A few weeks back, Guardians of the Galaxy opened to huge box office numbers, pulling in over $94 million in opening weekend revenue and smashing the all time record for an August debut. The success of Guardians is due in no small part to the film’s digital characters. Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his trusty companion Groot (Vin Diesel) quite frankly steal the show. 2011 Hall of Fame Inductee Laurie Brugger, who worked as lead rigger on the film, says while the trend of fully digital characters taking center stage may feel like an industry shift, Hollywood is actually coming back around to embrace non-human characters as more than supporting roles.
“Fictional stories have always included leading roles for fantastical characters, and films have always moved to reflect this,” she says, “just look at ET! With technology advancing and experience growing, it’s becoming cheaper to do this every year and therefore more appealing to studios. People often ask me why visual effects are becoming ‘more and more expensive’ and I think the opposite is true. They are being used way more, and more decisions are being made during post-production.”
Although Rocket and Groot aren’t human, they’re written to encompass a host of human emotions. This makes them relatable to the audience, but presented a challenge for the animators.
“Part of what makes emotions and expressions readable are wrinkles and landmarks in the face. On a raccoon these are shaped differently or don’t exist and can be almost invisible through long black fur which masks them. This was not only a rigging challenge but a challenge across the board,” says Laurie.
“Lighting and eye direction were troublesome due to the skull shape and dark eyes. No eyebrow bone makes brow expressions difficult to read from multiple directions because the eye cover fold doesn’t squish or collide against anything before it gets to the eyeball.”
So how did Laurie get around these complications? By studying human and raccoon musculature in order to find tiny similarities between species. She also remained true to the character’s ultimate nature.
“Comparative anatomy is always key, and very effective in relation to the actual behavior of the underlying skin and the animation controls to generate lip sync and human expression. And of course identifying and adding animalistic controls and deformations is vital.”
Laurie is thrilled with the movie’s success. “At the end what counts is the storytelling, writing and acting,” she says. “When it’s well received in the public, that’s the cherry on top.”