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Issue: Volume 35 Issue 7: (Dec 2012)

Going for Gold

By: Karen Moltenbrey
The year 2012 held great promise at the box office—and still does, as there are still a few weeks left before the final credits roll within the present eligibility period for the Oscars and other major awards. 2012 started off on the heels of some big December 2011 action films (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol) and the highly anticipated CG feature The Adventures of Tintin, as moviegoers carved out some relaxation time following the hustle and bustle of the holidays. Moreover, the movie version of the highly acclaimed best-seller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo attracted audiences to the end-of-year holiday box office, as did the Christmas Day release of Steven Spielberg’s uplifting War Horse.

However, once the calendar turned over, so did audiences’ desire to spend money at the theater. George Lucas’ historical war drama Red Tails, a tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen, seemed to fly below viewers’ radar, earning just under $50 million domestically for the year (less than its production budget of $58 million). In March, the family-friendly animated film The Lorax earned top spot at the start of the month and proceeded to gross more than $346 million overall for the year. Conversely, Disney’s sci-fi epic John Carter fell short of expectations; months later, in November, the film (with its $250 million production price tag) managed to garner nearly $283 million worldwide.

Unfortunately, this yo-yoing at the theaters continued throughout the year. Some movies earned spots on the overall top-grossing films list, while others fell woefully short of expectation.

The futuristic/drama The Hunger Games satisfied viewers’ appetites, boosting first-quarter figures and contributing $408 million to the overall yearly tally. The long-labeled (fantasy, adventure, action, 3D sequel) Wrath of the Titans was better received overseas than domestically, but still managed to collect $302 million in worldwide sales.

Insofar as there were some hits, there were also a number of misses, and while audiences were slow to open their wallets to many new releases, they were still willing to pay to see a movie with a proven track record—presented for the first time in 3D. This included Titanic 3D, as well as Beauty and the Beast 3D and Star Wars Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace.

2012 delivered two very different types of Snow White films—one (the darker Snow White and the Huntsman at $396 million) far more successful than the other (Mirror Mirror at just short of $163 million).

Just when overall figures were looking less than desirable, The Avengers saved the day, smashing records and nearly righting the box-office slippage. On opening weekend, the superheroes broke Spider-Man 3’s record, collecting $207.5 million in its weekend debut, and continuing to do well during subsequent weeks. Currently, it holds the number three spot in the top-grossing movie of all time (at $1,512 million) behind Avatar and Titanic. And just in time, too, as the nostalgic horror/comedy Dark Shadows did not resurrect as much interest domestically ($80 million) as it did abroad ($150 million). Similarly, foreign ticket sales ($237.5 million) helped keep the high-priced ($209 million) Battleship afloat.

Then, the sequels arrived, proving how successful certain franchises can be. Men in Black 3 became the highest-grossing title in the alien franchise—also earning a large portion of its gross overseas, as the film’s take tipped the scales at $624 million. An entirely different alien film, Prometheus horrified us in the way that Alien did, with some scenes no doubt burned into our long-term movie memory. This film did frighteningly well, earning $402.5 million overall. On the other end of the style spectrum, Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, earned its stripes, collecting a whopping $729 million overall—not bad for a bunch of zoosters and penguins on another zany adventure. The CG animated sequel Ice Age: Continental Drift contributed hot numbers ($872 million), as well.

Also during the summer, Disney/Pixar’s Brave hit its target, netting nearly $534 million in worldwide sales. What seemed to surprise many, the quirky film Ted became a sensation, as audiences were drawn to the naught digital teddy bear—to the tune of $496 million.

July also featured two of the biggest superheroes, Spider-Man and Batman, in The Amazing Spider-Man and The Dark Knight Rises, respectively. The stunts in each were bigger and badder, as moviegoers rewarded the franchises with big numbers ($752 million for Spidey and a whopping $1,078 million for the Bat). In fact, these totals placed the latest Batman release at number seven in the all-time top gross list, and Spidey’s latest at number 44 on that list. The August remake of Total Recall was less memorable than the original, earning $196 million worldwide, while the Bourne Legacy continued the thrill of the franchise ($265.5 million in foreign and domestic sales).

This year there were three stop-motion animated films, and all did well, proving that this traditional art form is alive and well—particularly when augmented with CGI. First, The Pirates! Band of Misfits stole hearts and dollars with $121.6 in sales. More recently, ParaNorman and Frankenweenie hit theaters, and so far their earnings look healthy.

The unique Hotel Transylvania is proving to be a frightful delight, and the CGI Wreck-It Ralph, which takes us inside the world of video games, is showing just how fun life on the grid can be. And just before Thanksgiving, our childhood heroes banded together in the CG film Rise of the Guardians.

Just released is Cloud Atlas, whose digital techniques have enabled the filmmakers to tell a complex tale, as they do in Life of Pi. As November progresses, we toast Bond’s latest return to the silver screen in Skyfall, as well as that of our 16th president in Lincoln (not to be confused with the earlier 2012 film Abraham Lincoln Vampire Slayer). Speaking of vampires, the blood suckers are back in The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2.

With the year nearly at a close, we are awaiting one of the most anticipated tentpole films of 2012, as Gollum returns in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

Indeed, 2012 had a great deal of ups and downs, hits and misses. And while numbers may or may not translate into gold for this year’s movies as we travel into awards season, box-office dollars do provide an indication as to how a film is received by the general public (though not by voters). Certain things attract the general public to a film. But when it comes to bestowing awards on these movies, the experts in the industry often see things that others do not. So we asked several industry experts to comment on this year’s top VFX and animated films, as we head closer to the trip down this year’s red carpet. This is what they had to say.

(Editor’s Note: There may be movies that didn’t make our list but will find a spot on various shortlists for awards.)

VFX

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Release date: June 22, 2012
Production companies: Abraham Productions, Bazelevs Production, Tim Burton Productions

This movie certainly gives the world a totally different look at the 16th president of the US. Statesman by day, vampire slayer by night, Lincoln eventually comes to realize that the blood suckers are fighting for the Confederates. Effects were used for a moving train sequence with burning bridges, full-CG fire, and more—done in stereo. The film also has digital environments and digital crowds.

Mark Breakspear, VFX supe at Method in Vancouver, whose credits this year include Journey 2: The Mysterious Island and Dark Shadows (and who is currently working on Elysium and RoboCop for Method Vancouver), notes that there are some huge visual effects scenes, like the burning bridge, that hold your eye well. “The shortlist for sure, but this year the top five spots go to others,” he adds.

The Amazing Spider-Man

Release date: July 3, 2012
Production companies: Columbia Pictures, Laura Ziskin Productions, Marvel Enterprises, Marvel Studios

A lot of superheroes made the silver screen last year, but none swing into theaters with the style and digital finesse as Spider-Man. This summer he made his fourth big-screen debut after a trio of super-successful films in the franchise. A new cast and crew, aided by the latest VFX tools, helped turn up the heat on this prequel. Notable effects in the movie include creating and animating the menacing Lizard. Other CG characters, including Spidey himself, gave the director freedom to create interesting camera moves. A digital New York City with realistic lighting helped set the stage for this drama.



“I went to see Spider-Man after a very in-depth production talk at SIGGRAPH from the crew on the show, so I knew maybe too much going into it and I elected to see it mono,” explains Simon Stanley Clamp, visual effects supervisor at Cinesite. “That said, I did find the ‘reboot’ effective. Awkward Peter Parker getting to grips with his powers and, in this day and age of Internet, webcams, CCTV, and so forth, no superhero’s going to keep their secret identity a secret for that long. So by the end of the film, at least five characters have either seen Peter in his Spidey pajamas or worked out that it’s him—not that they all survive the final reel.” Clamp did not like the design of the Lizard. “Fundamentally, it deviated too far from the comic-book designs, and even after hearing all the reasoning behind this in the aforementioned talk, I still didn’t like it, nor some of his animation in the heavy hand-to-hand fight sequences,” he notes. Breakspear (Method) does not believe that the work on Spider-Man will get much attention during awards season. “Not unless spandex makes a revival,” he says.

The Avengers

Release date: May 4, 2012
Production companies: Marvel Studios, Paramount Pictures

Superhero-themed movies traditionally have done well at the theater. But when you put a handful of big-name characters together on the same screen, you can expect supersized action and visual effects. This was certainly the case for The Avengers, starring Iron Man, Captain America, The Hulk, Thor, Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Loki. To create the various effects and action-packed scenes, filmmakers relied a great deal on previs and post-vis to ensure that the CG integrated seamlessly with the live action. Especially impressive is the latest version of the Hulk, as well as a host of digital double work. The Mountain Top Battle sequence, which contained a large number of VFX shots, was particularly ambitious.

The film resonated with Jon Neill, visual effects supervisor at Cinesite. “I watched this film to see the VFX and wasn’t disappointed. The flying fortress rising out of the sea was a sequence I knew was unashamedly VFX but didn’t care. This stood out for me. When I think of Avengers, I think of this sequence.”

“The Avengers is a great romp jam-packed full of huge VFX shots, so it’s hard to single any out,” says Cinesite’s Clamp. “But if I had to, I’d go for the effects that best demonstrate on-screen scale. The conversion from aircraft carrier to airborne Shield base, with great CG water, is very impressive, as is the final city battle with the massive mechanical alien attackers lashing around the city.”

Method’s Breakspear sees potential for this movie: “I have a feeling that it will take more than Smaug’s fiery breath to dislodge this giant from its perch. Lovers loved, haters, including me, laughed out loud in a good way at the Hulk and the brilliant interplay between the superheroes. Did I become a convert? Was I the only one? I doubt it. This movie not only should be in the top five, but it should take home the cake.”



The Moving Picture Company’s (MPC) VFX Supervisor Gary Brozenich, who was visual effects supervisor on Wolfman, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, Wrath of the Titans, and is currently working on The Lone Ranger, thought the work fit the film well. “I thought it was a very high level of work across the board. Shamelessly huge and fit the film perfectly. It had one of the best full-CG shots I have ever seen,” he says. “I walked out thinking, how the hell did they render that and keep all of its creative integrity? Awesome and fun work.”

This movie was a hit as well with Josh Grow, digital pipeline TD at The Creative-Cartel. “Between ILM’s virtual reconstruction of NYC, stitching together over 275,000 images and placing nearly 2,000 spheres around the city in order to construct a Google-like street view on steroids, to the extreme amount of meticulous detail using both CG and practical techniques to combine the actor Mark Ruffalo and the CG character the Hulk to become one, The Avengers should be on the top of the list,” he believes. “Marvel and ILM deserve to be recognized for raising the bar once again, and doing it seamlessly.” Atomic Fiction co-founder/VFX supervisor Kevin Baillie (Transformers: Dark of the Moon and the just-released Flight) agrees, saying the VFX work on The Avengers is truly remarkable. “With every one of these massive tentpole shows, the effects continue to get bigger and bolder and higher in quality. That said, I’m worried that Hollywood is going to start running out of new things to crash into or blow up!” he says with a chuckle. “In all seriousness, The Avengers was thoroughly entertaining, but I’m curious to see how long it will take for audiences to become numb to the spectacle of these huge movies and gravitate back to more ‘grounded’ films like Dark Knight, Looper, and Flight. For me, it’s easier to become totally immersed in films that stay a little closer to the realm of plausibility.”

Another person who liked the work in this film is John Fragomeni, head of visual effects and animation at Mirada. “The Avengers is great reminder of how artfully applied CG work can support and amplify not only the worlds filmmakers create, but also the scene-to-scene drama and action,” he says. “When [the movie] was released, there was a lot of discussion about the 3D and the epic digital creations—and rightfully so—but one of the things that didn’t get enough attention was the detailing. A lot of VFX companies contributed to the picture, but the cohesive vision and the attention to detail was apparent in the finished film. For instance, the forest brawl between Iron Man and Thor; on the big screen you see tiny splinters of wood ground into the joints of Stark’s suit after he’s booted through a tree. The movie is full of those kinds of textures—and they add up.”

Cloud Atlas

Release date: October 26, 2012
Production companies: Cloud Atlas Productions, X-Filme Creative Pool, Anarchos Pictures, A Company Filmproduktionsgesellschaft, ARD Degeto Film, Ascension Pictures, Five Drops, Media Asia Group

This science-fiction film, written and directed by Lana and Andy Wachowski (The Matrix) and Tom Tykwer, blends the past, present, and future to show how the actions of an individual impact those of another across time. The movie contains six related stories, taking audiences to various time periods, from the South Pacific in 1849 to Neo Seoul, Korea, in 2144. While effects are used throughout this high-priced production, they are vital in the creation of this futuristic city, work that was done well.

“Described as beautiful and full of pathos, I thought certain moments worked very well visually, but the readers of the book squirm at the adaptation for the screen, and I think a beautiful story does not a visual effects winner make,” says Breakspear, whose colleagues at Method Vancouver worked on this movie. “Look out for this in the short list, however. Realistic cities from the future, a strong cast, and a wonderful, tragic narrative full of beauty and questions about our souls means this carries a couple of big punches that could do some serious damage.”

Erik Nash, visual effects supervisor at Digital Domain (Real Steel, I, Robot, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End) thinks that Cloud Atlas may play in the running because of the sheer volume of work and the numerous time periods represented.

“Remarkably ambitious visual storytelling; you’ve got six stories over 500 years, with some of the same actors playing multiple roles. It’s a terrific combination of genres, eras, and aesthetics,” says Mirada’s Fragomeni. In particular, the fully CG establishing shots in futuristic Neo Seoul and the chase through the city were stunning, he adds. Likewise, the digital makeup and re-touching work on the actors was an inspiring example of what our art can do to help filmmakers challenge traditional storytelling conventions.

The Dark Knight Rises

Release date: July 20, 2012
Production companies: Warner Bros. Pictures, DC Entertainment, Legendary Pictures, Syncopy

The last film in the Dark Knight trilogy, director Chris Nolan went darker and grittier than before, tasking Double Negative with the 450 visual effects shots—from digitally re-creating the cityscape to building Batman’s new flying vehicle. A good amount of the effects were used for digital destruction: blowing up bridges, a football stadium, and more. An aerial heist sequence was also quite impressive.

Dan Glass, chief creative officer at Method and VFX supervisor on Cloud Atlas, notes that Dark Knight Rises shows Director Chris Nolan’s “typically restrained approach to VFX while pushing the team to technical perfection helped the VFX feel truly integrated.”

“While I eagerly await the release of some of the films on this year’s list, like the Hobbit, Life of Pi, and Cloud Atlas—films that would be hard to effectively realize 10 years ago—I reflected on just how far visual effects have progressed. For me, of the shows I’ve seen, the stand-out visual treats came from Dark Knight and Prometheus,” says Cinesite’s Clamp. “In the Dark Knight, I never questioned the scale of explosions. CG dust, debris, and buildings remain totally believable throughout the film.”



This superhero movie paled in comparison to The Avengers for Method’s Breakspear. “How much longer should we endure the man in the Kevlar suit doing things gravity spits out its breakfast at? Sure, nearly everyone loves these movies and they make a lot of money, but the whole concept just seems silly now that I’ve seen The Avengers,” he says. “It takes itself way too seriously, the world just isn’t looking for that at the moment. Contender? Alas, yes, due to the brutish love of this character by the fans and a justifiable bulge of visual nuance and visual effects know-how that many other movies fail to achieve. Winner? The story line and a movement around the world for more ‘more’ and less ‘seen it’ hangs around the neck of this goliath like a colossal concrete anchor.”

At the opposite end of the spectrum, DD’s Nash thinks that Dark Knight is spectacular. “Christopher Nolan did an incredible job of integrating miniatures and practical effects with a huge amount of CG—and a lot of that movie was done at 6k for IMAX presentation, which is a huge accomplishment and a huge amount of data to deal with.”

Visual Effects Society (VES) President Jeff Okun, a visual effects supervisor, says: “Dark Knight is fantastic in that the VFX work was truly in support of the story. With the exception of the football field scene, it was all seamless and invisible, while clearly something was done to have that [final] imagery. It was done in a believable manner and pushed the story up several notches while remaining unbelievably believable.”

Atomic Fiction’s Baillie is impressed as well: “The thing I really love and respect about Christopher Nolan and Paul Franklin is their sparing and invisible use of visual effects. You can never quite tell if they blew that truck up for real or if it was a digital effect. A lot of the time it actually is real. Hollywood is obsessed with using flashy VFX everywhere, whether they need to or not, but Chris is clearly committed to bucking that trend. We had a similar goal with Zemeckis while making Flight, and really enjoy leaving the audience with the bewildered feeling of How did they do that?!?”

Just like the previous two films in the trilogy, the picture raised the bar and set a new standard of photorealism CG in grand-scale productions, contends Mirada’s Fragomeni. “From the midair hijacking sequence to the citywide explosions that turn Gotham into a no-man’s land, you can watch it over and over. There’s great integration [of both] practical and CG. Even on an IMAX screen, every moment comes together beautifully.”

Flight

Release date: November 2, 2012
Production companies: ImageMovers, Paramount Pictures, Parkes/MacDonald Productions



In this live-action drama directed by Robert Zemeckis (whose ImageMovers studio delivered the performance-capture for the CG animated films Polar Express, A Christmas Carol, and Mars Needs Moms) stepped back into live-action filmmaking. The movie is about an impaired pilot who struggles to keep from crashing both figuratively and literally, and is thrust into the limelight following his heroic efforts in the cockpit. The attention here is on the crash scene, which is as realistic as it can get.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Release date: December 14, 2012
Production companies: New Line Cinema, MGM, WingNut Films, 3Foot7

Weta and Director Peter Jackson team up again on the ambitious epic fantasy-adventure Hobbit film series, a prequel to The Lord of the Rings mega-hit series that had set a very high bar for visual effects, particularly in terms of character animation with the digital Gollum. Fans are waiting anxiously for this movie, and no doubt they will be pleased with the wide range of effects. Expect expansive, breathtaking vistas, characters of all sorts, unique sets, set extensions, awesome landscapes, incredible structures, a mashing of monsters—all thanks to the latest digital wizardry. And, of course, there is a younger, more impressive CG Gollum, performed once again by Andy Serkis. There will be crowds and hordes. Giants and dwarfs. Fire, water, explosions. Not only will the production be epic in scope, but so will the VFX. And, the film will use the new high frame rate format of 48 frames per second, resulting in hyper-realistic imagery. Method’s Glass says, “I am very curious to see the higher frame rate version of this movie, as there is lots of anticipation for the VFX work, which will undoubtedly be spectacular.”

“Lovers will love, haters will hate, but this has to be a front-runner in many people’s playbooks,” says Breakspear from Method. “Released late in the year, always a good time, and from the current masters known for a high pedigree of visual effects work. I’m not so sure, however, that splitting the movie into three may mean the Academy will want to see all three pieces before awarding this goliath the golden nod. A contender for sure. Victor? Seems unlikely on Part One, though.”

“I’m very eager to see The Hobbit, it’s Peter Jackson and Weta and the next in line after their Oscar-winning Lord of the Rings efforts—but this is also the first movie to be released at 48 frames per second. Having worked at Showscan years ago, I am familiar with the benefits and issues with high frame rates, and paid close attention to the somewhat negative reaction they got when previewing the 20-minute Hobbit clip at CinemaCon,” says DD’s Nash. As he points out, watching a movie presented at 48 fps rather than 24fps, which we’re all accustomed to, is almost like viewing a different medium—you need time for your brain to adjust, and while he thinks that will work for the viewing of an entire film, it might be jarring in a 10-minute clip surrounded by all the other contenders presenting at 24 fps. Anticipating that the work will look amazing and that this film will be in the bake-off, he is curious to see whether they will screen their 10-minute reel at 24 or 48 fps, since to his understanding it’s being released at both frame rates.

“The prevailing fear out there is that The Hobbit’s 48 fps projection is going to look ‘cheap.’ That said, Peter Jackson has a habit of making some really great decisions, and cinema is in need of some new spectacle to draw audiences to theaters, so I hope he’s onto something here,” says Atomic Fiction’s Baillie.

The Hunger Games

Release date: March 23, 2012
Production companies: Lionsgate, Color Force

VFX were required for the dystopian futuristic setting of the brutal games in the film. In fact, there were well over 1,200 VFX shots, though they are often not apparent. The futuristic cityscapes are teeming with CGI, and the control room was digitally constructed, including a 3D hologram.

“I was carried along by the story and felt it was low on VFX, which is a compliment, although a few stood out,” notes Cinesite’s Neill.

Clamp, also from Cinesite, points out that in Hunger Games, the effects never got in the way of the storytelling and helped set the scene with large-scale matte paintings and TV show inserts. But on the whole, they’re on a different scale to other films here, playing more of a supporting rather than starring role, he adds.

Method’s Breakspear sees one way this could be a contender: “depends how many 8-year-olds vote at the Academy.”

John Carter

Release date: March 9, 2012
Production company: Walt Disney Pictures

Disney did not hold back when it came to creating this film about a Civil War vet who lands on Mars, where he battles barbarians, rescues a princess, fights evil, and finds himself a hero. Some of the work can be considered heroic as well, as digital artists filled a planet with green-skinned, warring Martians, built solar-powered spaceships, and constructed four different sections of the red planet, including a massive city of stone that is indeed breathtaking.

“John Carter is an underrated movie, and the quality of the extensive visual effects work deserves better appreciation,” notes Method’s Glass.

Not so, says Method’s Breakspear. “Only if NASA’s Curiosity presents the award live.”

DD’s Nash disagrees. “The other one [besides Cloud Atlas] that might be considered is John Carter, though it has several forces working against it—namely that it came out so early in the year and that the film itself was largely panned by critics,” he says. “Regardless, the quality and volume of visual effects work in it should have made it a shoe-in for a nomination.”

Life of Pi

Release date: November 21, 2012
Production companies: Rhythm & Hues, Fox 2000 Pictures

This film is getting a lot of pre-release buzz, both for its story and magnificent look. The movie’s plot centers on a son of a zookeeper who finds himself adrift on the Pacific Ocean after a shipwreck. But he is not alone—his company in the lifeboat leaves little comfort: a zebra, hyena, orangutan, and Bengal tiger. The entire movie can be considered digital effects: the water, the animals, the sea life, the storms, the sinking ship, and more, including the digital “thinning” of the human star. In addition, the film is in stereo 3D, which intensifies the drama.

Glass says this about the movie ahead of its release: “Beautiful-looking imagery and VFX work in the trailer. It seems a strong contender for awards season.”

“Who didn’t love the book? But did the readers eye-paint this amazing yarn in the colors we all glimpsed in the trailer?” asks Method’s Breakspear. “This could get the ‘out of left field’ ticket to the top five. Strong story, meaningful message, and a possible gorge of brilliant visuals.”

Nash from Digital Domain has seen ads and trailers for Life of Pi. “It’s gorgeous looking, but is also very stylized, and historically the bake-off crowd, for whatever reason, seems to idealize photoreal visual effects,” he says. “But who knows, this film is so painterly, it’s almost reminiscent of What Dreams May Come, which did play very well, so the stylized look may actually help it stand out and give it an edge.”

Okun from VES thinks that Life of Pi is “amazing—and not just in the VFX work, but in how it is clear that Ang Lee had a vision and worked with R&H (and the other companies) to achieve that vision,” he says. “The visual effects are stunning in technique and artistry—greater than any film I can think of this year. It represents a fusion of what is great about VFX and a director’s specific style of storytelling.”

“I’m very interested to see how audiences will react to the stylized look of Life of Pi,” says Atomic Fiction’s Baillie. “Now that our industry has blown up just about every conceivable object on Earth and beyond, I think that one of the next horizons for VFX is helping filmmakers to create an ‘altered visual reality’ for their audiences. Everyone dreams differently; why shouldn’t movies be able to put their audiences into someone else’s dream too?”

Looper

Release date: September 28, 2012
Production companies: DMG Entertainment, Endgame Entertainment, FilmDistrict, Ram Bergman Productions

The science-fiction action film starring action star Bruce Willis shows the result of what happens when time travel is used by criminal organizers to arrange “hits” on those they wish to eliminate—the target is sent 30 years back in time, where assassins, called “loopers,” await. However, sometimes the looper becomes a target when the future self is sent back. The movie required digital environments, including futuristic cities by Atomic Fiction. There is also a telekinesis sequence from Scanline, and decomposition of victims done by Hydraulx.

Three films this year stood out for Nicolas Hernandez, visual effects supervisor at The Mill. One of these was Looper. “I think Looper was the VFX surprise of the year. The futuristic environments, to FX like telekinesis and body decomposition looked so unbelievably real that I was really impressed,” he says. “For me, Looper didn’t overuse or rely on VFX; they served the film and the narrative, adding to the story, which, in my view, is the sign of great visual effects.” In fact, Hernandez calls 2012 “a really strong year for VFX.” Breakspear (Method) thought this was a “cool movie,” but to the trained eye, there were a few moments that didn’t balance their levels, he points out. “The story was extremely watchable, and the effects fit the script well, but this just isn’t a heavy enough lifter to make the cut this year.”



One of the things we loved most about working on Looper was Rian Johnson’s desire to use VFX to support the story, rather than call attention to themselves, notes Atomic Fiction’s Baillie. “Every effect in the film served a purpose to push the narrative forward, which was extremely refreshing for us and, ultimately, I think, audiences too!”

Men in Black 3

Release date: May 25, 2012
Production companies: Amblin Entertainment, Hemisphere Media Capital, Imagination Abu Dhabi FZ, Media Magik Entertainment, Parkes/MacDonald Productions



CG makeovers abound in the film, as Agents J and K travel back in time in this third installment in the series. To support the story premise, artists had to re-create Shea Stadium, modify the Chrysler Building in New York, and simulate the space launch from 1969 (requiring a tower, smoke, steam, and fire). Also, artists had fun creating more than a dozen different peculiar characters, many of which were one-offs. Plus, there were digital doubles for Agents J and K.

In Men in Black, the whole space-launch Cape Canaveral sequence was really nicely thought out and really well executed, notes Cinesite’s Clamp. “With time travel, dinosaurs, spaceships, and aliens—this film really is like all the other films on the list rolled into one,” he says. “So much—maybe too much.”

Prometheus

Release date: June 8, 2012
Production companies: Twentieth Century Fox, Dune Entertainment, Scott Free Productions, Brandywine Productions

A number of visual effects studios worked on aspects of the sci-fi/horror film Prometheus, including surreal planetary landscapes, a stormy atmosphere, aliens, spaceships, trilobites, a complex fight sequence between the trilobite and the last engineer, and an epic crash sequence. Two of the more memorable scenes required a great deal of CG: When the engineer sacrifices himself as he dissolves into particulate matter, and a gruesome surgical scene performed inside a medpod bay. Like Alien before it, Prometheus contains disturbing effects that could be talked about well into the future.

Another film that The Mill’s Hernandez was impressed with was Prometheus, which he calls “a visual feast.” “Where to begin: The environment of the planet surface was incredible, the Prometheus spaceship is one of the most believable, realistic spaceships I’ve ever seen on screen—remarkable and truly exciting VFX,” he says. “The aliens were really impressive too; it is one of those films you can easily see the amount of research and development [that went into] the shaders and rendering. I also have to mention the holograms. I really liked these. They were so effective because they felt authentic and integrated into the plate. All in all, stunning VFX.”

Sara Bennett, a VFX supervisor at The Mill on Dredd 3D (and on the upcoming Les Miserables) and compositing supervisor on Snow White and the Huntsman (and 2D supe on the upcoming 47 Ronin) was impressed with this film. “Stunning and beautiful is how I would describe the VFX work in Prometheus, including the landing scenes at the start of the film and all the interior ship scenes looking out onto the planet. Also, I liked the fact that the stereo was very subtle and not too ‘in your face’ as a lot of other 3D films have been. You didn’t need it on a film like this.”

“Though the film seemed to disappoint many, there is some great CG work here that rivals top-end miniature work,” Method’s Glass says.

Cinesite’s Neill says, “I really enjoyed this movie, mainly because I love slow-moving sci-fi. The visual effects were stylish and glued the look of the movie together. The spaceships and vehicles were well realized, and the surface of the planet with mattes and atmospherics were believable. I loved the laser trackers that scanned the tunnels. Would love to have them on set for data survey!”

According to Cinesite’s Clamp, the dust clouds of Prometheus deserved their own credit in the final roller, looking truly huge on screen—dwarfing the planet, vehicles, and people before engulfing them in a crazy, shattering storm. “Combined with beautiful production design and art department work, the looks of these films [Dark Knight and Prometheus] really knitted together well, Prometheus just ahead of the Dark Knight.” He continues: “And a big shout out to the viral campaign for Prometheus, which was fantastic and really engaged the user with its own TED debate, advertorials, and background info, all presented in a very up-to-date, hip Web delivery.”

“The visual effects were very delicately and selectively used, and melded to the fabric of the film seamlessly. They honestly conveyed the scale of the worlds both above and below ground, and never pulled me out of the experience,” says MPC’s Brozenich.

Method’s Breakspear, however, was not impressed: “Highly anticipated, wonderful trailer, totally a disappointment of a movie. Take nothing away from the visual effects—they were a golden giant riding on an aged ass of a story line. Shortlist? This year unlikely based on the competition.”

Baillie from Atomic Fiction, however, thinks Prometheus contained some of the more fantastic outer space work he’s ever seen, “without looking ‘fantasy-like’ Looking otherworldly without looking fake is a real challenge, and they nailed it!”

The work impressed Mirada’s Fragomeni: “Quite a remarkable job of leveraging all the practical art direction and model work we all know and love from the original Alien—and then elevating it with visual effects work to take the audience places they’ve never seen before. The landing sequence where the ship touches down on LV-223, for example, is a really majestic moment that blends both to stunning effect.”

Skyfall

Release date: November 9, 2012
Production companies: MGM, Danjaq, Eon Productions

In Skyfall, Bond’s mission is to keep a computer drive containing a list of British agents out of the wrong hands. In doing so, audiences can expect the usual Bond formula: sexy women both good and bad, lots of martinis (shaken, not stirred), fast cars, an array of high-tech gadgets, edge-of-your-seat chase scenes, and more. Skyfall delivers all this—in a big way, with big effects (some practical, some digital).

In Breakspear’s (Method) opinion, this deserves a mention but is unlikely in the top five in the list because it falls into the category of invisible effects. “Great story, some say the best Bond yet. But trust the folks at the Academy to differentiate between that and stunning visual effects? I’m a fan, it’s hard not to be, and my heart says top five but my brain says shortlist.” “I’m very intrigued by Skyfall. People are saying it’s the best Bond movie of all time, and there appears to be lots of seamless effects work in it,” notes Nash (Digital Domain).

Snow White and the Huntsman

Release date: June 1, 2012
Production companies: Roth Films, Universal Pictures

The effects in this fairy tale are blended throughout, making it a dark version of the story we have come to know from childhood. In the prologue battle, an army of evil shadow soldiers marches against the king, and when they are struck, they fracture into shards. There were a number of battles with CG arrows and fireballs, CG animals, digital trolls, a 3D castle, a foreboding forest, and more. One of the most notable sequences involves the magic mirror as it melts and forms itself into a character—an awesome effect no matter how you look at it.

“I love dark films, and Snow White and the Huntsman was certainly a dark take on a classic fantasy tale,” says Atomic Fiction’s Baillie. “The film’s effects—everything from the shattering armies to Mirror Man—were executed in a way that made you feel like they were really ‘there.’ I was super impressed to see a first-time director go with as subtle and ‘gritty’ of VFX as these.”

Fragomeni from Mirada also had praise for some of the effects. “From that moment when the Magic Mirror pours out of its frame, to that great shot of the army on horseback thundering up the beach with Ravenna’s castle in the background—the whole movie gives you a heightened story­book landscape in which reality and hyper-reality co-exist wonderfully in the same frame,” he says. “Great work from my ex-Asylum colleague Phil Brennan and crew.”

Ted

Release date: June 29, 2012
Production companies: Universal Pictures, Media Right Capital, Fuzzy Door Productions, Bluegrass Films, Smart Entertainment

Who would have thought that a film about a potty-mouth talking teddy bear would create such a fuss, but that’s exactly what the adult-themed movie Ted did. And the “fuss” was positively positive and had critics and moviegoers alike talking, and what they had to say was good. The animators were able to provide the CG Ted with features that would morph into a range of expressions that enabled the character to pull off a lead role in the movie alongside the human actors. Ted had to be both a believable teddy bear toy while carrying out his role as an actor. The effects crew pulled out all the stops for the fight scene at the hotel between Ted and his human buddy, John.
The Creative-Cartel’s Grow makes the case for Ted, a film for which his studio managed the VFX production. “Ted used an ingenious mix of motion capture and good-ol’ fashioned CG animation to prove to us that a foul-mouthed teddy bear can be super lovable. I think the most impressive part, aside from the stellar lighting and CG integration of Ted, is the sense of emotion captured on the face of a teddy bear. With two beady eyes, a couple of rectangle eyebrows, and a mouth, you quickly believe in Ted and immediately fall in love with that character.”

Animation

Brave

Release date: June 22, 2012 Production companies: Walt Disney Pictures, Pixar Animation Studios

Disney is known for its “princess” films, but for Pixar, this was the studio’s first such movie. The animated feature contains a fairy-tale setting in medieval Scotland, with rolling, lush landscapes and crazy kilt-wearing clansmen and richly dressed royals. A plethora of new technologies was required to generate the imagery that is straight out of a fantasy world. It’s difficult to say what was the most impressive feat: the sets, the characters, the structures, the clothing…it’s all magical. Mirada’s John Fragomeni, head of VFX and animation at the facility, says: “Pixar continues to push the envelope of what animation can do. There’s a moment where the hero Merida pulls back her hood and you see this crazy mane of insanely red hair. But at the end of the day, like everything Pixar does, all that hard work is there to support the characters and reinforces the story.”

Frankenweenie

Release date: October 5, 2012
Production companies: Walt Disney Pictures, Tim Burton Animation Co., Tim Burton Productions

In a year that saw a few stop-motion animated films, it’s hard to believe that each managed to add a unique spin on this traditional method, thanks to the addition of CGI in some form or another. Visual effects played a big role in this movie about a boy who brings his beloved pet back to life—there are more than 1200 visual effects shots, but none look out of place. There’s CG fire, water, light, and electricity, all integrated in an “electrifying” way. Plus, the mechanics in the character Sparky required the puppets to be quite large in size; as a result, artists had to create a number of CG environments and sets, since practical sets of the size needed would have been prohibitive.



“It’s a great-looking blend of stop motion and CG work,” says Dan Glass, CCO at Method.

MPC VFX Supervisor Gary Brozenich also loved the film and thought the cinematography was beautiful. “The texture was so rich that I very quickly forgot I was watching a black-and-white film. A brilliant case for a more traditional medium. I’ve done endless stop-motion films with my highly inspired 8-year-old since.” ToyTalk Chief Creative Officer Bobby Podesta also weighed in on this movie, saying Frankenweenie’s subdued animation style stayed true to the story and Tim Burton’s point of view.

“Good old-fashioned, handcrafted, frame-by-frame style of filmmaking—with something like 200 separate puppets used, with 40 to 45 joints for the human characters and about 300 parts for the Sparky character,” says Mirada’s Fragomeni of what caught his attention. “Really fun stuff.”

Hotel Transylvania

Release date: September 28, 2012
Production companies: Columbia Pictures, Sony Pictures Animation

A man’s home is his castle, and in this movie, it is far more, as Dracula opens his home to monsters looking for some R&R. The imagery has a unique hand-drawn, graphic, cartoony look and feel with dramatic poses that are perfect for the dramatic acting from the likes of Dracula and some of the other characters. In this movie, the artists prove that CGI can be used in different ways to achieve something different.

Ice Age: Continental Drift

Release date: July 13, 2012
Production companies: Blue Sky Studios

In this latest sequel in the Ice Age series, Pangaea is breaking apart into the continents with vast oceans separating the land masses. The characters find themselves adrift on an ice raft as they encounter prehistoric pirates. The majority of the adventure occurs on water, requiring a great deal of water-focused technology for the turbulent seas. Also, some of the new characters presented particular challenges, especially Granny, with her loose, flabby skin and fur shawl; Flynn, a blubbery seal with layers of jiggly fat; and the orangutan Gutt, with his dread-lock beard and long fur.

The Lorax

Release date: March 2, 2012
Production companies: Universal Pictures, Illumination Entertainment

Dr. Seuss always paints a colorful story, and in the movie The Lorax, the CG artists had to assume that role, bringing to life the walled city of Thneed-Ville, where everything is artificial. Even when the main character discovers nature, it is still, well, artificial in that it is CG, created by artists who are re-creating the scenes from the lovable book and colorful mind of its author. Fur played a major technical role: There are furred characters and furry trees—no easy feat.

While VES’s Okun has not seen many of this year’s top films yet, one that made his list is The Lorax. “It was impressive in that it took a style, a defined look, and made it its own. The characters and the environments where whimsical yet felt comfortable to the story. Its use of light and shadow were impressive, and in the end, helped to tell a great story.”

Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted

Release date: June 8, 2012
Production companies: DreamWorks Animation, Pacific Data Images

The visual effects in this latest installment had to be believable but also graphic and funny. And they are in this CG feature starring the zoosters. A chase scene through Monaco with Vespa-riding animal control officers is hilarious and filled with VFX, including some memorable stereo 3D moments involving fish. Another effect done to perfection is the lighting within the neon environment under the big top—the end result: a definite movie bright spot.

ParaNorman

Release date: August 17, 2012
Production companies: Laika Entertainment

A few years ago, Laika entertained us with the stop-motion masterpiece Coraline. In this follow-up project, the studio embraces the latest tools and techniques to go bigger and better than they did for that endearing film. For this creation, the crew took advantage of the advances in 3D color printing, outputting digital head and face models and painting out the seams. They also used CG technology to extend backgrounds, populate the town with CG folks, and push the overall envelope.

The Mill’s VFX supervisor Nicolas Hernandez, who worked on Snow White and the Huntsman and is currently working on 47 Ronin, liked ParaNorman: “I went see this with my children, and I do have to admit, after the film, I was more excited than my kids. ParaNorman is just visually phenomenal. Laika used groundbreaking techniques for rapid prototyping. In fact, they modeled facial shapes for their characters (and some objects) on the computer, then used a 3D printer to materialize them. This technology helped them to create faster and better facial animation. Truly amazing and a must-see for everyone.”

Another fan of this movie is Hernandez’s co-worker Sara Bennett. “Fantastic film. It really stood out from the other animation films for me. I love stop-frame animation and thought the effects work in it looked great. It’s a very dark film with a great story,” she says.

The Pirates! Band of Misfits

Release date: April 27, 2012
Production companies: Aardman Animations, Sony Pictures Animation

This stop-motion movie feature animation is also enhanced with CG visual effects, including water simulation. The director used his experience in CG animation and visual effects, integrating many of those filmmaking strategies into the traditional workflow of this movie. Indeed, there are digital characters and crowd animations. And a great deal of work was required to clean up the puppets.

Rise of the Guardians

Release date: November 21, 2012
Production company: DreamWorks Animation

The film centers on characters who are larger than life. So it was no small feat creating the likes of Santa, the Sandman, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny with designs that would portray these childhood superheroes as the warriors they are required to be in the story. The movie is teeming with effects, among them Sandman’s magical creations that take shape from sand. Each movie character is described with an associated color and shape, which designers had to weave into the visual fabric. The imagery is indeed magical. Mirada’s Fragomeni points out that the film has an amazing CG animated mash-up that brings together all the larger-than-life fantasy characters from childhood based on William Joyce’s “The Guardians of Childhood” books and “The Man in the Moon” short by Joyce and Reel FX. “Joyce is also executive-producing, alongside Mirada founder Guillermo del Toro. I am really looking forward to seeing this film.”

Wreck-It Ralph

Release date: November 2, 2012
Production company: Walt Disney Animation Studios

The artists certainly had their work cut out for themselves in this film, which takes audiences inside the world of video games, as the character Ralph tires of his villainous status and wants to become a hero instead. To do so, he travels inside some games, each with a very different look and feel. In addition, the designers had to come up with a separate look for the video game land where the characters hang out when they are not in-game. It’s a winner of a premise, and the team certainly delivered.

Fragomeni (Mirada) describes the film as Disney’s long-gestating video game opus that builds on the tradition of Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Toy Story. “The whole movie has an irresistible throwback vibe; it calls up all the lovable 8-bit video game iconography and super­charges it with an enormous arsenal of fully realized individual character models for all the great cameos that fill out the playful video game landscape they created.”

Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor of Computer Graphics World.
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