The Race Is On
Issue: Volume 38 Issue 6: (Nov/Dec 2015)

The Race Is On

What a year it has been at the theater, with many highs and lows – some surprising and some not so surprising. The good news is that the summer take at the box office was up 14 percent from the previous year. It even bested the earnings from 2013, the previous summer record holder.

So, what excited audiences and critics? Nostalgia. What turned off audiences and critics? Nostalgia. 

We returned to Jurassic Park this summer, and that trip was well worth the wait! Jurassic World and its digital dinosaurs had us on the edge of our seats, and the film remains (as of this printing) the top-grossing movie domestically for the year at $651.5 million. Tom Cruise put the excitement back into the summer blockbusters with amazing stunts in the latest installment of Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. Mad Max returned to the big screen in all its post-apocalyptic glory (or should I say, “gory”?) with Fury Road. And the Fast and Furious franchise still resonated with audiences with Furious 7

Cinderella, which included a good deal of digital magic, remains a perennial favorite, as the 2015 version continued to hold audiences spellbound.

The Minions returned to theaters, but this time they starred in their own movie. Minion fever ensued, as fans proudly displayed their favorite yellow creature on Facebook and elsewhere. Drac and his friends and family were back in Hotel Transylvania 2, scaring up some laughs before Halloween. The Peanuts Movie transformed Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and the gang into 3D characters, and audiences embraced the change.

As always, superheroes traditionally do well at the box office, and this year they continued that trend – for the most part. The Avengers: Age of Ultron was a fan favorite, boosting the movie to number two (domestic) for 2015, albeit with two more months (and Star Wars and Spectre) to go. Longtime Marvel character Ant-Man made his first film debut with great fanfare. On the flip side, Fantastic Four may have overstayed its screen time, with the latest installment falling flat.

Another surprise: Disney’s Tomorrowland is still generating crowds at the theme parks, but inside the theater was quite another story. While still breaking the top 25 movies of the year, many predicted much better results for this futuristic concept. 

Despite the return of Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator in Genisys, the movie did not receive the welcome that had been expected. The characters in Pixels were old video game favorites, but the movie just didn’t score well, either. And the foul-mouth teddy bear Ted, who rocked the theater just a few years ago, lost some of his edge, netting only slightly better box-office success this year as Paddington, the sweet, lovable English bear. 

Various new properties had tremendous results, including The Martian and San Andreas. On the animation side, Disney/Pixar’s Inside Out was a rollicking success, as was DreamWorks’ Home. 

As of this writing, the world was patiently waiting for the return of Star Wars, with The Force Awakens. Tickets already went on sale in October for its December 14 release. The question is, could this film shoot to the top of the box-office list in little over two weeks, to overtake Jurassic World’s major bite of the year’s revenues? It may well happen.

Let’s also not forget about Bond, James Bond, who returned to theaters in early November in Spectre. It’s been three years since Skyfall, and fans have been anxious to be shaken (and stirred) with international intrigue once again.

While box-office numbers are important, an indication of a movie’s reception by audiences, they are not the final word when it pertains to awards, particularly when it comes to visual effects and animation. Fantastic work does not always translate into automatic success at the theater. 

As we begin to dust off the red carpet and ready ourselves for the madness of awards season, let’s look at some of the more intriguing digital work created for a number of VFX and animated films. You can bet we will see many of these movies on short lists very soon.

  Visual Effects


Release Date: July 17

Production Company: Marvel Studios

Ant-Man may be one of the smallest superheroes, if not the smallest, yet the visual effects used to “shrink” the character in the movie are huge, especially in the finale when the character gets smaller and smaller and transitions between worlds, one more minuscule than the previous. Throughout the movie, 10 visual effects facilities created Ant-Man’s various illusions, which were a hit with audiences – as was the film itself.

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Release Date: May 1

Production Company: Marvel Studios

Marvel and Director Joss Whedon once again brought a collection of superheroes to life on the big screen, captivating audiences with superpowers bolstered by visual effects from ILM and Trixter, along with previsualization from The Third Floor. ILM again handled a far more amped-up Hulk and Iron Man in this movie, introduced the complex robot villain Ultron Prime, and destroyed a small city by ripping it from the ground – which, according to ILM, represented one of its most elaborate digital environments to date. When you are dealing with superheroes on the screen, you know that the VFX will be demanding and will parallel the capabilities of the characters.


Release Date: March 6

Production Companies: Columbia Pictures, Media Rights Capital, LStar Capital, Simon Kinberg Productions, Genre Films, Alpha Core, Olin Studio, Sony Pictures Entertainment

Director Neill Blomkamp immerses us again into a dystopian society in Johannesburg, where the police use robots to quash criminal activity. When gangsters get hold of a robot they name Chappie, they are unaware that this bot can think and create. His new owners give him a dual personality, placing him on a tipping scale between good and bad, as a policeman and a criminal. In the movie, Chappie and the other robots are CG characters created at Image Engine, though life for the generic robot began as a 3D printed model. The final model contained 2,740 objects.


Release Date: March 13

Production Companies: Allison Shearmur Productions, Beagle Pug Films, Genre Films, Walt Disney Pictures

Most of the characters in the remake of the classic Cinderella are live actors, but some – her helpful critters – are digital characters, created by the Moving-Picture Company. The studio completed a number of shots with fully raytraced hair, while turning the CG mice into CG horses, a lizard and goose into footmen, and a pumpkin into a carriage. Also, artists generated the exterior locations in CGI or used a combination of plates and CGI. 

Crimson Peak

Release Date: October 16

Production Company: Legendary Pictures

Director Guillermo del Toro takes audiences inside a Gothic nightmare as a budding author’s curiosity gets the best of her in a house that appears to be alive. A lot of the film was made using practical rather than digital effects. Yet, not every ghoulish moment could be created without the use of high-end visual effects. While the film is a long shot for an award, anything can happen.


Release Date: September 25

Production Companies: Working Title Films, RVK Studios, Walden Media, Universal Pictures

Based on a true story, the film chronicles the struggle for survival as climbers start their final ascent toward the summit of Mount Everest when a violent storm strikes. Visual effects artists struggled, as well, to re-create the environments that claimed the life of so many over the years. In fact, the VFX are being called “arguably the best part of the film,” putting audiences on the mountain. The effects had to be invisible, realistic, and accurate since Everest is one of the most recognizable mountain regions in the world. A wide gamut of techniques were used, including photogrammetry, LIDAR scans, greenscreen shots, matte paintings, plates, CG environments, and much more. 

Furious 7

Release Date: April 3

Production Companies: Universal Pictures, Media Rights Capital, China Film Co., One Race Films, Original Film, Dentsu, Fast 7 Productions

The action and stunt work in Furious 7 is intense. After all, this latest release in the popular franchise is a memorable one, and not all because of the VFX along the roadway. What has people talking about most is how effects artists were able to complete the film without the lead character after the untimely death of Paul Walker. Little has been said about how teams re-created scenes of Walker without missing a beat, including nailing the performance in close-ups of him post-accident, since excluding them would have been noticeable. So Weta stepped in, generating 350 shots, most of them including Walker’s character. Because of the actor’s sudden death, there were no scans available for making a digital double. Instead, the studio built a reference library using clips from previous films as well as outtakes from the current film. Walker’s two brothers and an actor of similar build to Walker were motion-captured and applied to the digital Walker model, resulting in a realistic digital version.

In the Heart of the Sea

Release Date: December 11

Production Companies: Cott Productions, Enelmar Productions AIE, Imagine

The story – how a huge whale attacked a whaling ship with almost a human-like vengeance – is well known, especially thanks to the book the actual tale inspired: Moby-Dick. In the movie, In the Heart of the Sea, visual effects played a major role, particularly when it came to the environments, requiring complex CG fluid effects. And of course, there is the whale, which unleashes a deadly attack on the human crew.

Jupiter Ascending

Release Date: February 6

Production Companies: Warner Bros., Village Roadshow Pictures, Dune Entertainment, Anarchos Productions

The story line may not have enthralled audiences, but the visual effects received high marks in this space opera by the Wachowski brothers. Framestore and Double Negative provided the digital assistance, generating a variety of aliens and supersize spaceships. 

Jurassic World

Release Date: June 12

Production Companies: Universal Pictures, Amblin Entertainment, Legendary Pictures, China Film Co.

In the story line, a new park, called Jurassic World, opens on the site 22 years after the original Jurassic Park failed. But the same cannot be said of the films that carry these same names. The original Jurassic Park movie was released in 1993 (22 years ago, if you are doing the math), one of just 17 films to earn over $1 billion in ticket sales! The effects then were outstanding, as they are for this fourth installment of the franchise, which as of early November stands as the year’s biggest box-office success. For this film, as for the original, ILM unleashed a horde of digital dinosaurs that became stars in their own right. The reptiles gave emotive performances, from the motion-captured raptors to the enormous Mosasaurus. Muscle and skin systems created a frightening sense of realism. But, can the dinosaurs tame the galactic giant Star Wars in this year’s races?

Mad Max: Fury Road

Release Date: May 15

Production Companies: Kennedy Miller Productions, Village Roadshow Pictures

We first encountered Mad Max in 1979 in a dystopian action film. Then came Mad Max 2 and Beyond Thunderdome, which take place in a rapidly declining civilization where precious resources are nearly nonexistent. In this year’s Fury Road, we are thrown into the chaotic world of Max like never before. The idea is for this to be a non-VFX film, yet it contains approximately 1,700 effects shots where almost everything was digitally touched. There is a great deal of character animation (people tumbling off vehicles) and post-apocalyptic environments. One of the more complex sequences involves a toxic storm.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

Release Date: July 31

Production Companies: Paramount Pictures, Skydance Productions, Bad Robot, China Movie Channel, Alibaba Pictures Group, Odin, TC Productions

In this big-budget production, actor Tom Cruise reprises his role as operative Ethan Hunt in the IMF (Impossible Mission Force). Cruise insists on doing his own stunts, most of which were shot in-camera and had audiences holding their breath. Still, to help make Hunt’s mission possible in the film, digital artists at Double Negative worked on 1,000 of the movie’s 1,200 VFX shots. The big digital effects scenes include a sequence in the Vienna Opera House as Hunt (Cruise) battles a would-be assassin backstage, albeit the background was digital, a combination of composited tiled background plates and greenscreen. The other complex CG scene took place in a torus filled with water, requiring complicated CG work.


Release Date: October 9

Production Companies: Warner Bros., RatPac-Dune Entertainment, Berlanti Productions, Moving Picture Company

In this tale of Peter Pan, the orphan boy finds himself in the magical world of Neverland, which is both fun and dangerous. A great deal of digital effects was needed for the stunts, creatures, and, of course, the environments. The London cityscape is rich and expansive. The ride through the clouds is magical. Tinkerbell’s CG double performs amazing tricks. A partial ship set becomes whole and is placed in a rolling sea. Neverland is wondrous. Indeed, digital magic helps transport audiences to the pirate ship and to Neverland, making believers of us all.

San Andreas

Release Date: May 29

Production Companies: Village Roadshow Pictures, New Line Cinema, RatPac Dune Entertainment, Flynn Picture Company

What’s summer without a Mother Nature destruction movie? San Andreas serves up the natural disaster well, thanks to the work by a number of visual effects houses, including Cinesite and Method Studios. A heart-racing, cliff-side car accident kicks off the movie action, and Method follows it up with downtown destruction of LA.


Release Date: November 6 (US)

Production Companies: B24, Columbia Pictures, Danjaq, Eon Productions, MGM

No one can shake things up with a stirring performance like James Bond. In his latest mission, he faces off against the sinister organization known as Spectre. Of course, there are amazing stunts and gadgets, ultra extravagance, and chilling backgrounds, many of which required the touch and talent of digital artists. The Bond films are always fan favorites, generating high box-office totals. Could this one top the VFX lists during awards season?

Star Wars –
The Force Awakens

Release Date: December 18

Production Companies: Lucasfilm, Bad Robot

You can bet that the force will be with Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens when it comes to the awards circuit. Fans have waited years –
light-years to some – to be immersed in this sci-fi universe once again. With ILM behind the scenes, you can bet on amazing imagery from start to finish. Galactic battles, creatures large and small, unusual landscapes, tense chases…all surely will be bigger and better than ever before. Expect a lot of practical work and in-camera effects, alongside cutting-edge CGI. The budget is estimated at $200 million, and undoubtedly that will be returned quickly back into the studio’s coffers. Although the film was not released as of press time, no one doubts for a single moment that this film will be hard to beat. (Dare we expect less?)

Ted 2

Release Date: June 26

Production Companies: Universal Pictures, Bluegrass Films, Fuzzy Door Productions, Media Rights Capital

Life has changed dramatically for the characters John and Ted since we were last introduced to them in the original Ted, and not in a good way, according to the plot line of this sequel featuring a talking teddy bear as one of the main characters. Once again, artists were able to bring the stuffy Ted to life, having him act alongside human actors in such a way as to make audiences believe that Ted is indeed capable of emotions (good and bad). While Ted does not reach celebrity status this time around as he did during his initial debut, the work by the VFX crew of Iloura, Locktix, Tippett Studio, and Weta was nevertheless spot on. 

Terminator Genisys

Release Date: July 1

Production Companies: Paramount Pictures, Skydance Productions

The Terminator returns to 1984 in this past summer’s installment of the franchise, and along with the plot’s return to the ’80s is Actor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s return in the role of the Guardian. MPC spent a year producing the visual effects, tasked with creating a much younger version of the actor, who battles in an epic scene with his current self (or should I say future self?). Double Negative, meanwhile, generated the various Terminators and scenes with explosives and destruction.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

Release Date: November 20

Production Companies: Color Force, Lionsgate, Studio Babelsberg

The books have a legion of fans, as do the movies about the heroine Katniss Everdeen as she fights for first her sister, then District 13, and now the citizens of Panem, against the autocratic Capitol. In this final installment in the widely successful series, we will continue to see dystopian backdrops, wild costumes, destruction, large-scale fighting, and more, all powered by digital imagery. Will the franchise end with some prestigious hardware?

The Martian

Release Date: October 2

Production Companies: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, TSG Entertainment, Scott Free Productions, Genre Films, International Traders, Mid Atlantic Films

It was not that long ago that we spent a theater experience in space with Sandra Bullock in Gravity, and not only did audiences love it, but voters did as well, with the movie pulling in seven Oscars and many other awards. Will our next trip into space be as fruitful? Those behind The Martian surely hope so! And, audiences are responding well to it. In this film, it is Actor Matt Damon’s character who becomes the astronaut stranded, and this time it’s on Mars. A tremendous amount of VFX work went into creating the harsh Martian environments, as MPC worked closely with Director Ridley Scott to bring the red planet to life. The team used one of the largest greenscreen stages in the world and filled in the backdrops with amazing digital imagery. 

The Walk

Release Date: October 9

Production Companies: ImageMovers, Mel’s Cite du Cinema, Sony Pictures Entertainment, TriStar Productions

The title is succinct and simple. The accomplishment, complicated and larger than life. The biographical film retells the story of High-wire Artist Philippe Petit as he dares to traverse a wire between the tops of the World Trade Center towers a few decades ago. Director Robert Zemeckis and visual effects artists re-created 1970s Paris and NYC, and building the now-lost towers in realistic, high-resolution detail. The most difficult feat, however, was re-creating the view from the top of the buildings and placing audiences on the edge by situating them on the wire with the actor as he “performs” the stunt on film. 


Release Date: May 22

Production Companies: Walt Disney Pictures, A113, Babieka

For the movie Tomorrowland, artists at ILM had to build the future – Director Brad Bird and Disney’s version of the future depicted in the fictional Tomorrowland, which draws from Disney’s theme parks. However, the future is not as bright as one hopes. In fact, the digital effects crew had to build three versions of Tomorrowland – when the character Frank first visits as a youngster in 1964, then in 1984, and finally when things go south. To this end, the first visit shows the city under construction, with the 1984 version idealized, and later, as a dystopian environment. In addition, artists had to faithfully re-create the Disney rides from the 1964 World’s Fair. Could this be Back to the Future all over again for Disney when it comes to awards?



Release Date: December 30 (limited)

Production Companies: Starburns Industries, Paramount Pictures 

This is hardly the typical Disney/Pixar or DreamWorks Animation film. Nor is it the stop animation we have grown accustomed to from studios like Laika. Rather, this stop-motion film from Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson uses puppetry to tell the story of a man crippled by the mundanity of his life. The comedy-drama got its start as a series of sound plays and funding from Kickstarter. Additional funding enabled the filmmakers to expand the project from a 40-minute short to an 80-minute feature. The puppets are made with 3D printers, and are photorealistic. Its unique style and story have not hindered its acceptance, having won the Grand Jury Prize at the 72nd Venice International Film Festival, and just may be quirky enough (it is rated R for a reason) to win votes during this awards season.


Release Date: March 27

Production Company: DreamWorks Animation

Each year moviegoers are confronted by stories of alien invasions of some sort, but in Home, the aliens are cute and colorful, and their weapons are bubbles. The human teenager Tip in this creature feature has seven costume changes, and her hairstyle was altered six times, thereby challenging the effects team. The aliens, on the other hand, have six legs and can walk sideways or backward, in addition to forward, and change color according to their mood. Meanwhile, the world transformed by the Boov creatures is a caricatured version of the real world. Lighting is more theatrical than realistic. But the praise and attention the movie has been receiving is 100 percent real.

Hotel Transylvania 2

Release Date: September 25

Production Companies: Columbia Pictures, LStar Capital, Sony Pictures Animation, Sony Pictures Digital, Sony Pictures Imageworks

The return of Drac and his family and friends is frightfully delightful as the characters continue to scare up laughs in Hotel Transylvania 2. Here, the production team spent two years developing and refining the look of the environments, characters, and props. Animators and designers got to stretch their creativity with the youngster Dennis, whose red, curly hair is scary out of control. Also in this sequel, the human world is far more visible, challenging the team to draw an artistic distinction between the monster and human worlds. 

Inside Out

Release Date: June 19

Production Companies: Walt Disney Pictures, Pixar Animation Studios

Oftentimes we let our emotions get the better of us. In the animated feature Inside Out, a young Riley tries to keep her emotions – in particular, Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust, and Sadness – in check following a move to a new city. The movie features two parallel stories: one set in the real world that is de-saturated after the not-so happy move, and a bright, candy-colored one inside Riley’s mind. The contrast between the Inside and Outside worlds are further heightened with a cinematic style where the Outside world is flawed and realistic, while the Inside world within Riley’s mind is virtual and perfect. This emotional film is definitely a fan favorite.


Release Date: July 10

Production Company: Illumination Entertainment

They are cute, adorable, and always find trouble. They are known as the Minions, and this time they have taken over the big screen with their own animated feature as they try to earn a spot working for the world’s first female super-villain and then try to save Minionkind from annihilation. This prequel to the Despicable Me franchise did fantastic at the box office, unleashing Minion fever everywhere. But is it enough to “annihilate” the competition?

Shaun the Sheep Movie

Release Date: August 5 (US)

Production Companies: StudioCanal, Aardman
Animations, Anton Capital Entertainment

Aardman has been producing top-quality stop-motion for years, and this movie is no different. Shaun’s adventure leads him and his friends to the big city, where they scramble to return home safely to quieter pastures. The film’s popularity is a testament to audiences’ love of stop animation that is done well and the skill and storytelling of Aardman and company.

Strange Magic

Release Date: January 23

Production Companies: Industrial Light & Magic, Lucas-film Animation Singapore, Lucasfilm Animation, Lucasfilm, Touchstone Pictures

This crazy fairy tale set to music is established in a richly detailed, colorful fantasy world filled with, well, strange magic and strange love. The story occurs during one day and night, but there are 20 unique environments depicted during that time span. Those sets that are outside are small in scale, requiring tremendous digital detail. The characters are plentiful and unique, some are real-world characters and others fantastical creatures. The movie was aimed at tween girls, but was a joy for everyone.

The Good Dinosaur

Release Date: November 25

Production Companies: Pixar Animation Studios, Walt Disney Pictures

We all know the story of how a huge asteroid struck Earth, wiping out the dinosaurs. But, what if the asteroid missed and the dinosaurs did not become extinct? That is the premise behind The Good Dinosaur, as an Apatosaurus named Arlo strikes up a friendship with a human boy – only the dinosaur in this case becomes “the boy” and the caveman boy becomes his “dog.” The simulations required for the river (200 of the 900 effects shots are of the river) are highly complex. To handle the remaining effects and imagery required a close collaboration among art/design, technical, and animation. The movie features striking characters, massively expansive environments, and an endearing story line. The film has been well publicized prior to its opening, already tugging at our heart strings. 

The Peanuts Movie

Release Date: November 6

Production Companies: Blue Sky Studios, Peanuts Worldwide, Twentieth Century Fox Animation

We loved the characters in 2D animation, and audiences are certainly loving them in 3D. But, the transformation was a risk. We have seen such transformations fail on many occasions. However, Blue Sky artists and animators certainly came up with the right formula and technique for transferring line drawings into CG characters and backgrounds that still resembled the beloved art from creator Charles Schulz. The transformation required a good deal of research, technology, and technique. In fact, many of the typical 3D techniques had to be revised or scrapped completely for new methods to achieve the desired look, and it is one that fans are indeed celebrating.

The Profit

Release Date: August 7
(US limited)

Production Companies: Prophet Screen Partners, MyGroup Lebanon, Doha Film Institute, FFA Private Bank, Bardel Entertainment, Code Red

This painterly film was first introduced in France last year. It tells the story of the exiled artist and poet Mustafa, who embarks on a journey home with his housekeeper and her daughter. The group must evade authorities who fear that the prophet’s words will incite rebellion. The animated feature film is set in a striking Mediterranean seaside village. The production is a passion project of Salma Hayek, who voices the housekeeper Kamila; she also served as producer.