Filed in: Awards, Featured, For Your Consideration, Visual FX

Gorillas or Guerrillas? The Year in FX

November 18, 2009 07:04 | By

Because of our own release schedule for this annual fall “voters’ guide” to the upcoming awards—just call us “Secretaries of the State of the Crew!”—we go to press just as this year’s two 800-pound gorillas of visual effects are hitting screens. The symbolically simian pair is succinctly referred to by VFX supervisor Wojciech Zielinski, whose own work on Mira Nair’s aviatrix biopic, Amelia, could itself sneak in somewhere should the Academy—or especially the VES—voters find themselves in a historical mood, to complement the razzle dazzle.

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As he says of the year that was: “We’ve seen many great movies with stunning VFX work in 2009, but we’re all waiting for the two strongest contenders—2012 and Avatar. I think we’ll witness a very close race for Oscar and VES awards between these two,” adding an observation about the latter regarding another kind of “gorilla”—in this case, the technology used, saying, “the stereoscopic format will be a deciding factor here,” concluding that 3D is “the ‘new black’ this year.”

Mark Breakspear—one of our regular handicappers in this section—has himself had a busy year, supervising FX for Vancouver’s CIS for both Zombieland and Angels & Demons. Of the two leading contenders, he says, “I can see how that would be a perception,” and notes that generally if a film the community loves, (because it’s good, or because it’s saved enough people from the ravages of a recession by cleaning up at the box office), is also nominated for effects, Academy voters will usually give it a nod in most below-the-line categories as well—a “heart” vote, he notes, rather than the “brain” prism often used to recognize peer work in the VES Awards.
But he has a happy synthesis this year, asserting, “my vote, from heart or brain—I love Star Trek!”

While he notes that J.J. Abrams “did an amazing job with his team,” both updating, and honoring the cherished series’ look and feel, his own deep feeling for the movie may have to do with aspects beyond either the director’s, or Paramount’s, control. He cajoled his wife into seeing it with him on their 10-year wedding anniversary. Afterwards, she turned to him an asked, “Are they all that good?”

Whether he went in to the theory of “even-numbered Star Trek” films or not remains unknown—some details of a wedding anniversary, after all, should remain private.

But what about FX for non-FXy movies—the way the historical Benjamin Button, replete with its eye-opening digital aging/de-aging work, last year snatched the award away from dueling superheroes in the Dark Knight and Iron Man? Might his own Angels & Demons finish in there?

“I’d love to think it would make the bake off,” he says, but adds that one to watch in his category is Clint Eastwood’s forthcoming Invictus, which “could be one of those sleepers.”

The film features Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela along with Matt Damon as a key figure bringing a series of multi-racial rugby matches to a South Africa in keen need of healing, and uniting, after the fall of Apartheid.
“99% of what you see,” Breakspear says of the very real-seeming rugby matches, “is provided by digital effects.” The VFX supe for the film, Geoff Hancock, worked on Eastwood’s Changeling last year as CIS’ supervisor, but that film was similarly talked up for its work in recreating historical sets, streets, skylines (in this case, L.A. in the ’20s), and he shared a VES award with overall supervisor Michael Owens, for “Outstanding Supporting Visual Effects in a Motion Picture.”

Scott Stokdyk’s name has been bruited about these round-ups as the VFX supervisor for all previous Spiderman installments—and may be again, since he’s in pre-production for Spiderman 4. But between “web installments,” he oversaw FX on the 3D G-Force, which is also “G” in that it involves guinea pigs and is family-friendly, as well.

He also notes that John Bruno’s sprawling supervisorial work on Avatar—Bruno consulted on the visual effects for Cameron’s Titanic—”promises to have really detailed, hard work in there,” and he adds, the “3D aspect will be interesting.”

Stokdyk adds that G-Force, was converted to stereo in post, which may shake up the workflow in terms of how 3-D gets made in the future (and may perhaps garner some notice for the furry defenders in this year’s award round-up).

He also observes that the latest Harry Potter installment—The Half Blood Prince—is likely to finish well, as should the plucky end-of-summer release, District 9.

District 9 was directed and co-written by FX alumnus Neill Blomkamp, whose South African political parable—with aliens finding themselves the ones who are ghettoized—is garnering a lot of good talk, according to Stokdyk.

Blomkamp was a CG animator at CIS, among other places, and Breakspear recalls him as “a fantastic talent, even back then,” and “District 9 is very cleverly made movie, budget-wise.”

Stokdyk also observes that “Where the Wild Things Are could be a sleeper,” with its combination of puppets and digital facial animation, and one of the first to agree might be Peter Brooke, the creative supervisor at Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, who helped oversee the building of the Wild Things, or at least, their bodies. He describes the finished beasts as “a combination of suits and digital enhancement.”

When director Spike Jonze came to them, they thought, “this was one of those jobs we had to do.” The lingo for the finished creatures, he notes, is “hybrid character,” and it’s something Brooke thinks we’ll be seeing more of down the road.

As for this year’s crop, he likewise thought the work in District 9 was terrific, and the way those creatures—hybrid and otherwise—were “handled, worked very well.”

When asked to suss out the film’s chances of finishing among FX finalists, he avers that the film is a “bit of an outsider,” which may also apply to the upcoming apocalyptic rumination The Road, as well as John Woo’s historical opus Red Cliff, only now getting a release in the U.S., two years after being made as part of the cultural celebration of the Beijing Olympics.

The film is kind of like a Chinese 300, telling of an actual battle where a smaller, more resourceful force outnumbered the Emperor’s troops in a history-shifting showdown. The effects were supervised by Craig Hayes, late of San Francisco’s now-defunct Orphanage.

If VES or Academy voters are in a historical mood, this could be another dark horse contender with its stunning and generally seamless recreations of villages, flotillas, raging fires, and in one memorable sequence, tracking a homing pigeon—Orson Welles Touch of Evil style—all the way from one army’s camp, across the Yangtze, into the encampment of the other.

Hayes describes the shoot as a once-in-a-lifetime experience—though it took two years of his. But he relished the looser wild-west atmosphere of filming in China, and noted not everything had to be digital. “Sometimes the Chinese government would give you thousands of soldiers, to use as extras.”

He also confesses that he has a lot of catching up to do on his viewing, post-Red Cliff, but agrees if one was a “betting man,” that Avatar would seem to be an early favorite.

Still, Hayes offers his own surprise choice for VFX that struck him, stating that he loves “silent, sneaky” effects, in non-FX-like pictures, that the viewer is barely cognizant of, or that help a more offbeat director achieve personalized visions. He cites Julie Taymor and Julian Schanbel as examples.

One he liked this year was Sam Mendes’ road picture Away We Go, where a couple expecting their first child traverse America looking for a place to settle down. For the shooting of the film, Connecticut doubled for five different states, including Florida in some sequences.

Hayes not only likes the subtle digital work—overseen by Dennis Berardi—that allowed that to happen, but he’s especially fond of the Mendes’ answer as to why it had to be done. “Because we couldn’t go to Florida, that’s why.”

Out of such limits, good FX work has always been born. Soon, we’ll see which of that good work starts bringing in public accolades—The Gorillas, or the more subtle, less obvious work: The Guerrillas.