James Gunn’s recent elevation from director and professional fan to co-head of DC Studios alongside Peter Safran surprised (and angered) many within the fandom. But the director’s creative collaborators at animation house Stoopid Buddies Stoodios – actors Seth Green and Matthew Senreich – think Warner Media made a smart choice. “I’m so excited for whatever comes next,” Green tells Yahoo Entertainment. “They love it so much and they know how to do things so well. Something great is coming.”
Both Green and Senreich take care to note that Gunn never tipped on his promotion when they worked together on the animated flashback segments featured in Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special – the recent Christmas-themed prelude to the trilogy’s crowning achievement GOTG vol. 3 which hits theaters May 5, 2023. But they got to witness Gunn and Safran’s love for the DC Universe firsthand when they visited the pre-production “war room” for The suicide squad some years ago. “The atmosphere of that production was so positive and efficient and creatively explosive,” recalls Green. “So I’m not surprised they were offered that job. They’re going to be incredible administrators for a [franchise] that was certainly underrated.”
Green’s history with Gunn dates back to 2004 when he appeared in Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashedone of many screenplays the aspiring filmmaker wrote before getting behind the camera for his feature debut, Slip. Since then, the two have been “friends and colleagues” as their respective careers have taken them to not only make movies and TV shows, but also run studios. Along with John Harvatine IV and Eric Towner, Green and Senreich founded Stoopid Buddy in 2011 and currently have their hands in dozens of animated projects, including Robot chicken, Crossed swords and that of Marvel MODOK series. And Senreich says Stoopid Buddy’s main specialty is that they have No main specialty.
“People always think of us as a stop-motion company, but that’s never been the case for us,” he notes. “It’s about doing things in different styles. For us it’s always about how to adapt the style to what the project is.”
In case of Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special — which premiered on Disney+ on November 25th: the Stoopid Buddy style can be summed up in one word: rotoscoping. Developed by pioneering animator Max Fleischer in the early 20th century, this particular animation process involves frame-by-frame tracking over live-action footage to produce a finished product that is a unique marriage of performance and animation. But it’s also certainly a laborious and time-consuming approach, which can make it a tough sell to deadline-conscious filmmakers and studios. “Nobody really does it because it’s so fucking hard,” Green says with a laugh. “But it looks so good. The effect is undeniable, and I think that’s what James was so excited about.”
Besides Fleischer, one of the most prominent proponents of rotoscoping is director Ralph Bakshi, who used the process extensively in his cult films of the 1970s and 1980s. Those movies include a notoriously rambunctious adaptation of The Lord of the Rings in 1978 — which told only half of JRR Tolkien’s epic story when the producers refused to finance a second film — as well as the 1981 musical american pop. Although he is long retired from the industry, Bakshi remains a major inspiration for new generations of animators, including Mac Whiting, who was the lead animator on Stoopid Buddy for the Guardians special.
“I was a big fan of his Lord of the Rings growing up,” Whiting says, adding that she never had the chance to meet Bakshi in person. “I watched a lot of his interviews and there are these great making videos on YouTube that I used for research. For me personally, the most rewarding thing has been the fan reaction to the animated segments. They immediately understood our intention to be Bakshi’s style, but the segments also flow very well into the story. He conveys the characters in a semi-cartoonish way, but also bridges the gap to reality.”
Because rotoscoping requires animators to have live footage to work with, Marvel and Disney funded a day of filming that brought Michael Rooker back into the Marvel Cinematic Universe after his fan-favorite alter ego, Yondu, died at the end of the second. GOTG adventure. Set not long after the leader of the Ravagers abducts future Star-Lord, Peter Quill (played by Luke Klein), from Earth, the flashbacks illustrate how the boy teaches a skeptic Yondu and Kraglin (Sean Gunn) the true meaning Christmas. Meanwhile, in the present day, Peter’s fellow Guardians Drax (Dave Bautista) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) decide to give him their holiday gift: a visit from Kevin Bacon.
When asked if Rooker – who is Gunn’s John Ratzenberger – is still grieving from being killed off, Green notes that he technically died in only one of the director’s many universes. “Rooker knows he’s James’ Dumbo feather,” he laughs. “He will be in everything! I don’t think he has any insecurity about his place in James’s film ambitions.”
The Stoopid Buddy team was on set for the entire day of shooting, stepping in to provide occasional guidance on how best to design a shot for the rotoscoping process. “We watched Rooker destroy Peter’s Christmas tree in real time,” recalls Senreich. “This is objectively one of the more memorable shots in the flashback segments.”
Another memorable moment is the origin story of Star-Lord’s signature Quad Blasters. It turns out that those firearms were a Christmas present from Yondu, one of the first indications that the Ravager thought of Peter as more than cargo. Green recalls Gunn bringing blaster props to the set and passing them around. “Seeing and touching them was amazing,” he marvels. “I picked them up and joked to James, ‘Wait, you want the kid to do it like this? Show him again. Otherwise I’ll do it!'”
Not for nothing, that scene also means Stoopid Buddy literally helped create a major moment in MCU canon – not bad for a studio that’s most often associated with superhero spoofing on Robot chicken. But Green says this is a misperception of their overall mission. “We don’t see ourselves solely as creators of parody content. Robot chicken it’s just one of our shows, and even that stuff comes from a place of deep love, not deconstruction. Any possibility of participating even tangentially in the Guardians the universe is the best.”
“That’s also one of the brilliant parts of James,” adds Senreich. “The special gave avid fans Guardians cool canon-type stuff, but at the same time it’s also a quirky, fun holiday special. The intent is for you to walk away smiling.”
Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special is currently streaming on Disney+.