Issue: Volume 41 Issue 2: (Edition 2 2018)


From Titanic to Blade Runner 2049: How VFX has evolved at the Oscars

by Simon Robinson

The beginning of 2018 marked 20 years since the release of James Cameron's Titanic. The romantic-disaster epic hit the big screen with appropriate force, captivating audiences across the globe and sweeping up 11 Oscars in the process.

At a time when visual effects was still in its relative infancy, Titanic's use of digital technology was at the cutting edge of VFX for the time, pioneering the photorealism we expect in movies today.

Now, almost every film we celebrate at the Academy Awards will have been enhanced by VFX. It's a testament to today's VFX industry that audiences continue to be dazzled by its content after all this time. Yet, when you look at this year's Best Visual Effects category, which included Blade Runner 2049, War for the Planet of the Apes, Kong: Skull Island, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi, it's clear that films are continuing to redefine what audiences consider "magical." These films are prime examples of just how far the industry has come over the past 20 years.

Titanic: Still Making Waves

"Epic" seems an appropriate word to use when describing Cameron's acclaimed blockbuster. At the time of release, Titanic was the most expensive film ever made, costing $200 million (US). Many heralded the launch of the film as the tipping point where imagination could be re-created digitally, and the opportunities for filmmakers seemed endless. Mark Lasoff, digital effects super-visor at Digital Domain - which was responsible for the lion's share of the film's VFX - heralded it as the cusp of VFX becoming completely photorealistic in film.

Today, VFX technology has evolved even further, and the re-creation of real-life sets and enough extras to sink a ship has become the norm. Take the new Star Wars franchise as an example; the infamous Death Star is created entirely virtually using 3D modeling tools, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story only had 121 actors, compared to 173 compositors. Similarly, in Jon Favreau's The Jungle Book, the action was shot entirely against a bluescreen - the only live-action element was Mowgli (Neel Sethi) - with the rest of the animals and environments being computer-generated.

Avatar to Blade Runner

James Cameron's next project after Titanic was Avatar. Ten years in the making, this film raised the bar for VFX forever. Bringing to life the fantastical environments of Pandora took a staggering 2,500 VFX shots. Weta Digital was responsible for the lion's share of the VFX on Avatar, evolving the use of VFX tools to meet the imagination of Cameron.

At this year's Academy Awards, the industry has been noting the success in the Best Visual Effects category of Blade Runner 2049. Whether or not you prefer Denis Villeneuve's modern take or Ridley Scott's original predecessor, it's fascinating to see how the VFX has developed from film to film. The mind-boggling complexity, physical accuracy, and sheer detail in digital VFX has enabled studios to create atmospheric environments that truly transport us to another place and time. Atomic Fiction's compositing work creating the dingy cityscapes of Blade Runner 2049 brings us that much closer to the action and realism of the Academy Award-winning film.

Troubles Behind the Scenes

Despite huge technical leaps in the VFX space, the industry itself has seen its fair share of turbulence over the last two decades. Of the four biggest VFX companies in the late 1970s - Boss Films, ILM, Dream Quest Images, and Apogee - only one remains: Lucasfilm's ILM, now under the Disney umbrella.

The industry has been plagued with issues of debt, and the entertainment industry hasn't always understood the job of VFX professionals and the creativity involved. The most high-profile case of a studio going bust is Rhythm & Hues, the post house behind the multi-Oscar-winning Life of Pi. Set against a backdrop of protests and public spats, the event marked a crossroads in the VFX industry. Following the crisis, many artists were left questioning the industry's role in moviemaking. How could an Oscar-winning VFX studio go bust so soon after the movie was released?

The reality is that many studios operate with tight profit margins, working in a globally distributed market that is dominated by a few big players. While VFX studios have become better at planning and mitigating the risks, their fortunes can still be sunk by events outside their own control.

Invisible VFX

It's easy to overlook the "invisible" VFX used in film that often takes a backseat when compared to the outlandish spaceships and explosions we have come to associate with blockbusters. Studios work tirelessly to enhance movies in such subtle ways that the audiences are unaware footage has been changed.

For example, today's period dramas that seem to perfectly reflect the environment of the times are all re-created through VFX. Studios can re-create landscapes that bring the past to life - from entire buildings to the smallest street signs - using the technology so seamlessly it is as though the objects weren't there at all.

And the Winner Is...

This year, it was Blade Runner 2049 that took home the official statuette at the Academy Awards, showcasing incredible visual prowess and creative thinking. But all the nominees in the VFX category have shown how artists are pushing the boundaries of what is possible and raising the industry standard for yet another year. Looking ahead at the movies we see being cooked up for 2018 and beyond, the future looks bright for VFX.

Simon Robinson is co-founder and chief scientist of Foundry.