Before taking the leap into the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s version of outer space, production designer Beth Mickle cut her design teeth on smaller, indie-size projects. Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive and Only God Forgives, Nicholas Jarecki’s Arbitrage, and Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn are but a few of the high-profile projects that eventually led her to work with James Gunn on 2021’s The Suicide Squad and, of course, on this year’s box office hit Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. One would think the vast dichotomy between the worlds of Guardians and Refn’s Drive would prove too great to navigate.
But the indie world trained Mickle on the art of efficiency, something that proved essential in the MCU.
“You want to follow a lot of the same principles. I always feel like I learned my resourcefulness on the smaller movie making. I learned creative thinking creative solutions and the art of being able to work really quickly,” Mickle shared. “That world really got me in the mode of being able to be decisive, being able to follow my instincts with more confidence, being able to read visuals quickly, and being able to know which one to move forward with and move on. I’m always glad to have those skills in my back pocket when I’m doing these bigger movies, which have been a joy. It’s a giant sandbox that kind of has no limits. For a designer, that’s just a thrill.”
In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, the Guardians team up to get to the core of the Rocket Raccoon mystery in an attempt to save his life. The journey carries them across the galaxy to a new world populated by The High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji) who, in an attempt to create a perfect race, experiments with animals in often brutal and devastating ways. The encounters with the High Evolutionary and his menagerie of Humanimals provided Mickle several opportunities to imagine vasts landscapes of enticing visuals without letting the scale of the project get away from her.
In other words, putting those skills honed in the indie world to good use for sure.
Not many audiences would realize that the Guardians’s space ship, the Bowie, required Mickle and team to build the largest interconnected spacecraft constructed for a Marvel film. This set filled a 20,000 square foot soundstage and featured three floors of filming space all built within a 16-week timeline during a . The idea was to give the actors and filmmaking crew a true sense of perspective when engaging with the set. When the camera glances on a space three rooms away, that space is actually three rooms away, not a CGI recreation of a galactic interior.
Filming within the space required additional build-outs to allow for both the actors navigating the interior in addition to the camera and sound teams capturing the action.
“We build platforms and decking all around the spaces that are inside the spaceship. We would remove a wall or a circular panel, and you’d just be out on this deck and run straight over to another section without having to weave through the whole spaceship,” Mickle explained. “There were racks and racks of equipment. Everybody was very careful moving around at all times because we were up three stories at times.”
Another major spaceship belonging to The High Evolutionary did have interiors built, but the exterior needed to be rendered through CGI thanks to events that happen by the end of the film. Mickle and team initially rendered his vessel through a 3D model that was handed off to the visual effects team to bring to life her vision as originally conveyed through Gunn’s screenplay.
Additionally, the design of his ship reflected the character’s obsession with perfection. The exterior features perfectly symmetrical lines and perfect angles giving a clean cut aesthetic. The majority of the interior — including his throne room — also met that sense of perfection with clean lines and swooping angles. It’s only until we see the belly of the ship which houses his varied experiments where the design begins to change.
That sense of visual perfection obviously contrasts with the headquarters of the Guardians on Knowhere, a cobbled together setting that resembles a derelict spaceport. Mickle revealed that the design for Vol. 3’s version of Knowhere is an inspirational nod to Walt Disney World’s Galaxy’s Edge in Hollywood Studios where Disney Imagineers created a world filled with rusty texture layered onto geometric surfaces. Making the design even more complex was the fact that Mickle also needed to pair with stunt choreographers to understand where there would need to be break points in the set. At the beginning of the film, the Guardians are attacked by Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), resulting in significant damage to their Knowhere home base.
But the end of the film sees a character embarking on an Earth-bound quest, bringing Mickle and her design back to a simpler aesthetic.
“It was a very sweet note to be able to end on. We even shot it almost toward the very end of our schedule. So in a way, it really wrapped up the shooting experience as well as the movie in this really beautiful way,” Mickle recalled. “We kept running into modern houses that just didn’t have the right feel. We wanted it to feel very old and loved and lived in and have charm and feel welcoming. We were really lucky when we found that house — the exterior of it, the neighborhood, the beautiful street that ran in front of it, the interior with all the warm wood tones. It even had a really lovely couple, sweet grandparents, that lived there. It worked out really beautifully.”
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is now in theaters nationwide.