Making sure Rocket rocks

Framestore brought Rocket to the big screen with the first Guardians instalment way back in 2014, and have upgraded, aged and re-outfitted him on several different adventures. Vol. 3 demanded no fewer than six iterations, from adorable kit to wide-eyed adolescent seeing his world crumble before him to the hardened, wisecracking trash panda the world knows and loves. “This is Rocket’s story so we knew we had to knock it out the park,” says VFX Supervisor Alexis Wajsbrot. “We took everything into consideration, from his fur and how it changes and grows over time to the way his gait and physiology shift from a kit scampering on four legs to a form that gradually becomes more bipedal.” Beyond movement, biology and morphology Rocket demanded a tremendous amount of emotional depth and nuance. “We’re not just seeing him grow physically, but also shifts in his character and perceptions as events unfold around him,” says Wajsbrot. “That’s where the skill of our animators comes in - being able to convey a world of detail with a subtle change in body language, or a fractional widening of the eyes.” 

Good dog? BEST dog!

While characters like Rocket, Groot, Lylla and Lambshank offered scope for a degree of artistic licence, one of the show’s standout CG cast presented rather different CG characters: Cosmo, the telekinetic space dog.

Voiced by Maria Bakalova, Cosmo’s shift from secondary character in the Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special to top dog meant VFX Supervisor Stephane Nazé and his team knew there’d be nowhere to hide. Using reference footage and photography, the team painstakingly recreated the dog from skeleton up, meticulously focusing on tiny characteristics including fur pattern quirks and barely-perceptible details like scurf, dust and ‘dead’ fur.

Having conjured the perfect photoreal canine, the team’s next challenge was how to balance this true-to-life specimen with the fact that Cosmo talks, interacts with the show’s cast and has the power to move objects with her mind. “As soon as you give an animal human - or superhuman - traits you risk losing any sense of realism,” Nazé explains. “The animation team spent hours and hours researching canine expressions and poses that could equate to human emotions - joy, surprise, curiosity etc. - so as to stay true to what people know and love about dogs while allowing for a subtle and often humorous performance. Since Cosmo ‘talks’ using a speaker device built into her space suit, the team had to combine deft, careful expressions with pitch-perfect timing to deliver a totally believable performance.” 

Hand-in-hand with these efforts came the need to deftly interpret Bakalova’s on-set performance. “The team pored over the plate photography,” says Nazé. “They really drilled into Maria’s moment-by-moment performance, analysing every move and expression so as to imbue Cosmo with her personality and emotion. To me it’s this combination that allowed us to really strike gold with Cosmo: the photoreal detail of the build, the keen observation of true-to-life canine behaviour and then channelling a sense of Maria’s unique, emotional on-set performance.”