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Issue: Volume 36 Issue 7: (Nov/Dec 2013)

The Gold Standard

By: Karen Moltenbrey

When looking back at the movie releases from this past year, there’s one thing that’s certain: The box office sure is unpredictable. Some highly anticipated films failed to live up to their hype; some features seemingly emerged out of nowhere and took theaters by storm.

Just what makes audiences fall in love with a film? Or give it a cold shoulder? If there were a true formula for predicting a film’s success – stars versus unknowns, sequels versus original plots, so-called chick flicks versus action movies, visual effects versus dramatic story, real-life tales versus fantasy – Hollywood would have bottled it up for sale long ago. Indeed, certain attributes can help a film’s chances with voters and audiences. But then again, there are always exceptions to the rule, and during Oscar time, those exceptions can win gold.

The year 2013 started off slow. But by spring, a number of films brought some excitement to theaters, including Oz the Great and Powerful and The Croods. By summer, the box office was heating up with VFX-heavy titles, such as Star Trek Into Darkness, Fast & Furious 6, and the long-awaited World War Z. In fact, May, June, and the first week of July brought the biggest weekends at the box office. Those numbers spiked again in October with the release of Gravity, and will likely do so again during the holiday season.

The Visual Effect

Throughout the year, superheroes were, well, super with viewers: Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, and The Wolverine. No doubt Thor: The Dark World (which had not been released as of this writing) will do so, as well. All those characters have enjoyed big-screen stardom before, and obviously audiences never grow tired of their exploits as they save the universe from evildoers.

Just recently, Gravity hit theaters, and it is taking the box office by storm. And, there are still a number of highly anticipated films that have not yet been released but are expected to be well received, including The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

“Filmmaking is a sophisticated medium for storytellers. This Oscar season, I believe Academy members will reward those films and filmmakers who leveraged every tool at their disposal to service their stories. This includes the clever use of digital visual effects to further the plot and enrich our understanding of each character’s emotional journey,” says Chris Edwards at The Third Floor. “One film accomplished this with such precision that I believe it will not be overlooked on Oscar night: Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity.”

Some of this year’s movies in the Oscar hunt contain in-your-face effects, while others take a subtle approach. “In past years, VFX spectacle might have been enough to win the Academy’s favor, but this year the real winners should be the actors and filmmakers who made audiences forget that there was any Hollywood trickery at all,” Edwards says.

No doubt, the haunting situation immediately before and after the 2013 Oscar ceremonies (and throughout the year) still weighs heavily on those working in the industry. “This year saw the closing of more US VFX facilities, and protests inside and outside the Kodak Theatre during the Academy Award ceremonies where VFX awardees for Life of Pi were orchestrally swept from the stage and neither mentioned nor thanked by the film’s director or cinematographer in their own Oscar acceptance speeches. There is an industry-wide dissing of VFX teams, upon which so many movies depend for their existence,” VFX Director Rick Sander of HOAX Films reminds us.

That said, there are numerous films in this race, once again, that rely on VFX not just for the flash, but also for the essence of the movie. And, hopefully, the artists responsible will receive their proper recognition.

So, who will be “recognized” this year? “You can bet Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium and Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity will be on the list,” says Sander. “The latter director was asked during his first presser, ‘How did it feel to shoot a movie in space?’ (That says it all.) That leaves one more slot. Will it be The Hobbit? Peter Jackson’s Weta Workshop team has been nominated six times and won five. The inside joke about the first Hobbit movie was that it should win for ‘Most Visual Effects’ – never a good sign. With zero percent certainty, the smart money for the third nominee is on either Joseph Kosinski’s Oblivion or the great Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. Both featured incredibly visual design choices, fantastically executed in a way that made the storytelling possible and supported the underlying sense of realism.”

Sander notes there is a chance of some balancing wild cards in the mix, however. “Traditionally, a film with on-set explosions and well-made physical model-making would make the nominee list. Such films are being replaced by all-greenscreen extravaganzas, such as previous VFX Oscar winners Life of Pi and Alice in Wonderland, which have their origins in the cult-favorite Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow – a movie so visionary and so unsuccessful that Director Kerry Conran has not been heard from since. So, productions like Great Gatsby or Oz the Great and Powerful might have a chance. Don’t expect Ender’s Game or World War Z to make it past the bake-offs, which seem to be more about algorithmically programmed flocks of spaceships and crowd-simulated undead lemmings.”

Animated Entries

On the animation front, three movies made their return to the screen with phenomenal box-office success: Despicable Me 2, Monsters University, and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2. Earlier in the year, Epic was warmly welcomed, as was The Smurfs 2 during the summer. Finishing out the year will be Free Birds and Frozen. Some say the latter is the one to beat in the animation race. Could this really be the year that Disney beats out its seemingly invincible little brother, Pixar?

“This has been an interesting year, and a year that has been coming. Interesting in that for a few years we have had leaders such as DreamWorks, Disney, Pixar, and then ‘the other studios.’ But, we finally hit a point with CG animation where I believe everyone is on an equal playing field now for the techniques that are used, the character animation, and the overall professionalism,” says Jerry Beck, an animation historian and cartoon producer. “The bar has been set high by the people at Pixar in the past, but we now have Universal, Illumination, Sony, and other studios, including Reel FX with Free Birds, that have reached the same bar. They are all clever, creative, and innovative in terms of their techniques. Now, it is about story­telling, the character animation, the personalities, and other aspects other than the technical achievements.”

As Beck points out, looking back at 2008, some films, like Wall-e (Pixar) and Kung Fu Panda (DreamWorks Animation) were front-runners, far ahead of the pack. But now, just a few short years later, the field is open with films like Epic (Blue Sky/Fox), Monsters University (Pixar), Despicable Me 2 (Illumination Entertainment/Universal), Turbo (DreamWorks), Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 (Sony Pictures Animation), and Frozen (Disney) – all of which have a very high artistic and technical level. “So you have to look at things that might give a film an edge,” he says. “The trick is a lot of these films have incredible things in them that give them their own aesthetic edge.”

While 2012 brought competition in animation from a number of stop-motion movies, this year the field looks wide open for CGI. Yet, the manga style of famed Japanese Director/Animator Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises, which Miyazaki says will be his last movie, could pose outside competition to the typical CGI features –maybe. “The Wind Rises is an adult film. It’s about a real-life person, about an important part of Japan’s aviation history, but it’s not for family audiences,” says Beck.

In looking back over the year, Beck points out that many of the animated films this year were aimed solely at children, which has the same issues as an animated film that plays strictly to adults. “We didn’t have that problem in previous years,” he says. For example, Kung Fu Panda plays for any audience: Kids can get it, but adults get it, too. A few years ago, the same held true for Puss In Boots, “which was sophisticated and done well. Also, Rango. Kids got it, and the film had an adult sensibility. And, it won the Oscar that year. It did not play down to kids; it played for the general audience. That is what the best Pixar films do – Ratatouille, Up. But this year we had Planes, Smurfs, even Monsters University, all aimed more at children than grown-ups. That was the trend, and I personally do not like it. I like the animation aimed a little higher.”

Gravity

The Race Is On

While many were caught unaware with Gravity, there were some films that received a lot of hype but failed to thrill audiences: After Earth, The Lone Ranger, and the CG Planes. Meanwhile, Pacific Rim started off a little slow but soon had people caught in its wake, and by the start of November, was number 10 on the year’s highest-grossing list. It joins these releases in order from the top spot: Iron Man 3, Despicable Me 2, Fast & Furious 6, Monsters University, Man of Steel, The Croods, World War Z, Oz the Great and Powerful, and Star Trek Into Darkness. Yet, with a number of studios gearing up for holiday releases, there’s sure to be movement on this list before year end. Until then, Iron Man 3 sits comfortably at $1.2 billion worldwide, making it the fifth highest-grossing film of all time and the 16th film to surpass the billion-dollar mark, according to published figures. Despicable Me 2 has grossed over $900 million, making it the fifth highest-grossing animated film of all time.

Which visual effects and animated features will make this year’s Oscar shortlist? It’s difficult to tell. However, some experts in the industry have offered their thoughts on the subject, particularly why certain scenes or the film in general should at least be looked at during the awards season.

Elysium

Release date: August 9
Production companies: TriStar Pictures, Alpha Core, Media Rights Capital, Sony Pictures Entertainment

In the year 2159, two classes of people exist: the very wealthy, who live on a pristine man-made space station called Elysium, and the rest, who live on an overpopulated, ruined Earth – both required extensive VFX.

“Elysium showcased Neill Blomkamp’s eye for a grittier type of VFX, along with Syd Mead-type space designs in a fresh way,” says Sony Pictures Imageworks Senior VFX Supervisor Scott Stokdyk, an Academy Award winner (Spider-Man 2) and three-time Oscar nominee.

John Fragomeni, president of Mirada and a visual effects supervisor, finds it exciting to see how Blomkamp has developed and expanded his gift for combining practical and visual effects. “He creates a credible dystopia. You feel a sense of realism down to the most granular level; you see that same VFX attention to detail and engineering precision that was so strong in District 9 – but here it’s opened up onto a larger canvas and the overall impression of authenticity becomes all the more impressive for it,” says Fragomeni. “Everywhere you look, it’s just a smart, subtle blending of live-action plates and well-integrated CG. For instance, when you see the CG security droids interacting with live-action performers, the blades of grass are crushed under their metal feet.”

Enders Game

Ender’s Game

Release date: November 1

Production companies: Summit Entertainment, OddLot Entertainment, Chartoff Productions, Taleswapper, K/O Paper Products, Digital Domain

This science-fiction movie centers on the battle that will determine the future of Earth and the human race. The movie is filled with creative effects, including battles, space-related environments, and futuristic props and backdrops. Like Gravity, there is a great deal of animation that occurs in antigravity.

“Of course I am biased, Ender’s Game is gorgeous. The sequences with the alien and international fleet ships are a beautiful ballet. I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Kelly Port, a VFX supervisor and 19-year veteran at Digital Domain, the VFX vendor on the movie.

Gravity

Release date: October 4

Production companies: Warner Bros. Esperanto Filmoj, Heyday Films

During a seemingly routine spacewalk, disaster strikes as two astronauts’ space shuttle is destroyed, leaving them tethered together and spiraling out into the blackness of space. The backdrops in the film are pretty much all-CG, and during shooting, every move had to be perfect on the part of the actors. The filmmakers created a device called the Light Box, a cube of 4,096 programmable LEDs that delivered variations of brightness, color, and speed to simulate the light from the Earth and the sun as Actress Sandra Bullock spins around. Here, CG was needed to set the tone for this edge-of-your-seat thriller whose story is as dramatic as it gets.

“Gravity seems to be the VFX movie that has connected the most with audiences as a great combination of drama and visual effects. It puts Alfonso Cuarón into the top category of directors who effectively know how to use VFX for visual storytelling,” says Stokdyk.

Chris Edwards, CEO/creative director at The Third Floor, believes the director’s commitment to realism in the film convinced us that the danger was very real, so we could experience the triumph of the human spirit literally within the helmet of our heroine. “I was impressed by the many meaningful compositions woven into Gravity, including the iconic moment when Sandra Bullock’s character floats backlit in the fetal position as some sort of primal sigh of relief after narrowly escaping asphyxiation,” he adds. “In moments like that, Cuarón has completely captured our attention. We are in space, breathing deeply for the first time in minutes.”

According to Fragomeni, Gravity has possibly the most tremendous examples of seamless VFX work in recent memory. “Director Alfonso Cuarón, DP Emmanuel Lubezki, and Visual Effects Supervisor Tim Webber blurred the line between visual effects and cinematography. There’s a documentary-style feel to the effects; even in the most impossibly dangerous moments, it felt like a cameraman was there, stranded in this dire situation,” he says. “It never once breaks the spell – and a big part of that magic comes from the IRIS robotic camera rig breakthrough by the team at Bot & Dolly. Put another way, when Buzz Aldrin comes out of your film saying he was impressed by the portrayal of zero-G, you know you did your job. Likewise, the use of 3D and IMAX is beautifully immersive. The storytelling credibility that Gravity gives to 3D feels like a breakthrough statement on how the technique can amplify the audience experience in a very visceral, emotionally fulfilling way.”

“For me, watching Gravity was two hours of jaw-on-the-floor bliss. As someone who works in animation and VFX, it’s rare that I’m at a loss for how things could have been put together. After about 30 seconds of trying to figure it out, I reverted to my 15-year-old self, wholly immersed in this fantastic world. The experience reminded me of the first time I saw Jurassic Park, something so new and groundbreaking that the skeptical side of your brain is overwhelmed to the point of shutdown,” says Rainmaker’s Cal Brunker

(Escape from Planet Earth). “Cuarón’s incredible choreographed camera moves, stunning visuals, and perfectly paced storytelling make Gravity an unbeatable experience.”

“Gravity was an example of a filmmaker with a passion for storytelling utilizing all the tools available at his disposal,” says Legend3D’s Jared Sandrew, creative director/stereo VFX supervisor. “Under Alfonso Cuarón’s strong creative vision, Stereo Supervisor Chris Parks and VFX Supervisor Tim Webber collaborated with Framestore London to create a stereoscopic VFX spectacle that takes the 3D medium to new heights.”

“Gravity” probably has the biggest buzz, and with good reason. It’s just stunning work,” says Port.

The movie that’s at the top of Tim Crosbie’s list for potential VFX Oscar glory is Gravity. “I have to admit that I may be a little biased because I work for the company that produced some of the effects, but in all honesty, it’s the most enjoyable and immersive movie I’ve seen this year,” says Crosbie, VFX supervisor at Rising Sun Pictures. “It’s definitely worth a look just for the stereo work alone; I didn’t get pulled out of the movie at all, which is quite rare for me.”

Erik de Boer, animation supervisor at Method Studios, agrees. “FX at its best,” he says of the film. “Beautiful pre-planned shots with a sweet combination of CGI, practical rigs, robots, motion control, and innovative lighting design. Great-looking cloth and body replacements. The sequence with the Sojoez capsule restricted by the parachute lines was spectacular. Gorgeous graphic imagery followed by some great ISS destruction. Plus, Sandra Bullock. This should get some awards.”

Gravity

Iron Man 3

Release date: May 3

Production companies: Marvel Studios, Paramount Pictures, DMG Entertainment

For Iron Man 3, 17 visual effects studios helped create iron suits, explosions, glowing bad guys, digital doubles, CG environments, destruction, chaotic battles, and more.

“Iron Man 3 features great design, modeling, and animation throughout. The movie is full of fun, clever visual effects – and they all work dramatically and comedically. It is impressive when you consider the work was handled by 17 studios across the globe for a film that includes more than 2,000 shots,” says Fragomeni. “Specifically, the signature ‘inside the helmet’ Iron Man HUD display and the many moments in which Stark interacts with the prehensile suit are smart advancements of the practical, mechanical feel of the VFX language laid out in the first two films.”

Adds Port: “This is such a strong year for VFX. You have to consider Pacific Rim, Iron Man 3, and Man of Steel – all impressive for the sheer volume of work at extremely high quality.”

Man of Steel

Release date: June 14

Production companies: Warner Bros., Legendary Pictures, Syncopy, DC Entertainment, Third Act Productions

CG helped Zack Snyder film superhuman action using a documentary style to make the Man of Steel fly and place him in the middle of some high-octane action. Also, there are scenes on the CG backdrops of Krypton and Metropolis, and a great deal of demolition.“Several houses, like Weta Digital, MPC, and Double Negative contributed a lot of great work on Man of Steel – but the cohesive style across many sequences of the finished film was excellent. Obviously, there’s the Metropolis battle, the massive destruction – but what was particularly impressive were the smaller effects. For example, the Kryptonian tech: The look and movement of the liquid geo displays, even the design and tracking work on the all-digital armor worn by Zod was pretty brilliant,” Fragomeni points out.

“Man of Steel is an example of strong direction, multiple high-end visual effects houses working together to share the heavy lifting, and top talent coming together to bring an iconic film series to new heights. Those qualities, coupled with Zack Snyder’s creative perspective and ability to inject life into the filmmaking process, made Man of Steel a compelling story and a technically impressive film,” Sandrew says.

Nico Hernandez, VFX supervisor and head of 3D at Milk VFX, says even if he should pick Gravity for its groundbreaking technical achievement, he would choose Man of Steel for some of the best visual effects work he has seen on the big screen this year. “In fact, this film shows a solid VFX execution, and every aspect is masterized. The environments are stunning, the takeover from actors to CG doubles is seamless, and the FX work is just incredible. I was amazed to discover after seeing the film that Krypton soldiers were wearing almost full-CG armors – the blend was perfect,” he says. “But, the plat de resistance (excuse my Frenchness) was, for me, the destruction of the fully digitally created Metropolis with the wicked antigravity device created by the evil general Zod. The scale of the destruction was phenomenal, every breaking was triggering subtask-like fire, smoke, or more breaking. Just incredible.”

Oblivion

Release date: April 19

Production companies: Universal Pictures, Relativity Media, Monolith Pictures, Cherin Entertainment, Radical Studios

Oblivion, a sci-fi/action/adventure from Joseph Kosinski, follows a man as he begins to question his mission: extracting Earth’s remaining resources in a post-apocalyptic world. Impressive were the scenic shots from the Sky Tower, which were done using a 180-degree bluescreen and 20-plus front-projected cameras. The movie also features amazing digital landscapes and a multitude of digital models.

“Oblivion is another one on my top films list, although this has more to do with how they shot the Sky Tower scenes with no greenscreens – that is, modern-day seamless rear projection. Beautifully done,” says Crosbie, whose recent credits include The Seventh Son, The Wolverine, The Great Gatsby, and Prometheus. He also worked on the Academy Award-winning The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and was part of the team responsible for the Academy Awarding-winning visual effects on The Matrix and What Dreams May Come.

Says de Boer: “Gorgeous and smart photography. A beautifully designed film.”

Oz the Great and Powerful

Release date: March 8

Production companies: Walt Disney Pictures and Roth Films

Audiences were often spellbound by the wonderful land of Oz once again, and in this version, there are 1,500 VFX shots, including those with the main digital characters China Girl and the monkey Finley.

“I believe that Oz the Great and Powerful belongs in the category of most memorable VFX films this year because the China Girl’s animation was so artistically crafted, showing both restraint and emotion against the backdrop of a meticulously designed fantasy world,” says Stokdyk, who most recently served as VFX supervisor on the Disney film.

Fragomeni describes Oz the Great and Powerful as a fun, playful example of a heightened storybook landscape in which reality and hyper-reality coexist in the same frame. “The picture does a great job of using the latest visual

effects tools and techniques to take us back to one of the most beloved fantasy worlds in movie history – and then show it to us like we’ve never seen it before. For example, most audiences know the land of Oz as a beautiful, stage-bound, three-strip Technicolor world; here, the filmmakers respect that same fundamental vibe but fill it with stunning plant life and creatures – the same goes for the Emerald City. Likewise, the porcelain China Girl, the way her animated movement reflected an advanced version of the kind of on-set marionette performance that she would have in the original Wizard of Oz. All told, it was great to revisit Oz and meet new larger-than-life fantasy characters in an exciting new context, using modern techniques that echo the original visual languages of cinema.”

Pacific Rim

Release date: July 12

Production companies: Warner Bros., Legendary Pictures, Disney DDY

The VFX in Pacific Rim are large, very large. There are giant CG robotic creatures that emerge from the ocean to wreak havoc on land and in the water.

“Pacific Rim, Iron Man 3, and the Man of Steel are this year’s tour de forces of massive-scale VFX, all brilliantly executed to give the audience a larger-than-life visual experience,” says Stokdyk.

“The scope and scale of Pacific Rim’s world – the sense of mythology and texture to all its details, on the macro to micro level – deliver a feeling of epic storytelling that’s best experienced in a cinema. IMAX 3D was a terrific ride, but after also screening it in traditional 2D, I was able to sit back and absorb the story and visual nuances. From the large-scale creatures, futuristic machines and epic environments, every thread in the fabric of Pacific Rim reflects del Toro’s passion for building worlds and populating them with fantastic and beautiful creatures – both biological and mechanical,” says Fragomeni. “Beginning to end, from the oceans into the city streets, there’s a tangible, fantastical aesthetic that integrates the Kaiju and Jaegers into the film’s colossal battle scenes. In the look, feel, and behavior of each Jaeger and Kaiju, you see subtle but crucial touches and details. There’s just the right human-built, ‘roughed up’ look to each Jaeger; each feels like it has a history of damage, repair, and maintenance, adding to its personality. I could go on and on, but from a holistic storytelling perspective, Pacific Rim has a bigger heart than just about any summer blockbuster I’ve seen.”

“Such a huge amount of work and consistent quality. They really managed to make the scale of these machines work. Great weight,” says de Boer. “I completely enjoyed the fleshy creatures connecting with the hard machines – and in water. Great destruction scenes in Hong Kong.”

The Great Gatsby

Release date: May 10

Production companies: Warner Bros., Village Roadshow Pictures, A&E Television networks, Bazmark Films, Red Wagon Entertainment, Spectrum Films

The Great Gatsby is not a film filled with explosions and wild visual effects. Nevertheless, visual effects played a vital role in bringing Baz Luhrmann’s flashy vision of this period drama to theaters.

“The Great Gatsby provides an interesting study of how visual effects can help storytellers create hyper-real spaces that reflect interior character emotions. The matte paintings and 3D set extensions all have a beautiful, almost painterly quality that adds to Baz’s voice as a filmmaker and gives the whole film a heightened, operatic quality,” says Fragomeni. “It was interesting to see how Baz approached the VFX. He used his stylized touch with the practical art direction, of course, but also extended this principle writ large to the effects, taking his signature style places it hadn’t gone before, making the picture larger than life – but still offering viewers visual effects that play believably and photoreal on the big screen.”

Sara Bennett, VFX supervisor and head of 2D at Milk VFX, thought the environments were a great achievement. “Animal Logic did a terrific job of rebuilding 1920s New York. The film could not have been achieved without VFX, as they were part of the overall storytelling and not about big, flashy effects just for the sake of it,” she says. “It all seemed very straight forward when watching the making-of, but it would have taken a lot of input from VFX in the early stages of production to make this seem effortless on the screen.”

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Release date: December 13

Production companies: MGM, New Line Cinema, WingNut Films

This second installment in the adventure of Bilbo Baggins in Middle-earth is filled with effects both great and small, from the diminutive creatures to the dragon Smaug. There are gorgeous backdrops of all types – rivers, mountains, caves, kingdoms – plus armies, dragon fire, creatures, battle...the list goes on in the epic fantasy.

“The Hobbit is always an impressive display of VFX power, with more and more all-CG parts in every movie,” Stokdyk points out.

Port is anticipating seeing things that he has not seen yet. “I expect the dragon in The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug will be spectacular. I’ve heard a lot of good things about that,” he says.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2

Release date: September 27

Production companies: Columbia Pictures, Sony Pictures Animation, Sony Pictures Imageworks

For this sequel, Sony changed up the theme just enough to deliver something new and inviting: hybrid food/animals.

“Cloudy is beautiful. Aesthetically, it’s very good. I loved the first film and thought they did a good job of maintaining the humor, characters, and story [in the sequel] – it didn’t feel like they were ripping it off by making another film. Instead, Cloudy 2 felt like a continuation,” says Jerry Beck, animation historian and cartoon producer. “Also, it has been doing well at the box office. I consider it solid in the second tier.”

Despicable Me 2

Release date: July 3

Production companies: Universal Pictures, Illumination Entertainment

Gru and his beloved minions are back to save the world in this CGI comedy, a sequel to the 2010 film. The feature did exceptionally well at the box office this summer, and that kind of acceptance is difficult to ignore.

“Despicable Me 2 connected with audiences in an incredible way, and it’s not hard to see why. They tapped into what animation does best: wordless pantomime through the consistently hilarious minions, broadly designed cartoon characters, and worlds filled with fun and whimsy. There’s ample story and heart to connect to the audience, but they never lose track of their primary objective, which is to make us laugh. The super-cartoony 2D design influence makes every prop, gesture, and gag a joy to watch,” says Rainmaker’s Brunker.

“This is a sequel to a very successful film, and this one is even more successful than the original. Normally that doesn’t play into any Oscar factors, but it is hard to ignore. Box-office success in this case cannot be ignored, and we have to take this movie seriously,” says Beck. He points out that Director Chris Meledandri, who founded Illumination Entertainment, has been making these animated films for Universal and has not given them a bomb yet. “His track record is Pixar-level, not aesthetically but box-office-wise,” Beck says. “The film is better than the original. I had problems with story in the original, though I can see why people liked the movie, it was beautiful looking. But the second film repaired some of that damage. It was a better story. More appealing. A great follow-up. I never thought I would say this, and never would have before Despicable Me 2 came out, but because of its success and qualities, I see it as a contender.”

Ernest & Celestine

Release date: December 6 (US)

Production companies: La Parti Productions, Les Armateurs, Maybe Movies

This French-Belgium animated film, about a friendship between a bear (Ernest) and a young mouse (Celestine), is presented in a painterly style.

“The utterly charming French-Belgian film Ernest & Celestine is a stellar piece of moving art on screen, both in its beautifully delicate watercolor-style renderings with sensitive, fluid motion and in its gently unfolding storytelling full of warmth, emotion, and social commentary,” says Rainmaker’s Jericca Cleland, director on the upcoming Ratchet & Clank 3D stereo feature based on the video game franchise. “The characters are strongly and wittily defined; and, while simple, the story remains delightful and entertaining.”

Cleland continues: “Technically, the animation is lush, the timing excellent, the antics hilarious. I was particularly struck by the use of weather as character and by the choice of using the white of the ‘paper’ in service of emotion, environment, or directing the eye. The love of craft and best of what the art of animation has to offer comes through strongly in this film – it is tender, imaginative, unbound by realism, and rich in texture and execution.”

Indeed, this relatively unknown film could earn a place in the hearts of voters. “For the last few years, while the large Hollywood studios duke it out for Oscar gold, an occasional dark horse comes up and surprises the field. This happened in the past with Tomm Moore’s The Secret of Kells (2009), Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), and Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (2002),” notes Tom Sito, animator, professor at the USC film school, and author of Moving Innovation, a History of Computer Animation. “This year I’m impressed by the French animated feature Ernest & Celestine by Stephane Aubier. It is a charming story, told in the style of a 2D watercolored children’s book, but utilizing a number of CGI techniques. I think it stands out from the usual 3D CG fare and will be a player in the competition.”

Frozen

Frozen

Release date: November 27

Production companies: Walt Disney Animation Studios, Walt Disney Pictures

The backdrop of this film is filled with blustering cold, snow, and ice, but the production is heartwarming. The CG fantasy has all the requisite elements of a Disney hit: an endearing tale of a beautiful princess, a handsome, charming man, a goofy, funny character (snowman) that provides comedic relief, and a cute, charming animal (reindeer) – all set within gorgeous winter scenes.

“I did see this, and it was very, very good. Honestly, is this the film I would pick? I am not sure, but I do think it is the film to beat. It’s got all the elements and innovation,” says Beck. “In past years, one of the reasons Pixar was the leader is because it would innovate with new techniques in the films’ creation. You don’t see that in Monsters University. It is just a rehash. They might say there are some things, like amazing fur on the creature, but I am not aware or don’t see it. Frozen had some cool things going on and saw some of the technical things, and you can tell by looking at it, it is great entertainment with wonderful music and memorable songs, great sequences, comedy, drama. It’s a fairy tale. It’s in the same vein as Tangled but is a better movie. There are some sequences in Frozen that I want to see again because of the music sequences and the way they did them. I think it will be a box-office success. Yes, I think it will be the film to beat.”

Monsters University

Monsters University

Release date: June 21

Production companies: Walt Disney Pictures, Pixar Animation Studios

In this summer hit, Mike and Sulley are back in the classroom learning how to be scarers. They are joined by close to 400 characters, about a quarter of them whose bodies are covered with hair. Meanwhile, these new characters also wear garments. As a result, simulation plays a big role in the film.

“Pixar, need we say more?” Beck asks. He notes that this is a sequel to a highly successful Pixar picture, and that can be a plus or a minus, as sequels are not really looked upon [as favorably by the Academy], though Pixar has broken that rule before with Toy Story. “But, sequels are not the original; originals mean more to an Academy member. They are a derivative. All the creatures are designed already, and we know the personalities. So, in this case, is Monsters University as good as the original? That’s a good question. Personally, I don’t think so. I really liked Monsters University, it was very entertaining. It was funny, but it’s not an original and not as good as the original. This year we have some really good films on the playing field, so maybe I would pass on Monsters University.”

The Croods

Release date: March 22

Production company: DreamWorks Animation

This prehistoric visit to the past provides a stunningly beautiful landscape for a naïve, energetic family as it learns valuable life lessons. The characters are fun, the creatures cute and not always cuddly. The landscapes are big, epic, larger than life. In this film, there are no man-made features, such as buildings; everything is natural, requiring some very large matte paintings among the CGI.

“In the land of cartoons, the film that I enjoyed the most this year has to be The Croods. The family story held together, and I thought [Co-director Chris] Sanders added his own fantastic touches of humor and design. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the film. Good work, team DreamWorks,” says Kris Pearn, one of the two directors of Sony Pictures Animation’s Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2. Pearn was head of story on the first Cloudy, story supervisor on Arthur Christmas, for which he received an Annie Award, and story artist on Surf’s Up and Open Season.

“The Croods has this incredible pedigree, with Chris Sanders in particular, who took over the film after Dragons and made it his own. It is wonderfully entertaining. It’s beautiful, a nice art direction and funny film – a hallmark of what Chris does well (he is a traditionally trained animator),” says Beck. “I hope it will not be forgotten since it came out in March. The early-in-the-year pictures are sometimes forgotten even though their qualities are high.”

The Wind Rises

Release date: July 20 (Japan); limited fall release in the US, with full US release February 21, 2014

Production companies: Studio Ghibli, KDDI Corp.

Purported to be the last film from Hayao Miyazaki, this animated historical fantasy film honors the life of Jiro Horikoshi, the man who designed Japanese fighter planes during World War II – a mature theme targeted at adults. Miyazaki’s films are noted for their hand-drawn look, and this one is no different.

Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor of CGW.

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