Rocket: the making of a space raccoon

7th August 2014

Raccoons don’t often walk on two legs, and they don’t regularly start bar fights, fire huge guns or pilot spaceships either, but then Rocket, the star of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, is no ordinary raccoon. Here’s how we developed and then animated him in our section of James Gunn’s record-breaking space opera, plus a look at some of the film’s other weird beasts. 

For an overview of the rest of our work on the film head over here, while we also have a features on our environment work and R&DMake sure you see the movie before you read on of course!

Nailing the performance

As the strongest and most central character that Framestore has ever animated Rocket needed to look photo-real and naturalistic, but at the same time he had to be made to do things raccoons don’t do. After all, part of his character is that he doesn’t even know he is a raccoon. “If you exaggerate his performance and make him too cartoony you’ve lost the audience but if you go too real you’ll end up with something that isn’t entertaining or doesn’t do Bradley’s voice justice,” explains Animation Supervisor Kevin Spruce.

“James Gunn instinctively had a gut feeling of what was right for Rocket. He often wanted to keep him casual and low-key, rather than over-acted,” he continues. “He was very big on the fact that when you shoot live action the actors don’t always look at each other when they’re talking, whereas there’s a tendency for animators to always make characters face who they’re talking to. The animation team worked hard to get all that observational detail into Rocket and became really intuitive to what he would do in any situation.”

We referenced Bradley Cooper’s vocal performance as an anchor point in terms of lip-sync, along with a level of interpretation required to translate a human face performance to a raccoon muzzle. “People talk a lot about lip-sync and facial animation, but really a good performance is a combination of everything – the body poses, the amplitude and of course the timing – and those elements coming together and looking like one thing. We had Bradley’s voice, James Gunn’s brief, post-vis and reference of the animators doing Rocket actions to nail the physicality. We used all of that as reference to create a performance” adds Kevin.

Fur and fibre

As we were leading the Look Dev on Rocket our Creature FX team had their hands full with his fur and clothing. Imagine you need to simulate a million hairs for a coat of fur, normally you might choose 10% of those as guides to drive the full groom, but for Rocket we used our in-house software to simulate every single hair and how it collides for the first time. The groom was split into three different sections – the head, the arms and tail. This meant we could easily remove parts of the fur which were not visible in shot.

Rocket raccoon

"What's a raccoon?"

We rendered in Arnold and the shader we used was based on the disneyISHair model, an artist friendly, physics inspired hair shading system that uses importance sampling for hair scattering. For the markings we used multiple colour maps that were then mixed in different ways along the length of each hair. For the short fine hair we were able to achieve the speckled look along each hair which is present in real raccoon fur by swapping between the different maps in certain areas controlled by mix masks. The longer hairs had less colour changes along the length which gave the recognisable raccoon mask.

Rocket starts off in his preferred bounty hunter gear before switching into the raccoon-sized prison uniform his jailers manage to find for him. As it was an asset that needed to be a shared with another VFX company we set the bounty costume up in a way to make that as easy as possible. “It’s quite a rigid space suit, so we decided that the top part could be mainly rigged and the trousers would be cloth simmed,” explains CFX Supervisor Sylvain Degrotte. The prison outfit was more difficult. “It was less rigid so it needed to collide with Rocket’s fur underneath and be able to slide and wrinkle in a more fluid, less mechanical way.”

“We built that costume in quite a novel way,” continues Sylvain, “at the beginning we took the approach of ‘OK let’s do it like Gravity take a physically accurate, pattern-based tailoring approach,’ but the costume already existed in real life so instead we decided to do a photogrammetry scan by taking 360° photos. It was much quicker and we still got all the details we wanted. We just had to fit it from our human model to a raccoon. It was an area we really pushed forward in and did something differently that worked for this particular show.” With the systems set up we developed our in-house software Jet to automate the simulation process. Artists could click a submit button and all it would run all the required simulations – the bounty hunter trouser simulation or the prison costume plus the three different groom simulations combined together – and publish a package that was used by lighting to render later on.

I am what?

Then we have Groot, the massive walking, more or less talking tree of the piece and Rocket’s personal houseplant/muscle. Though not built at Framestore he still threw up some interesting challenges and required a number of customs rigs. “It’s insane, the number of pieces of geometry he’s made from,” says Sylvain. What makes him more complicated is that everything is connected, “he has these root-like ribbons running from one piece to another. In fact one ribbon was actually driving the forearm, the upper arm, shoulder, even though the chest and down to the feet. Everything was affected at once.”

Rocket and Groot team up

Rocket and Groot - the bark and bite of the show

Into the Kyln

Our first sequence, a long walk and talk through the Kyln where Rocket, Groot, was where we first got our teeth into Rocket and how he moves. “Full body shots like this are definitely the most difficult as he’s walking, talking and acting at once and you have to consider all those things,” explains Kevin.

Showers of the prison variety aren’t everyone’s favourite, but for us it presented the first chance to hint that there’s something else beneath his angry exterior, in some subtle shots that required a new wet fur groom. “His acting after the shower is more subdued and more subtle to convey that story point, which adds contrast and a broader personality,” says Kevin.

The more complex side of Rocket hinted at here emerges from his furry fury later on during a fight with Drax. “Sequences like that are really beautiful challenges from an animation and an acting point of view,” says VFX Supervisor Jonathan Fawkner. “It’s a really important sequence because it’s the moment when Rocket starts to unravel and it gives the audience a chance to emote with him. He’s got so much challenging dialogue and we had to make sure he could hold his own on screen. His eyes are full of tears and then, suddenly, he’s back as the Rocket we know.”

The prison and its prisoners

Back in the Kyln the gang enter the main room, attracting plenty of attention from the other inmates. “It’s a huge environment and one of the biggest sets Marvel has ever built, but that still wasn’t big enough and we had to extend it from two storeys to 30,” says Jonathan Fawkner. “It’s fully built, lit and rendered, which might seem like overkill for a set extension, where normally you might use a matte painting, but it’s viewed from so many different angles it was obvious: we just had to build it.”

Inside that big set are some big prisoners. There are even big, blue and fully CG prisoners like the ‘Monstrous Dude’, who sees the wrong end of our first bespoke Groot rig. He interacts with the real actors as well as Groot, oafishly rippling his sausage fingers over Quill’s face, meaning we had to add in distortion and reaction to his skin to make it look like he was really there. A nice thing about the Kyln is its lighting. We were able to add little Sharpy spotlights wherever we felt they were needed meaning we could light our characters really nicely, adding highlights in Rocket’s whiskers for example.

Monstrous dude sees the wrong end of Groot

Monstrous Dude sees the wrong end of a bespoke Groot rig

Rocket and Groot take centre stage in the Kyln, as the prison’s hoverbots fix their sights on them. “I had this idea that if we had spotlights on the bots it would make for some really interesting lighting on Groot,” says Jonathan. “They were already there on the hoverbot models, but weren’t really part of the design of the sequence. It was dangerous because it meant we also had to put a lot of light into the background of the plate, but it was worth it because they mean you can see into Groot, you get nice reflections and contrasts on him, and flares on the lights. It really makes the whole sequence more dynamic.”

Bespoke branches

The other challenge was to work out how much damage Groot would take and what that would do to him. We came up with a mechanism where he would grow armour that could be shot off in an interesting way without causing him too much damage. First we had to design how it would look and grow and then the FX team had to create splinters, twigs and dust. “That was augmented by a lot of real elements too,” adds Jonathan, “I wanted to add to what FX had done with some genuine plant material so we did a shoot in our Capture Lab. Luckily, I had just some trees taken down and had all these twigs and wood chips, so sourcing what I wanted wasn't too difficult.” 

The bespoke Groot rigs didn’t stop there “As well as the armour we created a shield, where some of the vines would form a large disk of branches to defend Groot from fire,” explains rigging Supervisor Laurie Brugger. “Then there were tentacles that sprouted from his arms that stretched and curled. We also needed to change the proportions of the character so he could reach new heights in the Kyln, create an aging effect so all of the green new growth would become dark and mangled over time, ‘Hulking’ where he becomes more muscular and bulky and finally ‘Flora,’ an effect where Groot would sprout twigs all over his body. We expanded our in-house curve tools to include a new robust curve deformer and curve blending tools as the core of our rig.  For the flora we made use of Framestore's mesh cache instancing workflow to allow animators control over the timing of predefined cached twig growth.”

At one point the prison is thrust into zero gravity. Luckily, we know a little bit about that! “The shot of the soldiers beginning to float off is one of the ones I’m really, really pleased with because it’s matched exactly in complete CG to a live action shot seen just three shots earlier and you cannot tell the difference,” says Jonathan. One soldier in the foreground is an actor on a wire, but the rest and the entire Kyln is CG. The camera rises up from the floor and takes in all 30 of the Kyln’s storeys. 

Thirsty work

Later in the film we meet some more odd little creatures as the gang find an Orloni table begging to be gambled on inside one of Knowhere’s bars. The game goes like this: Orlonies are tiny little creatures that dart along the table’s tracks, while it’s the job of the toothsome F’saki to eat them. The backer of the last Orloni standing wins.

A proud F'saki

A proud F'Saki

Jerboas became an inspiration for the Orloni. “They’re like hyperactive little mice on two legs,” says Kevin Spruce. “We sent some footage to the client and they loved it and felt it was just the right energy for those creatures, so we drew on that. For the F’saki we looked at toads and how they walk in that clunky, ungainly way, and then we looked at heavier lizards and tortoises. Essentially, that’s the skill for a VFX animator when you are working with fantastical creatures. You can’t just take one animal, you take maybe three and combine elements from all of them to make it move in a believable way.”

Orloni inspiration

James Gunn also wanted to give it a level of pleased, puppy-like excitement as it wags its tail and looks around the gambling table for praise. To add to the comic twist we also animated the F’saki as if he was slightly incongruous to the environment, more used to a swamp than a metal table.

That's all of our more character focussed work for Guardians, but there's plenty more - take a look at our overview here and our environment feature here.

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