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Film set building Part One – Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy - spacecraft interior

In the first of two features looking at physical set-building in the modern film industry, KFTV talks to Scott Chambliss, production designer on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2.

Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy sequel was based at Pinewood Atlanta Studios in Georgia – since revealed as the most popular city for US films – and physical set-building was a huge component of the production schedule.

Chambliss worked with director James Gunn on the design of the movie, adding to a CV that includes three JJ Abrams films – Mission: Impossible III, Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness.

“Most directors I work with want to have as many practical sets as possible to help ground these otherworldly stories in something accessible and real,” Chambliss tells KFTV. “I’ve yet to meet the director who revels in working solely in a blue screen or green screen environment.”

Chambliss and his team spent about six months preparing the physical sets for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2. “My involvement in projects of this scale can be anywhere between 13 and 18 months,” he says.

One of the biggest sets built for the movie was for an immense spacecraft called the Eclector, a vessel with an industrial feel which is home to a gang of villains. The set was built in multiple sections that could be reorganised and reattached.

“This is something we do often and the key to success with this approach is to create a library of versatile elements in a coherent language,” Chambliss says. “All of the interior Eclector sets were created in this manner and by the end we were able to fabricate entirely new environments with elements from the sets we already shot.”

Guardians of the Galaxy - spacecraft interior

While a lot of standard building materials – wood, steel and glass – went into the design of the Eclector sets, sculpted and painted foam is frequently used to construct ‘natural’ landscapes and fantasy settings, and this was no different for Guardians.

The material was a major component of the alien planet ‘built’ by character Ego, the father of hero Peter Quill, including his elegant pod-like spacecraft (below) and the ‘rock’ surface of the world itself (see bottom). 

Guardians of the Galaxy - foam pod

Hollywood movies now routinely expand physical sets with visual effects in post-production, enabling a sense of scale to be achieved in a more practical way.

“It is my job as production designer to come up with the design concepts within the film in collaboration with the director,” says Chambliss. “The visual effects supervisor works with us to manifest the digital contribution to the worlds we are creating. All concept artwork that initiates the conceptual development of a film originates in the art department under my supervision.

“With the standard resources most of the big movies I work on provide, we design the entire look of the film in the pre-production phase. When shooting is completed and the art department closes, the visual effects team has all the information necessary to complete the design of the film. Unless of course major changes are made in post-production.”

A central challenge of this co-operation between building sets using physical and digital means can be getting the technology to communicate effectively. 

Guardians of the Galaxy - foam planent

“Software programmes that we employ don’t always interact well with each other,” Chambliss says. “This can cause work having to be done twice in the worst-case scenarios.”

Digital sets are becoming more common in big-budget filmmaking, with Jon Favreau having had great success with a largely computer-generated environment in The Jungle Book. James Cameron and his team pioneered the technology with Avatar and look set to continue doing so with multiple sequels.

However, Favreau still used small sets for The Jungle Book – built for very specific shots and angles – and Cameron used basic topographical reference points for his actors while filming in his performance capture ‘volume’ for Avatar.

“It’s too soon to predict the utter demise of practical set-building as in many significant ways it remains the most efficient and economical approach to creating a movie environment,” Chambliss tells KFTV.

“But I think we won’t be seeing the days of epic physical set-building as seen in the 1960s version of Cleopatra again anytime soon.”

To read about set building on Alien: Covenant click here.

Images courtesy of Scott Chambliss