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Visual Effects

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By Barbara Robertson
Moviegoers in 2007 were treated to half-dead pirates locking swords in a storm-raging whirlpool, a superhero fighting monsters made of sand and goo, giant frickin’ transforming robots, a digital ship that flies, a magical school for wizards whose students fly on the backs of oddly endearing creatures, and the promise of virus-infected vampires, aliens and more magic.
“It was a big year for visual effects,” said Dennis Muren of Industrial Light & Magic, an eight-time visual effects Oscar winner. “And all the films aren’t out yet.”
As Dean Wright, visual effects producer for the final two films in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and visual effects supervisor and Oscar nominee for The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, said: “Visual effects artists are really developing their skills with the new tools, and they’re migrating from facility to facility, so all the facilities are benefiting. I’ve seen the quality of the work rising.”
Muren agreed. “I think people are trying to use the tools in new ways more than before.”
They and other visual effects supervisors single out the work in Transformers and 300 as two extreme examples of new levels in this year’s line-up of visual effects films.
In Transformers, giant robots battle each other in the streets of downtown Los Angeles — when they’re not hiding in Shia LaBeouf’s backyard. The effects are photorealistic and seamlessly integrated into the live action.
“Transformers pulled off the best robot destruction movie so far,” said John Gaeta, who won a visual effects Oscar for The Matrix and is currently at work on the Wachowski brothers’ Speed Racer. “I liked the attitude, scale and texture of the effects work in Transformers a lot, and I am very picky when it comes to ultra-violent robot destruction. Like choosing wine in Marin County, you can’t be a sissy about it.”
Transformers impressed Muren, too. “Like a lot of people, I was knocked out by Transformers,” he said. “You think you know what’s going to happen and, oh my God, you don’t. I’m not talking about the technical part. It’s the aesthetics. The wonderful, wonderful shot designs. The camera choices, the way the characters behaved, using the city as simply a prop. I didn’t get a sense of the difficulty in making the film as I viewed it. It just flowed in a wonderful way.”
300, by contrast, makes no attempt to be photorealistic. The film portrays the fierce battle of Thermopylae between 300 Spartans and the million soldiers of King Xerxes’ invading Persian army. Director Zack Snyder based the look of his film on Frank Miller and Lynn Varley’s graphic novel.
“It was very smartly done,” said John Bruno, a visual effects Oscar winner for The Abyss and a six-time nominee. “It was all shot on bluescreen or greenscreen with actors in the foreground and sets extended and backgrounds made with CG. I’d like to see it in the bake-off seven. It isn’t anywhere near Transformers. Transformers stood out because it was original, quick, slick, stylistic, photoreal. It really hit the mark. I had never seen that before; the complexity. But that wasn’t the goal for 300. 300 was designed to specifically look like the graphic novel and it quite achieved that.”
The bake-off Wright and Bruno refer to is the annual confab where members of the Visual Effects Branch of the Academy meet to select the Oscar nominees. Usually, the branch’s selection committee meets in mid-December to pick seven films that vie at the bake-off for the nomination.
But this year, the branch changed the rules. The 45-member selection committee will vote for 15 candidates on December 13. Then, on January 3, they’ll meet again and narrow the list to seven for the January 16 bake-off. The extra two weeks will give selection committee members more time to see such late releases as The Golden Compass, Aliens Vs, Predator: Requiem, Enchanted, I Am Legend, The Water House and The Mist, all of which come out in November and December. On the downside, it shortens the prep time for studios that need to create bakeoff reels.
“The people involved in doing the reels are the ones making the rules, so it isn’t like a different body is imposing these rules,” said Rich Miller, AMPAS awards administration director. “[The timing] will be tight, but not impossible. And to be honest, a lot won’t wait. The Lord of the Rings people had their reels ready. They didn’t wait to hear who would be in the seven.”
A second rule change will help. Usually studios in the final seven send out tons of written materials before the bake-off. This year, the Academy is hosting a website for the 273 branch members so the studios can post the materials electronically – still images from the film, synopses from the potential nominees, magazine articles, and so forth.
Likely to land in the mix this year are three sequels, Spider-Man 3, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Earlier films in each of these franchises received Oscar wins and nominations for their visual effects. “I thought they were all improvements,” says Muren of the sequels. “Pirates’ maelstrom was amazing. Spider-Man had amazing stuff. And, the work in Potter is perfect for the movie.”
Muren also liked Stardust’s subtlety and mood. “I’m into aesthetics and aesthetically, this entire film was true to a vision. It had a soft feeling to it that was appropriate to that movie.”
But subtlety rarely wins awards.
“The film that rises to the top is what pushes the industry to a new level,” said Wright. “It’s what we have done to give the director a new tool, something that has never been achieved before. It’s not just who did the best work. I think the Academy looks for which team let the director do something unique and push forward the artistic capabilities and achievements in visual effects. Not just technically. It’s about how we broaden our artistic range.”

Written by Barbara Robertson

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