The art of eyelines

How Framestore maintained proper eyeline direction for CG characters and characters that needed eye augmentation on ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3.’

In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, Framestore was responsible for some incredibly complex visual effects work. This included scenes with Rocket and his caged friends, for Cosmo, and for many dazzling alien environments.

But one sequence that at first glance might not appear to be nearly as complicated actually proved to still be a challenging task for the VFX studio in terms of one key aspect: eyelines.

This was for a scene on Counter-Earth when the Guardians find themselves inside the suburban home of some of its residents.

It was a sequence for which Framestore would need to add to the plates a CG Groot, Mantis’ antennae, and black eyes for both Mantis and Nebula.

Buy Me A Coffee

Groot’s eyelines were certainly one of the first Framestore had to tackle in the scene. On set, a stand-in performer wearing a faux-cap suit stood in for the character. “I’d never worked with director James Gunn or visual effects supervisor Stephane Ceretti before, but they were amazing with the plate capture for this,” marvels Framestore visual effects supervisor Ross McCabe.

With Groot being a fully-digital character, eyes and eyelines could relatively be easily adjusted. However, it was not quite the same for Nebula and Mantis, despite the fact that they were of course characters played by live-action actors (Karen Gillan and Pom Klementieff, respectively, on set).

This is because Framestore was adding in Nebula and Mantis’ black eyes. Both actors wore extensive make-up and prosthetics but some areas of their face were left without make-up to allow them to eat and drink, and, in respect of the eyes, because these were very distinctive elements that needed to be brought to life with digital effects.

“When they shot the actors, you’d get these highlight pings on their eyes,” notes McCabe. “We would try to retain the eye pings of the natural eye, but when you put them on a black spherical surface–which was our digital eye–it can make the eye direction misleading. It can make it look like they’re looking somewhere else.”

“So,” continues McCabe, “it was a balancing act of painting out the actual pings from the plate and putting in some new pings to try and make it seem like they were looking in the correct direction. James Gunn was really, really keen on keeping the eye direction. It’s all about the character story. You need to know who’s looking at who at all times. It’s part of the performance.”

Another challenging part of ensuring the eyelines ‘worked’, including this time for Groot, was that it wasn’t always immediately apparent that the eyelines were 100% correct until a final rendered image was reviewed.

“Animation would put out playblasts, which are not rendered images,” says McCabe. “We’d see effectively just a colored iris, and the animation eyelines would look great. We’d be stoked, then throw it on the farm, get it back the next day, but then we’d be like, ‘Why are they looking over there!?’ You’d pull up the animation playblast version and compare with the renders and we’d say, ‘Yeah, it’s the same, but they’re not looking in the right place.’ So, it was quite challenging.”

“We did have one shot of Groot that we definitely went round and round and round and round and round on multiple times,” adds McCabe. “We ended up shifting his body to try and make it clear where he was looking. The misleading eye direction was really just because of the lighting in the scene for that one. Normally, you don’t want to break the lighting too much and add pings where they shouldn’t be because the viewer will see that and they’ll instinctively recognise that there’s something wrong.”

Need After Effects and other VFX plugins? Find them at Toolfarm.

Leave a Reply