Simone Kraus has more than 18 years of experience in animation and visual effects. She is the co-owner of Trixter and has worked on a large number of projects such as CLOUD ATLAS, THE AVENGERS, IRON MAN 3 and the CAPTAIN AMERICA trilogy. She is at the head of the Los Angeles office of Trixter.
In 2016, Alessandro Cioffi told us about the Trixter’s work on CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR. With Simone, they explains their work on the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY sequel.
How was this first collaboration with director James Gunn?
Alessandro // It was exceptionally intriguing. I’m one of the many fans who loved GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, and I wished ever since I could one day work with him, discover his approach to work, so full of humour and at the same time so meticulous, follow from close his smart way of making movies. From this point of view I’ve learned a lot, it felt like a real privilege.
Simone // Very inspiring; he is a very hands on director, he knows every single detail of every second of his movies. He’s a true filmmaker who encouraged us to come up with our ideas in many different ways. He has always been there for us for briefings or questions and was an absolute pleasure to work with. I loved that it could never be too crazy or too funny.
What was his approach and expectations about the visual effects?
Alessandro // I guess, it was like it should always be: at service of story telling. He wouldn’t indulge on fancy effects, although eye-candy, if they weren’t fitting the exact situation or moment he had in mind to tell. As matter of fact, in some cases, we found ourselves, after having built a complex effect or image, deconstructing it and discarding those distracting or redundant elements to eventually bring it all back to an essential, almost linear, readability. Some might argue his images look almost baroque, given the saturated palettes and the richness of elements and details, I say they are exactly what this story, this movie, needed. It feels all so natural to me.
How did you work with VFX Supervisor Christopher Townsend?
Simone // Chris has been our fearless leader and partner in crime for many movies. He is always encouraging and inspiring and a pleasure to work with. His team is always very organized and they create an efficient and flexible workflow and give us very fast feedback. He always allows us room for loads of creativity which makes us really feel like being part of the filmmakers.
Alessandro // As Simone said, it’s not the first time we have worked with Chris. He’s his a supervisor who doesn’t make you miss his trust, he knows your performance is directly proportional to your confidence. I believe he knows, among other things, who can deliver what and how, he knows his vendors and partners so he maximises the cooperations. A few years back I defined him like an orchestra conductor, intimately knowing the sheet music and those who have to execute it. I reckon this definition still applies.
What are the sequences made by Trixter?
Alessandro // We have worked on three main sequences and a few bits and pieces for a total of about 300 shots. The main sequences are those taking place on Contraxia, at the lost Ravagers’ hide out called Iron Lotus, where Yondu encounters Stakar and Ayesha; the one on Berhert, in the forest at night, after the Milano’s crash landing, where they sit around the camp fire and where Rocket sets an ambush for the Ravages but eventually gets captured; and the crazy psychedelic quantum space hopping sequence, where Yondu, Kraglin, Rocket and Baby Groot travel up to Ego.
How did you approach a show with so many VFX shots?
Alessandro // For what Trixter is today, I could say about 300 shots represents the production sweet-spot, if you pass me the term. We can handle more, of course, but this amount allows us to dedicate to every shot and detail what it feels the right amount of care and dedication. Obviously, per se, the raw number doesn’t tell the whole story, there are many factors playing an essential role, above each I wish to mention the extremely tidy and organised approach this production has had, from the client side and internally as well.
How did you organize the work at Trixter?
Alessandro // Team-playing is the key word, I believe. Daily sharing and detailed communication among departments and leads, mutual supports among all components, long conversations between the supervisors, on a coffee in the morning or on a beer (or more!) in the late evenings, after work.
Simone // We carefully planned every step of the way internally together with all department leads and supervisors. Weekly projection for the client, flexible workflows to allow last minute changes. Early start on asset creation. Tested all workflows. We increased our support structure dramatically. Always a plan B in place.
Can you explain in detail about the creation of Rocket and Baby Groot?
Alessandro // Rocket is a Framestore creation, this must be said right from the start. It’s an incredibly successful character, fully established since the first movie. Besides, it’s a character which is utterly beloved by the director. You probably have read a whole literature about James Gunn and raccoons in general, Rocket in particular. So, when we got the asset delivered, and acknowledged about James’ specific concerns about splitting the character work among a few vendors -and with a reason consider how essential character continuity is- we knew what we were handling was a an A-class element, for the importance, as said, of the character per se, but also for the finest technical quality of every component: design, details, execution. The little bit of room left to our contribution laid into the rigging process and, of course, performance, animation. For the rest we ought to replicate Framestore’s excellence. Same applied for Baby Groot, with the exception that this was his first appearance as toddler. Yet we got the asset delivered, and moved from there.
How did you handle their rigging and animation?
Simone // Trixter’s in-house rigging department was in charge of rigging and muscle system for our shots of Rocket and Groot.
Alessandro // we got to work a long dialogue sequence involving Rocket and many close ups and extreme close ups, so we felt like investing a bit more time in rigging his face and allow some fine nuance in his expressions, that level of subtlety which could add an additional layer to his personality. In another sequence, in the forest, he’s full back to his animalistic nature, performing a full range of acrobatic jumps, fights and funny ‘stunts’. Here’s were our animators and Simone had the most fun.
Which references and indications did you received for the animation?
Simone // We first received a quicktime, edited by Chris Townsend, representing James Gunn’s favorite and not so favorite Rocket animation shots from GUARDIANS 1, in order to define the character.
We received Sean Gunn’s references as Rocket’s stand in on set, directed by James. We also used Bradley Cooper’s filmed ADR sessions. And James Gunn and Chris Townsend briefed us for Rocket and Groot performances for each individual sequence.
Can you tell us more about their facial animation and especially Rocket?
Simone // We created a library especially for Rockets facial expressions to help the animation team to be consistent and in Character. James Gunn gave a a very detailed briefing for how he generally sees both character Rocket and Baby Groot. He is very innocent never really aware of whats happening around him, playful, loves music, we used live action footage of small children as a reference for Baby Groot along with internally filmed action/motion references.
How did you created the fur for Rocket?
Alessandro // As mentioned before, this was a perfect match to Framestore’s reference. Our main goal was to create a replica, hair by hair, of their version. As matter of fact we preferred to import the hair as curves, ingesting high detail fur cache from lead vendor -with its consequences: literally millions of curve shapes!- rather than attempting a full re-grooming with the risk of diverging with the visual results achieved by Framestore and approved by Marvel.
This second movie introduces many new CG characters. How did you work with the art department for their design?
Alessandro // It often starts there, tin the Art Department, an investigation about the potential of a even character, the implications of some visual choices, the exploration of all the possibilities on the table. Step by step, we share our findings with our client and agree on the next directions to undertake, before we move to another department, before ideas become 3d assets. This approach results beneficial under any aspect: it maximises the results by keeping costs under control. Another reason why I enjoy working with Chris is that he encourages this approach to things, we both know that every day we invest in exploring all the visual options for a given character, or environment, or prop, big or small, translates into an head start to its successful final development.
Can you explain in detail about their creation?
Alessandro // Every asset has its own story, more or less troubled, more or less straightforward. In general no big secret involved, other than the pure talent and dedication our artists put into their work, knowing that by being part of such important productions it’s like playing in the Big League. We feel the bless of it every day, and the responsibility too.
Which one was the most complicated to create?
Alessandro // Probably Martinex. Marvel and James Gunn were very demanding about this character. They wanted it to express the charisma and at the same time the oddity it shows in the comic books. Although not a prominent role in the Marvel Universe, I believe they want to keep big plans open for him. At first the intention was to preserve all Michael Rosenbaum’s facial features, like creating a crystal version of him, but then, soon enough -after several rounds of concept art -right!- and a few versions of sculpting, filmmakers decided to go for something more alien, unseen. This together with a full investigation about the way crystals reflect and refract the light, under any conditions, led us to the chap you see in the movie.
Amongst all these CG characters, which one is your favorite and why?
Simone // Rocket, because he is full of contrast makes it a pleasure to work with.
Alessandro // Yes, I agree. Rocket is one of those characters representing a challenge and a joy in every department. We said enough about animating it, but at every other step, from lighting and rendering it to final touches in comp, the temptation is strong to keep playing with it and try to add that little bit more of complexity to its scenes.
The Quantum Space Hopping sequence is really fun. How did you approach and created this sequence?
Alessandro // The sequence appeared to be complex in its structure right away. After seen the previz, Chris briefed -and warned- us on the unforeseeable directions the sequence could have possibly evolved. So this, together with the involvement of well know actors’ di-gi doubles close-ups, was all a bit intimidating. But guess what? Also very thrilling, besides there was no other option than having some serious fun.
Did you received specific indications for this sequence?
Alessandro // Oh yes: go crazy! Seriously, James and Chris never stopped us encouraging to go wilder on the distortion effect, no matter how grotesque or cartoony the end result was, that was exactly what they were after.
Can you tell us more about the characters distortions?
Alessandro // After a pure match, one to one, on the actors’ performance a dedicated rig was built to apply the distortion atop of the animation. It had to be accurate, as sometimes James wanted to art direct that very eye bulb dancing in that eye socket, with the optical nerves wobbling around, or else that jaw absurdly bloating or so. You can imagine how was that pure music for Simone’s and her animators’ ears: an animator’s paradise.
The movie is taking us to various exotic places. Can you explain in details about their creation?
Alessandro // I can tell you about the many environment designs we have proposed for this specific sequence. During the quantum hopping you briefly see a variety of unusual places, very odd, very colourful. This was just a little selection of the over fifty paintings our concept artists prepared to offer James as many options as possible.
During the forest sequence, Rocket is using many traps. How did you created the various FX, destructions and digi-doubles?
Alessandro // All FX in our scenes are generated with SideFX’ Houdini. A tool which offers an unlimited range of opportunities, from photorealistic destructions in a forest to a slightly more fanciful anti-gravity bomb funguses to shoot Ravagers up the sky.
Many spaceships participate to this funeral. Can you tell us more about their creation?
Alessandro // We only created Stakar’s spaceship, in the shape of a giant salamander. Here too, same good old recipe: plenty of concept art reiteration and then classic modelling.
What was the main challenge on this show and how did you achieve it?
Alessandro // The big variety of assets, effects and scenes forced us to stay extremely tidy and accurate in our schedule, to full optimise our resources. In this respect a big kudos goes to our Head of Production Franzisca Puppe and to our Production Manager on the show Mara Fröhlich.
Was there a shot or a sequence that prevented you from sleep?
Alessandro // Not one you would imagine. Actually sometimes are those considered insignificant details that engulf my thoughts at night. Sometimes…
What is your best memory on this show?
Simone // Hard to say we had lots of fun during the show and it was a pleasure to work on. Maybe when we were told that James said we have some of the best Rocket shots in the movie!
Alessandro // Is it cool if I say the wrap party?
How long have you worked on this show?
Simone // About a year.
What was the size of your team?
Alessandro // Not immense! We were only 105 artists in total, plus VFX team, supes, producers and coords.
What is your next project?
Alessandro // All I can plan at the moment is some holidays!
What are the four movies that gave you the passion for cinema?
Simone // JURASSIC PARK, ALIEN, STAR WARS, TOY STORY and INTERSTELLAR.
A big thanks for your time.
// WANT TO KNOW MORE?
Trixter: Official website of Trixter.
© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2017