Mac Whiting on Rotoscoping the GotG Holiday Special
ComingSoon spoke with lead animator Mac Whiting about creating the animated scenes in The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special with Stoopid Buddy Stoodios. Whiting discussed the rotoscoping process and which character he’d love to animate.
“In The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special, the Guardians, who are on a mission to make Christmas unforgettable for Quill, head to Earth in search of the perfect present,” reads the synopsis. “The Marvel Studios’ Special Presentation stars Chris Pratt, Dave Bautista, Karen Gillan, and Pom Klementieff, featuring Vin Diesel as Groot and Bradley Cooper as Rocket, Sean Gunn and The Old 97’s with Michael Rooker and Kevin Bacon.”
Spencer Legacy: For people who might not know a lot about animation, can you give a brief synopsis of the animation process for these sequences?
Mac Whiting: Absolutely. This particular project was really unique in a lot of ways, as I’m sure you can see by the final product. James Gunn and Marvel reached out initially to do this animated section of the special. They were already intent on doing a rotoscope style. They wanted to harken back to Ralph Bakshi films from the 60s and 70s that utilized that sort of approach. For those of you viewers or listeners that don’t know, rotoscope is essentially the process of drawing on top of live-action footage. The initial process was a test that I animated using some B-roll footage of Yondu from the original Guardians of the Galaxy movie that Marvel provided, and through that process did a lot of exploration of the character design and what the overall style and look would be.
Marvel dug that. In talking with them, we all agreed that the only way to do this authentically was to film the entire sequence in live-action. So they flew Seth Green and Matt Senreich, the co-founders of Stoopid Buddy, and myself out to a Georgia Sound stage, where we got to shoot the sequence with James Gunn, Sean Gunn — who plays Kraglin, and then they had a child actor stand-in for young Peter, which was really cool, obviously an incredible experience. Marvel edited that footage and provided us [with] that edit to base our animation on. Then, at that time, having produced the test, it was clear [that] I was not going to be able to animate this entire thing by myself. So we employed the talents of Studio Moshi in Australia, and they assisted us in the full production of the piece. It was just a really cool, cool experience.
I wanted to ask about Studio Moshi. Was that round-the-clock schedule difficult, since even though no one person is working around the clock, the project is always underway in different time zones?
Yeah, it was unique. This was a labor of love. It was a lot of work. it was a lot of drawing. So I actually found myself staying up till odd hours of the night working on this. So ironically, in some cases, there was an overlap where I was still up in Pacific Standard Time as they were working, but they were incredibly collaborative and were very accommodating with that sort of time. We would have regular check-ins and go over things and give notes and so on and so forth. Then they would go do their thing and then we’d reconvene. So it worked out a lot better than maybe we even anticipated in that regard. It was great working with them.
Did you have any experience with rotoscope animation prior to this?
Not really. I mean, I’ve worked in this for a long time, doing mostly traditional and rig-based animation. I’ve worked on a few live-action commercial hybrid projects where we were animating on top of live-action footage, but it was more animated elements that interacted with live-action things as opposed to a direct copying process, I suppose. It was interesting. It was a little more challenging than I thought because there really is kind of a fine art to rotoscope.
It seems straightforward, like you’re just drawing what you see, but the hardest part is weeding out what details you want to include and what not to, because it is a caricature of this real person or movement. So the test was also really helpful in that regard — figuring out how many frames do I actually need to draw? What things can I cheat? Is this animation going to be key frames on every two frames or three frames? What can we get away with? Then also finding a design that was dynamic enough to represent the characters, but not so complicated that it would be impossible to redraw thousands of times.
You mentioned that it was emulating a Ralph Bakshi style. Were there any specific Bakshi movies that you really looked to for the for the style to help guide you in that?
Yeah, for sure. Growing up, I was a huge fan of the Lord of the Rings film he produced. it’s incredible work. As I got older, I really liked Fire and Ice and American Pop and that stuff. I referred to Fire and Ice more than anything. I just love the Frazetta designs and the movement and everything and the fact that there were characters in there that they based the movement and things on real people, but then had to create new designs and interpret a character design to put on top of the movement. I think it landed somewhere more in American Pop at the end of the day. It’s not quite as full or fluid as that.
It lands somewhere in a cartoonish realm, but still hearkens to that stuff. To that point, one of the harder parts of this was that we had Sean Gunn playing Kraglin there, but this is a flashback sequence. So we actually had to design him as a teenager and sort of de-age him. That was one of the more challenging parts of the process — using his performance and emulating him, but also drawing him as a younger version of himself, which was interesting. Similarly, the actor they had playing young Peter is not the original actor because, of course, that actor — Wyatt Oleff — is now 20-something years old. But James Gunn really wanted us to emulate and try to capture his appearance, so we had to utilize the current actor’s performance, but draw it in the style of the original actor.
That sounds challenging,
Yeah, it was, especially when it’s spread across 10 or 12 artists and you’re trying to keep things consistent and everyone draws just a little bit differently. Again, that’s where that rotoscope … The nuance in the rotoscope is really hard. When you’re spreading across multiple artists to maintain consistency. I think in the end, we did a pretty good job of that.
My favorite scene was Michael Rooker smashing the Christmas tree. He gave such a lively performance. How was it for the team to animate that scene?
Oh my gosh. Well, immediately, you see that scene and everybody wanted to work on it, but you also realize how daunting it is, because that was Rooker on set doing all of that with a fake Christmas tree. You want to honor that and it was so much fun. It was a ton of work, a ton of drawings. I think it turned out really great. Seeing him operate in real life in real time was incredible. That guy is just everything you would hope for and more. He just brought it the whole time.
That last scene is also is really touching, largely to the expressions. So with what you told me about basically drawing two different people for Peter, how did you keep those expressions so intact when rotoscoping?
Thank you for saying that. I think that’s where the artistry and the animation background comes in. You’re trying to emulate the live action performance but also enhance where you can. So we took a few little creative liberties in there. With animation in general or storytelling in general, but especially animation because we’re drawing it, there’s always an emphasis on making sure the audience understands the intent, so there were a few instances where we would push the emotional facial expressions and things of that nature just to ensure that it was clear what was happening. It is such a touching and sweet little story too. Everyone was so thrilled to work on it. We did our best to do it justice.
You’ve also worked on a lot of DC and Warner Brothers animations, so what did it mean to get to play in Marvel’s sandbox a bit? Especially such a different characters than the ones that you guys did with M.O.D.O.K.?
It was a thrill. This was, in many ways, a dream project. I’m a child of the 80s. I grew up with comic books and cartoons. Superhero stuff is a a love of mine. I don’t have a lot of time, personally, to watch a lot of content these days with kids and work and stuff, but I’m always first in line for the superhero stuff. I am definitely a consumer of that. So I love the Guardians franchise. Obviously, James Gunn is [an] incredible talent and brilliant mind. Stoopid Buddy, working with Matt Senreich and Seth Green, the co-founders of that studio, was amazing. As soon as we met, we just hit it off and had a very mutual passion and vision for the piece. So all the building blocks that came together to work on this … Marvel was extremely gracious and supportive of everything we put out there. It was really kind of a perfect storm and a dream come true project, without a doubt.
What was James Gunn’s response like when he first saw the project that you guys had done?
He was heavily involved in the entire process. We did weekly or biweekly reviews. I was showing him character designs. We were showing him in-progress footage constantly. He was the biggest cheerleader of all. He genuinely was super supportive, gave very minimal notes, and was just a great creative collaborator. So it was pretty seamless.
It’s always nerve-wracking to meet someone you look up to and especially appreciate their work so much. I didn’t know quite how it was going to go and it was the best case, most perfect imaginable situation. I think he could tell we were very passionate about it and we were putting our love and care into it and he was extremely supportive the entire time. So that was really cool.
If rights and money were no issue, what character would you personally really love to make an animated feature about?
Oh man, that’s a great question. I’ve had the incredible luxury and pleasure of working on some iconic superhero characters. I’ve gotten to work a little with Batman and do some other stuff on Superman. Eight-year-old me would be freaking out if I knew that this is where my career would take me. One more obscure character, and I know I’ve heard or read that there’s been kind of a fan fervor for this that I think would be really fun to play with in today’s modern society — and I don’t know why I just always love this character, even though he is kind of an unlikeable guy — is Booster Gold.
I just think like playing him like a modern day Jake Paul or something where he’s just an obnoxious d-head who uses social media to puff himself up, but underneath is just a super insecure, wannabe superhero, but giving him some kind of redeemable arc where, in the end, he has to come through and save the world or save some kind of situation, would be pretty fun to play with. So that one’s on my shortlist for sure.