Issue: Volume: 28 Issue: 12 (December 2005)

Flirting with Oscar


Who will win the next date with Hollywood’s ‘golden boy’?
Although the 78th annual Academy Awards presentation is still months away, it is never too early to ponder who will receive Hollywood’s top honors and take home the golden idol known as Oscar. With the “bake-off,” or the selection of the top contenders, just weeks away, effects and animation studios are abuzz with predictions and speculations.

Far from pure conjecture, however, is the quality of this year’s films that are receiving accolades by industry peers for the their visual effects and animation. Perhaps even more tantalizing is the work yet to come. As of this publication’s deadline, King Kong, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, all highly anticipated visual effects films, as well as the animated feature Chicken Little, had not yet been released in theaters.

To get an idea of what films may end up as contenders for the Oscar, we spoke to more than a dozen VFX supervisors and producers, animators, and animation historians to get their take on the year’s most outstanding work and, more importantly, why it could be Oscar-worthy.

Yet, it is important to note that the difficulty of ultimately deciding Oscar nominations has increased over the years as visual effects have become more widespread and routine.

“It cannot be overestimated how many visual effects are in movies nowadays,” says Sony Pictures Imageworks VFX supervisor Pete Travers, who worked on Zathura. “There have been so many movies with effects this year, and most of what’s out there is executed flawlessly.”

Nevertheless, for visual effects, the day of the movie that succeeds simply by virtue of its digital derring-do is over. Audiences want compelling stories and effects that support the productions, from the eye-popping spectacle to the invisible assist.

Moreover, the idea of a “first”-the first digital double, the first hair, the first biped-is, if not entirely over, not an every-year occurrence. “There are new things out there, but not many,” says Travers. “Now the challenge is to make the effects look as good as they can with the money they’ve got. There’s still lots of room to innovate in our industry, but it’s not the wide-open frontier it was in the mid-’90s.”

On a similar note, 2005 has proven interesting for animated features. Although audiences have seen their share of top-rated CG animated films such as Madagascar and Robots, the non-CG animated films are equally popular, particularly the two stop-motion productions Corpse Bride and Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, and the traditionally animated feature Howl’s Moving Castle.

So, while animated features are showing that CG may be a highly successful medium, it’s certainly not the only one for telling a good tale. Marrying technique to story is an art in itself, and the best chosen marriages and best executed stories will be the ones that entertain and succeed.

Though everyone agrees that the ubiquity and excellence of visual effects makes it difficult to choose a front-runner, when pressed to recall their favorite effects and animations from this year, our “CGW Academy” didn’t hesitate to offer opinions and thoughts on the subject.

Debra Kaufman is a freelance writer in the entertainment industry. She can be reached at dkla@comcast.net.


VISUAL EFFECTS


In all likelihood, this sci-fi thriller will make the Oscar short list in the visual effects category, and indeed it was most consistently mentioned as a favorite. Jeff Okun, visual effects supervisor and co-chair of the Visual Effects Society, cites the way the tripods incinerate people into ashes, leaving their clothes to fall to the ground, as “hands down, the coolest effect in the film.”
Release date: June 29, 2005
Production companies: Paramount Pictures, Amblin Entertainment, DreamWorks Pictures, Cruise/Wagner Productions
Release date: May 19, 2005
Production company: Lucasfilm, Ltd.
Effects: Too many to name, although the lava field earns part




“They created a world that was so rich, so populated,” continues Okun. “There was so much in there.” Adds Taylor: “Just the fact that they did that volume of work at that quality is an achievement.”


The style of Sin City is what sets the movie apart from the other contenders, the interviewees point out. “Sin City blurs the line between art direction, production design, and visual effects,” explains Okun. And he is not alone in his sentiment. “It was such a fresh take, so sharp and crisp, and yet still cinematic and moody,” agree the Strause brothers.
Release date: April 1, 2005
Production companies: Dimension Films, Troublemaker Studios
Effects: Virtual cinematography meet




Moreover, visual effects supervisor Rob Legato calls Sin City “a unique telling of a movie-a graphic novel brought to life.” He adds: “It was a style unto itself.” Others say that Sin City hits the mark for translating a graphic novel to the silver screen. “From a visual effects point of view, this was the first film based on a comic book that I ever thought truly felt like a comic book-and it was done quite a bit through its use of effects,” Shermis says. “I enjoyed the stark contrast of the desaturation and saturation of colors all at once. The visual effects are part of the art direction.”

According to visual effects supervisor John Gaeta, Sin City is the one film this year that really caught his eye, “because the conceptual approach to the content was realized well.” Looking to the future, he believes the movie “sets the stage for the loosening of media mixing and stylization in general.”


Computer-generated elements for crowds and battles are nothing new, but doing it right is another thing. “A superhero movie is more forgiving, but something like Kingdom of Heaven [a non-fantasy film] has to look real,” says Travers. “If the battle is taking place and a goofy-looking fireball flies by, you’ll be taken out of the story quickly.”
Release date: May 6, 2005
Production companies: 20th Century Fox, Scott Free Productions, Kanzaman SA
Effects: Crowd simulat




Shermis also likes the effects work in this film. “The battle scenes, the charging armies, the attacks on the walls of the cities...it was an excellent job,” he says. “There were tons of digital stunt work and digital horses, and I thought it was better than The Lord of the Rings because it felt more organic as opposed to repetitive or mechanical. It felt more alive in terms of what they were doing.” In fact, Shermis thinks the digital effects were so believable that, had he not seen some of the work in progress, he wouldn’t have been able to identify so many scenes as visual effects shots. “And that’s very much a success,” he adds.


Effects serve the story in Batman Begins, contends Legato. “As the movie went on, I became less aware of the visual effects and got more into the story,” he says. “I was in that little world. What I saw was artistically consistent with the movie they wanted to make.”
Release date: June 15, 2005
Production companies: Warner Bros., Syncopy, DC Comics
Effects: Skillful blending of animatronic




Presently, Batman Begins is Peristere’s favorite VFX movie released this year. “The effects mirror the story and the tone set by director Christopher Nolan and [screenwriter] David Goyer,” he says. “They were tonally correct-just this side of being a comic book and yet entirely real.”

Effects specific to the hero Batman also garnered approval. Peristere says that Batman’s cape looked as if it were truly catching air, an R&D success. On the other hand, Taylor admires the Batmobile’s action. “Everything has a proper mass and heft,” he notes. “When the car lands, you can see the weight go on and come off the suspension.”

But, it’s the seamless integration of miniatures, models, animatronics, and CG that are the most impressive. Peristere points to the integration of 3D matte paintings and miniatures used to extend and complete Gotham City, especially in the shot of a helicopter approaching the city during early morning. “It felt just like a traditional helicopter shot-it wasn’t a fancy camera move-but instead of Manhattan, it was Gotham City,” he explains. Adds Taylor: “The combination of miniatures and CG work was completely fulfilling for the mood and the art direction. The second time I saw it, I was on the lookout for VFX work, for life-sized mechanical animatronics, miniatures, and CG. The real watermark is when you can’t tell when one begins and the other leaves off.”


It’s one thing to have a CG airplane zipping by other, real planes; motion covers a multitude of sins. But to have a CG aircraft sit beside a real one on an aircraft carrier takes the kind of skill demonstrated in Stealth. “I thought the effects were astounding,” says Taylor. “It was the toughest thing to put the CG plane next to the real one in broad daylight, and you couldn’t tell the difference.” He also applauds the decision to shoot the fighter cockpits with no canopies and install CG canopies in post. “You have great-looking textures in the canopies, such as microscopic crazing in the plastic and all sorts of little reflections as the sun hits,” he says. “It raised the conviction level of those shots a tremendous degree.”
Release date: July 29, 2005
Production companies: Columbia Pictures, Original Film, Phoenix Pictures, Laura Ziskin Productions, AFG Talons Productions
Release date: July 8, 2005
Production companies: 20th Century Fox, Marvel Enterprises, 1492 Pictures, Constantin Film Production
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What director Peter Jackson and VFX facility Weta Digital will create in King Kong is the subject of much conversation among visual effects pros. “There’s one close-up at the end of the trailer that grabs me,” Okun says. “Kong just opens his giant mouth and roars. You can see the spittle and the highlights on the wet spots inside his mouth. There’s a lot of attention to detail without losing the humanity of the creature.” Meanwhile, Taylor remarks that the giant ape’s hair is a matted look that he hasn’t seen before.” And Morris says: “I think it’ll be the kind of movie that takes you to another time and place.”
Release date: December 14, 2005
Production companies: Big Primate Pictures, Universal Pictures, WingNut Films
Effects: CG ap




“The new trailer looks solid. There will be a lot of good, furry characters and big battles,” say the Strause brothers. Adds Morris, “It looks like they’ve achieved a very high level of reality with Aslan, the lion. Even when he’s talking, he looks real.” Moreover, many VFX supervisors point to director Andrew Adamson as being the kind of perfectionist who will demand spectacular effects. “He is a stickler for detail,” says Hynek. “I’m expecting amazing things.”
Release date: December 9, 2005
Production companies: Walt Disney Pictures, Walden Media, Lamp Post Productions, Ltd.
Effects:< td>




For this film, visual effects supervisors refer back to the successes of the past Harry Potter films. “If it’s along the same lines as the third movie, I think it’ll do well and be a contender for at least an Oscar nomination,” says Hynek. The Strause brothers say that the CG dragon looks especially impressive, and Shermis looks forward to what he’s heard about an underwater swimming sequence within a virtual environment.
Release date: November 18, 2005
Production companies: Warner Bros., Heyday Films, 1492 Pictures
Effects: An underwater digit




Also named as a good effects movie by a few VFX supervisors was The Island, which Shermis praises as “well executed.” He notes: “The camera work felt unique. And the twinning of Ewan McGregor was well done and included interactions between the two.” Morris, on the other hand, is also looking forward to Jarhead. “Director Sam Mendes wanted the movie to be told from the point of view of the guys in the trenches,” he says. “The visual effects put you in that location and time, all with invisible effects.”


ANIMATED FEATURES


Hynek, who professes his love of animation, enthuses about Wallace & Gromit. “They made great style choices in their characters,” he says, “and captured a lot of that British wackiness and pomp.”
Release date: October 5, 2005
Production companies: Aardman Animations, DreamWorks Animation




Beck goes a step further, calling this film “the one to beat” for the Oscar. “It’s got everything: heart, imagination, and the craft, the look, and the passion of an individual filmmaker,” he says. “As wonderful as studio-created films are, we respond more when we believe the piece reflects the hand of an individual filmmaker. We lose it occasionally, and then this movie came and hit us in the face. It’s a delight from beginning to end.”


“[Hayao] Miyazaki is a dynamic filmmaker,” says animator/animation historian John Canemaker, who is also director of the animation program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. “As usual, his visuals create an immersion into his interesting dream world.”
Release date: June 10, 2005
Production companies: Studio Ghibli, Dentsu, Mitsubishi, Nippon Television Network, Toho Pictures, Tokuma Shoten, Buena Vista Home Entertainm




As for Beck, he prefers this film to Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, although he admits being in the minority with that opinion. “This man is the master of anime,” Beck says. “There isn’t one scene that isn’t beautiful, fantastic, and wonderful to look at. I kept wondering, when will my jaw stop dropping? He’s such a great storyteller, and the movie is a feast for the eyes, and yet, it’s hand drawn.”


Animation historian/author Jerry Beck points out that, unlike many “made by committee” animated features, Corpse Bride shows the hand of its creator, Tim Burton, and his artistic sensibility. “This picture (and Wallace & Gromit) are unlike anything you’ve seen from the last few years,” he says. “And it’s interesting technically. The stop-motion animation is smooth, unlike other stop-motion films, and the puppets look as beautiful as any of the sets.”
Release date: September 23, 2005
Production companies: Warner Bros., Tim Burton Animation Co., Laika Entertainment




Also getting accolades in the animated feature-film category is Madagascar, which Beck calls “a surprise hit.” As he points out, “It’s CG, and it’s done well. It was popular, and the craft is there. You can see that this is polished, professional, and well-made Hollywood entertainment.” Another CG treat, say the interviewees, is Robots. The movie is visually attractive, with William Joyce serving as production designer, and the robots themselves are “clever-looking,” maintains Beck. And Travers points out: “The rendering, the overall look and style, and the art direction were good.” Animation experts also are anticipating Chicken Little, which Beck dubs “the wild card” in the Oscar race. He says: “From what I’ve seen, Chicken Little looks great.”

“They used a lot of ingenious ways to create the effects, including the skillful integration of miniatures,” notes Shermis. He also praised the chocolate river and called the oompa loompas “phenomenal as characters” along with the digital squirrels. “They were photoreal and had a lot of personality,” he adds.
Release date: July 15, 2005
Production companies: Warner Bros., Village Roadshow Pictures, The Zanuck Company, Plan B Entertainment
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Peristere describes the effort that went into creating the oompa loompas from a single performance, in particular, “controlling those muscle-control passes of a single actor that had to be scaled down and do different things,” as quite a feat. “One actor who did 30 or 40 things, including a Busby Berkeley type of number, is impressive in terms of sheer complexity,” he says.
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