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Oscar VFX bakeoff nominations

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By Jill Smolin
In late January the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences’ visual effects bakeoff brought members of the academy’s visual effects branch together to see the creations of their peers, and vote by secret ballot on which three films would be nominated for this year’s Academy Award.
Richard Edlund, chair of the branch’s Executive Committee, opened the evening, explaining that prior to the Jan. 21 gathering, a visual effects steering committee representing every effects discipline had narrowed the field from 254 eligible films to seven. He instructed the capacity crowd that this was a working meeting, and the presentations began.
Representing Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, John Knoll, visual effects supervisor, and Hal Hickel, animation supervisor, discussed effects that included miniatures, full-scale water, continuity challenges, transitioning between live actors and their ragged-clothed skeleton counterparts (in a scene that would make Ray Harryhausen smile), flaming metal palm trees, and not a single complete hull in a movie filled with ships. Visual effects consultant Charles Gibson and special effects coordinator Terry Frazee also answered questions following the reel.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World was described by visual effects supervisors Nathan McGuinness and Stefen Fangmeier as a 700-shot film that wasn’t an effects film, yet one that includes furious waves, cannon fights with phantom ships, and the uncharted sands of the Galapagos all appearing organically (an oft-repeated phrase of the evening) in this reality-driven story. Also in the team: Daniel Sudick, special effects coordinator, and Robert Stromberg, special effects designer.
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King featured visual effects supervisor Jim Rygiel delineating the dizzy array of miniatures, visual effects, animation, and improved detail and movement on Gollum’s face (aided by the use of onset real-time motion capture). Also on stage were Joe Letteri, visual effects supervisor, Randall William Cook, animation director, and Alex Funke, visual effects director of photography.
Taking us to Neverland, Peter Pan’s visual effects supervisor Scott Farrar illuminated how P.J. Hogan’s scrapbook of Victorian art provided the canvas on which pirate ships, flying children and fairies coexisted. Visual effects supervisor Mark Forker highlighted the 3D set extensions used in Pan and Hook’s battle. Also included in the selection were Jenn Emberly, animation director, and Clay Pinney, special effects supervisor.
In stark contrast, for Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, visual effects supervisor Pablo Helman noted new approaches to digital doubles, the physics of liquid metal, and the marriage of practical and digital effects. Special effects coordinator Allen Hall explained how you get an enormous crane to corner, and Dan Taylor, digital animation supervisor, related the year-and-a-half-long collaboration with Stan Winston Studios’ John Rosengrant, makeup effects supervisor, that resulted in seamless transitions between the animatronics and the actor.
X2’s visual effects supervisors Michael Fink and Richard Hollander recalled the 1,000 shots, in which their characters metamorphose, assuage floods, control the weather, create fire and ice, and move effortlessly through all four dimensions. Visual effects supervisor Stephen Rosenbaum, and special effects director Mike Vézina joined in after the clip.
Closing the evening, The Hulk’s visual effects supervisor Dennis Muren, visual effects co-supervisor Ed Hirsh, animation supervisor Colin Brady and special effects supervisor Mike Lantieri recounted the construction of a 15-foot-tall action figure. Redefining the temper tantrum, this character’s recurring journey through construction and deconstruction utilized hand animation, motion capture and procedural animation. The team also noted the first instance of using motion capture on dogs.
At the evening’s conclusion, the voting members completed their ballots. Nominees (the short list) were announced at Tuesday Jan. 26, with
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World and Pirates of the Caribbean: the Curse of the Black Pearl making the cut. (And yes, I do believe in fairies—the visual effects kind.)

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