Behind the scenes with Framestore on how they went from ‘runt’ to ‘adult’ Rocket.
A unique aspect of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 was its regular flashbacks to different stages in the life of Rocket, starting as a baby animal experimented on by the High Evolutionary.
Since audiences would be witnessing Rocket at different ages, the visual effects studio behind his main build, Framestore, needed to come up with a way of representing him at different stages. They first made a CG model of runt Rocket, and of course already had a CG adult Rocket. To explore the other ages they required, Framestore then literally blendshaped between the two models to come with a bunch of different Rocket stages.
Furthermore, Rocket is caged with a number of other animal lifeforms which he befriends–the otter Lylla, a rabbit Floor and walrus Teefs. In an earlier befores & afters article, we spoke to production visual effects supervisor Stephane Ceretti about how scenes featuring those characters were ‘filmed’ with the voice actors in a virtual production volume, then handed over to Framestore for final animation and visual effects work.
Framestore visual effects supervisor Alexis Wajsbrot–who also oversaw the creation of Rocket’s caged friends Lylla, Floor and Teefs–discusses the Rocket builds, in particular, in this new befores & afters coverage of the film.
Alexis Wajsbrot: James Gunn had this picture of a very, very cute raccoon, which I think was Photoshopped because the eyes were way too big. That was his very first email to Framestore. We started there, and we thought, well, we have the adult Rocket already. Maybe if we have the baby, then there’d be a way to do all the in-betweens.
So, working with [production visual effects supervisor] Stephane Ceretti, we started with baby Rocket, or runt Rocket as we called him, and we modeled and groomed that first. We were doing one-toone comparison with this picture. It was looking really, really cute, but cute to the point that he didn’t look real. So we completely threw that in the bin and started again with real raccoons and real runts.
Now we really, really completely matched a real raccoon runt. Then, to make sure there was a link with the Rocket we all know, we paid attention to his color palette and the markings that only Rocket has. We made the groom of runt Rocket brighter, because we found that raccoons go darker the older they get.
‘Let’s blendshape Rocket runt to Rocket adult and see what it does’
The opening shot of the movie is actually a 3D morph between runt Rocket and adult Rocket. It’s a real morph we had to do, and to do that, we had to blendshape between the models. Then we thought, well, why don’t we use that blendshape methodology to craft the different ages of Rocket that we needed?
Marvel had come up with the different variations. There was Rocket runt, Rocket baby one, Rocket baby two, Rocket baby three, Rocket adolescent and Rocket adult. We even got a chart from Marvel that showed us the different heights. So we just said, ‘Let’s blendshape Rocket runt to Rocket adult and see what it does…’.
So, we did that as a test. We blendshaped them over 100 frames. Then we did a screengrab at each correct height that Marvel wanted. I didn’t think this would work at all, but weirdly enough it gave us a lot more than expected. You really saw Rocket becoming more and more adult and the features we’re now so familiar with developing. It would go from a character on all fours that didn’t have shoulders to one where the shoulders were developing, to slowly extending up to the point where he becomes adult Rocket. It was of course just a starting point, but then we got to work on all the different iterations.
And so there was so much in his face, in his body, in his anatomy that this blend shape, which was really A to B, nothing crazy about it, that we said, “Well, that’s a starting point.” And that was really the starting point of all the different sizes. Of course, then there was a lot of work on each different different sizes, finessing all the fine details, varying the fur coloration and so forth.
The art of implants
Rocket has these metal or mechanical implants. We’ve seen them before in the shower scene in the first Guardians. But, we changed them a little.
At one point, I was watching Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with my son and one of the characters has these big metal dental prosthetics which protrude out. Well, Rocket in the other films had them more embedded into the skin, and with the groom and the dark environment, it made them relatively hard to see.
So I said, ‘Well, what if we do more like 3D implants, like I’d seen in Charlie?’ Meaning, the implants are more on the outside and more imposing. They loved the concept and that’s what we did with them.
The younger Rocket was, the less emotive we decided he would be, and the less exaggerated we would make him. Although, even with Rocket adult we are not exaggerating the facial animation that much, mainly because we want to keep that a little more animalistic. We also kept Rocket adult a little bent forward because we still wanted to make him somewhat Raccoon-like.
At first, Rocket is very innocent and almost joyful when he finds his first family in Lylla, Teefs and Floor. We then had to make sure we had all the range in his facial set-up because he slowly becomes more emotional when his friends die, and he escapes as Rocket adolescent. There is a shot where he starts driving the ship and then he becomes more and more angry and we really start seeing Rocket adult on that shot. Over the course of his development from runt to that point there’s just so much nuance and subtle character development, and I have to take off my hat to the animation team at Framestore for that – they just did such a great job.
At the end of the show, I wanted to make a fun video about the fact that here at Framestore we were responsible for making Rocket digitally over the years, beginning with the first Guardians film but across a range of other titles as well. e went further than anticipated and created the full Rocket ‘story’- the life of Rocket.
I thought it would be funny to go, ‘Well, what if we have Groot as our narrator and interviewer?’ Groot obviously only says, ‘I am Groot’, but we could run with that and incorporate any subtitle we wanted. So we have Groot coming into Framestore’s London studio and interviewing some different people like our key lookdev artist, our animation supe, about Rocket with his trademark ‘I am Groot’. It’s really, really funny. I hope people can see it at some point!