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January 02
2018

ISSUE

Winter 2018

The VFX Oscar: Meet the Contenders

By IAN FAILES

It’s near impossible to predict the VFX Oscar winner. In some years, a clear front-runner often emerges, such as The Jungle Book (2016), Gravity (2013) or Life of Pi (2012). In other years, the winners have surprised many, such as Hugo in 2011 and Ex Machina in 2015. But the reality is that the visual effects work in all the films that make it through the nomination process is always stunning.

2017 was an enormous year for visual effects, which means the art of Oscar prediction remains a tough one. The year featured massive films with core VFX components that would not have been possible without VFX artistry. There were also smaller movies that included more ‘invisible effects,’ even though the practical and digital effects work in them was just as critical to the storytelling.

With that in mind, VFX Voice looks at 20 of the possible contenders for the visual effects Oscar, out of a list that could easily have included many more.

As most visual effects practitioners know, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences Visual Effects Branch creates a ‘short list’ of films that will rival for nominations for the Best Visual Effects Oscar.

Once the short list is announced, each visual effects team creates a reel and the team presents it at the Academy in front of Visual Effects Branch members. This ‘VFX Bakeoff’ takes place early to mid-January. Subsequent to that, final nominations are announced.

ALIEN: COVENANT

MPC, under the guidance of Visual Effects Supervisor Charley Henley, delivered several fully-CG creatures for the film, including the Xenomorph. (Photo TM & Copyright © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.)

The Alien films have a rich history in on-set creature effects; with Alien: Covenant, director Ridley Scott used that to his advantage by having many of the creatures and gags built practically, even if the final intention was to replace them with CG. It meant actors had real things to react to – a noticeable component in the film’s many action scenes. Plus, it meant the VFX houses had a grounded reality to match with absolute photorealism.

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

Digital Domain utilized its new facial-capture and re-targeting system called Direct Drive to take Dan Stevens’s original performance and transplant that onto their CG Beast. (Photo copyright ©2016 Walt Disney Pictures. All Rights Reserved.)

Bill Condon’s Beauty and the Beast was one of the most anticipated films of the year, successfully navigating the jump from the original 1991 2D animated feature to live action. Interestingly, the visual effects heavily reference the original cartoon, especially the household items joyously brought to life by Framestore, and then take the Beast into the photoreal realm, thanks to an on-set performance by Dan Stevens and computer graphics by Digital Domain.

BLADE RUNNER 2049

Along with a crack team of VFX studios like Double Negative, MPC and Framestore – and Visual Effects Supervisor John Nelson – Blade Runner 2049 was also shot by lauded cinematographer Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC adding a deep level of visuals and style. (Photo copyright ©2017 Columbia Pictures/Alcon Entertainment LLC. All Rights Reserved.)

Few films other than Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner are referenced so commonly as visual effects masterpieces. But Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 has somehow taken the essence of the practical miniatures and matte paintings in the original film and preserved that feeling, albeit with the ability to rely on the latest digital techniques. The nostalgia factor – and incredible VFX work – will be a major factor in this being an Oscar contender.

DOWNSIZING

Kristen Wiig and Matt Damon star as a couple who look to shrink themselves in an effort to downsize their lives. Visual effects, overseen by James E. Price, helped sell key scenes requiring scale differences. (Photo copyright © 2017 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.)

Downsizing, from director Alexander Payne, is perhaps a left-field choice as a VFX Oscar contender. It mainly involves miniaturization work by Industrial Light & Magic – a studio that has pioneered this technique before in films such as Innerspace and The Indian in the Cupboard. Here, miniaturization is so completely intertwined in the story that it almost becomes unnoticeable, a significant measure of success.

DUNKIRK

Visual Effects Supervisor Andrew Jackson led the Double Negative team in realizing Nolan’s World War II drama, much of it shot on IMAX cameras. (Photo copyright © 2017 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., Ratpac-Dune Entertainment LLC and Ratpac Entertainment LLC. All Rights Reserved.)

Christopher Nolan films have a habit of winning (Interstellar, Inception) and being nominated (The Dark Knight) for the VFX Oscar. This is despite Nolan regularly looking to film things as practically as possible. Ultimately, the director’s films regularly combine live action, large-scale effects, miniatures, CG and seamless compositing. Voters will be astounded how well these things were combined by Double Negative in Dunkirk.

GHOST IN THE SHELL

Iconic hovering moments through the futuristic city were actually dubbed ‘Ghost Cam’ and required collaboration between design, cinematography and VFX. (Photo copyright © 2016 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.)

This Rupert Sanders take on the original Japanese manga and anime has many elaborately crafted sequences, with Visual Effects Supervisors Guillaume Rocheron and John Dykstra entrusting several studios to fill out the world. As it has done on a number of films released in 2017, lead house MPC took digital makeup to new heights by augmenting live-action performances with CG, as well as finding innovative ways to deliver futuristic ‘solograms’ – moving 3D advertisements – and cityscapes.

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2

Baby Groot, as made by Framestore, during the opening dance sequence to the film. James Gunn even pantomimed the dance himself for animators to refer to. (Photo credit: Film Frame. Copyright © 2017 Marvel Studios. All Rights Reserved.)

The depth of visual effects work in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is one of its crowning VFX achievements. Several houses worked on bringing numerous digital creatures to life (Rocket Raccoon, for example, was shared amongst four facilities). Other notables include highly detailed digital environments, an exploding fractal-filled planet and de-aging visual effects for Kurt Russell.

JUSTICE LEAGUE

Visual Effects Supervisor John ‘DJ’ Des Jardin returned to the DC Universe and oversaw work from VFX studios including MPC, Weta Digital, Double Negative and Scanline VFX. (Photo copyright © 2017 Warner Bros Entertainment. All Rights Reserved.)

Superman. Batman. Wonder Woman. Aquaman. The Flash. Cyborg. Each of these characters in Justice League required their own specialized visual effects enhancement, and that doesn’t touch on the many battle scenes in the film. More than most, Justice League clearly shows the key role that VFX now plays in comic book films in both realizing superheroes and being responsible for some of the coolest ‘audience favorite’ shots.

KONG: SKULL ISLAND

Industrial Light & Magic amplified its muscle simulation and hair tools to help enable a number of mind-blowing sequences in Kong: Skull Island. (Photo copyright © 2017 Warner Bros Entertainment. All Rights Reserved.)

Watching Kong take on a multitude of other creatures, and even helicopters in one horrific early sequence, in Jordan Vogt-Roberts’s Kong: Skull Island, it’s clear that the VFX team, led by Supervisors Stephen Rosenbaum and Jeff White, reached the necessary spectacle heights for this film. They also managed to imbue a strong sense of emotion and character into the giant ape – and that’s what the visual effects will be remembered for.

LOGAN

Image Engine produced the digital Hugh Jackman double, as well as a double for the character of Laura (Dafne Keen) in the film, under guidance from overall Visual Effects Supervisor Chas Jarrett. (Photo copyright © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.)

James Mangold’s Logan has a grittier and more grounded place in the X-Men series of films than others before it, as its bloody effects attest. But audiences were surprised to learn that some Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) scenes made use of a completely photoreal digital double, a pleasing sleight of hand that could edge the film closer to a VFX Oscar nomination.

THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS

Some scenes were largely digital, such as this crazy ice-breaking submarine moment delivered by Digital Domain. (Photo copyright © 2017 Universal Pictures. All Rights Reserved.)

You might not think of The Fate of the Furious as an invisible effects movie, but in many ways that is how this F. Gary Gray film was made. Practical stunts formed the base of many action scenes, with Visual Effects Supervisors Kelvin McIlwain and Michael Grobe enabling a wealth of wire and rig removals and seamless CG additions.

THE SHAPE OF WATER

Visual Effects Supervisor Dennis Berardi from Mr X Inc. capitalized on an on-set performance from Doug Jones wearing creature prosthetics by Legacy Effects to further enhance aspects of the character, such as eyes and gills, in CG. (Photo credit: Kerry Hayes. Copyright © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.)

Could Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water take a leaf out of Ex Machina’s book and scoop the VFX Oscar? It has a central character that is both a practical and CG creation, and generally uses visual effects in very subtle ways. Plus, it delighted audiences, a big factor in those recognizing the efforts of the filmmakers and VFX team.

THOR: RAGNAROK

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) face off in one of several battles – CG humans, animals and creatures were a major part of the film. (Photo credit: Film Frame. Copyright © 2017 Marvel Studios. All Rights Reserved.)

With so many Marvel films being released, Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok offered something different: characters and a world you already knew (and some you didn’t) but with more of an improvisational and independent vibe. That went for the visual effects, too, which were more deliberately stylized than previous Thor outings, a point of difference that might see the film elevated to a nomination.

VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS

Weta Digital worked with overall Visual Effects Supervisor Scott Stokdyk to generate the completely digital Pearl characters, based on real female models used in 3D scanning and facial capture. (Photo courtesy of Weta Digital. Copyright © 2016 EuropaCorp Pictures. Valerian SAS-TFI Films Production. All Rights Reserved.)

Director Luc Besson wholeheartedly adopted the newest digital techniques in making Valerian, from previs to motion capture, facial animation, effects and rendering. While not warmly adopted by audiences, the film has a high proportion of astonishing scenes, most notably anything involving the Pearl creatures and the ‘you have to see it to believe it’ Big Market sequence.

WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES

The ape Caesar (played by Andy Serkis). Weta Digital made further improvements in the way its fur system handled dirt and snow for the film, along with enhancements to its proprietary Manuka renderer. (Photo copyright © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.)

Weta Digital already wowed filmgoers in the two previous Apes films by taking live-action motion-captured performances from the likes of Andy Serkis and turning them into living, breathing characters. It seems impossible, but the studio, led by Visual Effects Supervisors Joe Letteri and Dan Lemmon, somehow managed to up the ante this time around. War is surely considered a VFX Oscar front-runner.

WONDER WOMAN

MPC, under the supervision of overall VFX Supervisor Bill Westenhofer, took plate photography of actress Gal Gadot and enhanced it to show her crashing through a window. (Photo courtesy of MPC. Copyright © 2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment. All Rights Reserved.)

Wonder Woman, from director Patty Jenkins, is on this list not because of any major technical achievements, but because it is another example of seamless and ‘invisible effects’. The VFX aid in selling the war-time scenes – and in enhancing stunts, especially using digital doubles. The most front-and-center work appears at the end in the final Diana versus Ares battle, but by then audiences have bought into the created world.

VFX Oscar Roll Call

The following is a list of films that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has recognized for Best Visual Effects since 1990.

The Academy was cognizant of technical contributions to films as far back as their first Awards Show in 1928 when it handed out an award for “Best Engineering Effects” to the movie Wings, which was also the Best Picture winner that year. In 1933, the Academy recognized the work of Willis O’Brien for his work on King Kong.

The very first award, entitled “Special Achievement Award for Special Effects,” was presented in 1938 for Paramount’s Spawn of the North. The Academy struggled with terminology and recognition for many years and did not come up with the official Best Visual Effects moniker until 1977. In some years there was no recognition award for special effects or technical achievements. In some years only three films were nominated instead of five. Now, however, Best Visual Effects is a major category and one of the evening’s most prestigious awards.

Of special note is the fact that Dennis Muren, VES has received the most awards in this category with eight awards. Muren is also the most nominated in this category with 15 nominations.

The Jungle Book, 2016

Ex Machina, 2015

Interstellar, 2014

Gravity, 2013

Life of Pi, 2012

Hugo, 2011

Inception, 2010

Avatar, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, 2008

The Golden Compass, 2007

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, 2006

King Kong, 2005

Spider-Man 2, 2004

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, 2003

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, 2002

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, 2001

Gladiator, 2000

The Matrix, 1999

What Dreams May Come, 1998

Titanic, 1997

Independence Day, 1996

Babe, 1995

Forest Gump, 1994

Jurassic Park, 1993

Death Becomes Her, 1992

Terminator 2, 1991

Total Recall, 1990


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