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Rendered Worlds, Creatures and Subtle Touches

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For Jenny Fulle, visual effects producer and founder of post-house Creative Cartel, it’s been a good year for VFX, going all the way back to January. “The Book of Eli was good,” she allows, referring to the post-apocalyptic tale, and she also liked this summer’s Prince of Persia. But there’s a particular alchemy to what finally gets lauded, at both Oscar, and VES awards time, an alchemy which may not consider the literal turning of lead into gold, but has a lot to do with when a film is released, (later in the year is often better), and how it is perceived.

Inception

In that regard, she allows that both the dreamscapey Inception, and the virtual world of Tron will probably be hard to beat come award time. And it’s a credit to Disney’s marketing of the latter film that most of the respondents for this article felt the same way, without having actually seen the film at press time (indeed, the two biggest chunks of available footage for the movie were the 4 minute “Comic Con” preview, and the later 20 minute “Tron night” footage released by the House of Mouse).

Fulle cited the success of last year’s Avatar, noting “we all wanted to go to that world.” The assumption is that Tron will offer similarly “immersive experience,” but as Fulle wondered after her first glimpse at early footage, “can it keep going?”

Tron-2
Tron: Legacy

Of course, the effects are overseen by Eric Barba and the group at Digital Domain, who nabbed Academy gold for their work on director David Fincher’s Benjamin Button opus a mere 24 months previously.

But there are other digitally realized worlds in addition to Pandora, among those, Narnia, from the franchise spawned by the C.S. Lewis books, which is getting another installment – also released by Disney – with The Voyage of the Dawn Treader released as a year-end offering, along with Tron.

For Sara Bennett, who supervised Treader’s effects for posthouse The Mill, she likes Paul Franklin’s work in Christopher Nolan’s super-Jungian Inception, which she described as “technically and creatively stunning – a real visual feast. It was the best VFX film of the year for me.”

Though, like Fulle, she also reaches back into the calendar for some surprises, noting that she really enjoyed How to Train Your Dragon, and “loved watching it in 3D.” A choice which – like Avatar, and perhaps Tron, begs the question of how much a film has to be rendered before it’s actually considered animation instead of live action.

How To Train Your Dragon
How To Train Your Dragon

In that regard, Bennett loves the Iron Man films, including last summer’s second episode, citing “the blending of CG with the partially built suit,” saying “it looked seamless.”

Ben Snow oversaw ILM’s work on both Iron Man films, working with overall supervisor Janek Sirrs. Snow says of this year’s sequel that there was indeed “a lot more of the suit in CG.”

Snow applauded Sirrs’ ability to work with multiple houses to finish the film, which he describes as “bigger, and more spectacular” than the first, with “a lot more stuff ’ – fighting droids, battlestrewn Japanese tea gardens, et al – rendered in digits. Which then necessitated “more on-set capture,” and compositing to get all the pieces together.

Iron Man 2
Iron Man 2

Snow himself liked not only Inception, and the way Nolan mixed practical effects, like the rolling hotel set, with the other effects, but also the work in the remake of Ray Harryhausen’s Clash of the Titans, though he allows the “forced” 3D of the film “doesn’t help you out,” when the FX weren’t designed with that perspective in mind. Which was why the first Iron Man, unlike the second, wasn’t in stereo. 3D “didn’t add anything” to the first film’s tests, though whether there’ll be an eventual backlash to too much 3D remains to be seen.

But as for the work that gets honored, Snow – himself a previous Oscar nominee – saw that “for the Academy, I’d have to say the nomination means a lot,” since “when it comes down to voting, it’s a different kettle of fish – as members, we all vote in every category.”

With the Visual Effects Society, a “wider group of categories helps alleviate the popularity contest” aspects. At least, a little.

Paul Franklin, a nominee for The Dark Knight, is likely to be pretty popular for his work as the supe on Inception. Since that was the same year that Barba & Co. won for Button, (also beating out the first Iron Man), he laughs about an upcoming “re-match.”

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

He also guesses Tron is “the one to watch,” or beat, but Dawn Treader is “looking cool.” Additionally, the first part of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows had some “stellar work,” as that franchise has “developed a unique style blending photographic realism with high fantasy.”

The VES also allows digital work in seemingly non-FX driven films to be honored. Among those mentioned is the “twin” work in David Fincher’s The Social Network, where actor Armie Hammer played both of the Winklevoss twins. Well, his face did. Josh Spence provided the body for one of the twins, and Edson Williams, for Santa Monica-based Lola Visual Effects was charged with compositing Hammer’s face in every scene where the twins appeared.

The Social Network
The Social Network

But Fincher didn’t want to replicate any of the award-winning, budget-consuming techniques pioneered for Button, with full CG heads put on differently- aged bodies. There was “no reason to do a full CG head,” the director decided, “let’s just do the face.”

So Red cameras were used, often capturing Hammer playing to his other “twin” self, by following a red dot around a green screen, to match eye movements (though occasionally the eyes had to be digitized, in order to “fine tune” the final scenes).

As seamless as the work in The Social Network is, Fulle wonders if it’s enough to garner notice for a “non-FX” film, and also cites Martin Scorcese’s Shutter Island in the same category, which “probably had 750 visual effects shots” in it.

Whether those “non-FX” films get honored in one of VES’ categories remains to be seen, but Fulle touches on another early-in-the-year release that presents an almost fully-rendered world – a third contender from Disney: Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland.

Ken Ralston is the senior special effects supervisor on the movie, which proved so broad in scope, that he had two other supervisors – Cary Villegas and Sean Phillips – working with him.

There were entirely digitized creatures, put into rendered sets, along with partially digitized actors, like Helena Bonham Carter’s Red Queen, whose artificially enlarged head was shot with a 4K Dalsa, and re-integrated into an artificially shaped and slimmed body. And she’d then move back and forth between live actors and digital creatures in the same shot.

Alice in Wonderland
Alice in Wonderland

In 2D, he notes, “you’re able to cheat” with shots, particularly in terms of background information. But the film – as with Disney’s other FX offerings of the year – was designed for 3D, which offers less “cheating space” for moving limbs, swiveled heads, and everything else.

Ralston laughingly describes the additional planning required for stereo viewing as Ralston “kind of fun, in a horrible way.”

Which may describe the throes of film production itself – whether on set, or in post.

Mostly though, based on the work this year, fun appears to have won out.

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