“The Marvel process is clean cut,” says David White, Guardians of the Galaxy’s special effects makeup designer and head of Altered States FX. “It’s a very lean machine, which works very well.” And the lean machine has indeed worked well, once again producing a big fat winner. The movie completely exceeded expectations, earning $94 million at the box office, and was critically labeled as zany, brainy, and bold. It’s the biggest box office debut in August ever—not bad for a movie about an odd team of underdogs based on a lesser-known comic.
White is no stranger to the Marvel operation. He first worked with the studio sculpting the look of Red Skull, the aptly named villain from the first Captain America movie, followed by prosthetic work on Thor: The Dark World. But Guardians of the Galaxy is his most ambitious work yet. Working with director James Gunn, he created the tangible, high-concept looks for Gamora, Drax, Nebula, Yondu, Korath, and the film’s numerous aliens. “I’ve been fortunate to have been around the Marvel world for a little while,” White says. “I like to think my own artwork and style has worked well within the universe.”
As the film’s hero Peter Quill darts around the cosmos, the physical makeup effects are as much on show as his intergalactic cassette tape and Troll doll. Practical effects are a huge part of Gunn’s nostalgia-tinged blend of sci-fi and comedy. “James always pushed for practical and makeup effects,” White says. “He wanted, like me, to see the real deal there on set.” As such, Guardians is a natural extension of Slither, Gunn’s lauded 2006 movie about an alien plague that mutates humans into a variety of distinct B-movie monsters. “There is a retro hint in the designs,” White says of Guardians’ characters. “I was very careful not to use modern creature design influences that could have fallen short in the unique world James Gunn had envisioned.” The work started months in advance of shooting, as White took head and body casts of the actors to experiment with materials used to create the characters. But in the end, Gunn was responsible for their appearances.
“James had very specific ideas and I would give an interpretation of what I thought would work,” White says. “Ultimately, it’s down to what the director wants to see: He needs to go through that process of testing ideas to see how they read in the world he wants to create.” For example, Drax, played by Dave Bautista, has raised, red tattoos covering the entirety of his grey skin. Bautista's body was molded, sculpted, and turned into 18 pieces that would then be reattached to his body. “The colors were very important,” White says. “Drax has all sorts of colors, brushed, splattered, and sponged.” The pieces of greens, yellows, and reds helped create a unique tone and keloid scarring, which took a team of five people five hours a day to apply. Other characters, like Gamora, Zoe Saldana's warrior princess, had minimal prosthetics but also relied heavily on color. “We knew she was going to be green, but the final green needed many tests to crack the exact right tone,” White says. “Like all the cast, the color is multi-layered and has no less than three complimentary tones running through it. Similarly, Korath, the intergalactic hunter with cybernetic parts, played by Djimon Hounsou, had minimal prosthetics in order to keep the actor's strong features intact. “Luckily, they all stayed the same from their original conception,” White says of the designs.
Altogether, Guardians of the Galaxy used well over 1,000 prosthetic makeup applications and over 2,000 molds of yellow, blue, and pink aliens were created. “Looking at creatures in real life helps, but if you were to take some thoughts and ideas too literally it could look very silly,” White says about the movie’s humanoid creatures. “It’s about using key elements of things in the natural world, and putting one’s own twist on it.” He also created a life-sized version of Rocket Raccoon and 3-D bust of Groot for the film. “It’s always nice to see the leading visual effects characters for real and close up to give an idea how the light falls on them and how they look next to actors and in different environments,” he says. “It also helps the actors interact with something on set that’s not just a piece of colored card.”
Despite rumors surrounding Marvel's tight ship, Gunn seems to be happy with his own experience beyond the film's financial success. He is already in the process of writing a sequel, which he’ll also direct. “I am of course happy with all the film has accomplished box-office-wise,” Gunn wrote on his Facebook page. “But what touches me the most is that the film I told the folks at Marvel I wanted to make two years ago is the film that you’re seeing in theaters today—it’s that so many of you seem to be directly EXPERIENCING the film I INTENDED.” Fans of Marvel's ever-growing brand seem to agree.