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PP-VES Show & Tell

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They consistently use state-of-the-art computers and loads of talented artists, but the nominees for the fourth annual Visual Effects Society Awards all went their own way in applying those tools to create new planets, battles and creatures.The nominees in 10 of the 20 categories showed their work and answered questions from about 300 VES members, press and the general public at a daylong show-and-tell Feb. 21 at LA’s Skirball Cultural Center.The presentations showed how extensive the use of visual effects has become. Outstanding supporting effects nominee Jarhead used digital scorpions, rebranded airliners, emaciated horses and oil fires, while the visual effects team on Memoirs of a Geisha corrected actress Zhang Ziyi’s colored contact lenses when they slipped out of place during the shooting of the film’s climactic scene.Techniques ranged from high-tech to low-tech. Batman Begins used models in the climactic train chase. The animators working on the six-inch clay Gromit for Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit produced an average of two seconds of screen time a day.The best single visual effect of the year pitted the nut-sorting squirrels from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory against the opening battle from Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith and the neighborhood destruction of War of the Worlds. Charlie’s Ben Morris was glad to say that, despite the studio’s emphasis on the use of real squirrels, most of the rodents on screen are digital.Effects supervisor John Knoll said the 77-second opening shot from Sith was completely digital, with background ships using artificial intelligence to determine how they flew and fought. The shot changed little from an early previsualization approved by director George Lucas, but still required 156 takes to complete. The work on the film was “meticulously well-scheduled” to ensure ILM could complete the work on time and budget, he said.ILM’s Dennis Muren said the nominated sequence in War in the Worlds was an idea that came to director Steven Spielberg while he was shooting. “He said, ‘Can you do it in four weeks, because I want it for the Superbowl.’” The shot was further refined after its TV debut, says Muren.King Kong was similarly improvised, with visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri saying his crew began work without a script. They wrote software to build a CG 1930s Manhattan and pulled the Empire State Building’s original plans. “That gave us the ability to do what we wanted, which was go anywhere in New York,” Letteri says.The race for best effects in an effects-driven film brought Narnia into the picture. The film’s 1,617 effects shots required more than 1,000 digital characters, massive battle scenes and a digital lead character in Aslan the lion. The Harry Potter crew highlighted the Black Lake sequence, in which actors were shot in a tank with green screens and the rest was added digitally. Star Wars and Kong also are up in this category.Alias and Lost were both represented in the day’s lone TV category by both series’ visual effects supervisor Kevin Blank. The season finale of Lost required 75 shots, which were produced in two and a half weeks at a cost of about $1,000 each, he says. HBO movie Warm Springs made actor Kenneth Branagh’s legs appear withered by polio with effects that had to stand up to a theatrical release in parts of Europe.The nominees were chosen by a panel of judges comprised of qualified VES members. Members voted for the winners on line between Jan. 25 and Feb. 10. Winners are announced at a black-tie gala set for Feb. 15 at the Hollywood Palladium.

Written by Tom McLean

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