A large faction of Avengers and their allies assemble to protect the world from the infamous Thanos in Marvel Studios’ hero-packed “Avengers: Infinity War.” To help take down the intergalactic despot, Thor teams up with the Guardians and journeys to the mythical world of Nidavellir in search of a new weapon forged from magical Uru ore to replace his destroyed hammer. The quest features ambitious VFX from Method Studios including CG characters Rocket and Groot, the Guardians’ ship and escape pod, and the massive Nidavellir environment. Creating nearly 24 minutes of CG content, Method’s team was led by VFX Supervisor Greg Steele and Animation Supervisor Keith Roberts, working closely with production VFX Supervisor Dan DeLeeuw.
Following Method’s animation approach to “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” Rocket and Groot were primarily keyframed. While Rocket’s geometry remained the same, Method rebuilt his rig from the ground up, allowing for greater control over his skin and fur. Artists also boosted the specular quality of Rocket’s appearance by augmenting the glint of his fur and adding more lifelike realism to the look of his eyes.
Steele said, “Rocket in this feature is similar to previous versions, just idealized. Rebuilding his rig not only gave animators more control over his movements but also simplified the team’s workflow. A new skin slide system developed in-house enabled them to weight his skin based on shapes, which set the foundation for more realistic fur and lifelike movement. Prior to beginning the project, Method standardized its workflows, keeping assets in the same content creation application, but in a proprietary format, throughout production. This new optimized setup allowed for greater flexibility and faster iteration, for a more productive workflow.
An adolescent in this film, Groot had to be completely recreated as a new asset. Starting with Marvel’s artwork and a two-foot tall maquette, Method artists developed a teenage version of Groot that would look familiar to audiences. The team’s approach to teenage Groot was similar to that of baby Groot, though instead of having a smooth surface, the character is covered in bark-like plating, which allows him to move without appearing rubbery. Roberts’ 15-year old son provided inspiration for Groot’s movements.
“Teenagers have a specific way of walking since they’re growing so fast – their posture hangs and they drag their feet as if their muscles haven’t quite caught up with the speed their body movement. Having footage of adolescent movement for reference was very valuable,” Roberts explained.
The Guardians’ new ship is albatross-inspired in shape and aesthetically reminiscent of a WWII bomber. Extending the general concept art from Production Designer Charlie Wood and the art department, Steele and his team built out a functional design, down to the unique tripod landing gear. To accurately represent the large size of the Guardians’ ship, separate gimbaled flight deck and galley sets were built by production for filming then Method blended shots by swapping out blue screen windows and doorways for the appropriate view. In some cases, artists replaced the practical interior with CG elements to achieve the desired look or camera movement.
For the ship’s exterior, Method initially modeled the craft in a broad daylight environment to hone details and refine its metallic shaders, even though the ship is only pictured in the darkness of space. Artists gave the ship a lived-in feel by weathering the interior and exterior with grease and streaking, careful not to veer into jalopy territory. The ship’s escape pod, which takes Rocket, Groot and Thor to Nidavellir, was also a practical set piece augmented by Method. Artists digitally rebuilt much of the interior, down to the paint chips on Rocket’s chair, to allow for different lighting and more complex camera moves.
Method collaborated with Marvel Studios to create and refine the design of the complicated Nidavellir environment, which has at its center a Dyson sphere with outward oscillating rings lined with solar panels. Method Concept Artist Ming Pan drafted broad stroke designs based on initial concepts from Marvel, which artists used to guide the more detailed build, and physical mock ups used on-set. When dormant, the center looks like an ice-encrusted egg, but when purple plasma inside is activated, energy shines through like a Chinese lantern and powers the Nidavellir forges. The massive environment comprised millions of parts, many of which were moving, and are featured in wide shots.
“We started with a more utilitarian look for the Dyson sphere with metal textures, but that evolved into the Faberge-egg-like design with swoops and scales with venting for a semi-alien look that’s Pennsylvania steel mill-meets-sci-fi. Besides looking good, we also wanted to make sure all of the pieces worked together logically,” noted Steele.
While on Nidavellir, the Avengers team encounters Eitri, the 14-foot tall King of the Dwarves whose hands are encased in Uru. To convey the large scale of Eitri (Peter Dinklage), compared to average stature of Thor (Chris Hemsworth), production filmed separate passes for each actor on the forge set. Sized cutouts helped provide sightlines for the performances, which Method helped blend. Method leads captured extensive data on set, allowing artists to recreate the set down to minute details in CG. Method also created a digital double for Eitri that was used when more complex camera moves were desired, and digitally replaced Eitri’s manacles as the design had changed from production. Additionally, artists added Thor’s eye patch, which is later replaced by a robo-eye – matchmoving and hand animating the face of Hemsworth, who wore facial markers on set.