Designers of the Galaxy – Christopher Townsend (The VH Interview)

The Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to power on, and in it’s ninth year, the series is currently sixteen films strong. But while praise often goes to the actors portraying these characters, or the directors, like the Russo brothers and James Gunn giving us blockbuster hits like Captain America: Civil War or Guardians of the Galaxy, or even Marvel Studios head producer, Kevin Feige, who masterminds all of these intertwining narratives, sometimes we can forget those working in the background, whose roles are just as important as anyone slapping on an Iron Man costume and shouting “underoos!”

One of those people is Christopher Townsend; a visual effects supervisor who has worked closely with Marvel Studios to bring us the fantastical visuals seen in films like Captain America: The First AvengerIron Man 3Avengers: Age of Ultron and Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2.

With the new Guardians film hitting home entertainment on Monday, I spoke to Chris about what it’s like to be a designer of a galaxy.

As someone whose role consists of bringing a directors vision to screen, how much influence do you have when it comes to designing the spectacular characters we see in Marvel’s universe, like Ego’s planet form for instance?

It’s very much a group collaboration.

We have the production designers, the whole art department and we have the visual development department at Marvel. The director, the producers, myself. Everyone brings something to the table. So I’m a part of that design group.

The visual development department at Marvel generally starts designing things, and then it gets handed over to the production design team. And the production design team take some of those very early sketches that the visual development department does, and then they start working and developing ideas and designs from that.

Once they’ve done all that, that then gets handed to us and that’s our starting point at visual effects, and from there we run with it. Often we’ll find – particularly with Planet Ego – that when we start implementing exactly what we conceived, it doesn’t quite work, so we need to start finessing it.

We had a huge amount of detail – we looked at one of the ideas for Egos planet and tried to create it using it the Mandelbrot technique; to have something organic and mathematical and geometrical all at the same time as if its been grown by another being, in this case Ego, and it’s been almost manufactured.

So that was something that let us really dig into the power of computer graphics to really help define that visual.

Chris Townsend / Picture courtesy of Organic Marketing

What sequences of the film are you most proud of?

I think this film was an incredible journey for all of us, particularly visual effects.

I think 98% of the film has visual effects in it; there’s only 59 out of 2360 shots in the movie that don’t have visual effects. So it’s an incredibly visual effects heavy film, and one of the things that was so wonderful about it was that it was so incredibly varied; everything from working with the characters, like Baby Groot and Rocket, and really having a huge amount of fun with the road to designing these crazy worlds.

I mean it was so wonderful to be able to have such an open playground and to have the free reign from James [Gunn], who had very specific ideas of what he wanted but he was also very open to collaboration.

So we were able to bring our ideas out there. It’s really hard to pinpoint one particular scene to be honest; I think the thing I loved about the film was how incredibly varied it was. It was like Christmas every day, when we were in post-production seeing all these things coming through; it was wonderful.

So designing the planet and the surface of the planet and trying to make that look real was an incredibly difficult challenge, but something which I hope people feel we pulled off. Trying to create something super stylised but also grounded in some reality is always a challenge, so yeah, that’s probably one of the highlights.

The film’s been a big success so I’m sure a lot of people would agree with you.

You spoke about creating worlds – your next Marvel project is Captain Marvel

Correct.

Captain Marvel concept art / Picture courtesy of Marvel Studios

Do you foresee any challenges when building that world?

I can’t say too much about it, obviously. But there are new challenges with every film. So I think, yes, there will be challenges. The wonderful world of Marvel means that every film is part of that cinematic universe, but each movie is unique, and each of the directors and the filmmakers on their film bring something unique to it.

So my job as visual effects supervisor is to work on every film that I work on with a clean and fresh slate, and come into it with a new perspective that is very specific to that film. And having done several Marvel movies, I’m understanding of the Marvel aesthetic, so it’s a nice sort of bridge that I’m able to play around on.

There’s going to be world building of various sorts to do in this one that will be very exciting.

I’m not expecting you to dish all the gossip on the film, but when you move onto a project like this – obviously, Marvel is very secretive, so at the moment, all us fans know is that Captain Marvel is set in the nineties, the Skrulls are the antagonists and Brie Larson will be playing Captain Marvel.

Do you get much forewarning of what you’re going to be working with? Or are you going to have to wait a few years like we are?

I’m not going to have to wait, certainly; I’m going to be part and parcel of the whole development of everything. That’s about as much as, at the moment, we’re able to talk about. All I can I say is I think it’s going to be a very interesting take on things, and it’s going to be really fun – I’m really looking forward to it.

We’re in very early development obviously, as the movie comes out in a couple of years. But I’m in the fortunate position to be on the film from the very beginning right through to the very end; I’m with the directors and the producers, so visual effects is very much part of the process throughout.

Are you a comic book fan?

You know what? Honestly, I’m not. The first movie I did for Marvel [Studios] was Captain America and when I worked on that I actually said to the director, Joe Johnston, “I’m not really a comic book fan” and he was like “That’s fine. That’s totally okay”, because what I think it means is, what I bring to the table – I don’t bring the fans aesthetic and passion, I bring, hopefully, just a film-fans passion to it. So there are many people at Marvel who are obviously huge comic book fans, so we’ve got that bit covered. My job is just to bring a different eye to it, a different sensibility.

I’ve grown to love the comics; I’m inspired by them and I’ve always respected what they’ve tried to do in terms of art and culture and entertainment, but as a kid growing up I wasn’t a huge comic fan, no.

Mark Hamill / Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope / Picture courtesy of Lucasfilm

Not Marvel specific, but Disney brought Star Wars a few years ago as they did Marvel, and you had the honour of working on the original Star Wars, when it was remastered. So how did it feel remastering and editing a film that is, to many, one of the greatest films ever?

I think – obviously it’s a kind of a political minefield going into doing something like that – and I think what George Lucas was trying to do was to bring it up to the standards of the day, back in the late nineties, as opposed to the late seventies.

I was thrilled; obviously it was a film I loved as a kid, so to be working on it was incredible. And to be working on shots that were iconic – there were many shots that I remember sitting at my computer as an artist, and working on these things and thinking ‘I can’t believe I’m doing this; this is amazing! From TV and commercials to Star Wars?! It doesn’t get much better than this’.

So I think it was really amazing to be part of it; I think it was obviously a somewhat controversial thing to remaster it; to remake it. But what it did do, was bring the film to a new body of fans, which I think is a great thing

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 is out on DVD, Blu-Ray and Digital Download from Monday.