How ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ Brought Rocket Raccoon and Groot to Life

Director James Gunn tells TheWrap of the very special dancing he did to help animate the two characters

Rocket and Groot
Marvel Studios / Disney

An off-kilter genre film veteran, James Gunn had a very clear mission for “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Though it was his first studio franchise movie, Gunn aimed to avoid translating the little-known Marvel title into a typical tentpole action film, steering clear of gritty origin story trappings that turn its spandex-clad musclemen into tragic, existentially tortured victims of their own power.

“There are a lot of those movies that are really boring to me,” Gunn told TheWrap earlier this week. “There are a lot of movies out there that try to be dark and brooding, when they just seem like they’re putting on — it’s sort of pretentious. And I think this movie is sort of a reaction to that. This movie is edgy, certainly, but I would not call it dark and brooding.”

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Mission accomplished. “Guardians” is deeply irreverent, featuring a soundtrack and story dominated by 70’s pop songs, running jokes about “Footloose” and Kevin Bacon, and nods to alien sex threaded throughout a fast-paced space adventure. But what really separates the movie from franchise clones is its emotional heft. While “Guardians” leads with the broken family storyline of its protagonist, wise-cracking Peter Quill (played by Chris Pratt), even Gunn suggests that the glue of the team is found in the shady past — and angry future — of acid-tongued bounty hunter Rocket Raccoon and his tree buddy, Groot.

Voiced by Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel, respectively, Rocket and Groot are genetically modified outcasts who become reluctant heroes; think of Rocket as Han Solo’s personality being injected into Ranger Rick, with Groot as his leafy Chewbacca. Already this summer, we’ve seen animated characters take center stage in a live action film, but the advanced motion capture technology that turned Andy Serkis into a soulful monkey statesman in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” wasn’t feasible for Gunn and his team, which made the challenge of perfecting Rocket and Groot — and making us care about a raccoon and a tree — all the more daunting.

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“Rocket and Groot have faces that are very different from human beings’ faces, so motion capture wouldn’t really work,” Gunn explained, thereby dashing dreams that filmmakers could train a real raccoon to wear a leotard and advanced computers while performing choreographed stunts (though they did study a raccoon on set).

That said, Rocket and Groot did have some human influences, including Gunn’s brother Sean, who “played” the role in a performance capture suit alongside the human actors as they shot.

“We could use references and use those as a template for what they did,” he said. “So with the character of Rocket, for instance, we shot everything that Sean did on set, and we also shot every line that Bradley said, and we could use every element we wanted. We could use something that Sean did, which we did a lot, and we could use something that Bradley did, which we also did a lot. And if we didn’t have that, then I just filmed myself doing what I wanted Rocket to do, and sent it directly to the effects guys.”

So when you see the little badass raccoon firing heavy weaponry and lashing out in intoxicated rage, that could be derived from the actions of an Oscar-nominated actor, one of the two brothers Gunn, or an expert animator who spent inconceivable amounts of time getting the attack just right.

Marvel Studios/Disney
Marvel Studios/Disney

“We have a lot of effects artists who are very talented actors, for lack of a better word, and they were able to create whole elements of Rocket and Groot that they just came up with in their own heads,” Gunn said. “One of the joys and one of the difficulties of creating these characters is that there are a lot of people involved. But it also gives you the freedom to do endless takes until you get exactly what you want.”

That included endless takes from Diesel, who spent days in the studio giving a voice to the charming humanoid tree with a tiny vocabulary. Gunn estimates that the actor delivered thousands of takes of the same three words: “I am Groot.”

“Vin is somebody who would go in there and he would keep going and going and going, and it would take me a long time, but I would eventually be like, ‘I’m happy with that Vin, OK, we can go to the next,’” Gunn recalled, laughing, “and Vin would be going, ‘One more, one more, one more, one more.’”

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Diesel was also recorded by video cameras while he delivered his line(s), giving artists a mountain of a man to reference for the task of animating the tree.

In some sense, “Guardians” feels like a glorious put-on, as if some mischievous acidhead re-wrote the script of a typical blockbuster, filled it with throwback pop culture references and insane characters, and then Marvel just shrugged and made the movie anyway. For the most part, the studio has prioritized the growing Universe’s needs and aesthetic continuity over the specific quirks of any one director, but “Guardians” is very obviously a movie made by Gunn, who once worked at schlock-house Troma, went on to direct horror-comedy “Slither” and followed up with the 2011 dark superhero send-up comedy “Super,” both of which had rough times finding audiences.

Both experiences, he said, taught him lessons that he took into making the exponentially bigger “Guardians.”

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“In ‘Super’ I was very specifically speaking to a smaller audience, and in this movie I’m very specifically speaking to a larger, more international audience,” Gunn said. “So I think part of me is, I have to feel what the audience is. And I also have to feel what part of myself is telling the story. And ‘Super’ was just a different part of myself. And truly, ‘Super’ was a movie that I loved and believed in, but it was also a script that I wrote in 2002, so I was sort of reflecting, telling the story of an earlier self of mine. And this movie I wrote and immediately went into directing it, so the story I think was a lot more present and a lot more relevant to who I am today in a lot of ways.”