Angling for the Oscar
Issue: Volume: 31 Issue: 12 (Dec. 2008)

Angling for the Oscar

No question, it’s been a great year for visual effects in films. Cutting-edge effects provided a number of superheroes with extraordinary powers. It brought unusual creatures to life. It transported us back in time to prehistoric days. It took us on exciting adventures. It helped spawn hellish characters. It awakened a centuries-old emperor. It enabled realistic-looking animals to act alongside real actors.

“The technology and the artistry has come such a long way,” says VFX supervisor Mike Chambers. “What strikes me this year is how much good work is out there. Popular movies like The Dark Knight and Iron Man have big budgets and vision, and they’re fantastic.”

These crowd-pleasers also have been exemplars of a trend: digital effects that are highly collaborative with practical effects. “People go out of their way to describe these as invisible effects, and that strikes me as an elaborate way of describing how it should always be,” says The Orphanage’s Stu Maschwitz. “Visual effects are becoming so important to all movies. The less you think of it as postproduction and the more you see it as a filmmaking technique, the better.”

Animation has had an interesting year as well, with the first Walt Disney Animation collaboration with Pixar, and two stellar entries from DreamWorks Animation and Pixar. We witnessed a panda realize his dream. Zoo animals survive in the wild. A robot act human. A dog whose life imitates fiction.

From fantasy to crime story, from science fiction to the prehistoric, many of this year’s visual effects and animated films were a perfect marriage of storytelling and technology, vision, and artistry.

The Dark Knight
Release date: July 18 (wide release)
Production companies: Warner Bros. Pictures, Legendary Pictures, DC Comics, Syncopy
Visual effects supervisors universally praise The Dark Knight. “It is a beautiful work,” says VFX supervisor Tim McGovern. “There are a lot of invisible visual effects—miles and miles of them, and it’s all very well done.” For VFX supervisor Jeff Okun, the visual effects were, most importantly, “organic to the story.” “They didn’t try to steal the limelight by doing the most astounding effects, despite the story,” he says. “It was absolutely a good integration of physical and digital effects, and that’s when the magic is really happening.”

Okun points out that the use of practical effects requires a certain kind of moxie. “What digital effects have taught directors is that they can have whatever they want, whenever they want it,” he says. “But if you shoot practical effects, you’re locked into a camera angle. It takes a director like Christopher Nolan, who has the courage of his convictions. The VFX supervisor can’t import that. The director has to carry the torch.”

The Dark Knight was the summer’s box-office king, setting a new opening-weekend record.

The Dark Knight feels more like a crime movie than a visual effects movie, says Zoic VFX supervisor/CEO Loni Peristere, who credits the visual effects team with the ability to blend the digital with the real. Maschwitz agrees: “The best part of The Dark Knight is that it takes place in the real world. I love it when a fanciful story can be told in a grounded environment. To my eye, what they’re doing uniquely is returning to the way it was done with all the movies I grew up watching.” The film’s effects were seamless, agrees CafeFX/The Syndicate CEO Jeff Barnes. “They were so grand and over the top that I didn’t pay attention to them,” he says.

And yet the details also inspired. Sony Pictures Imageworks animation supervisor Dave Andrews was a fan of Batman’s motorcycle. “The sequence is really so dynamic when he races around on it,” he says. “And that’s born out of his Batmobile, so it’s a transformational moment. The moment it emerges from the cocoon is fine visual effects design and execution.” Andrews also praises the matte-painting work that helped create a sense of place, as well as the Batman digital double. “As a practitioner, I know where the work is, even if it’s invisible,” he says.

Iron Man
Release date: May 2
Production companies: Paramount Pictures, Marvel Enterprises, Marvel Studios, Fairview Entertainment, Dark  Blades Films, Road Rebel
The companies that worked on this film point out the particular challenges. “The trickiest part was humanizing our man, even when he’s sealed up in the suit,” says ILM animation supervisor Hal Hickel. “We always wanted to make sure people knew Tony Stark was in there and is wearing a machine that, if it fails, will cause him to fall out of the sky.” Sony Pictures Imageworks’ Andrews, who notes that his company also worked on the movie, praises the “beautiful design” of Iron Man. “He looked like a real jet when he flew, and it was pretty cool,” he says. “I like how his first flight is quite an exciting ride.”

The suit itself is a marvel of detail, says Digital Jungle’s Dennis Ho. “The CG was very intricate,” he says. “It’s definitely high tech and mechanical in design, and the CG design for the mask interface was beautiful as well. When Tony Stark is looking out and you see his point of view, the camera cuts back on him and you see the computer interface giving him his environment. That drew the viewer into his world, and I got a kick out of it.” David Alexander, Entity FX CG supervisor/VFX supervisor, says his favorite sequence was when Tony Stark first puts on his suit. “The compositing was seamless, the 3D was seamless, and it was well integrated for overall believability,” he adds.
The Orphanage did the display graphics inside the suits, reports Maschwitz, who says he enjoyed working alongside ILM with a director he admires. “[Jon] Favreau made a conscious decision to make the aerial coverage of Iron Man flying into the types of shots one could get from an aerial camera rig,” he says. “In a world in which it’s safe to say that anything is possible, I admire restraint.”
CafeFX/The Syndicate also contributed VFX to this film, says Barnes, who notes that the movie excelled not simply because of the visual effects. “From an action-adventure, sci-fi point of view, it was great,” he says. “Favreau also likes practical effects, so the integration of the two also made it fun. It is an exemplar of what’s good for our industry: The story was good, and they used a lot of different techniques. Directors are now finding when CG is appropriate and practical is appropriate, and bridging those things. I think that helps to sell the characters and the work in a non-obtrusive way that people accept.”

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian
Release date: May 16
Production companies: Walt Disney Pictures, Walden Media, Ozumi Films, Propeler, Silverbell Films, Stillking Films

Zoic Studios’ Peristere particularly enjoyed the battle sequence in this movie. “The choreography of how the battle came together was interesting in terms of design,” he says. “They also came up with an underground world that gave a new dimension to the battle.” Chambers also points to improvements to Aslan the lion. “It seemed more advanced,” he says. “Overall, they brought the vision of what they wanted to the screen so effectively.”

ILM’s Hickel declares himself impressed with the “overall level of quality of the environments and creatures.” “The quality in these kinds of fantasy movies has gone up and up,” he says. “They used to be more uneven, but on this film, the work has become even and a lot less noticeable. You sink into the movie and enjoy the spectacle.”

Reepicheep joins Narnia’s CG animal cast.

Speed Racer
Release date: May 9
Production companies: Warner Bros. Pictures, Anarchos Productions, Sechste Babelsberg Films, Silver Pictures, Village Roadshow Pictures

Chambers believes that Speed Racer deserves kudos for its unique visual effects. “It was very different, very stylized, and cartoony,” he says. “And that’s what they set out to do. As a look, it was fabulous.”

“The mix of animation and live action was incredibly innovative and impressive,” says Zoic’s Peristere. “It’s a real mix of design, visual effects, and animation that hasn’t really been explored. Looking at a world that behaves like 2D but is rendered in 3D is innovative, and I love it when VFX teams try new things and explore something interesting.”

Speed Racer provides a new concept for set design, animation, and color treatment.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Release date: May 22
Production companies: Paramount Pictures, Lucasfilm

The destruction of the temple was this movie’s stellar scene, says Entity FX’s Alexander. “It was a 3D cracking algorithm,” he explains. “And it allowed the ILM artists to preview where the cracks would go. It’s been done before, but they took it to a new level by being able to preview it and dictate where the cracks would go, rather than putting a procedural script in there. That software was well done.”

ILM’s Hickel liked the ants. “They were all CG,” he says. “My assumption is that the big crowds of ants were done procedurally, and then there was hero work.”

The sequence when the two vehicles drive side by side with the characters fighting over the skull is also notable, says Sony Pictures Imageworks’ Andrews. “To me that is the pulp fiction that our fathers used to watch when they were boys,” he says. “It’s very Buck Rogers: fantastic, impossible, and good.”

Quantum of Solace
Release date: Nov. 14
Production companies: MGM, Columbia Pictures, Danjaq, Eon Productions, United Artists

For VFX, there’s nothing like a James Bond movie, and many VFX practitioners looked forward to seeing the opening of this movie. “People think of James Bond movies as bing full of stunts and practical effects,” ILM’s Hickel says. “But there are also digital environment extensions and rig removal. There are a lot of invisible effects. It frequently gets to the bake-off because people really respect the physical effects. It’s a great example of that craft.”

The Day the Earth Stood Still
Release date: Dec. 12
Production companies: Earth Canada Productions, 20th Century Fox Film Corp.

Okun, who is VFX supervisor on this movie, reports that the challenges were to create effects that didn’t steal the story away. That’s tough to do when the story involves spaceships and aliens, but, says Okun, he believes they pulled it off: “We went out of our way to create stuff based on today’s real science and the research that scientists are working on for future scientific developments.”

The Spirit
Release date: Dec. 25
Production companies: Lionsgate, Odd Lot Entertainment, Continental Entertainment Group, Media Magik Entertainment

As the next Frank Miller project, The Spirit stands on the shoulders of Sin City and 300, says Maschwitz, VFX supe and second unit director on the movie. He credits cinematographer Bill Pope with making it “a photographically beautiful film.” As an entirely greenscreened movie, the challenge is the scope: In essence, every shot in the film is a visual effect.
“But I look at the challenge as aesthetic,” says Maschwitz, whose facility, The Orphanage, shared in the effects work. “In this stylized movie, you can get away with something that doesn’t look quite real, as long as it looks amazing.” The key is “emotional truth and minimalism,” he adds. “Frank [Miller] only draws what helps the story, and he can eliminate anything that isn’t working towards his storytelling goal. We looked for a visual minimalism that matches Frank’s style. Frank creates these iconic images with a few brushstrokes, and we wanted to find the cinematic equivalent of that.”

Look Effects also worked on this film. Look Effects visual effects supervisor Max Ivins says the group tackled a sequence that was shot entirely handheld while walking backwards, shooting into people. “There were a lot of extreme shots with not a lot of information,” he says. “It’s like, hey, here are some people, create the world.”

10,000 BC
Release date: March 7 (wide release)
Production companies: Warner Bros. Pictures, Legendary Pictures, Mark Gordon Productions, Centropolis Entertainment, The Mark Gordon Company

VFX supervisor Chambers, who worked on this film, enthuses about the pre-historic creatures. “Techniques have gotten better with hair, and the animation was excellent,” he says. “The attention to detail is what brings them to life.”

Look Effects’ Ivins also thought there was “a lot of great stuff” in the movie. “The stylized pre-history war they came up with was effective, and the mammoths were well done,” he says. “It created this alternative world, and being a sci-fi/fantasy buff, as a lot of people in our industry are, I identified with the creative aspect of it.”

Cutting-edge digital tools take viewers back to prehistoric times in the film 10,000 BC.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Release date: July 11
Production companies: Dark Horse Entertainment, Internationale Filmproduktion Eagle, Lawrence Gordon Productions, Mid Atlantic Films, Relativity Media, Universal Pictures

Hellboy II has a style of its own, says Look Effects’ Ivins. “It’s not cookie-cutter VFX. It’s a curveball. It’s got fantastic creatures, kind of a sci-fi, Flash-like fantasy. By virtue of its uniqueness, you have to consider it.”

A visit from the Hellboy tooth fairies is scary.

“They ratcheted it up a notch with the character and the animation,” agrees Chambers. “They also did some nice environmental work, extending locations. It’s got some cool work in it.”

Skillfully bridging the practical and digital effects world is one of the strengths of this movie, adds CafeFX/The Syndicate’s Barnes. He also loved the all-CG tooth fairies, created by Double Negative, which he called “scary, fun, believable, and creepy.” “This film was a VFX practitioner’s dream,” he adds. “It was loaded with CG and loaded with VFX, and was a really fun ride.”

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Release date: Dec. 25
Production companies: The Kennedy/Marshall Company, Paramount Pictures, Warner Bros. Pictures

“I can’t wait to see it,” enthuses Zoic’s Peristere, echoing many VFX supervisors. “It looks amazing. If that CG character is as realistic as it looks in the trailer, and if it conveys emotion as well, it’ll set a new bar for all of us. If any director has the passion to do this, it would be David Fincher, and if any VFX team could pull this off with passion, it’s the Digital Domain commercial team with Eric Barba. Those guys rock, and it’s a beautiful stage for them to show off what they can do.”

Visual effects supervisor Tim McGovern agrees. “I’m glad Fincher keeps making these movies,” he says. “The concept of someone who ages in reverse is something no one could have ever done five years ago. It’s an exciting idea, and from what I understand, it’s been done excellently.”

Barnes is already betting on Benjamin Button to win. “They created a CG human from the shoulders up, and it looks phenomenal,” he says. “It’s mind-blowing what they did with facial animation. It’s so hard it’s almost impossible to do this. It takes so much time and so much finesse, and so much love and care.”

“Every time you see the character, it’s a monumental undertaking,” agrees Look Effects’ Ivins. “This is the most difficult challenge in VFX and animation. The tidbits I’ve seen are an indication that it’ll do really well and be judged so by the Academy.”

Release date: June 27 (wide release)
Production companies: Pixar Animation Studios, Walt Disney Pictures

The opening scenes of Wall-e are spectacular, says Sony Pictures Imageworks’ Andrews. “The beautiful yet terrifying view of our planet in the future is so well done,” he adds. VFX supervisor McGovern applauds it as some of the best animation in terms of lighting and atmosphere. “It was one of the most intelligent films done for kids,” he notes. Adds CafeFX/The Syndicate’s Barnes: “Wall-e looked amazing. It was just so beautiful. Everything felt like a piece of art.”

Disney/Pixar artists gave the CG feature Wall-e a unique, cinematic, out-of-this-world feel.

Producer Don Hahn from Walt Disney Pictures notes the challenge of Wall-e’s first half. “It was brave to do 30 minutes of a movie without dialog and to create that much empathy for a character that doesn’t speak,” he says.

ILM’s Hickel called it “a gorgeous and sweet film.” “I admire what they did with the lack of dialog and the cinematic look of the film,” he says. “I believe a cinematographer consulted with them to get that anamorphic, wide-screen look, and it really paid off.”

Kung Fu Panda
Release date: June 6
Production companies: DreamWorks Animation, PDI, Shine

This animated feature is popular among animators for a wealth of reasons. “I loved the whole thing!” enthuses animation historian/writer Jerry Beck. “The fantastic 2D dream sequence, Jack Black and Dustin Hoffman…the characters were strong, and it was an original story. The art direction, animation, and acting were all wonderful. The characters weren’t dolls but [gave] full performances. The humor was great, and the action was fantastic. It was a parody of Hong Kong films but respected the genre at the same time. It was a satisfying, fun film that really got me.”

The mantra while creating Kung Fu Panda: If it’s easy, it’s been done before, so look further.

Keith Robinson, Perspective Studios’ head of animation production, also pinpoints the 2D/3D hybrid opening sequence as worthy of attention. “It’s done so well, and the mixture works,” he says. “This was my favorite movie overall. The art, the backgrounds, the style of the characters, character development, and storytelling were all done well.”

Sony Pictures Imageworks’ Andrews notes the perfect meld between the panda and actor Jack Black’s voice performance. “The character was palpable,” he says. “I could not distinguish between Jack Black and the character. He evaporated within the panda bear. It was movie magic and perfect.” Andrews praises other characters, especially the tiger. “Animation takes you to a place of believability and complete and utter fantasy,” he says. “The kung fu sequences were as far out there as [they are] in Chinese kung fu movies. The end battle was such good, clean fun. And there was a great title sequence with mixed media. It’s a full cinematic experience and my top pick.”

Waltz with Bashir
Release date: Dec. 25
Production companies: Bridget Folman Film Gang, Les Films D’Ici, Razor Film Produktion GmbH, Arte France, Hot Telecommunication, ITVS, Israel Film Fund, Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg, New Israeli Foundation for Cinema and Television, Noga Communiation–Channel 8

Just like Persepolis stood out last year as an unusual entry, Waltz with Bashir will be this year’s interesting film, predicts Beck. “It’s a powerful film that happens to use animation to tell its story. There’s no flashy animation or techniques. It’s 180 degrees away from Kung Fu Panda, which is my favorite film of the year.”

Release date: Nov. 21
Production companies: Walt Disney Animation Studios, Walt Disney Pictures

A lot of attention has been paid to this animated feature—to be released in stereo 3D—and the first at Walt Disney Animation to be executive-produced by Pixar’s John Lasseter. Since Lasseter took over, John Travolta and Miley Cyrus joined the project. However, Beck, for one, is cautious about the results. “I hope they pull it off,” he says. “I’m sure it’s a perfectly fine family film, but I don’t expect it to be more than that.”

Disney’s Hahn counters: “This is a strong film and reflects the great influence of the collaboration between Disney and Pixar. It’s a very painterly movie. It won’t have a slick plastic look just because it’s CG. It looks more like an illustration with a hand-done quality to the backgrounds, which makes it visually delicious. More important, the story is great.”

Bolt may have a classic painterly look, but to achieve that, Disney invented new CG technology.

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa
Release date: Nov. 7
Production companies: DreamWorks Animation, PDI

“It has a lot of heart and a lot of laughs,” says Beck, who calls this sequel better than the original. “It’s solid entertainment. If you like those characters, they’re all back, and they’re all funny.”

Horton Hears a Who!
Release date: March 14 (wide release)
Production companies: Blue Sky Studios, 20th Century Fox Animation, 20th Century Fox Film Corporation

Sony Pictures Imageworks’ Andrews calls director Chris Wedge “brilliant.”

“He really has a stamp on animation,” Andrews comments. “He goes back into the vault of animation techniques and pulls out cool things that have never been done before in CG and pulls it off beautifully. He smartly uses techniques everyone has forgotten about. It’s not quaint, it’s contemporary.”

Blue Sky retains Horton’s Seussian style.

The Tale of Despereaux
Release date: Dec. 19
Production companies: Larger than Life Productions, Relativity Media, Universal Animation Studios, Universal Pictures

To be released by Universal Pictures this month, The Tale of Despereaux tells a tale of three unlikely heroes. “This could be a surprise that captures my fancy,” says Beck.  Sony Pictures Imageworks’ Andrews also looks forward to the movie. “It looks interesting,” he says. “It’s a genre-bender. It’s a cute animal story, but not with a poor, downtrodden mouse, but rather the mouse that roars and the Cinderella who isn’t taking any [crap] from the stepsisters. I want to see it because it’s a different take.”

There are a number of films in both the VFX and Animation categories that have compelling visuals but, for some reason or another, did not generate comment from those interviewed for this article. That does not mean, however, that such a movie is not Oscar worthy. As everyone knows, each year there is that one film which surprises everyone and ends up with a nomination and, in some instances, the grand prize itself, the Oscar. For now, though, we will just have to wait and see which make the short list, and which receive the coveted gold statue.

Debra Kaufman is a freelance writer for numerous entertainment industry publications. She also covers video and other entertainment content for the mobile platform at . She can be reached at .