Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3 has some of the most extensive practical sets of any Marvel Cinematic Universe film, and they all feel amazingly vast and creative. The movie has the largest ship built for any MCU production with The Bowie, which was used for this installment and The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special where it was introduced.
Speaking to Awards Radar on Zoom, production designer Beth Mickle discussed some of the challenges of building a set of this scale, alongside The High Evolutionary’s [Chukwudi Iwuji] ship, the Orgosphere and the main Knowhere set.
Read the full conversation below:
You’ve previously collaborated with James Gunn on The Suicide Squad. For Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3, and The Holiday Special, how did your partnership with him evolve this time around?
It was great getting to work with James on The Suicide Squad, and I feel like we found a good rhythm of working together. I feel like I got a good sense of the aesthetics he enjoys and leans into the most. I was able to bring that with me onto Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol.3, and carry a lot of that knowledge on with me, giving us a shorthand. It’s nice when you can reach a shorthand with a director, and I feel like I had a better sense of what to bring to him and how early to bring him into the process as we were starting to formulate ideas. The trust and room he gives his creative department heads are special and lead to some really fun collaboration for all of us.
How extensive was the process of designing the main Knowhere set, where the start of this movie and The Holiday Special takes place?
Far and away, this was one of the biggest undertakings of the movie and one of the most exciting undertakings. We began to sketch out the whole downtown world and the main street of Knowhere in 2018, and the script did not change much between 2018 and 2021. We had the beats and choreography for all of the big fight scenes laid out. We had an idea of where we wanted each big outpost to anchor the set. The process of designing it was really great. The entire design process took about six months when we went back to the 2018 rough layout that we had, and we started building each of the anchors up: the armory and the apartment complex where [Peter] Quill [Chris Pratt] and Rocket [Bradley Cooper] lives. It was wildly exciting to get each set designer in there to flesh out the architecture for each of those structures. Our wonderful art director Samantha Avila took the plans and ran with them wonderfully. She had loads of amazing materials to look at. Watching it all come to life as the construction and seating team pieced it together was a wild experience. By the end, it felt like we’d created this sprawling four-story theme park, which was really exciting to get actually to do that from the ground up. It’s an amazing process right after you’re done shooting it just a few weeks later. The buildings are down, and the dirt gets swept out. And six weeks later, it’s back to an empty stage.
Was it important for this film in particular that this set and most of the sets would be as practical as possible?
Yes, that is very much the main filmmaking style that we tried to run with here. James loves working with physical set pieces, physical walls around us when we’re shooting, having all that three-dimensionality right in front of the frame, and not having to put it in later in the post-production process. He believes, and I’m very much on the same belief, that a physical set in place is really important. I think it looks better, and it’s better for the actors not to be in a blue screen environment where they don’t know their surroundings. The performances are better; you get interactive lighting on set pieces and frames. It ends up feeling much more authentic. You’re asking the audience to go on this wild journey with you, and I think they go on it more easily when you have these physical set pieces there.
Can you give some insight on how The Bowie was designed? How did you want to differentiate it from the previous Guardians spaceship?
Yes, we wanted it to be a new idea, design-wise, while still keeping the Guardians of the Galaxy aesthetic. We took a look at all of the spaceships that Marvel has done over the years. They’ve done some incredible spaceships. A lot of shapes had already been touched up, so we tried to come up with something original. As far as spaceships go, in the MCU, it’s quite a challenge. But for this one, we were really excited. We wanted the ship to feel a bit heavy-duty, and mechanical. We ended up landing on the circular saw. You could see it in the design of the body that it has all those lines and shapes. Once we landed on these two disks that were sandwiched together, it felt like we haven’t seen anything like this before. Once we put the cockpit on it we started playing with how those discs could interact together. Does that make the ship go faster? Do they spiral and make the ship move in a specific way? Once we started to see the ways that these could work as wings, we realized that they could fly in original ways that we haven’t seen before. We wanted these spaces to interconnect. Whenever you’re in one room, you could always see two to three more spaces beyond that one. You had to have a lot of depth of field. I’m glad we built it the way we did because all that depth was right there in the camera.
In terms of designing Orgocorp and the Orgosphere, were there any main inspirations that came into crafting how it would ultimately look like?
Yes, we looked at a lot of surgical references, to see bone texture, color and the porosity of bones. We talked a lot about that. For the flesh, I think it was our art director Lorin Flemming, who said the following. We were trying to figure out what the flesh could look like, and she said, “If you think about the inside of your cheek and if you look at it, there’s a rosy pink color with a glistening surface where you can see some some veining in there.” And so at some point, we’re all walking around the office and trying to look inside each other’s cheeks and see what the finish was. Lorinn was absolutely right, it was very much what the the flesh we ended up going for was in that color palette and in that texture. [laughs] That was a lot of what the research was, and then it was trying to figure out how to put all those materials in those really restricted colors together in a way that felt architectural and graphic. We still wanted it to feel beautiful, even though there are some somewhat grotesque elements that we were dealing with. One of James’s themes that he loved from The Suicide Squad and carried over into Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3 was that things that can be ugly and beautiful at the same time. I really feel like we ended up nailing that very well with Orgocorp.
A good chunk of the movie takes place on The High Evolutionary’s ship. Can you first talk about how you designed his throne room where Quill and Groot [Vin Diesel] battle him out?
Very interestingly, we had gone down a few paths with that set. Earlier designs saw that we were more geometric and angular, like the exterior of the ship. However, every time we stepped back and looked at those earlier designs, the lines kept feeling just too similar to the Dark Aster and to some of the Guardian sets that have come before us. So we decided to put more of a curved shape into this set, and let it be something that’s a little bit of an outlier from some of the other spaces within that ship. That ended up working beautifully with that big window that overlooks all of Counter-Earth. We put some mullions to give it a bit of a graphic element, and then decided to kind of make it almost like a ceiling, which visual effects extended beautifully. I love the idea that The High Evolutionary’s throne floats down from above, and you don’t really see where it’s anchored from. However, you get a sense that it has a bit of a levitation to it. Once we started to play with some of those swirling lines, the set came together nicely. However, by that point in the process, we were only left with about eight to ten weeks to draw it and build it, which is a really tight timeframe. We were still doing paint touch-ups the night before it was shooting. It was right down to the wire.
This space feels a lot more open and elaborate compared to this confined location where The High Evolutionary experiments on Rocket during the during some of the flashbacks. Was it important to set these two environments apart, even if we are in the same location?
Great question. In his throne room, we wanted it to feel like he was sitting out and overlooking his domain. But the basement was where he did his experimental work, and it wasn’t anything like the throne room. That was for him and his creations. That was something that we wanted to almost feel locked away about it. Nefarious deeds that are happening down there. We wanted it to be tucked away and hidden away from the world. It was nice to be able to kind of separate a very dark and confined and secretive room to something big, exposed, open and bright.
Were there any overall challenges in designing The High Evolutionary’s ship or even something else from the film?
I would say that the biggest challenge was The Bowie spaceship, because that ended up falling forward on day one of the shoot. Something like that usually takes about 20 to 24 weeks to build and to do justice to something that big. Once we had nailed down our design, we were only left with about 16 weeks. The construction team was amazing. It was a really big gauntlet for everybody to run through to try to get to the finish line on that. We were still putting graphics on the spaceship and in the pilot bay at 6 AM the morning of the shoot. It was really down to the wire. We ended up making special set gifts for the team that finished it, because it was just such an extraordinary thing that they pulled it off with so little time.
And is there anything that you’ve designed for this film that you’re the proudest of?
I would also say that this is the spaceship, because it’s the biggest spaceship that Marvel has ever had, and the most interconnected interior that they’ve ever built for a spaceship. That was very exciting to be a part of that and to ensure that it that was our vision carrying through. There are so many things that we much pride over. The revisit to Knowhere, and Orgocorp, which is a world that it’s so nice to see audiences now react to it. People are so positive about it. At the time, we were all very aware of it being a roll of the dice. We don’t know if audiences are going to take it or enjoy it. I have to give my hats off to Lorin Flemming and then also to James for really sticking to his guns, no pun intended [laughs]. From the moment we built it, he said “I think audiences are gonna love this.” And we did the right thing by doing it the way we did.
I will say that as, an audience member myself, I think the Orgocorp scene is my favorite part of the film, and my favorite design as well.
Oh, thank you for that. I also have to give a shout out to Stephane Ceretti and Susan Pickett on the VFX front. My goodness. What they did with those surfaces, especially when they land on the exterior for that hilarious scene when they’re on the rainbow suits, and they’re jumping all over the place, it’s absolutely phenomenal. You can see the big, organic fleshy rings behind them and outerspace, with all of the golden bubbles of liquid. It was the most realistic set you could possibly be on. It was in outerspace and all made of meat, and they did such a beautiful job.
Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3 is now playing in theatres everywhere.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]