“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” Production Designer Beth Mickle on Building Rocket’s Epic Spaceship
Production designer Beth Mickle got on the Hollywood radar for her work on Nicolas Winding Refn’s ultra-cool indie Drive and worked her way into the blockbuster realm when her first collaboration with James Gunn, The Suicide Squad, was embraced by both critics and DC fans. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is her third project with Gunn—who has now moved on to co-run DC Studios—and her second in the Guardians universe, after working on The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special in 2022.
For the final film in Gunn’s trilogy, the last that will star the original Guardians, Mickle took on Gunn’s challenge—to build practical sets for the majority of the scenes and help create a tactile world rarely built on this scale for most sci-fi epics or superhero films. With The Bowie, for example, Mickle designed and built the largest spaceship in Marvel history for the film’s heart and soul, Rocket Racoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper). She also expanded Knowhere, a spaceport on the edge of the known universe, to include 20 separate buildings and feel more like a whole city, taking up almost 40,000 square feet.
The key was to bring reality to the emotionally poignant story of Rocket’s tragic personal history, which is the heart and soul of Gunn’s bittersweet finale. The Credits got the details on Mickle meeting Gunn’s ambitious challenge, as she explains how the production design was integral to giving the film its bruised but resolutely unbroken heart.
James Gunn wanted a realistic core to his third and final Guardians film. What did that mean to you in terms of balancing the very diverse environments visually and keeping the look, as a whole, grounded?
The way we approached the design was to keep them grounded in a way so just about everything that you see and every set that we land in where we’re at eye level we built so that it actually feels tangible. These are materials that are vaguely familiar, like the Orgoscope, which is flesh and bone. It’s still an otherworldly, outlandish, and heightened realism because we’re creating a planet, but it’s made of these materials you wouldn’t normally think of in that capacity.
The sprawling spaceport Knowhere is one example of those gorgeous practical sets, and it took up almost 40,000 square feet. How did you build that world using what you guys dubbed “Space Deco”?
We filled a 40,000 square-foot stage and built up to four stories high, and then there are absolutely beautiful visual effects extensions added on. So, when you’re looking up at the sky or when you’re looking at those few cracks between buildings, the effects team did a beautiful job extending the sets. But when you’re spinning around that whole opening tracking shot with Rocket, when you’re at eye level, just about everything that you’re seeing is a real built surface. We built the Boot of Jemiah, the bar where Rocket finds Quill, and the armory, all of which were connected to that big main street that we built. We wanted the walls and spaces to be textured and layered, keeping it in the vein of the Guardians’ aesthetic. If you look at Guardians 1 and 2, there are just beautiful layers and graphic textures, all on top of one another, so how could we do that but also still not completely blow our budget?
How did you?
We became really resourceful and went to hardware stores and sourced whatever we could, including from Home Depot, including air conditioning vents, big hoses, and strange geometric plating for floors and garages. We brought all of it into the art office to figure out how we could arrange things, multiply them out, and give them a good paint finish. Suddenly, it started to feel like something that could be from another world. And you’d be amazed when you pile enough of these things on top of each other and give them wild finishes, whether it’s wild colors or rust, how quickly you get to a layered surface that starts to feel like something otherworldly.
The new Guardians spaceship, The Bowie, was built with 3 floors and has the largest cockpit in MCU history. What was the inspiration for the interior, and what were some of the challenges of that build?
The interior was very much drawn from the lines of our exterior. Because Rocket built it, I wanted to reference something that felt heavy and muscular, like a power tool, so we pulled a bunch of power tool shapes. I sat with our wonderful concept artist, Fausto De Martini, and looked at which shapes could work best, and we ended up coming up with the circular saw. If you look at the body of the exterior, you can actually really see it’s a circular saw. It had this great pointed front to give it that nose where the cockpit is, and the rest was very much drawn from the circ-saw.
What about the medical bay, which is such an integral part of the story?
The med bay, where we spend most of our time with Rocket, is a big, beautiful circular space. The machinery and the medical equipment around him are all big, beautiful, concentric circular pieces. You go out into the central core where they spend a lot of time, a lot of choreography, and that’s a big circular core with spiral staircases. The hallways are all circular. That really helped to steer what the interior was going to be. The massive challenge for us was that it ended up needing to be ready on day one of the shoot, which only gave us 16 weeks to build it from start to finish—it really should have been a 22 or 24-week build. Our amazing construction crew, led by Chris Snyder and scenics by Damon Bowden, literally did 50 or 60 days straight to get it done. We were literally putting finishing graphics onto the cockpit at 6 am on the morning of day one of shooting. It was enormously challenging for that reason.
In the flashback scenes with Teefs, Lylla, Floor, and Rocket, what were some of the directives for that environment?
I don’t know how much of this is known, but James did cast actors for each of the baby animals, and we actually built a proxy cage to human scale that we had on our motion capture stage. We figured out exactly what the scale would be for humans, and it was four times the size of what we built onset for the baby animals, so we could have each of those characters in their mo-cap suits lay in the cages, in the same configuration that the animals do for all of those scenes. A lot of what drove the layout and design of that was James’s storyboards. He really saw that scene in his head many months before we shot it. It’s pretty amazing to see the visionary gifts that a director like James has. He can be so specific and say, “The lock on the door needs to be on the left side because that’s where I want Rocket to swipe the door, and I want him to open it left to right so that the door lands on the right side, so we see the High Evolutionary behind him.” It’s phenomenal the specificity of the choreography he knows in his head.
— James Gunn (@JamesGunn) May 1, 2023
— James Gunn (@JamesGunn) May 4, 2023
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is in theaters now.
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Featured image: Beth Mickle behind the scenes of Marvel Studios’ GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 3. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. © 2023 MARVEL.