Going for Gold
Issue: Volume 33 Issue 11: (December 2010)

Going for Gold

It should come as no surprise, given the economic forces, that visual effects movies and the companies that produce them have had a tough go of it this year. The last domino in the moviemaking series, some VFX houses were knocked down—or even knocked out—by economic forces that made middle-budget movies an endangered species and moved work off-shore. This year, like so many years before, the blockbusters loomed large. Since many of these films are effects- and CG-heavy, they have continued to generate work among the studios. Nevertheless, Mark Breakspear, VFX supervisor at CIS in Vancouver, worries that the tent poles are overshadowing the smaller films. “A lot of small movies that came out won’t get recognition,” he says, pointing out Knight and Day as one example. “There are always three obvious movies that you know will get in.”

This year, there are five spots for nominations, so even with three obvious (pick your favorites), it could still be anyone’s year. The good news—and the bad news—is that visual effects have matured. “All the movies are technically superb,” says VES president/visual effects supervisor Jeff Okun. “There was a time when you’d get a movie done and it was the pinnacle of the art, the best they could do. Today the entire industry has become so sophisticated, and the tools are commoditized. The state of the art is so advanced as to be transparent. Now it isn’t about software and hardware. It’s about the artist.” So, what have some of these amazing artists—the best and the brightest in the areas of visual effects and animation—served up for us during 2010 that are worth talking about? Let’s take a look.


The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Release date: Dec. 10
Production companies: Fox 2000 Pictures, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp., Walden Media

This is one of many sequels that came out this year, and when the first movie in the series was as well acclaimed as this one appears to be, it’s a hard act to follow. Nonetheless, the CG lion Aslan is still amazing, and Narnia fans look forward to Dawn Treader. Mark Breakspear, visual effects supervisor at CIS in Vancouver, thinks the VFX in this film will be well done (this story was finished prior to the film’s release). “It’s got all the hard components of character work, physical effects, water, and fire,” he says. “It’s got everything, and people respond to that.”
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Clash of the Titans
Release date: April 2
Production companies: Legendary Pictures, Warner Bros. Pictures, Thunder Road Pictures, The Zanuck Company

It’s tough to remake a classic visual effects film and get the approval of the VFX crowd, especially those who revered the original Ray Harryhausen version. “This was a film that we loved in our childhood,” says David Dozoretz, founder/CEO of Persistence of Vision.

Saints LA visual effects supervisor/owner Mark Larranaga and SWAY visual effects super­visor Aaron Powell both especially enjoyed the scorpion battle. “It felt so real, and the effects were really great,” Powell says. “All the battle scenes were aggressive and, of course, everything had to be CGI.”

Larranaga and Powell also both liked the twist on the character Medusa. “Medusa with the longer snake tail was cool,” says Larranaga. Powell notes that they made Medusa “more badass” by giving the audience the sense that she didn’t just try to turn people into stone, but “that she was a great archer and moved quickly.” Look FX co-owner/senior visual effects supervisor Anthony “Max” Ivins points out that, among the good VFX, were all the water effects. “That’s all hard to do well,” he notes.

This movie had a 3D stereo conversion, however, that a few VFX experts felt was too rushed. “In order to do a conversion correctly, you have to spend time on it,” says Dozoretz. Okun notes that the filmmakers didn’t initially know it would be converted to 3D. “It’s not a failure of the process, but of the reprocessing,” he says. “Prime Focus did a great job. But I have to agree with James Cameron that it was actually 2.8D.”
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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1
Release date: November 19
Production companies: Warner Bros. Pictures, Heyday Films

Adapting a book—especially a beloved one—is extremely difficult, but that is where the Harry Potter franchise has shone. “I expect it to be great,” says Ivins, who declares himself “a big fan” of all the Harry Potter films. “The work is always completely solid,” says Dozoretz. “The entire franchise is brilliant.” Also a huge fan is Kern Optical executive producer Rose Duignan. “The work is always so outstanding, always A+,” she says. “It’s also a great story with great characters.”

Although Okun doesn’t consider himself a fan of fantasy movies, he’s looking forward to seeing the film. “The work in the stories has progressed at a phenomenal pace,” he says. “The story is getting tight, and I’m looking forward to seeing what they do.”

Okun applauded the decision to hold off on a 3D version. “If you’re going to shoot something new and in stereo, shoot it in stereo,” adds Dozoretz. “Only convert library titles. I’m a big proponent of that.”
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Release date: July 16
Production companies: Warner Bros. Pictures, Legendary Pictures, Syncopy

This feature film had a lot of critics and fans talking, and with its unusual folding and exploding cityscapes, was a big hit among visual effects experts. “This was my favorite movie this year,” says Ivins. “It wasn’t easy to figure out how they did the weightlessness. There were a lot of ‘hmmm’ moments in the film. Aside from building everything in 3D, they did a lot of large-scale rigs and camera setups to achieve everything.”

Larranaga notes that the effect of suspending a character in midair was achieved in the Matrix movies, but Inception took it to an entirely different level. “We get the whole movement in zero gravity,” he says. “The way they used that effect to create a dreamlike state and feeling was really something different. Going three layers deep into the film and keeping the audience in the story was also a big accomplishment.”

Okun says that watching the city of Paris fold over was the coolest visual effect he’s seen. “Not only was the work stunningly great, but it was transparent to the story,” he says. “The work was all in service of the story, and the story was so fresh and new that it allowed the VFX folks to stretch and come up with stunning visuals that were justified for the story.” Rising Sun Pictures co-founder/visual effects supervisor Tony Clark agrees, saying, “It was one of the most original story lines of the season; the film got me thinking. It was fantastic work, helped by the fact that the film itself is so strong.”

Zoic Studios senior VFX supervisor of features Rocco Passionino notes that the visual effects were so seamless that many viewers might not realize the extent that they were incorporated. “Framestore did a fantastic job,” he says. “It’s a perfect example of integration of visual effects into a very creative story where they melded together perfectly.” Duignan notes the work of New Deal Studios in creating a complex miniature sequence when the hideout slides down the mountain. “They did great work,” she says. “Hats off to them.” For Duignan, it’s about “the heart and soul” of a movie. “That still matters,” she says. “This movie transported you from the first frame to the last.”

“Inception was totally cool,” says Digital Domain animation director David Andrews. “I had to suspend my disbelief a bit of the way, but I didn’t care. It was really engrossing and captivating to me, story-wise. It was a successful weaving of story and effects.”

A new aesthetic that played around with reality was what intrigued Dozoretz. “The visual effects were used for new storytelling reasons and showed us something we’ve never seen before conceptually,” he says. “Visual effects, at its best uses, should be able to cost-­effectively tell a story in a new way, and this supported innovative storytelling.”
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Iron Man 2
Release date: May 7
Production companies: Paramount Pictures, Marvel Entertainment, Marvel Studios,
Fairview Entertainment

“Entertaining” and “clever” is how Breakspear characterizes this movie and its effects. “I liked the movie, and the work was good,” he says. “So many people worked so hard.”

Passionino notes that, although some of the effects were done in the first Iron Man, the sequel had some fantastic moments. “The speed-racing scene in which Whiplash severs the car in half and Iron Man flies through the air and dons a portable Iron Man suit was incredibly clever,” he says. “The effect was gorgeous.”

Powell, who loves building costumes for Halloween, appreciates the CGI work that went into creating Iron Man’s suit. “It’s so intricate and was tracked really well,” he says. “It’s so cool to see all the other designs of the suits and the integration. ILM always does an amazing job of integrating CGI into the environments. The robots looked believable because they are scratched up, have battle damage, and aren’t pristine.”

Iron Man 2’s flying sequences were “excellent,” says Dozoretz, who also enjoyed all the machinations of the suit. Clark comments that the work is all of a very high standard. “I love to see the detailed mechanical fitting of the suits, and the seamless integration of that into live action,” he adds.
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The Last Airbender
Release date: July 1
Production companies: Paramount Pictures, Nickelodeon Movies, Blinding Edge Pictures, The Kennedy/Marshall Company

Although not everyone liked the story, VFX supervisors liked its effects, which were done by ILM. “The VFX were effective to tell the story,” says Ivins. “They did a good job of showing how he controls the air and fights with it. It was well done.”

The ability to do water and fire effects—both of which are complicated—was notable in this movie, says Passionino. “It had some cool effects.” Dozoretz comments that although fire has been done well, all the effects around the wind felt fresh, “like a new aesthetic.” “And that’s the harder thing to do,” he says. “Showing us something we’ve never seen before is tough. Even if they aesthetically change a bit about the wind, say the way it curves or integrates with the live-action plate, it helps a lot. And they did that with the wind effect.”
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Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief
Release date: February 12
Production companies: Fox 2000 Pictures, 1492 Pictures, Imprint Entertainment, Sunswept Entertainment, TCF Vancouver Productions

Dozoretz, whose company, Persistence of Vision, worked on this film, recounts that the previsualization was done in a storyboard look rather than a CG look. “It was interesting, like an animated black-and-white comic book,” he says. “I thought the VFX were all excellent. Water effects used to be incredibly complicated to do, and I think water has absolutely been nailed now.”
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Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
Release date: May 28
Production companies: Walt Disney Pictures, Jerry Bruckheimer Films

Powell characterizes the effects in this film as “beautiful.” He particularly liked all the dust effects, as well as the reversing of time effect. “Once they showed it to you, you bought into it,” he says. “The scene reverses around him, like a ghost image, and it’s a neat effect, and an interesting way to approach it.”

The effects may have been over the top, but they were very well executed, says Ivins. “For me it was less about the execution than the design, which was a little heavy-handed. The execution was fine.” Dozoretz likes what the movie did with sand. “It was all good work,” he says.
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Robin Hood
Release date: May 14
Production companies: Universal Pictures, Imagine Entertainment, Relativity Media, Scott Free Productions

Robin Hood a visual effects movie? “It’s one of those movies that there are so many visual effects we don’t see,” says Breakspear. “I really enjoyed it and thought it was a good movie.”

Breakspear particularly appreciated the battle scenes that were not overdone or overstaged, as well as the simple bow and arrow work…and the gore. As a child, Breakspear vacationed in the area in Wales where the movie was shot. “Knowing the location and knowing how many houses they had to erase, I was impressed with the amount of work they did,” he adds. “I felt immersed in medieval England.”

Breakspear additionally liked how they lit the effects as well as the matte paintings: “The visual effects didn’t jump out, but I liked how it all worked.” Larranaga also loved the matte paintings of the castles. “They did their homework,” he says, referring to the level of detail contained in the work. “This is another movie that used effects well. Rhythm & Hues’ work was seamless.”

Powell agrees that the visual effects were “integrated well to the point where you don’t notice what’s a visual effect.” “The Armada coming across the channel has so many boats that you know they didn’t build them,” he points out. “But it’s still convincing. If it was 50 years ago, they would have built that many ships and hired that many extras. With the visual effects in this movie, they’re integrated so well you never felt it was an effect.”
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Release date: July 23
Production companies: Columbia Pictures, Relativity Media, Di Bonaventura Pictures, Wintergreen Productions

Salt was another great example of a movie rife with invisible effects, says Dozoretz. “There were a lot of invisible effects that were well done, such as in the car/truck overpass chase sequence halfway through the film,” he adds. “That was great.” Sway calls the effects in Salt “over the top in terms of the action,” but notes that the action effects were nicely done.
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The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
Release Date: July 14
Production companies: Walt Disney Pictures, Jerry Bruckheimer Films, Saturn Films, Broken Road Productions, Junction Entertainment

Andrews enjoyed the dragon that busted up Chinatown. “To me, that was visually stimulating,” he says. “The design of the dragon was good, and it was a good staging of a big beast where you only get to see parts of it. It moves quickly and blends in with the firecracker red background of Chinatown. It was a good dragon.” Adds Clark: “The work is of consistently high quality that serves the story well.”
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TRON: Legacy
Release date: Dec. 17
Production companies: LivePlanet, Walt Disney Pictures

For many visual effects professionals and aficionados, TRON is the most hotly anticipated film in years. TRON, says Dozoretz, is the visual effects industry’s “dirty little secret.” “Those of us who say we got into the film industry because of Star Wars…we love TRON just as much,” he says. “I’m ecstatic about this movie.”

“This is the reason I’m in this business,” admits Andrews. “I have been a TRON freak since 1982, and I can’t wait. The stakes are high, and I’m waiting for it to come out with incredible anticipation. The new generation will get hooked!” Ivins says TRON was, in his generation, “the biggest effects movie that came out. It showed us how it was done. It’s an icon for VFX, so everyone is going to be eager to see it.”

Although Ivins could only rely on clips he had seen, he likes what he saw. “It’s classic TRON, updated,” he points out. “I’m cautiously optimistic that it’ll look great. They did a good job of updating it without radically changing it.”

Dozoretz looks forward to seeing the digital face the production puts on Jeff Bridges. “It may not be breaking that much ground because of Benjamin Button, but it’s the thing that stands out as a technical achievement in the film,” he says. “I’ve heard the stereo works quite well.”

“TRON will do well because it’s so visual,” adds Breakspear. “The face technology that Digital Domain did in Benjamin Button could be put to amazing use for making Jeff Bridges look young again in certain shots. In the proof-of-concept trailer from Digital Domain, I saw a clip of Jeff Bridges, young again, on a motorbike, and it was well done.”

“Using visual effects in the right way is what should be rewarded, and TRON falls into that category,” adds Breakspear. “I think it’ll be tried-and-true visual effects done very well and en masse.”
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Alice in Wonderland
Release date: March 5
Production companies: Walt Disney Pictures, Roth Films, Team Todd, The Zanuck Company

Alice in Wonderland had some nice twists to the story line, and Andrews likes that. “What I liked about it was Alice’s problem, about not being forced to marry the wrong person and being an independent woman,” he says. He loved the sense of scale throughout the movie, from the Queen’s overlarge head to how they made Alice small. “The scale of that big Bandersnatch bearing down on Alice is hard to do,” he says. “When you have a gigantic beast in the movies, you have to frame them that way.”

Dozoretz enjoyed the “very interesting aesthetic style.” “I loved how the Queen of Hearts’ head was huge, and the characters that go through a wall and right into the Queen’s territory,” he says. “The Jabberwocky at the end was fun, as well. And I loved the soldiers made out of cards. I liked their 2D quality and how they were really photorealistic. The Cheshire Cat, the rabbit…they were all good.”
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Despicable Me
Release date: July 9
Production company: Illumination Entertainment, Universal Pictures

This stylish animated film from newcomer Illumination Entertainment illustrates the work from French studio Mac Guff Ligne. The movie, about a lovable villain who wants to steal the moon, pushes the state of the art in animation performance, while delivering a unique look.
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How to Train Your Dragon
Release date: March 26
Production companies: DreamWorks Animation, Mad Hatter Entertainment, Mad Hatter Films, Vertigo Entertainment

The look of this movie is more cinematic than other animated features, says Dozoretz, who notes that the dragon was “exceptionally well lit.” “The production [team] worked with real cinematographers about how certain lenses would capture certain light,” he says. “And you can see the results, from concept art through to the finished film. It had much more realistic lighting than animated films usually do. It’s pushing a little more toward photorealism, and that’s inspiring to me. I applaud DreamWorks for pushing the envelope!”

Breakspear also loved the movie. “I cared about the boy and his dragon,” he says. “I looked at dad’s beard and thought how hard it was to do. All the different dragons were great. When you see a movie that’s a good idea and is done well, I react warmly to it, and How to Train Your Dragon was one of those movies.”

From Duignan’s point of view, “the characters were completely engaging, and the dragons were brilliant.” “Dragons are hard because there is so much that’s gone before,” she says. “But they did a different take. Their dragons were elegant, with great drama and great animation.”

Andrews also liked the relationship between the dragon and the boy, as well as the boy’s character. “I found the boy had a refreshing approach to his dysfunctional family,” he says. “He never played the victim. I’m a big fan of [animators] Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders. They really make appealing characters, and their stories involve me. I get into the whole humanity of them, so I tip my hat to them.”
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Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole
Release date: Sept. 24
Production companies: Warner Bros. Pictures, Village Roadshow Pictures, Animal Logic

By now, most VFX experts know about the owls of Ga’Hoole. Breakspear, whose daughter is a big fan of the books, was in awe of some of the work. “What was amazing was one particular shot when some baby owls hug each other,” he says. “I was thinking of the simulations it took to get those downy feathers to react. That and the fact that you have a beak that opens and closes and yet enunciates words…it was all very well done. If you’re talking about animation [in terms of] a story that couldn’t be done without clever technical chaps working on it, then Guardians is way, way up there.”

“The trailer is enchanting,” says Andrews, who says he is eager to see the film. “The feathers and the different kinds of owls are so beautiful. The naturalist in me is so into those owls. They were beautifully realized.”

Clark also just saw the trailer, but says if the entire film is an extrapolation of what’s in the trailer, it will be fantastic. “It’s a new level of quality with the detail,” he says. “It’s a credit to Animal Logic to pull this off.”

“This movie really blew me away,” agrees Larranaga. “The detail they put into these characters was great. They did a fantastic job of getting you involved with the story. The eye detail, the feather detail…I was enchanted by the whole movie.”
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Release date: Nov. 5
Production companies: DreamWorks Animation, Pacific Data Images (PDI), Red Hour Films

Larranaga looks forward to this movie. “It looks like a lot of fun,” he says. “It’s another movie that is using technology to its fullest with regard to character animation. The details and the textures we’re finally able to put into things are evident in this movie, and I can’t wait to see it projected. I also like the design of the characters, which reminds me of The Incredibles, and I’m a big fan of The Incredibles.”
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Shrek Forever After
Release date: May 21
Production companies: DreamWorks Animation, Pacific Data Images (PDI)

Perhaps everyone was “Shrek-ed out” for this fourth film focused on the lovable ogre and princess because none of the CG experts we spoke to commented on this movie.
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Release date: Nov. 24
Production companies: Walt Disney Animation Studios, Walt Disney Pictures

“If it’s Disney, I’m a believer,” says Duignan. She is impressed by the original take on Rapunzel, as well as the appealing character design.
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Toy Story 3
Release date: June 18
Production companies: Pixar Animation Studios, Walt Disney Pictures

More than one hardened visual effects supervisor admits to shedding a tear while watching Toy Story 3. “I’m always impressed when Pixar comes out with something,” says Ivins. “They set the bar, and Toy Story 3 was up there with their previous efforts.”

Andrews says this movie “shocked him.” “I was not expecting the scene at the dump,” he says. “I’m from the cartoon world of Wile E. Coyote, where you can be burned to smithereens but get reborn. That’s a quality of cartoon characters. When there’s a long, slow push-in on Woody’s face [when he is facing the smelter], it broke cartoons for me. I wasn’t sure how I felt, but at the end of the day, I was truly touched. The filmmakers really went to the nth degree with their franchise to make the third one bigger, interesting, different from the others. I was crying, and I was not expecting to be crying in Toy Story.”

Powell notes that this movie “ups the bar, just enough.” “They improved things where they should,” he says. “The human characters, for example, become a little more realistic with each movie, although they’re slightly stylized. They also did a nice job of a high level of detail in the environment and with environmental effects.”

“There’s nothing earth-shattering about the texturing or lighting—they stayed true to the original,” Ivins continues. “It’s the story they tell and the animation itself that gets you. Wow.”

“If I laugh and cry in a movie, I’ve got my money’s worth, and I did all that in Toy Story 3,” concludes Duignan. Although she calls herself a believer in 3D, she says she preferred the movie in 2D. “It had richer color, and, for me, the artistry popped,” she says. “The 3D was fun and a pleasant experience, but I thought the 2D was more beautiful. It was sparkly and surreal.”
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