As nearly every film now contains some kind of visual effect, since almost every movie – certainly the studio-made ones – has some kind of digital component or enhancement in its production, the field for possible visual effects contenders would seem to grow each year.
With worlds being rendered to take viewers both to alien planets and 19th-century America, and with fully digital characters exchanging riddles with Hobbits, or standing in with astonishing veracity for very real tigers, the distinction between where the practical film ends and the visual effects begin is getting ever more interestingly hazy.
Joshua Grow, a digital pipeline TD at The Creative-Cartel, with an upcoming credit on After Earth, said, “I think we still love being taken away to elaborate and visually stunning worlds, but have a giant appreciation when we find out something that looked so natural and real is actually CG. I think what makes great CG/visual FX is when you hear, ‘Wait, what? What part was CG? Seriously? Wow!’”
Increasingly, then, accolades are being bestowed on great invisible FX work, as well as worlds which are clearly fantastical in both conception and execution. In the latter case, that’s good, since heavily effects-driven offerings in the fantasy and superhero genres continue to fill studio release schedules, while competition for the Academy’s five nomination slots grows fiercer each year.
Over at the Visual Effects Society, their Melies’-honoring statuette has its own category for FX work in ostensibly non-FX driven feature films, so the nominating wealth is spread around a little more. But in its flagship category for outstanding effects work in a visual-effects driven motion picture, it’s no accident its nominee list almost exactly replicates Oscar’s.
The four that are the same are for Joe Letteri and his Weta Workshop crew for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey; Janek Sirrs and his mostly ILM-based artists for The Avengers; Bill Westenhofer’s Rhythm-and-Hues-based coterie for Life of Pi, and Richard Stammers and crew for Prometheus. The surprise slot went to Cedric Nicolas-Troyan and Philip Brennan’s shared supervisor work on Snow White and the Huntsman on the Oscar side, and to Grady Cofer and crew for Battleship in the VES awards.
But the surprises don’t stop there. In a year heavy with superhero offerings, only The Avengers made it to the final round, leaving other potential nominees, like the rebooted The Amazing Spider-man, and perhaps more surprisingly, previous award winner Paul Franklin’s work on the last Batman installment, out in the digital cold. Other potential nominees, like Cloud Atlas and Disney’s box-office-blundering, yet digitally good-looking John Carter, didn’t nab finalist slots either, nor did Skyfall, in this 50th year of Bond on film.
However for some VFX professionals, the way the nominations unfolded aren’t much of a surprise at all. Bruce Wolshyn is a VFX supervisor based out of Method Studios in Vancouver, who recently worked on the second Twilight – Breaking Dawn installment, said, “films like The Avengers and Prometheus… put their work front and center to give the audience the spectacle that goes with the story being told.
“In both cases, whether the VFX were up front or not, all were so wonderfully executed that I never gave them a thought on their own. Not taking me out of the movie is the key. For me, dealing with the minutiae of the fine details on a VFX shot on any given day, having the bar so high as not to have me looking for them in someone else’s project is what defines their success.”
Jeff White was ILM’s effects supervisor for The Avengers, working alongside Erik Nash, Guy Williams, and overall supervisor Sirrs, and talked to us about the things that allowed the ensemble superhero film to be, surprisingly, the only “cape & cowl” nominee in this year’s awards.
It may have been, in part, the astonishing work done on Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner/Hulk transformations. It was the director, Joss Whedon, who “really made it different,” White said. “He wanted to see the actor incorporated into the character of Hulk.”
“We did three rounds of motion capture,” he said of Ruffalo’s performance, and the actor was “incredibly gracious” about it, including wearing special makeup and a life cast, while the rest of the Avengers, thanks to the costuming work, actually got to wear cool suits.
ILM even had to write new software for the rendering of Ruffalo’s Hulk, and while obviously The Avengers boasted a raft of top-tier FX work – from S.H.I.E.L.D’s floating headquarters to alien invaders raining down on New York, to Iron Man wrestling with a nuclear weapon in flight – it’s possible that the digital character work provides a certain “thru-line” to who winds up in the nominees’ circle.
The Hobbit has its own vastly realized worlds, of course, from the Shire to the goblin kingdoms underneath the mountains, and yet it’s possible that such work is almost taken for granted in tentpole motion pictures. But The Hobbit also boasts a great leap forward in another iconic digital character – Andy Serkis’ mo-capped work as Gollum.
Of course, the breakthrough in terms of Letteri’s work with Sirkis came not in a Tolkien film, but the more recent Rise of the Planet of the Apes, where Sirkis played Ceasar, the lead simian. For that film, Weta figured out how to bring mo-cap to the set, so that Sirkis could act in scene with his fellow actors, instead of against a green screen by himself.
The experience on The Hobbit was “like a homecoming,” according to Letteri. There were advances, he mentioned, in software allowing for subsurface scattering that in turn allowed more complexity for translucent skin and a translucent quality to the eyes.
This was also cited in write-ups on Stammers and his crew for Prometheus, which occupies the sci-fi slot among this year’s nominees. And while we have ships and gore and space critters, one of the scenes that galvanized a lot of attention was a key sequence involving one of the space-sowing “Engineers,” one of whom melts in front of our very eyes, as the camera tracks into his bloodstream, and then to his DNA strands. For the journey into and under his skin, more of those same subsurface scattering advances were used.
As for Pi’s singular tiger, Westenhofer also cited subsurface scattering, as well as advances in fur rendering, for making the digital tiger – used for most of the film indistinguishable from the real, trained tiger, used in a smaller handful of shots.
Another factor uniting the bulk of FX nominees is the use of 3D for the presentations. “Stereo complicates post,” said Westenhofer, but it also allows for a certain depth and “Wow!” factor, when done right. That may make it harder and harder for 2D films to become finalists in this category, going forward.
Also, as far as award nominees, fantasy trumped sci-fi, with only the aforementioned Prometheus as the kind of space-and-hardware epic that often dominated the category, with Snow White’s “Mirror Man” sequence, and its extended sets, vast moody castles and adjacent villages joining The Hobbit as genre-mates. Life of Pi is more of a fable, and The Avengers stand in for all their superhero brethren, though given the coming release schedules over the next couple years, it’s hard to imagine this particular sub-genre not dominating nominations over the upcoming cycles.
Then again, given White’s observation that “there’s nothing better than getting to do great character work,” (whether on two legs or four, green skin or not), perhaps it will be the acting categories, rather than production or costume design that find themselves more closely allied with what had once been a totally separate category.
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