a little drool simulation along the jawline.” Lighting and compositing tied everything together in a gift-wrapped package. “The lighting relied on the highest quality settings of our rendering tool, Freak, with some shots rendered at 4K to get the sharpest, most detailed images” adds Neal.
All I want for Christmas is Groot
No new Guardians adventure is complete without a new-look Groot. Since his battle on Indigaar in Thor: Love and Thunder, young teenage Groot has aged up once again, broadening his shoulders and adding weight and muscle to his limbs. “He’s an older teen now so he’s been hitting the gym, that’s for sure,” jokes Wajsbrot. “Director James Gunn referred to him as Swoll Groot, in reference to his broader physique.”
Groot’s dancing movement reference was provided by Gunn, giving the team a head-start for the comedic performance. “Groot’s large size and physicality meant that we always needed to find ways to convey more weight, whilst still adhering to the timing of the reference, to match the beat of the music,” says McConnel. Framestore’s Animation team rose to the challenge, shooting their own reference when needed, reducing the range and amplitude of the movements. “It took a bespoke touch - adding little kicks and weight hits into his shoulders and head, groomed moss, the splay of his bark toes, whilst still retaining the spirit of the director’s performance,” says McConnel. “In fact, all the secondary animation of his individual bark pieces and twigs that cover his body were entirely hand-keyed.”
The London studio got Groot ready for the holidays, giving him Christmas antler ears, as well as garlands and fairy lights for the signature Marvel Studios post-credits shot. “The lighting on Groot used volumetric effects to integrate him seamlessly in the plates with the onset pursuit light. We added dust effects where hit feet meet the ground, to really cement him into the environment,” adds CG Supervisor Dan Neal. “Several keen-eyed Marvel Studios fans speculated online that Groot was a practical effect - a man in a tree suit - which is the biggest compliment for us, creating something so convincing that it feels tangible.”
Rocket around the Christmas tree
While Cosmo and Groot were more exploratory in terms of developing and finding their performance, Rocket was ostensibly more straightforward for the artists, as his character had already been defined in previous films. “For Rocket, the challenge was how to interpret the on set performance of Sean Gunn, with the voice performance of Bradley Cooper, and blend it with the demands and limitations of the actual shot,” explains McConnel. The reference provided a great starting point for the essence of the shot, informing the accents and nuances to help polish the performance. “The staging, posing and choices of how best to combine all the references, including our own, was down to the skill of the talented character animation team,” adds Wajsbrot.
“The Creature FX team designed all the simulation rigs for the level-up costume to interact with Rocket's fur and added some extra details like costume wrinkles for closeups,” expands Neal. To integrate him into the plate footage, the lighting team recreated the onset lighting - including the Christmas decoration lights - so that surfaces like the eyes would get the accurate colour and exposure highlights. A great example of this is when a teary Rocket receives Bucky’s arm as his Christmas present.”
The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special was released exclusively on Disney+ on 25 November 2022.