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Legendary Characters Require Legendary Artists
As Bill Joyce tells it, he had many sources of inspiration when he created his book series.

"The backstories for these characters are so unanswered, I was able to take bits and pieces of other mythologies - Greek and Roman, fairy tales, Tarzan - and swish them all together in ways that would fit each story," he recalls.

The resulting drawings that brought life to those backstories were so intricate, elaborate and visually stunning, they provided an invaluable launching pad. "Everything in the film was inspired by the original Bill Joyce mythology, which is fantastical, magical and wonderful," production designer Patrick Hanenberger says - it was important to the filmmakers that "Guardians" have its own look, separate from its literary counterparts.

Hanenberger, who joined DreamWorks Animation in 2004 as a visual development artist ("Over the Hedge," "Bee Movie," "Monsters vs. Aliens") and later served as art director for the TV special "Monsters vs. Aliens: Mutant Pumpkins from Outer Space" prior to his current role on "Guardians," notes, "Because the whole story is based on belief, the audience needs to believe in the veracity of these characters," he says. "That limited us in certain stylistic choices that we wanted to make. If you make something too outrageous or too crazy audiences are just not going to relate to it. If it's too photo real, it's not an animated movie anymore. For us, the big challenge was to find that sweet spot: It's an animated movie that feels as real as it can be."

A step in that direction was the envelope-pushing work done on the complexions of the film's human and human-like characters.

"The way we dealt with skin in 'Guardians' was groundbreaking for the studio," producer Nancy Bernstein says. "Our R&D department worked with a team who formerly worked at Stan Winston's studio and together they built it the way you would build prosthetic skin, that is, in layers. This allowed for translucency, the way real skin responds to light. In the past, light would reflect off it but wouldn't be absorbed by it. We had much more control over the way our characters looked and the way their skin moved. We were also able to add subtle elements such as facial creases, which take the animation up a notch."

Another challenge for the filmmakers was creating six unique environments - one for each of the Guardians and for Pitch - that reflected the personalities of each character, but that made for a unified film when looked at together as a whole.

"Each environment is distinctive, but we made sure Bill Joyce's original style was present throughout," Hanenberger says. "We wanted each of the Guardians to be differentiated by their own color palates. For example, in the North world, there are warm and cool blues and red-grays, with bright red crimson for North himself; in the Tooth Fairy world there's lavender, salmon and preach, accented by Tooth's iridescent turquoise. Our color palates were inspired by traditional turn-of-the-century children's book illustrations done in pencil and watercolor because they evoked a feeling of nostalgia.

"We also felt the need to have six different environments to give the movie an international appeal," he continues. "We didn't want the story to take place in a fantastic place that no one recognized. It couldn't be in outer space, it couldn't be on another planet, it had to be on Earth."

Not surprisingly, the team was inspired by real-world locations.

"Since North is a Russian Cossack warrior, we looked at Russian architecture such as the Kremlin," art director Max Boas says. "His home in the North Pole is a giant wooden fortress. He's a gung-ho, untamable wild guy, so we wanted his architecture to be very masculine and strong. His home is built by interlocking wood pieces, a bit like the game Tetris. There's no glue, no nails, it's just wood jammed together like a big puzzle piece."

For Tooth Fairy's palace, located in Southeast Asia, the team turned to Thai architecture.

"It's very bird-based and has a lot of wing and beak motifs," Boas says. "Tooth is amazingly complex and a really fast communicator. Since she stores the baby teeth of all mankind, she's basically a librarian, so we wanted her environment to have the sense of a library," he says. "There's tons of detail everywhere: carvings, mosaics and wall murals, because it's all about communication and visual information. It's the most visually overwhelming of all the locations because it fits her personality best.

"Her palace is made up of giant columns that represent the continents of the world," he continues. "Within those continents are rings that are organized by country, state, city, street, and house, and within that are millions of little boxes in which the fairies store the teeth. It's all organized, color coded and really beautiful."

Pitch's dark dungeon was motivated by classical Venetian architecture and, in fact, the production design team placed it beneath Venice, Italy.

"Think of an ancient palace that sunk into the ocean floor, surrounded by mud and rock," Boas says. "That's Pitch's home. His whole environment is built at an angle and it feels like it's falling off a cliff into an abyss. In addition, it has negative elements from all of the Guardians' respective worlds. For example, he has a globe, just like North does, to keep track of the belief of the world's children, but it's colored grey and black."

In complete contrast to the architecturally significant domains of North, Tooth and Pitch, Easter Bunny's garden home is an underground oasis where all life originates. Bunny lives there with giant sentinel eggs, ancient stone sculptures that come to life when invaders intrude, as well as magic eggs, which, on Bunny's order, march out on little feet into the world and become the eggs found during Easter egg hunts.

"Bunny's environment is very understated," Hanenberger says. "It's basically rocks, grass and trees but it suits his personality and reflects what he's all about, that is, to protect nature. Since his home is the birthplace of nature, we designed a shrine environment after doing a lot of research on old temples, forest spirits, hieroglyphs and ancient carvings. It's only featured briefly in the movie but it's actually my favorite world."

To bring dreams to the world every night, Sandman doesn't need an elaborate home base, either. He lives on a Dream Cloud right between night and day and travels with the sunset.

"Think of him as navigating an ocean of clouds," Hanenberger says. "If you're on a red-eye flight to the East Coast at sunset and you see that last little bit of sunlight hitting the clouds, you should look outside for Sandman, because that's where he would be."

And then there's Jack Frost. He's an Earth-bound vagabond and, unlike the Guardians or even Pitch, he doesn't have a place to call home - although something keeps drawing him back to a small town: Burgess, Pennsylvania.

"Jack has a magical connection with that town but he doesn't know why," Hanenberger says.

The filmmakers made an intentional contrast between the all-American human town and the global feel of the Guardians' dominions.

"To ground the human world in reality, we built it fairly flat so when the audience sees the Guardians' various realms, they're beholding really breathtaking stereo moments, which emphasize the magic of their worlds," Boas says.

When viewing Burgess scenes, Ramsey notes, "We wanted to see some of the grit. We wanted to feel the atmosphere. We didn't want to feel like we were watching some kind of Christmas card."

The "Guardians" team set out to use Tru 3D - standard in all DreamWorks Animation films - in an organic way that was integral to the story, not as a stunt or an afterthought.

"The use of 3D was never discussed as a gimmick, ever," notes producer del Toro. "We wanted to create a world that was different from any other 3D animated movie that we have seen. The movie takes a lot of risks and succeeds in texture, color, lighting, and cinematography."

"3D is an integral part of the process," notes producer Bernstein, "Our goal was to use it as another tool to enhance our storytelling. From the very beginning, we envision every aspect of the film in stereo. Every decision regarding the film's design, camera placement and movement, as well as animation and visual effects is made after reviewing the work in 3D."

"We were constantly thinking about 3D in our production design," Hanenberger agrees, "creating spaces that would look interesting in 3D and then trying to find a rhythm throughout the story: How do these sets tie into the overall stereoscopic kind of motif of the movie?"

"The challenge presented in a 3D film is how to assimilate the effects into the story, and to be aware when composing a shot how it might be enhanced by 3D," says Visual Consultant Roger Deakins. "The film has a sense of wonder and magic to it that 3D is very much a part of."

Adds del Toro: "Jeffrey Katzenberg is a huge believer in animation as a medium to tell big stories with big canvases. He has a vision for 3D, for the expanse and scope of the movies. The stories we tell are meant to be told in a big way. They're not meant for the small screen, so we go for huge vistas, big moments, big movements, big characters. But at the same time, we populate that with moments of grace and intimacy and relationships that are even beyond what a live-action movie can do. We're not emulating any other film. We tend to use the medium to the max."

"Our movie is the biggest, most dramatic film DreamWorks Animation has ever done," Hanenberger says. "It's a giant, epic story that needs to be supported with giant, epic visuals. We had to do justice to this powerful story."

"You often hear live-action movies being called 'visual effects extravaganzas.'" says Bernstein, ""Guardians" is every bit as visually complex and sophisticated as those films. I believe that what makes our film different is the artistic use of effects in the development of the characters; the visual effects are seamlessly integrated into our characters and help define their personalities. Jack Frost's power over wind and frost reflect his mood. Sandy's dream creations display his playful and gentle nature. Pitch is able to corrupt dreams and create brand new nightmare characters which are literally a combination of visual effects and animation. We were careful to strike a balance where the visuals would support the characters and not overwhelm the story."

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