‘Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special’ animators talk Marvel canon and James Gunn’s DC future: ‘Something great is coming’

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Peter Quill acquires his signature blasters as a Christmas present in the animated segments of The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special. (Photo: Marvel Studios/Stoopid Buddy Stoodios)

Peter Quill acquires his signature blasters as a Christmas present in the animated segments of The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special. (Photo: Marvel Studios/Stoopid Buddy Stoodios)

James Gunn’s recent elevation from filmmaker and professional fan to the co-head of DC Studios alongside Peter Safran has surprised (and angered) many within fandom. But the director’s creative collaborators at the animation house Stoopid Buddies Stoodios — actor Seth Green and Matthew Senreich — think that Warner Media made a smart call. “I’m so excited for whatever’s coming next,” Green tells Yahoo Entertainment. “They love it so hard, and they know how to make stuff so well. Something great is coming.”

Both Green and Senreich take care to note that Gunn never tipped his hand about his promotion when they worked together on the animated flashback segments featured in The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special — the recent Christmas-themed prelude to the trilogy-capping GOTG Vol. 3 that’s blasting into theaters on 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 a few years ago. “The vibe of that production was so positive, efficient and creatively explosive,” Green recalls. “So I’m not surprised they were offered that job. They’ll be incredible stewards for a [franchise] that’s been admittedly underselling.”

Green’s history with Gunn dates back to 2004, when he appeared in Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed, one of the many scripts the aspiring director penned before stepping behind the camera for his first feature, Slither. Since then, the duo have been “friends and peers” as their respective careers have led them to not just making movies and TV show, but running 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, Crossing Swords and Marvel’s own M.O.D.O.K. series. And Senreich says that Stoopid Buddy’s main specialty is that they have no main specialty.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 16: Robot Chicken producers Seth Green and Matthew Senreich speak onstage during the Adult Swim Festival at Banc of California Stadium on November 16, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Scott Dudelson/Getty Images)LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 16: Robot Chicken producers Seth Green and Matthew Senreich speak onstage during the Adult Swim Festival at Banc of California Stadium on November 16, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Scott Dudelson/Getty Images)

Stoopid Buddy Stoodios co-founders Seth Green and Matthew Senreich at the 2019 Adult Swim Festival in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Scott Dudelson/Getty Images)

“People always think of us as a stop-motion company, but it’s never been about that for us,” he notes. “It’s about doing things in different styles. For us it’s always about how to you fit the style for what the project is.”

In the case of The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special — which premiered on Disney+ on Nov. 25 — 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 tracing over live-action footage to produce a finished product that’s a unique marriage of performance and animation. But it’s also admittedly a laborious and time-consuming approach, which can make it a difficult sell to deadline-conscious filmmakers and studios. “Nobody really does it because it’s so f***ing hard,” Green says, laughing. “But it looks so cool. The effect is undeniable, and I think that’s what James was so excited about.”

(When announcing the project, Gunn tweeted out that he “unironically loved” the notorious Star Wars Holiday Special and his animated interlude is also a nod to “The Faithful Wookiee,” the cartoon sequence in the 1978 offering that introduced Boba Fett to that galaxy far, far away. The nine-minute animation is the only portion of the Star Wars Holiday Special currently available on Disney+ after George Lucas famously declared the live-action debacle would never be released on video.)

Michael Rooker, Luke Klein and Sean Gunn appear in the animated segments of The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special. (Marvel Studios/Stoopid Buddy Stoodios)Michael Rooker, Luke Klein and Sean Gunn appear in the animated segments of The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special. (Marvel Studios/Stoopid Buddy Stoodios)

Michael Rooker, Luke Klein and Sean Gunn appear in the animated segments of The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special. (Marvel Studios/Stoopid Buddy Stoodios)

Besides Fleischer, one of the most prominent proponents for rotoscoping is director Ralph Bakshi, who employed the process extensively in his cult cartoon features from the ’70s and ’80s. Those movies include a famously turbulent adaptation of The Lord of the Rings in 1978 — which only told half of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic story when producers declined to finance a second film — as well as the 1981 musical American Pop. Although he’s long been retired from the industry, Bakshi remains a major source of inspiration for new generations of animators, including Mac Whiting, who served as Stoopid Buddy’s lead animator for the Guardians special.

“I was a huge fan of his Lord of the Rings growing up,” Whiting says, adding that he’s never had the chance to meet Bakshi in person. “I’ve watched a lot of his interviews, and there are these great making-of videos on YouTube that I’ve used for research. For me personally, the most gratifying thing has been the fan reaction to the animated segments. They immediately understood our intent to be in Bakshi’s style, but the segments also flow really nicely into the story. It conveys the characters in a semi-cartoonish way, but also bridges the gap of reality.”

Since rotoscoping requires the animators to have live action footage to work with, Marvel and Disney funded a day-long shoot 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. Taking place not long after the Ravager leader has kidnapped the future Star-Lord, Peter Quill (played by Luke Klein), from Earth, the flashbacks illustrate how the young boy teaches a skeptical Yondu and Kraglin (Sean Gunn) about the true meaning of Christmas. Meanwhile, in the present day, Peter’s fellow Guardians Drax (Dave Bautista) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) decide to give him their own holiday present: a visit from Kevin Bacon.

(Photo: Stoopid Buddy Stoodios)(Photo: Stoopid Buddy Stoodios)

Yondu destroys Peter’s Christmas tree in a scene from The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special (Photo: Marvel Studios/Stoopid Buddy Stoodios)

Asked whether Rooker — who is Gunn’s own John Ratzenberger — is still smarting over being killed off, Green notes that he’s technically only dead in one of the director’s many universes. “Rooker knows that he’s James’s Dumbo feather,” he says, laughing. “He’s gonna be in everything! I don’t think he’s got any insecurity about his place in James’s cinematic ambitions.”

The Stoopid Buddy team was on set for the entirety of that day-long shoot, stepping in to provide occasional guidance on how best to design a shot for the rotoscoping process. “We got to watch Rooker destroy Peter’s Christmas tree in real time,” Senreich remembers. “That’s objectively one of the most 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 earliest indications that the Ravager thought of Peter as being more than cargo. Green remembers that Gunn brought the actual blaster props to set and passed them around. “Getting to see them and touch was so cool,” he marvels. “I picked them up, and joked to James, ‘Wait, you want the kid to do it like this? Show him again. If not I’ll do it!'”

(Photo: Stoopid Buddy Stoodios)(Photo: Stoopid Buddy Stoodios)

Yondu and Peter blast off to new adventures in The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special (Photo: Marvel Studios/Stoopid Buddy Stoodios)

Not for nothing, that scene also means that Stoopid Buddy had a literal hand in crafting a major moment in MCU canon — not bad for a studio that’s more often associated with spoofing superheroes on Robot Chicken. But Green says that’s a misperception about their overall mission. “We don’t consider ourselves exclusively parody content creators. Robot Chicken is just one of our shows, and that stuff also comes from a place of deep love, not deconstruction. Any opportunity to participate even tangentially in the Guardians universe is the best.”

“That’s one of the brilliant parts of James, too,” Senreich adds. “The special gave die-hard fans of Guardians interesting canon-type stuff, but at the same time, it’s also a whimsical, fun holiday special. The intent is that you walk away smiling.”

The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special is currently streaming on Disney+.

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