Here Comes Oscar
By: Debra Kaufman
Issue: Volume: 32 Issue: 12 (Dec. 2009)

Here Comes Oscar

2009 Proves to be a banner year for VFX and animation

As 2009 draws to a close, it’s time to take stock of the year. And what a year it has been for both visual effects and animated features. There may have been years with more big box-office VFX-centric films, but 2009 was a standout nonetheless. More movies than ever featured invisible effects so good that audiences had no idea they were watching effects. That is indeed a testament to the maturation and evolution of the VFX industry.

The year also saw a low-budget film with an even lower VFX budget—District 9—capture the universal acclaim of visual effects supervisors. And at the other extreme, perhaps the most expensive VFX movie made—Avatar—is hotly anticipated by those same experts as a potential breakthrough in the effects industry.

This is also the year when the lines blurred among the various digitally created movies. “We’ll have a plethora of films to look at this year,” says VFX supervisor Jeffrey Okun. “So many are blurring the borderlines, like A Christmas Carol, Avatar, G-Force. Is it animated? Live action?” This isn’t a new debate, but 2009 offers fresh evidence for the advocates of every position.

Animated features are likewise having a banner year. With 16 films submitted, there will be five nominations this year. Just like their VFX brethren, the animated features are a lively group that ranges across a wide gamut. Unlike previous years, where fuzzy animal animation prevailed, this year features the fantastic and the realistic, animals and humans, and make-believe creatures. It also has been a year that has showcased animation styles, from keyframe animated to stop motion and hand-drawn.

The year also delivered many stereo 3D films. Some were live action, some were stop motion, and others were CGI—proving that this newly revived medium transcends genres. (See the issue archives at for details about the CGI in the films.)

Computer Graphics World spoke to visual effects and animation professionals about what impressed them among this year’s films. Here’s what they had to say.

 Visual Effects


Release date: November 13

Production companies: Columbia Pictures, Centropolis Entertainment, Farewell Productions, The Mark Gordon Company

The 2012 effects were character-like, appearing in nearly every scene.

The Mayan calendar has predicted the end of the world in 2012, and in this big VFX movie, sure enough, right on schedule, it does. As the world spectacularly self-destructs, the focus is on the adventures of a hardy band of survivors Dan Taylor didn’t work on it but praises the results. “2012 is [director] Roland Emmerich on steroids,” he says. “It’s amazing work. It’s destruction at a level we’ve never seen before. It’s over the top but well crafted work.” Mark Breakspear, visual effects supervisor at CIS Vancouver, agrees that 2012 deserves attention. “I would have loved to have been in the room when they decided to let the Indian Ocean flood the Himalayas,” he says. “Whenever you have Los Angeles breaking up into plates sliding on top of each other and falling apart, it’s grand and a little crazy. This movie is a contender.”

Angels & Demons

Release date: May 15

Production companies: Columbia Pictures, Imagine Entertainment

A number of effects studios created some devilishly difficult scenes, including soaring virtual
sets and large crowds, for the live-action Angels & Demons.

Based on a best-selling novel by author Dan Brown, who wrote The Da Vinci Code, Angels & Demons brings back Harvard professor/symbology expert Robert Langdon, as he investigates the murder of a scientist who is branded with a symbol of the Illuminati, a religious organization thought to be extinct. With the help of the scientist’s daughter, Langdon pursues the murderer throughout Rome, seeking to recapture a canister of antimatter hidden in Vatican City.

“This is an ideal movie showing off supporting visual effects,” says Zoic Studios executive creative director Loni Peristere. “They built half the Vatican and seamlessly integrated it into the film.” Breakspear, who worked on the movie, notes that CIS Vancouver created some of those CG environments. “It looks like we were in Rome when we were really in a studio on the Sony lot,” he says. “It’s one of those movies where out of those 1000 shots, 700 are totally invisible [in terms of effects].” But the virtual environmental work was “really nice,” adds Prime Focus VFX’s Fink. “It was all in service of telling the story,” he says.

District 9

Release date: August 14

Production companies: TriStar Pictures, Block­Hanson, QED International, WingNut Films, Key Creatives

District 9, about a group of aliens stranded on earth and confined to a militarized ghetto, is a metaphor for apartheid. Don’t be surprised if this small ($30 million) film snags one of the spots for Best Visual Effects. The visual effects supervisors we spoke with universally admire this film for its ability to pull off believable effects on a tiny budget and, more importantly, because those VFX were integrated into a powerful story line with strong characters.

There’s also more than a bit of the “home boy makes good” story here. Director Neill Blomkamp, who makes his feature directing debut with this movie, started his career as a visual effects artist, working as a 3D animator on such TV shows as Stargate SG-1 and Smallville. “After a VES meeting, we all go have coffee and talk about how we want to do our little $10 million to $20 million sci-fi creature movie,” says CafeFX CEO Jeff Barnes. “We want to figure out how to do it cost-effectively and wrap it around a good story. Neill did that, and knocked it out of the park.”

Breakspear recalls when Blomkamp was a digital artist at CIS Vancouver on Stargate. “I love what he did with District 9,” he says. “He knew how much money he had to make an entire movie, and he knew how to use that money wisely and still give people something they believe in and care about. He achieved that really well.”

CG aliens, crafted by Image Engine, play a major role in District 9, while The Embassy built
a mechanical exo-suit, shown here.

“My favorite is District 9 because it feels like the world of CNN and yet involves extraordinary things from other worlds,” says Peristere. “They’re integrated to such perfection that we don’t think twice about the story. We disappear into it. Because the film was so great and the work was so fresh, as an Oscar voter, it could be a standout favorite.” Visual effects supervisor Karen Goulekas, who is currently working on The Green Lantern, adds: “The effects never take you out of the movie. There was never a moment in District 9 where I thought, ‘Oh that’s CG I’m looking at.’ You bought the whole thing. I would call it ‘flawless.’?” As VFX supervisor Okun says, “When VFX serve the story so well, you forget you’re looking at them, and that brings joy to my heart.”

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra

Release date: August 7

Production companies: Paramount Pictures, Spyglass Entertainment, Hasbro, Di Bonaventura Pictures

In this live-action adventure, an elite group of soldiers known as G.I. Joe takes on a nefarious arms dealer and his evil operation. This is the kind of over-the-top action-adventure film that may not garner a lot of critical reviews, but rakes it in at the box office ($300 million) and is a lot of fun for those who like the genre. “It was a ridiculous but fun film,” says Taylor. “I thought most of the VFX work was good quality.”

Simon Mowbray, creative director/VFX supervisor at Ntropic in San Francisco, agrees. “The effects were really competent, and it was a surprisingly amusing movie,” he says. “The sheer quantity of the effects was impressive, and it was all very professionally executed. Some of these big movies feel piecemeal because the VFX are parceled out to so many facilities, but [the VFX in] G.I. Joe all felt like they fit.”

“It’s a wall-to-wall carpet of visual effects,” Fink points out. “Some of the work is really great, such as the Paris sequence that Digital Domain did and the Night Raven sequence we did here. There is so much visual effects work in the movie that it can’t be disregarded.”

Goulekas agrees: “There was some great work in there.”

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Release date: July 15

Production companies: Warner Bros. Pictures, Heyday Films

ILM created a digital firestorm with highly detailed and directable fire in Harry Potter and the
Half-Blood Prince. The movie also contained a host of other effects by various studios.

It’s Harry’s sixth year at Hogwarts, and Lord Voldemort and his henchmen are at it again. In this outing, Harry discovers a musty, old book and begins to learn more about Voldemort’s past. The story’s popularity keeps interest high for each new film, and the bar remains steadily high for the visual effects work. What’s more difficult, as the episodes accrue, is having one of them stand out of the pack. But that’s not to say that there aren’t numerous Harry Potter fans among the VFX cognoscenti.

Barnes especially liked the effects sequence in the cavern. “There are some nice particle effects with some of the water,” he says. “I loved all the underwater work. The character design is amazing, and really believable and scary. They always do a great job. It’s a given.”

“I’m a big fan of the books; I saw [the film] and it was great,” says Breakspear. “I liked the development of the characters and visual effects over time. You see the same companies honing and improving the visual effects, refining them, and making them work. In this film, the characters are old enough to be involved in darker, more mature situations, and the visual effects were far more refined and mature.” Steffen Wild, director of Henson Digital Puppetry Studio, agrees. “Nothing fell short in terms of expectations that an audience has,” he says. “The VFX fit into the story line, so it became a believable environment, and you go along for the ride.”

Star Trek

Release date: May 8

Production companies: Paramount Pictures, Spyglass Entertainment, Bad Robot, MavroCine Pictures

For the seventh time, ILM created CG effects for a Star Trek film, this time using particles
with state-of-the-art simulation systems.

This movie was another huge favorite of visual effects supervisors. Director JJ Abrams took a familiar franchise and reinvigorated it while staying true to the original. We go back to the earliest days of the Enterprise and its crew, as the ship races toward Vulcan to save Spock’s parents and embark on new adventures that proved irresistible to audiences.

“It’s a perfect reinvention of a sci-fi classic, using contemporary technology and tools to re-render that world in fresh and exciting ways,” says Peristere.  Fink calls it “amazing work?…?absolutely consistent from beginning to end.”

Breakspear points out some of the risks taken. “I personally liked all the lens flares,” he says. “It didn’t feel overdone to me. They tried to make it beautiful. Out in space, instead of going for the lowest common denominator, they broke the mold of up and down. People came in and around at all angles.” He also points out that oftentimes shooting something on set that will be correct for a visual effect can be alien to the crew. “You can see in the movie that they mastered the art of connecting production and post,” he adds. “When you do that, you get a strong movie.”

LaserPacific visual effects producer Mike Pryor likes what he says is the believable integration of the effects. “A lot of the effects appeared to be so vividly created, they looked like they were created on set,” he opines. “I loved the organic camera movement on the bridge, especially with the lens flares, which were controversial in the visual effects world. In my opinion, that’s a new language in film we’ll see more of in the future.”

“It was the best of the whole Star Trek series,” says visual effects supervisor Joan Collins Carey. “It was intelligent. It wasn’t just explosions for explosions’ sake.” “There were no throw-away visual effects,” agrees Mowbray. “It was beautifully done and worked very well for the script.”

Terminator Salvation

Release date: May 21 (wide release)

Production companies: The Halcyon Company, Wonderland Sound and Vision

The fourth in the Terminator franchise, Terminator Salvation takes us to a world where most of humanity has been obliterated. John Connor learns the machines have targeted the man who will be his father and encounters Marcus, a man who may or may not be part machine. Bottom line: If you like the Terminator epic, you’ll be onboard for Terminator Salvation. And that includes a lot of people.

“The effects were brilliant,” says Peristere. “It’s an example of a perfectly executed movie from a technical aspect. The crash sequence that brings Christian Bale to the ground, with terminators all around him, in a time-lapse sequence, is pretty extraordinary. You have a seamless one-shot from the air to the ground, in a massive crash, through a time-lapse into another era. That was a pretty awesome shot.”

For Barnes, the sequence that stood out was one when a large terminator robot goes after the protagonists in a desert hideaway. “The interaction of the practical effects with CG and the actors is really good and super-believable,” he says. Taylor also liked the gritty look of the film. “It reminded me a bit of the look of Children of Men with the action sequences,” he says. “This was a fresh look at Terminator, which always has been very slick-looking. They also refined the movement of the T-600, and did some great work from an animation point of view. They did a great job of stitching together really complicated shots that were filmed in different places at different times of day.”

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Release date: June 24

Production companies: DreamWorks SKG, Paramount Pictures, Hasbro, Di Bonaventura Pictures

ILM and Digital Domain built bigger and better ’bots for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.
 Here, Wheelbot, a nonbipedal robot, was just one of approximately 30 new and 14 returning
 transforming machines of various sizes created at ILM. Like the first Transformers movie,
this sequel was a smash hit with audiences.

The protagonist Sam starts college, but the Decepticons are back, and Sam is drawn into the fray. They want access to Sam’s mind, which will give them the power they need to blow out the sun. With his girlfriend and parents in danger, Sam begins the job of saving himself and the world. Visual effects supervisors appreciate the creation of the incredibly complex transformers.

“It was spectacular,” says Breakspear. Barnes adds: “You have machines transforming from one object to another, accurately. They could theoretically be real objects, and that’s extremely impressive work. It was an amazing feat. What makes it great is the manipulation of all the moving parts, and how well the artists present that material.” Goulekas agrees, calling it “flawless work.” She says, “Nothing jars you out of watching the movie.”

Even though sequels can pale in comparison to the original, many VFX supes would agree with Fink’s assessment. “Bigger, louder, better,” he says. “It did everything the last one did and more: spectacular visual effects work, beautifully done, wonderfully wrought and put together.”


Release date: March 6

Production companies: Warner Bros. Pictures, Paramount Pictures, Legendary Pictures, Lawrence Gordon Productions, DC Comics

CG artists at Sony Pictures Imageworks created the digital character Dr. Manhattan, who
stars in 38 minutes of Watchmen.

Set in an alternate 1985, where costumed superheroes roam the landscape and a doomsday clock ticks down to an explosion between the US and USSR, a murder forces a group of superheroes out of retirement to defend their honor and unravel a conspiracy.

“I was blown away by the work,” says Goulekas. “It was flawless. They maintained the integrity of the original actor’s performance in the digital character, and that was amazing.” Okun notes that director Zach Snyder told a story with a lot of style. “It felt to me like every shot he put in there, he asked how it furthered the story,” he says. “He employed visual effects as a tool, like you would film noir.” Okun also liked the gritty fight in the opening sequence: “When you go down with him and see the blood splatter across the happy-face button…all that helps to set the tone of the movie.”

Peristere is another fan. “It’s bold, expressive, and its camera work is good,” he says. “It’s thrilling and innovative with its storytelling. The visual effects team created a fresh new world.”

Where the Wild Things Are

Release date: October 16

Production companies: Warner Bros. Pictures, Legendary Pictures, Village Roadshow Pictures, Playtone, Wild Things Productions

Director Spike Jonze took on one of the most beloved children’s books, Where the Wild Things Are, and brought it to life with a combination of suit performers, CG, and practical effects. Little Max is sent to bed without supper because of misbehavior. He sails off to the land of the wild things, where his mischievous behavior earns him the crown of King of the Wild Things. Jonze took a book of 10 sentences and turned it into a feature film—no easy feat. Facial animation is among the most difficult tasks in the CG playbook, and VFX supervisors laud the keyframe animation that was used to create the wild things’ faces.

“Those characters were so wonderfully, artfully wrought,” says Fink. “I’m talking primarily about the CG faces. There was a lot of work there. You got a sense of the individuality of the characters, their humor and humanity. It was an exercise in subtlety.”


Release date: September 9

Production companies: Focus Features, Relativity Media, Starz Animation

Director Shane Acker’s all-CG feature 9 stars ragdoll characters fighting to survive in a
hyper-stylized, post-apocalypic world.  

Student animator Shane Acker caused a stir—and won the top prize at SIGGRAPH 2005—with a short film about ragdoll creatures struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic environment. With the help of producer Tim Burton, Acker was able to turn his short into a feature film that opened to critical acclaim. Visual effects supervisors also liked many aspects about the movie.

Animation author/historian Jerry Beck of calls 9 “a very interesting film.” “I think it’ll be well known as a cult film,” he says. “It is a great little movie. The quality of the work involved is tops. It has a Lord of the Rings universe to it, and people love that.”

“I’m a fan of that director,” says Zoic’s Peristere. “Shane reminds me of the Brothers Quay or a little bit of Aardman with their design sense. He takes completely unrealistic worlds and creates a fresh look using animation and stop motion to render that world. The movie was fun to watch.” Collins Carey adds: “You can see every single penny up on the screen.”

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Release date: November 25 (wide release)

Production companies: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp., Indian Paintbrush, Regency Enterprises, American Empirical Pictures

This Wes Anderson-directed film—a highly stylized, stop-motion animated version of the sly Roald Dahl tale—is highly polarizing. Collins Carey’s response is typical of many in the industry: “It was clever, and the casting was good,” she says. “But I wasn’t impressed by the animation.”


Release date: August 14

Production companies: Studio Ghibli, Nippon Television Network Corporation, Dentsu Music and Entertainment, Hakuhodo DY Media Partners, The Walt Disney Company, Mitsubishi, Toho Company, Asahi Soft Drinks Company, Lawson, The Yomiuri Shimbun.

While CGI continues to be the dominant animation style, the beauty of 2D, as seen in
Ponyo, is still greatly appreciated by audiences.

This Hayao Miyazaki movie, aimed at young children, tells a fanciful tale of a goldfish that falls in love with a boy and becomes human to be near him. “In terms of the creativity that’s behind that film, it blew my mind,” says Henson’s Wild. “It’s one of the most creative films done so far. It’s in the tradition of the manga animation and Japanese-style animation.”

Wild especially raves over the organic look of the waves. “They turned into creatures as they crest, and then become a water surface again as they retract,” he says. “It’s nature becoming a character. I found it impressive and engaging.”

The Princess and the Frog

Release date: December 11 (wide release)

Production companies: Walt Disney Animation Studios, Walt Disney Pictures

Everybody knows the story of the princess and the frog, but this Disney version is significant on two counts: It’s the return of Disney’s classic hand-drawn animation. And it’s the first such story to feature an African American princess, with the story set in New Orleans.

“It’s wonderful,” says Beck, echoing the enthusiasm of many animation fans and professionals. “It looks and delivers on being a classic Disney fairy tale, so if you’re a traditionalist, it’s all there. But if you’re like me and want something we haven’t seen before, it also delivers on that. It’s a twist on a classic tale. I had a smile on my face watching it. Although it hits all the same notes, it hits brand-new ones. Every skill learned over 75 years [in 2D animation] is on the screen. And it’s very entertaining.”

 Stereo 3D

A Christmas Carol

Release date: November 6

Production companies: ImageMovers, Walt Disney Pictures

ImageMovers animated the characters in A Christmas Carol using performance capture.

Director Robert Zemeckis’ performance-capture animated film has been anticipated for months. Although the box office has been disappointing, fans have cheered, while critics have been split, about this latest version of Charles Dickens’ tale of redemption at Christmastime. Yet, how can they miss, with Jim Carey playing Scrooge?

Visual effects supervisors were effusive. “I think it’ll steal the show,” says Collins Carey. “This is finally motion capture done right. This one is art. The facial animation is stylized, but the eyes are working perfectly. You’re not taken out of the film. It’s beautifully rigged, and you get really involved with the characters. Motion capture is finally a tool on the table.”


Release date: December 18

Production companies:  Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation, Dune Entertainment,
Giant Studios, Ingenious Film Partners, Lightstorm Entertainment

There hasn’t been a film this anticipated in years. James Cameron, Vince Pace, 3D stereoscopy, and several years to build the buzz: It’s all combined to make Avatar the do-or-die movie for the future of 3D digital cinema. The story focuses on Jake, a paraplegic war veteran who joins a band of humans to exploit the planet of Pandora, inhabited by the Na’vi, a race of blue-skinned aliens. His body replaced by a Na’vi avatar, Jake goes native with unexpected results.

It’s not just the James Cameron and sci-fi fans eager for Avatar. Visual effects supervisors are nearly unanimous in their enthusiasm for the live-action film, several of them saying that Avatar is the one to beat for the VFX Oscar. “I’m going to climb to the top of the mountain and proclaim bravely that it’ll win,” says CIS Vancouver’s Breakspear.

More than a few VFX experts clearly are leaning his way. “This film looms so large on the horizon that it’s difficult to have this discussion without skewing that direction almost all the time,” says Prime Focus VFX’s Fink. “The movie is huge and beautiful, and the work is extraordinary. There could be no story without the visual effects, and Jim is one of those directors who really understands how to tell a story through the visual effects, so they’re strongly in service to the story.”

Several VFX supervisors pointed out the challenges of creating a cutting-edge visual effects film in 3D. “Stereoscopic means more work, more rendering, more computation time,” notes Goulekas. “Avatar looks great, and it’s stereo too,” adds CafeFX’s Barnes. “It’s got everything you’d want in an action-packed, CG-driven, sci-fi live-action mix.”

At the same time, it’s worth noting that many VFX supervisors think Avatar treads the line between visual effects and animation. “For animation, it’s groundbreaking; for 3D, it’s groundbreaking,” comments Zoic’s Peristere. “I’d put it in the same category as A Christmas Carol. It rewrites the rules of what can be done in 3D as a photorealistic render, but also in terms of stereo. But it’s weird to think of it as a VFX film.”

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs

Release date: September 18

Production company: Sony Pictures Animation

Imageworks twisted the CG in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs into a fun-filled stereo
3D feature.

Also inspired by a children’s book, this fun animated film takes us on an adventure to a town where food falls from the sky—an opportunity for animators to show off everything from meatballs to Jell-O. Animation experts and VFX supervisors enjoyed the results. “I think it was very well done technologically,” says Henson’s Wild. “There is a tremendous amount of technique that went into it.”

“It’s a great-looking film,” says’s Beck. “And it’s very entertaining.” Collins Carey was impressed with the rendering: “They’ve got it down. They have the coolest tricked-out pipeline in the world over there. It’s a huge environment database, and still they could render it in real time to check the look of things.”

LaserPacific’s Pryor loved the visual effects. “They were just mind-blowing,” he says. “I really geeked out on some of the CG I saw. They did a lot of simulations of water splashing around that was amazing. The reality of the physical being of the food was well done. It kept within cartoon restraints but seemed real. Texture and lighting was also fantastic. And I liked the characters’ physical appearance and emotions.”


Release date: February 6

Production companies: Focus Features, Laika Entertainment, Pandemonium

The stop-motion feature Coraline was projected in stereoscopic 3D. With stop motion,
animators shoot one frame at a time; for stereo, they simply shoot two stills.

Henry Selick’s 3D stereoscopic movie—a dark fairy tale of a girl who wishes she had different parents—is a favorite among animators and visual effects experts. The stop-motion animated film was sprinkled with CG effects but achieved most of its magic through the painstaking work of moving exquisite practical puppets and props frame by frame.

“I liked the organic, handcrafted quality to it,” says Pryor. “The visual effects were all story-related, and the same for the use of stereo, which helped create an immersive feeling rather than in-your-face stereo moments.” Ntropic’s Mowbray agrees that the use of stereoscopy was not gratuitous. “It was just enough to suck you in,” he says. “It was never over the top.”

Beck calls it “the best 2D film of the year.” “It looks like a 2D film in 3D,” he says. “It’s a classic children’s story about finding another universe inside your house, and it’s rendered so wonderfully. It’s a masterpiece of stop-motion filmmaking and a great story well told.”

Barnes also thought it was “amazing.” “I love that whole style,” he says. “I loved the production design more than anything, and the outdoor garden. It was just beautiful.” Digital Domain’s Taylor also lauded the quality of the stop-motion work, and the fact that it was stop motion. “I know how difficult that work can be,” he says. “Stop-motion animators’ brains work on a different level. They’re probably the most talented around.”


Release date: July 24

Production companies: Jerry Bruckheimer, Walt Disney Pictures, Whamaphram Productions

Pioneering digital effects artist Hoyt Yeatman made his directorial debut with G-Force, and so, not surprisingly, VFX supervisors celebrate this film, much like District 9, as one of their own—a much respected VFX artist—done good. This 3D stereoscopic movie integrates CG animation and live action in an improbably funny tale of a government team of secret-agent guinea pigs trying to stop an evil billionaire from taking over the world.

“The animation was excellent,” says Mowbray. “It wasn’t overly anthropomorphized. They maintained a hamster quality, and the fur dynamics were very good.” Barnes thinks the movie was really fun. “When you have a visual effects supervisor who is the director, he’ll have a good handle on the effects,” he says. “I thought the execution looked good on all accounts. The stereo is always a little trickier than the traditional 2D approach, so that adds another layer of complexity—but they pulled it off. Hoyt is an amazing VFX supervisor.”

Fink also believes the film looked “really good.” “Those little critters were beautifully created, integrated with the scene, and beautifully lit,” he says. “As a live-action film with CG characters, there is a lot of work that goes into that. Hoyt did a fantastic job.” Taylor agrees. “Hoyt is a good artist and craftsman. The characters were well realized and hit their poses strong, which worked well for the film,” he says. “And, it was funny.”

Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs 

Release date: July 1

Production company: Blue Sky Entertainment

This third feature in the animated Ice Age series is all about family: Scrat is sniffing out a possible romance with a female saber-toothed squirrel. Manny and Ellie are expecting a baby, and Sid begins to wish for a family of his own. He steals some dinosaur eggs, which leads him to an underground world from which his herd must rescue him.

Not everyone loves a sequel, but Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs has avid fans among VFX supervisors—and was the highest grossing animated film internationally, according to Beck. “I loved it, I loved it,” says Wild. “The stereoscopic effects were fantastic, up to the end credits. They had physical humor for the younger kids and very well developed characters. It was interesting and engaging for more mature audiences, as well. I liked how the render worked and how it evolved from the earlier two Ice Age movies. There is a lot more detail in the characters now, much more lush environments, but they also created a look that is unique from their studio, just as Pixar has.”

Collins Carey also loved Ice Age. “Again, the story carried it,” she says. “It was just flawless. Everything about it was good.”

Monsters vs. Aliens

Release date: March 27

Production company: DreamWorks Animation

 DreamWorks Monsters vs. Aliens was the first movie that the studio authored in the
medium from the beginning.

The title says it all: When a meteorite from outer space hits a young California woman and turns her into a giant monster, she is taken to a secret government compound where she meets a group of fellow monsters that have been rounded up over the years by the government. On orders from the president, they’re all called into action to combat marauding aliens and save the world.

Barnes, who has a passion for 1950s and 1960s sci-fi, loved it this CG movie. “I thought it was fun and well executed,” he says. Okun also really liked Monsters vs. Aliens. “It always goes back to the story,” he says. “They had a lot of visual effects in it—the kind that only we practitioners of VFX could see. The story was good and playful. The lighting, the characters, the story?…?everything was good. It was enjoyable all the way through.”


Release date: May 29 (wide release)

Production companies: Walt Disney Pictures, Pixar Animation Studios

Disney/Pixar’s Up takes audiences on a breathtaking adventure in that is shown in three
dimensions, marking a first for a Pixar movie. 

This CG Pixar film has romance, adventure, and it’s in 3D. It tells the story of a young Carl who meets and marries Ellie; together they dream of going to a lost land in South America. Once Ellie dies, Carl keeps his promise by tying enough balloons on his old house to take it aloft. He has a stowaway 8-year-old boy trying to get a scout badge by assisting the elderly, and the two unlikely companions encounter talking dogs, an evil villain, and a rare bird on their adventures.

Who doesn’t love a Pixar film? Audiences loved Up, and so do the animation and visual effects pros. Beck notes that Up is clearly the front-runner. “It’s a poignant, wonderful adventure film from Pixar,” he says. “No one can dispute the quality. The first 10 minutes are classic filmmaking. As usual from Pixar, it’s a beautiful-looking film. It looks like paintings come to life, and it has heart. We love the characters, and all the characters were there for a reason.”

“The palette continues to amaze me,” adds Mowbray. “If you look at the environments that Pixar builds nowadays, they could pretty much work in a live-action setting, and that’s saying a lot, because so much goes into an environmental setting in 3D. And they bring a stylization to an environment that works as a fully immersive and realistic environment.”

Collins Carey points out that she was most impressed with the animation camera work. “The environment is part of the movie, as opposed to just the characters,” she says. “It’s a hurdle to use wide cameras and vistas, and still feel attached to your characters. They crossed it, and it was beautiful.” Pryor loved the humor and the heart-wrenching story with so many well-timed laughs. “From a visual effects point of view, you can’t beat Pixar,” he says. “They’ve gotten to the point where you feel like you’re looking at physical objects captured in camera, due to composition, lighting, textures, all the technical things. They’re absolutely flawless, and it’s a very pleasing effect.”