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October 02
2017

ISSUE

Fall 2017

THE VES 70: THE MOST INFLUENTIAL VISUAL EFFECTS FILMS OF ALL TIME

By NAOMI GOLDMAN

All-Time VES VFX Films gallery compiled with commentary by Ian Failes.
Directors quotes by Paula Parisi.

The Visual Effects Society has released its definitive “VES 70: The Most Influential Visual Effects Films of All Time.” The original VES member-chosen “VES 50” list was created in 2007, marking one decade since the organization’s inception. In commemoration of the VES’s milestone 20th anniversary, the global membership – now almost triple the size of the membership first polled – have added 20 more films from 2015 and earlier to the VFX honor roll. The goal of the two polls was to result in 50 and 20 films respectively, but each poll had ties for the final slots, thus the list includes 72 total films.

Gravity (2013). For Gravity, Framestore was called upon to craft almost impossibly long shots in space, often fully CG, but also occasionally incorporating live-action sections of Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. The actors were predominantly filmed against custom LED light panels that carried pre-animated scenes designed to aid in interactive lighting. (Photo copyright © 2013 Warner Bros. Pictures. All rights reserved.)

“The ‘VES 70’ represents films that have had a significant, lasting impact on the practice and appreciation of visual effects as an integral element of cinematic expression and storytelling,” says Mike Chambers, VES Board Chair. “We see this as an important opportunity for our members, leading visual effects practitioners worldwide, to pay homage to our heritage and help shape the future of the global visual effects community. In keeping with our mission to recognize and advance outstanding art and innovation in the VFX field, the ‘VES 70’ now forms a part of our legacy that we can pass down to future generations of filmmakers as a valuable point of reference.”

Films included in the “VES 70” span from the early 1900s to 2015. The earliest entry on the list is A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la Lune), the seminal 1902 French silent film directed by Georges Méliès, whose iconic image exemplifies the VES’s legacy – past, present and future. The most current entries are Academy Award winner for Best Visual Effects, Ex Machina, and the critically acclaimed Mad Max: Fury Road, both from 2015. The ballot, voted on by VES members in Summer 2017, was limited to features from 2015 and earlier, to help ensure that the candidates have had a lasting impact and that voting was not unduly influenced by the most recent VES Award winners.

Avatar (2009). James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar took performance capture, virtual production and the realization of digital characters and environments to new levels, with Weta Digital crafting the majority of visual effects for the film. It was also filmed in native stereo, further bringing new challenges to the visual effects vendors in terms of live-action integration, compositing and rendering stereo images. (Photo copyright © 2009 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.)

COVER NOTES:  WE’RE ABOUT TO SEE A LOT MORE OF AVATAR

Among the newest additions to the VES’s list of most influential visual effects films is James Cameron’s Avatar. In 2009, it set the standard in both virtual  production techniques and in transforming human actors into the realm of photo-realistic creatures.

Right now, the lead visual effects studio on Avatar – Weta Digital – is also at work on the four sequels to the film being made by Cameron. The first of those is set for release in December 2020, with the fourth sequel coming out in 2025.

“What Joe Letteri and Weta Digital bring to these stories is impossible to quantify,” Cameron says in a release about the start of production by Weta Digital. “Since we made Avatar, Weta continued to prove themselves as doing the best CG animation, the most human, the most alive, the most photo-realistic effects in the world. And of course, that now means I can push them to take it even further.”

“Avatar is the ideal type of film for us,” adds Weta Digital’s Senior Visual Effects Supervisor Joe Letteri. “Jim’s vision for the world of Pandora was always so much bigger than what we created for the first film. Helping him expand the language of cinema through new narratives set in such an expansive universe is the type of opportunity that rarely comes along twice. Projects like this allow everyone involved to push themselves to do their best work and you can’t ask for anything more than that.”

—Ian Failes

Inception (2010). Director Christopher Nolan made use of full-scale practical effects, miniatures and digital visual effects to tell the mind-binding story of Inception. This miniature of the hospital fortress was built by
New Deal Studios on its backlot and rigged to collapse in sections as part of the film’s ‘kick’ conceit in which the characters would wake themselves from a dream within a dream. (Photo copyright © 2010 Warner Bros. Pictures. All rights reserved.)

DIRECTORS ON VFX

“Filmmakers imagine for a living. It all starts with a shot and a dream. But sometimes that dream doesn’t quite have a picture frame around it and isn’t quite in focus. The visual effects fill in the colors and bring our dreams into focus. It’s an amazing collaboration that has resulted in bringing the world some of the most astounding images the world has ever seen.”

—Steven Spielberg, Director, 6th Annual VES Awards

“My films have gone from having no visual effects to being completely visual effects. When I started off in independent film, ‘visual effects’ wasn’t even a line item. You were lucky to raise barely enough money to film the script, and visual effects were new and expensive. … The Jungle Book was truly a creative partnership between film and visual effects. The Lion King takes that partnership a step further, as the production and characters are all completely virtual. By including the effects artists in every step of the process, with meaningful collaboration, I have found that these new capabilities open up vast storytelling opportunities. Innovation in film has always been the dance between building new tools to tell a particular story and then allowing these new tools to inspire new stories that could never be told before.”

Jon Favreau, Director

“There’s no way to quantify the importance of visual effects in the films I’ve been involved in. VFX have become as crucial and ubiquitous as any element. Just as one relies on a fine actor to deliver a moving performance, or world-class DP to shoot a film beautifully, one depends on their visual effects supervisor to provide anything that’s necessary to help believably tell the story. I’ve been especially lucky in that Roger Guyett is a true storyteller. That Venn diagram is critical in a VFX supervisor. A film needs someone who is a technical wizard, certainly, but also someone who understands the inside-out intention of a sequence, scene or shot. But VFX have become as critical as any element of the making of a film.”

J.J. Abrams, Director

“Moving image, in all its formats, has been with us no more than 130 years. Its evolution has been exponential, and along the way there have been two great milestones – the advent of sound in the ‘20s and, since the late ‘80s, digital visual effects. These are the ‘tools of enchantment’ which allow movies to be utterly persuasive, and to be working in a time when this digital dispensation is flourishing is one huge privilege. … It had been 30 years since the last Mad Max movie and everything had changed. Although we shot old-school live action, not one frame (in 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road) was left untouched by VFX. Apart from epic dust storms, landscapes and such, we kept continuity of skies, erased the safety harnesses of our cast and stunt performers, plus removed the wheel tracks of previous takes. The plasticity of the image was impossible to imagine all those years ago. Making the movie felt, in some ways, nostalgic, yet most of it could not have been accomplished before this era. For me it was a kind of time traveling.”

—George Miller, Director

Alien was the first I got involved with visual effects, which included a little matte painting, and all the universes done with skilled hands and a bristle brush randomly sprinkling stars onto black color board, and then we just photographed it. Prometheus was my first long-range planning to capture ambitious events in other universes, and I marveled at the artistic skill set, and the importance of digital animation in helping to guide this story.

Alien: Covenant took it to yet another level. Over the years, I’ve watched, listened, learned and admired the ingenuity of the artistic science of visual effects. Now anything is possible, providing you use the tools properly.”

—Sir Ridley Scott, Director

“I feel I’m one of you, even though I haven’t been a practitioner for many years. I love visual effects. Arthur C. Clarke said, ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ And that’s what we do. I’ve been asked a lot about my inspiration for Avatar, and I think back to being seven years old, sitting in a movie theater seeing films like Mysterious Island, Jason and the Argonauts and The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. Then came 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the shock of the incomprehensible, that feeling of how did they do that? I started building models and trying to figure it out. The Avatar experience made me realize that the stuff we were doing back in the day – stop motion, glass painting, models – now it’s all done with supercomputers. When I wrote Avatar we couldn’t make the film because the CG wasn’t quite there yet, so I shelved it because I knew that every year that went by the visual effects community would create new tools, write new code, and the reality level would increase. CG characters and worlds pushed the envelope, but computers don’t make visual effects, people do. It’s still the artist, the imagination and the sense of a pioneering spirit that make the magic. It’s the thought behind the shot, it’s the eye.”

—James Cameron, Director

“As a filmmaker, I love working with the medium of computer animation; it’s like the whole movie is one big visual effect. What makes computer animation work is not the mere fact that it’s made with a computer, it’s what you do with it and how you entertain the audience. It’s the story and the characters. We are in the business of entertaining audiences. It’s about making films that keep the audience on the edge of their seats, wondering what’s going to happen next. We all love the technology, but more importantly we love hearing the audience laugh.”

—John Lasseter, Director

“It’s been a pleasure to watch the Visual Effects Society grow. Those of us who have been around a long time – Dennis Muren and some of the others at ILM – 40 years ago when we started in this business there was no visual effects industry. There were ‘special effects,’ and that was a whole bunch of things, but there really was no ‘industry.’ Now, to watch all these great movies and television shows full of magnificent effects, it’s stunning. So much has changed. In those days, effects were created with a camera that sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t, whereas now, of course, everything works perfectly.”

—George Lucas, Director

“I’m as dependent on visual effects as any filmmaker out there, and I’m very grateful to and appreciative of all the people I’ve worked with who help bring my visions to life. For me, it’s a process of starting with a physical reality – the science or process of how things actually work. With that as the basis, you can create incredible images and make an audience believe they are real – whether it’s fantastic, like the folding cities of Inception, or the interior of a black hole in Interstellar, or something of this Earth that most people have never experienced, as with the heart of battle in Dunkirk. The exotic nature of what you can achieve with visual effects creates a hyper-reality. Truth can be stranger than fiction.”

—Christopher  Nolan, Director

“Visual effects have merged into the whole process of the cine- matic experience. It’s not about shots, it’s about the integration of universes, the integration of sets, the integration of life and actors. We’re living in a historic moment in cinema.”

—Alfonso Cuarón, Director

“I originally studied as a fine artist, so to see so many truly gifted VFX artists and crew working around the clock to bring their incredible skills to Wonder Woman was truly stunning. Bill Westenhoffer, our VFX Supervisor, was by my side every day, and did such an amazing job guiding and overseeing all of the effects, which were so critical to the storytelling. At the moment there is still a limit to what you can do with a digi double versus a real actor, because if it gets too close or detailed you can still start to feel that something isn’t quite right. The next big breakthrough will be to cross that divide and really be able to manipulate a digi double to absolutely appear as fluid and real as a person, in closer, more detailed shots. We’re getting close!”

—Patty Jenkins, Director

Life of Pi (2012). Rhythm & Hues crafted a stunningly convincing photoreal CG tiger, among other animals, for Ang Lee’s Life of Pi. The effect was made even more complicated because the tiger had to co-exist with a young boy on a lifeboat in the open ocean. The visual effects teams also had to solve water simulations and the tracking of characters – shot in water tanks – on the moving waves. (Photo copyright © 2012 Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved.)

Back to the Future (1985). Industrial Light & Magic model shop supervisor Steve Gawley works on a miniature flying DeLorean for the final scenes of Back to the Future. The film featured extensive miniature and optical effects from ILM, which progressed into complex motion- control shots, split screens, early digital wire removal and paint effects for sequels to the Robert Zemeckis movie. (Photo copyright © 1985 Universal Studios. All rights reserved.)

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008). Turning Brad Pitt into  an old man, and then reversing his aging, required CG characters and de-aging effects that were unparalleled on the screen at the time. This image shows a completely synthetic character made by Digital Domain based on life casts of an older actor and facial motion-capture of Pitt. (Photo copyright © 2008 Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.)

District 9 (2009). Neill Blomkamp – and visual effects studio Image Engine – seemed to burst onto the scene with the alien refugee story of District 9 in 2009. One challenge for the visual effects crew was staying true to the hand-held documentary feel of the film, while also providing for believable, and emotional, alien characters. These were played on set by actors wearing gray tracking suits. (Photo copyright © 2009 Sony Pictures. All rights reserved.)

Independence Day (1996). A 12-foot City Destroyer model for Independence Day is positioned over a mountain landscape in front of a painted sky backdrop, and shot with a mini-motion control system called Jet Rail. This enabled the camera to fit between the landscape and model for dog-fighting scenes, and represented the practical side of the film’s visual effects, which also made a large headway into CG imagery and digital compositing. (Photo courtesy of Volker Engel)

Total Recall (1990). Visual Effects Supervisor Eric Brevig (left) and Director of Miniature Photography Alex Funke stand in one of the model Mars environments created for Total Recall. The Paul Verhoeven film featured significant make-up and creature effects, miniatures, optical compositing, early motion capture and some nascent CG animation. (Photo courtesy of Eric Brevig)

Ex Machina (2015). For Ex Machina, actress Alicia Vikander performed the role of the robot Ava on set, which was then seamlessly augmented by visual effects artists Double Negative to reveal cyborg details in different parts of the body. Meticulous tracking of Vikander and replacement with CG sections won much acclaim for its ‘invisible’ role in realizing the character. (Photo copyright © 2015 A24. All rights reserved.)

The Mask (1994). Jim Carrey’s already ‘rubbery’ performance was taken even further by Industrial Light & Magic in The Mask, with the studio capitalizing on new techniques developed in CG animation and 3D morphing to give a cartoony, yet realistic, result. (Photo copyright © 1994 New Line Cinema. All rights reserved.)

Young Sherlock Holmes (1985). Delivering the first 3D character in a feature film with the Stained Glass Man for Young Sherlock Holmes, the Computer Division at Lucasfilm – working hand-in-hand with other visual effects created by Industrial Light & Magic for the film – brought CG to the forefront of modern day movies. (Photo copyright © 1985 Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.)
300 (2007). Zack Snyder’s stylistic rendition of this comic book- sourced story took full advantage of the manipulation of live-action photography with visual effects for key ‘frames’, including for this cliff sequence completed by Animal Logic. Actors were commonly filmed against bluescreen, but the final imagery was intentionally pushed and pulled for dramatic effect. (Photo copyright © 2007 Warner Bros. Pictures. All rights reserved.)

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road, his return to the franchise after many years, saw the worlds of stunts, special effects, visual effects and – in a more than prominent way, color grading – combine to give the film its hard-hitting result. These images sum up the general approach to the film’s visual effects, in which plate photography was often augmented with additional environments, crowds, effects and color grading. (Photo copyright © 2015 Warner Bros. Pictures. All rights reserved.)

Transformers (2007). The Decepticon Bonecrusher, a CG creation by Industrial Light & Magic, causes havoc during a freeway chase scene in Michael Bay’s Transformers. ILM solved major animation and physical interaction challenges to help bring the film to life, seamlessly integrating highly reflective metallic characters into what has been described as the director’s ‘Bayhem’ action. (Photo copyright © 2007 Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.)

Starship Troopers (1997). Phil Tippett’s Tippett Studio orchestrated a raft of CG bugs for Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers, relying on keyframe animation and the use of a ‘digital input device’ armature, first devised for Jurassic Park, that replicated the idea of a stop-motion animation feel for the creatures. The film was also marked by impressive spaceship miniatures, matte paintings and other digital effects. (Photo copyright © 1997 Sony Pictures. All rights reserved.)

THE VES 70 (in alphabetical order; newly added films noted in italics)

300 (2007)

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

A Trip to the Moon (1902)

Abyss, The (1989)

Alien (1979)

Aliens (1986)

An American Werewolf in London (1981)

Apollo 13 (1995)

Blade Runner (1982)

Citizen Kane (1941)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The (2008)

Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1958)

Day the Earth Stood Still, The (1951)

District 9 (2009)

E.T. the Extraterrestrial (1982)

Empire Strikes Back, The (1980)

Ex Machina (2015)

Fantastic Voyage (1966)

Fifth Element, The (1997)

Avatar (2009)

Babe (1995)

Back to the Future (1985)

Forbidden Planet (1956)

Forrest Gump (1994)

Gertie the Dinosaur (1914)

Ghostbusters (1984)

Godzilla (1954)

Gravity (2013)

Inception (2010)

Independence Day (1996)

Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

Jaws (1975)

Jurassic Park (1993)

King Kong (1933)

King Kong (2005)

Life of Pi (2012)

Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

The Lost World (1925)

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

Mary Poppins (1964)

The Mask (1994)

The Matrix (1999)

Metropolis (1927)

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006)

Planet of the Apes (1968)

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Return of the Jedi (1983)

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958)

Sin City (2005)

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

Star Wars (1977)

Starship Troopers (1997)

Superman: The Movie (1978)

The Ten Commandments (1956)

The Terminator (1984)

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

The Thing (1982)

Titanic (1997)

Total Recall (1990)

Toy Story (1995)

Tron (1982)

Transformers (2007)

Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)

The War of the Worlds (1953)

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

What Dreams May Come (1998)

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)


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