Road To Oscar
Issue: Volume 34 Issue 9: (Dec/Jan 2012)

Road To Oscar

2011 started off rather slowly at the box office—possibly an economic statement more so than one reflective of the movie releases. Despite a first-quarter lineup with virtually something for every taste—The Rite, Green Hornet, I Am Number Four, Battle: Los Angeles, Rango, Mars Needs Moms, and Sucker Punch, to name a few—audiences just didn’t open their wallets as expected. However, the dour box-office numbers changed quickly for the better during the summer holidays, as moviegoers, likely feeling less financial pinch, flocked to theaters to see a number of highly anticipated films. Records were broken on Memorial Day. Crowds were entertained. Hollywood smiled and breathed a sigh of relief.

As of press time, there were still a handful of tent-pole films yet to be released, including The Adventures of Tintin and Hugo. And judging from the hype surrounding these movies, as well as a few other holiday releases, there’s little doubt that 2011 will close on a very happy note—both financially as well as with amazing movies. How studios and digital artists were able to achieve such a high level of work and continue to push the visual effects and animation bars ever higher in these economic times is a double feat for which they should be applauded.

Studios spend a long time working on a film that’s in theaters briefly, only at the end of the year to have viewers narrow down their favorites that, for some reason or another, grabbed their attention. This is what awards season is all about—what people liked both then and now. 

People love superhero movies. And this year, there were plenty of choices in this regard: Captain America, The Green Lantern, The Green Hornet, Thor, X-Men. Some of these heroes were larger than life, captivating audiences with their digital powers; others dazzled with amazing CG sets and backgrounds. No matter how you look at it, visual effects played a major role in the films. Perhaps the most popular super­hero film this year did not contain live-action stars, but a unique set of computer-generated characters who kicked their way into the hearts of theatergoers: Po and the Furious Five in Kung Fu Panda 2.  

The year also gave us some rather unexpected treats at the theater: a range of entertaining characters and story lines—and, of course, jaw-dropping visual effects. While many are still trying to comprehend the story from The Tree of Life, there is little confusion about its beautiful imagery, especially during the formation of the universe and expansion of the galaxies, followed by explosive volcanoes and prehistoric beasts. Johnny Depp, reprising his role as Captain Jack Sparrow, left us scratching our heads at times. But that’s Jack. And while he had a somewhat new crew onboard with this latest Pirates of the Caribbean flick, we were treated to some nice VFX gems in the film, among them the digital mermaids.

And if Depp’s live-action alter ego was not enough to entertain us, we also had his CG character Rango kicking up dust in a very uncommon all-CG spaghetti western—live-action director Gore Verbinski’s first animated feature foray and the first animated feature to move through ILM’s VFX pipeline. The dirt and dust of the desert created an unusual look for the movie—nearly as unique as the computer-generated characters. ILM was also kicking up more dust (sandy grit and star dust) with the effects in Cowboys & Aliens, a sci-fi western directed by Jon Favreau. A strange clash of worlds, both ripe for awesome visual effects.

A sci-fi fan favorite for decades, Planet of the Apes burst into theaters as a series reboot, using new methods of motion capture to give the movie’s simian cast their realistic performances, especially Caesar, the chimpanzee star performed by Andy Serkis. A relatively new sci-fi favorite, Transformers rocketed to the top of the box office with even more complicated Autobots and Decepticons to fill the screen.

On the animated side, like in Rango, we met entirely new casts of CG characters starring in Rio, a colorful production from Blue Sky; Hop, an Easter-themed movie delivered by Rhythm & Hues; Gnomeo and Juliet, a unique twist on a classic; and Mars Needs Moms, an out-of-this-world film from ImageMovers Digital before the innovative performance-capture technology company closed its doors. 2011 also brought back older classics albeit in cutting-edge computer graphics form ( Smurfs) as well as updated characters for grand re-entrances ( Kung Fu Panda 2, Puss in Boots, Happy Feet Two, Cars 2).

As we close out the year, anticipation is high for the hair-raising effects of Breaking Dawn and the digitally boosted action in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. Yet generating the biggest buzz seems to be Peter Jackson/Steven Spielberg’s Tintin, a CGI stereo presentation of a classic Belgian comic-book character. Released early overseas, Tintin quickly established itself on the Oscar watch list. Another late-year release, Hugo is mesmerizing audiences with its dazzling digital work. But let us not forget the year’s top box-office champ as of press time: the last film in the Harry Potter series, with its ambitious visual effects that spanned a decade and culminated in digital mastery.
We know what the box office says, and we have heard what the press and audiences have said, about this year’s films. Now, let’s hear what the experts in our industry think.

Visual Effects

Captain America: The First Avenger
Release date: July 22 (US)
Production companies: Marvel Enterprises, Marvel Entertainment, Marvel Studios

In an unexpected role reversal, digital effects were used to depict actor Chris Evans as the weakling Steve Rogers, as opposed to the muscled superhero Captain America. To many, this was an unexpected use of CGI. “Lola VFX really stole the show on this one,” notes Matthew Ward, director of photography at Rainmaker Entertainment. “I remember every­one in the industry buzzing with the question, How did they make the newly buff Chris Evans so skinny? The head and body seaming was flawless and helped introduce the character as the complete opposite physique as we’ve all known Captain America to be.”

This movie really surprised Aharon Bourland, CG supervisor at Tippett. “I had a good time watching it. One of the more interesting effects was probably the subtlest. The way they made [Chris Evans] all scrawny and small during the first half of the movie was nice. I’m still not quite sure how they did the Red Skull’s face. I couldn’t tell if it was makeup or digital augmentation; it was probably both. But it was cool that I couldn’t tell right off the bat how they did it.”

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Release date: December 21
Production companies: Film Rites, MGM, Scott Rudin Productions, Yellow Bird Films

The book series spoke to millions. Can the film do the same? “If David Fincher’s record is any clue as to what we can expect to see in this film, it’ll be another marvel at visual effects so well hidden we’ll never even know they were there,” predicts Rainmaker’s Ward. “Come awards season, we’ll start to see reels showing how effects were done, and we’ll want to go stand in line to watch the film again to see what we think we should have had the eye to pick out in the first place.”

Green Lantern
Release date: June 17
Production companies: Warner Bros. Pictures, De Line Pictures, DC Entertainment

Bruce Woloshyn, visual effects supervisor at Method Studios (Jack and Jill, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Part 1) relays that this year, he and his 12-year-old son, David, resolved to go and see more movies together. Of course, they “had” to see Green Lantern. “I have been a semi-serious comic-book collector for more than 20 years, and both my son and I were really looking forward to seeing Oa come to life on the big screen. We both agreed, as we discussed the film over ice cream after the screening, that the animation and appearance of the actual Green Lantern costumes were outstanding (or, to use 12-year-old vernacular, ‘cool’),” he says. “Even with knowing that Sony Imageworks had created CGI uniforms for the corps, we both agreed that it was so well executed that after the initial, ‘Wow, check out the suit,’ we never gave it a second thought…and that’s a good thing.”

“Doing a full-body replacement for the lantern suite seemed like a pretty ambitious plan. It could have easily gotten kind of strange looking, but it came together and helped set the character apart from superheroes in other movies,” says Bourland.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
Release date: July 15
Production companies: Heyday Films, Moving Picture Company, Warner Bros. Pictures, Warner

For a decade, fans have witnessed the digital magic required to take Harry Potter from the pages of a book to the big screen. Over the years, the magic has grown more intense, as have the effects. This summer, the franchise culminated in a range of digital work, from the expected to the unexpected.
“I’ve often thought the Harry Potter films, above others, are much more enjoyable big, in the theater, than at home. There’s something about being in a dark theater with these characters, and the effects push the story in every shot,” Ward points out. “I’m sad to see the franchise wrapping up, as the films have each been worth watching and remain enjoyable.”

Tippett’s Bourland says he was super-excited about this movie. “The Potter films have constantly gotten better and better, and the final one did not disappoint. The dragon in Gringotts vault was really cool. The Dragon Slayer dragon has always held a special place in my heart, and you could see more than a little bit of it in this dragon’s design,” he says. Moreover, the magic effects were also really pretty, as usual, adds Bourland. “My favorite was when the Death Eaters were destroying the shield that the good wizards built around Hogwarts. I always wanted to work on a Potter movie, so it was a little bitter sweet to realize my last chance had passed.”

As Steve Garrad, VFX executive producer at Image-Engine notes, in another year when it seems the visual effects industry is determined to tell everyone how bad everything is, the interesting thing for me is how good the quality and consistency of the work being produced globally is. To this end, his two personal choices of films contained featured visual effects from companies based in London and Wellington, New Zealand. “Only one of the summer blockbuster films was a slight letdown in my opinion—and again, that is all that is, my opinion,” he says. “There will be many reasons, mostly not due to any vendor’s faults, that the thousands of man-days spent on that project would not end up being entirely present up on the silver screen.”

That said, Garrad’s personal favorite for this year’s Oscar is Harry Potter. “Not only was it an excellent film, but the VFX had the necessary scale and size to end the series; they were consistent and flawless throughout,” he says. “They have been throughout the series; it is time this crew were recognized people!”

Release date: November 23
Production companies: GK Films, Infinitum Nihil

On the verge of being released as this issue went to press, a number of folks declined to comment on the film, having not seen it. Nevert­heless, the imagery in the trailers is dazzling, supporting a heart-warming story.

VES President Jeff Okun, a visual effects supervisor, is among those who have not seen the film. “But what I have seen looks astonishing—the real-ness of the robot, the world that cannot be real, yet is,” he says. “It may be the ultimate demonstration of what is good with VFX because they were used properly by an artist, like Martin Scorsese.”

Scott Farrar (ASC), visual effects supervisor at ILM, notes that he likes to see the films Martin Scorsese makes because the director tries different types of stories and they always have wonderful characters. “For me, Hugo looks interesting because of its steam-punk design sensibility. That style seems fun and is particularly well suited to stereo 3D and storybook-style visual effects shots,” he says. “I’m looking forward to seeing what Rob Legato, the VFX supervisor, and Martin came up with.”

Release date: November 11
Production companies: Relativity Media, Atmosphere Entertainment MM, Hollywood Gang Productions, Virgin Produced

According to Ward, epic films require epic effects, and there seems to be no shortage in Immortals. “We’ve seen films like this made, and, at times, the effects were so featured they took away from the story rather than supported it, entertaining [us] nonetheless,” he says. Ward notes that the trailers look to be big in scope, along with a 3D conversion. “No doubt it’ll be an entertaining film and certainly a spectacle to enjoy in the effects realm.”

In a film with so many effects, an insider points to the Titan fight scene as “amazing.”

Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol
Release date: December 21
Production companies: Paramount Pictures, Bad Robot, FilmWorks, Skydance Productions, Stillking Films

“Tom Cruise, Brad Bird, and Mission Impossible sequel? I’m in,” says Rainmaker’s Ward. “I think for all of us VFX and animation artists, most of us are fans of Brad’s work on The Iron Giant and The Incredibles. Needless to say, we’re all excited to see what Brad brought to this production, and we’re all certainly expecting amazing things.” As Ward notes, the film’s trailer shows action in its modern definition: explosions, high-wire acts, gunfights, and hand-to-hand combat. “ The Mission Impossible franchise has always delivered new, clever  action sequences, usually only achievable with the help of visual effects artists,” he adds. “I’m very curious to see what this latest chapter has in store for audiences.”

Image-Engine’s Garrad notes that out of the yet-to-be-released films, the only one that stands a chance, in his humble opinion, of upsetting the applecart is Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol. “The trailer looked like great fun with big visual effects, but as it’s not out yet, we’ll have to wait and see,” he says.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Release date: May 20
Production companies: Walt Disney Pictures, Jerry Bruckheimer Films, Moving Picture Company

In a film with Johnny Depp, you can expect a level of quirkiness, and this Pirates film brought that to the screen for another adventure on the high seas. “Again, great work,” says Okun. “ILM is killing on these, pushing the envelope on natural phenomenon, chaos, and look—the water, the clouds, smoke, interaction were all fantastic.”

Real Steel
Release date: October 7
Production companies: Touchstone Pictures, DreamWorks SKG, 21 Laps Entertainment, Angry Films, ImageMovers, Reliance Entertainment

With this film, image-based capture was on full display, yet it was the performance of the robots, in a very un-robotic style, which resonated with the industry. The robots also looked as good as they moved. “The best part of the work in this film was probably the rendering quality and lighting work done on the robots,” says Bourland. “They seamlessly fit into the plates, which is not an easy task when you are dealing with characters made of everything from translucent plastic with lights inside to rusty metal. The character design was fun. I really liked the design of Noisy Boy.”

Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Release date: August 5
Production companies: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, Chernin Entertainment, Dune Entertainment

According to Digital Domain visual effects supervisor Stephen Rosenbaum, who is currently supervising Jack the Giant Killer for director Brian Singer, there are two distinctly different types of FX movies being made these days: those that indulge us with spectacular, gratuitous visuals, which are short on substance but fun to watch, and those which offer a relatively new brand of sentient digital creatures. “This year, we witnessed the perfect exploitation of FX technology used to create the latter type of movie— Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” says Rosenbaum, who received an Oscar for his work on Forrest Gump and Avatar. “Unlike some movies from the last year that used motion capture to produce pedestrian characters, Apes used the technology to help deliver a performance. It demonstrated the real potential for actors to embody a digital creature and inject into it a soul.”

In fact, Rosenbaum is one of many who applauds the performance of actor Andy Serkis as he brings yet another digital character to life. “Once again, we were treated to Andy Serkis slapping on digital makeup and performing the role of a principal character. While the primates looked fantastic—the eyes, fur, movements—I can assure you, all would be lost if not for Andy’s masterful understanding of how to personify a character within an untraditional medium,” he adds. “As with any role, it’s all about understanding how the character thinks, moves, and responds to its surroundings. Without those fundamentals, a good-looking chimp with no personality will very quickly become boring to watch.”

Rainmaker’s Ward concurs. “If there’s anything we all remember from the original Planet of the Apes, it’s the rubber-mask prosthetic work of the 1960s makeup artists. Arguably, the effect worked back then, but today’s audiences demand a much more believable illusion, and better still than the much more slick rubber masks of Tim Burton’s 2001 retelling,” he says. “A movie like this can dodge a little close to the uncanny valley, but Weta has nailed the apes even better than they did in King Kong. Another perfect use of performance capture tools, this film allowed us to believe that the apes were real with what seemed to be a hint of the actors playing them. In one way or another, you could define this film using truly digital makeup—instead of placing a rubber mask on Roddy McDowall, try replacing Any Serkis completely with a digital ape that is driven by every single twitch comprising Andy’s performance. Forget those clunky rubber masks and enjoy every detail on these apes, no mater how close the camera gets... and it got pretty close in this film—it’s always a challenge for any VFX shot, yet a triumph for Weta.”

“The work overall was very good. For me, the standout was the orangutan; that thing was amazing,” says Tippett’s Bourland. “The details in the sculpt and fur groom were outstanding. It also stole the scene with some classic lines—the ‘dumb apes’ line was priceless. A lot of people kept talking about how good the eyes on the apes looked, but I don’t think that was their best feature. I feel their performances and overall presence on screen were more impressive.”

One film that especially resonated with Shawn Walsh, visual effects executive producer at Image-Engine, was Apes. “Due to our participation in Apes as a primary previs vendor, we were privy to some of the stunning visual effects work that was evolving at Weta Digital,” he says. “Kurt Williams showed me some early shots that were being produced during the long shoot, and I was floored by how sophisticated and nuanced the performance-capture work was turning out to be. The eyes especially were working as a true window to the soul, and I thought, ‘Man, this is going to be exceptional work!’?”

Image-Engine’s Garrad names Rise of the Planet of the Apes as his second favorite movie this year. “Again, a good film, which always helps. The VFX were of the highest quality, and the animation was fantastic,” he says. While he acknowledges that the performance was indeed based on Andy Serkis, he points out that it was assisted by lots of very talented animators. Garrad notes that he ranked this film as a second to Harry Potter because in his opinion, the consistency of the work was not as good.

Daniel Jeannette, animation director (Where the Wild Things Are, Happy Feet), says he was amazed by what he saw in Apes. “The level of subtleties and complexity delivered in the performance of Caesar from the combination of both Andy Serkis’ performance capture and the team of animators at Weta is truly groundbreaking. I feel it’s a very strong favorite for visual effects awards.”

In addition, Rosenbaum, AMPAS member of the Visual Effects Branch, is among a growing contingent that feels it is time that an actor’s performance in a digital role is fully recognized. “It is time for the Actor Branch to finally acknowledge that the believability of Caesar came from an actor’s performance. How he looked will surely be recognized by my Branch,” says Rosenbaum.

Release date: May 6
Production companies: Paramount Pictures, Marvel Entertainment, Marvel Studios

“I grew up mainly reading British comics, like ‘Judge Dredd,’ and was never really exposed to Thor,” admits Ben Shepherd, VFX supervisor at Cinesite. “Not knowing what to expect, I was pleasantly surprised by Thor. There were massive set pieces and environments, particularly the impressive Asgard environment. The battle with the ice warriors was well rendered, and there was some very accomplished CG in there.”

Transformers: Dark of the Moon
Release date: June 28
Production companies: Paramount Pictures, Hasbro, Di Bonaventura Pictures

Shepherd is not alone in selecting this summer’s Transformers as the best of the franchise so far. “For me, this was the best of the three films they’ve released. In the first two movies, I found the action too fast and confusing, but in the latest installment, the combat has been slowed down (possibly to help the stereo), which worked much better,” he says. “I wouldn’t place myself in the Transformers fan bracket, but I thought the film was awesome. The quantity and quality of the destruction effects were amazing.”

Rainmaker’s Ward challenges folks to find a camera in this film that isn’t moving or barely being operated. “As anyone in VFX knows, a moving camera means a matchmove, and a moving Michael Bay camera often means a matchmove from hell.” Ward describes himself as a fan of Michael Bay’s camera work and was excited to hear him getting back together with DP Amir Mokri after enjoying the crazy sequences they conjured up on Bad Boys 2. “The reunion paid off, as TF3 didn’t disappoint—the ride was constant with every robot-filled frame. Who can forget the detail in Shockwave’s Driller as it tore through the Chicago skyline? Another standing ovation for ILM’s seamless work in this film and a huge pat on the back for all the stereo work in the film. This was the best use of stereo 3D this year.”

Destruction, says Tippett’s Bourland, that is what Transformers is about. “Watching Shockwave’s giant mechanical death worm chew its way through a building that our heroes are running around in was probably the ‘best building being destroyed’ sequence ever,” he says. “I also really appreciated the fact that Michael Bay actually got some guys to squirrel-suit-jump into downtown Chicago.”

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 1
Release date: November 18
Production companies: Summit Entertainment, Imprint Entertainment, TSBD Canada Productions, TSBD Louisiana, TSBD Productions, Total Entertainment, Zohar International

A lot can be said for some of the effects in this film, but the consensus seems to be that the CG wolves were done extremely well.

CG Animation

The Adventures of Tintin
Release date: December 21
Production companies: Columbia Pictures, Paramount Pictures, Amblin Entertainment, WingNut Films, The Kennedy/Marshall Company, Hemisphere Media Capital, Nickelodeon Movies

While the film had not been released in the US as of press time, there was no shortage of comments pertaining to this highly anticipated film. “Friends of mine either in the industry or not who have seen this film, film geeks, and even the harshest of couch-surfing critics are all boasting at how amazing this film is,” says Ward from Rainmaker. “It’s a winning combination in every way: Spielberg, Jackson, Weta, Georges Rémi’s great writing of the ‘Tintin’ comics.”

Ward also believes that it’s here with this film where performance capture as a medium may finally find its foothold. “America will have to wait a little longer for this one, but I’ll continue to drool over the trailers until I can buy my ticket,” he says.

Okun describes this film as “technically groundbreaking and amazing work!” But more importantly, he says, it raises the question of whether [the work] is VFX or something else. “Is it something new? Something forecasting our futures in terms of what can be done? It will be a game-changer for the future, as the crossover between acting and VFX will seamlessly merge and no one will ever again be able to tell technique,” Okun adds. “It will be hidden from common understanding—depending on how it is applied in the future.”

Cars 2
Release date: June 26
Production companies: Walt Disney Pictures, Pixar Animation Studios

“I loved the feel of this film,” says Okun about Pixar’s latest offering. “While it clearly uses newer techniques to arrive at some of the imagery, it also felt warm and comfortable, so the VFX were invisible to the story, as they should be.”

Method Studios’ Woloshyn also enjoyed the film. “There is nothing quite like seeing a Pixar film through the eyes of a child. Seeing Cars 2 with my younger son was indeed a special treat, especially in IMAX 3D. And, despite what some ‘grown-up’ reviewers had to say about the film, Pixar’s target audience (my Joseph) demonstrated for me what is truly magic about great animation, layout, and editing (the things grown-ups think about),” he says. “To my son Joseph, Lightning McQueen, Mater, and the rest of the cast are as ‘real’ as any live-action characters. And to be immersed in the IMAX 3D presentation of the film was about as magical an experience for him as meeting them at Disneyland.”

Happy Feet Two
Release date: November 18
Production companies: Kennedy Miller Mitchell, Dr D Studios, Village Roadshow Pictures

In 2007, Happy Feet took the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, besting Pixar’s Cars. In 2012, we have part two of a showdown. “Miller versus Lasseter again in this category, featuring sequels of the same films. Will it turn out the same as last time? It’ll have to be the stronger story that wins,” observes Ward. “Both these films feature brilliant animation and look incredible.”

Kung Fu Panda 2
Release date: May 26
Production company: DreamWorks Animation

As Ward points out, the art direction in this film, the color, the lighting—it burns in your mind days after having watched it. DreamWorks Animation’s use of various styles of animation helps keep the look interesting and engaging, he adds. “When I see a 3D character having a flashback in 2D.?.?.?well, it makes sense, doesn’t it? The feathers on the peacock (Lord Shen) were a show alone. Wet fur, wet feathers; it was like I could reach out and touch these characters, without 3D glasses!”

Mars Needs Moms
Release date: March 11
Production companies: Walt Disney Pictures, ImageMovers Digital

“I can speak firsthand at witnessing some of the industry’s best talent working on this film,” says Ward, who had been layout supervisor at ImageMovers before migrating to Rainmaker. “Though audiences met the movie with less than warm appraise, I think ImageMovers Digital did an amazing job on the final product. The look fell somewhere between the likes of A Christmas Carol and Monster House, but still held its own unique style, offering a stylized character study with realistic shaders. The incredible designs of Doug Chiang and his top-notch art department scream in every shot, as you can literally compare the design work to the final frames.”

Puss in Boots
Release date: October 28
Production company: DreamWorks Animation

To prepare Puss in Boots for his leading role, the DreamWorks team gave him more fur that responds better to his movements. A lot of work also went into the film characters’ facial expressions. Another big challenge was the environments, particularly cloud world, with its volumetric clouds. The shooting beanstalk in stereo 3D was also impressive.    

Release date: March 4
Production companies: Blind Wink Productions, GK Films, Nickelodeon Movies

As Bourland points out, ILM really broke out of the animated feature mold with this one. “The world they created was rich and dirty, not all clean and polished like a Pixar or PDI film. The amount of detail they put into even background characters was impressive,” he says. “The volumetric effects and style of lighting they chose also gave the film a much more cinematic feel then any other animated feature to date.”

“Leave it to ILM and Gore Verbinski to raise the bar on what you ‘can and can’t do’ in a family animated film,” notes Ward.

Jeannette was another who was impressed by the visuals inRango, citing the saloon scene as his favorite moment in the film. “The visuals and lighting were breathtaking,” he says.  

Release date: April 8
Production companies: Blue Sky Studios,Twentieth Century Fox Animation

There’s no question, Rio is colorful. “Talk about saturation of colors!” notes Ward. He also believes the movie contains some of the best camera work he has seen in an animated film lately—well operated and conducted. “Having to track the action of birds isn’t easy, nor is animating them to move so realistically and with so much character.”