‘Guardians’ visual f/x supervisor Stephane Ceretti: ‘This is my ‘Star Wars”

Is Oscar-nominated visual effects supervisor Stephane Ceretti (“Guardians of the Galaxy”) nervous for the big show? Nah. After all, the hard part's already over.

“I was nervous before when I was supposed to do something about it, you know,” Ceretti told me during a recent sit-down to discuss his first-ever Academy Award nod. “Like when I had to do a presentation at the [studio]. That makes you a bit nervous. But then once it”s done there”s nothing more I can do really.”

Indeed, the Marvel tentpole was a daunting task for the French-born Ceretti, who cut his teeth on films ranging from the last two “Matrix” films to “X-Men: First Class” but had perhaps never taken on a project as effects-heavy as “Guardians.” By his own estimation, “ninety-five” percent of the film features some kind of digital effect.

“When you just get the script, you read it the first time and then you have that sweat coming on your forehead and you go um…where”s the exit?” Ceretti half-joked. Thankfully, he had a great collaborator in director James Gunn, who drew storyboards to give Ceretti and his team a point of reference.

“He had everything in mind,” said Ceretti. “He”s very clear and very prepared. So for us visual effects people it”s very good because the more you”re prepared the more you know what you”re going to have to do. It doesn”t mean that nothing”s going to blow up [behind the scenes] because they always blow up, but it”s just a good way to start.”

A major part of the challenge for Ceretti came with crafting team members Groot and Rocket Raccoon, two animated characters whose seamless integration with their live-action counterparts was a crucial element in selling the story.

“I think [the hardest part of my job] was just getting the [animated] performances to work with the actors as well,” he told me. “Getting the group to look like a real group of people and having the [audience] not even to think about it, you know.  Getting it right, you know.  James says –- he always said I don”t want them to look like Bugs Bunny in the middle of 'The Avengers.'”

So which of the two characters was the most difficult to pull off?

“I would say Rocket as the most difficult obviously, because there”s so much acting so you want to get it right and there”s lots of emotions,” he told me. “You know when he gets drunk, all that stuff. It”s all very difficult. And also, you know, the way we did the movie we had two [visual effects] companies – MPC and Framestore doing Rocket and Groot at the same time because that was so much work and so little time we had to share it. So getting the two companies to match the look and the acting and all that stuff was actually harder with Rocket because of the fur and also the amount of emotion, all the very specific – the formation of the face and the mouth and everything. That was a challenge.”

As I noted to Ceretti in the room, Groot and Rocket are crucial in selling the emotional component of the film, making the realistic evocation of their “humanity” all the more important. Not surprisingly, the key to accomplishing this lay in the eyes.

“We added a little bit of white on the sides just to get a sense of where he”s looking at.” he said of Rocket specifically.  “Just to get that kind of eye direction. Also getting a little bit of wetness in the eyes.  All that stuff that makes an eye look more real and also make you feel like there”s something in there.  …And Rocket goes through so many different kinds of emotions, you know.  He”s making fun of people.  He”s getting annoyed.  He”s almost crying.  He”s crying actually at the end, you know.  It has all that stuff that goes on and we had to have the right range of things.”

For Groot, too — particularly given the humanoid tree's rather limited vocabulary — the eyes were hugely important in bringing him to life.

“The eyes were very important because again, you need to relate to him,” said Ceretti. “And we made them slightly bigger and we worked a lot on the way they move, the way the eyelids made of wood are moving.  Also getting the right amount of wetness and all that stuff in the eyes was very important.”

Unlike Groot, Rocket's mouth region was also a hugely important facet of the character to get right. Included in that equation? One very specific and personal detail requested by Gunn himself.

“One thing that not a lot of people know — one of the teeth from Rocket…he”s got a snaggletooth which is actually the same tooth as James” dog,” Ceretti told me. “He wanted to add that so we had to have a little bit of that snaggletooth and having the lips just touch it and move a little bit.”

Win or lose on Oscar night, Ceretti is living a dream — one he set out to achieve after viewing films like “E.T.,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and, especially, “Star Wars” as a child.  

“You know, when people ask me 'oh, why don”t you want to go and do a 'Star Wars' movie,” said Ceretti with a twinkle, “I say — 'well, this is my 'Star Wars.'”