The year at the box office started out rather slowly, but it quickly gained momentum thanks to a particular superhero who definitely came to the rescue - yet again. Without question, there were some big blockbuster VFX-filled films this year, aside from Black Panther. Just in the super-hero realm alone, there are a number of strong contenders as we head into awards season, including
Ant-Man and the Wasp, Deadpool 2, Avengers: Infinity War, and the upcoming
In fact, a plethora of films released in 2018 contain a degree of visual effects work - some far more plentiful and cutting-edge than others.
On the animated features side, CG superheroes played their part in saving the day, too, as the Incredibles once again flexed their muscle at the theater, drawing in crowds left and right for Incredibles 2.
As of this writing, a number of the holiday-season films had yet to be released - features boasting tremendous appeal and tremendous visual effects work. In fact, a handful (namely Mary Poppins Returns, Fantastic Beasts 2, and
The Nutcracker) could potentially unseat the year's top earners. Until then, the films in the top spots at the box office are VFX/animated superhero films:
Black Panther, with more than $700 million in gross sales at the theater, followed by
Avengers: Infinity War at $679 million, and
Incredibles 2 at $608 million. (In fact,
Black Panther sits at number three on the all-time box-office list.) Following for the year is
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Deadpool 2, Mission: Impossible - Fallout, Ant-Man and the Wasp, and
Solo: A Star Wars Story - again, all big-time effects films. Although box-office gold does not directly translate into Oscar gold, it is an indication of overall popularity, at least among the general public.
As we await the short lists and nominees for the upcoming Academy Awards and other major motion-picture competitions, here is the rundown of some of my top choices and why I believe they are deserving of this honor.
While the list of work is quite long in this category, there are a number of standouts.
A Wrinkle in Time
March 9, 2018
Walt Disney Pictures
This long-awaited sci-fi adventure from Disney takes audiences through space and time. Some of the better effects are contained within the environments of the alien planets. This includes a menacing forest on the evil planet Camazotz, where a violent dust storm kicks up, with flying debris, dark clouds, ground that separates, and more.
AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR
Avengers: Infinity War
April 27, 2018
Marvel Studios/Walt Disney Studios
"Superhero" and "super visual effects" go hand-in-hand. And Avengers: Infinity War definitely falls into this description. It is full of supersize VFX scenes containing legendary worlds and characters. Aside from the impressive work that brought the heroes to life, a larger-than-life standout is all-CG Thanos, motion-captured and animated by the visual effects teams at Digital Domain. In addition, there is the CG character Ebony Maw from Cinesite who is featured full-screen. In fact, character animation is big in the film, especially in various fight sequences, including the all-out battle between the Guardians and Avengers.
February 16, 2018
Marvel Studios/Walt Disney Pictures
This movie dominated conversation and theaters for quite some time due to a number of its many achievements, including the effects, created by a dozen primary vendors for the 2,500 VFX shots - 2,000 of which contain "significant effects." They range from subtle, small effects to full-CG shots. A lot of the work was environmental: a CG city built inside Wakanda; a jungle; a casino. And there is plenty of VFX action, too: a car chase in Busan, an elaborate fight scene at the casino and in the arid landscape; a fire in a greenhouse; a dream sequence; and more.
December 21, 2018
Because it is part of the uber-popular Transformers property,
Bumblebee cannot be overlooked. The franchise is filled with big effects, the kind reserved for big bots and big battles.
August 3, 2018
Walt Disney Pictures
In this lovable film, the past comes back to the adult Christopher Robin, after his old friend Winnie the Pooh pays him a visit. In the film, Pooh and his Hundred Acre Wood friends are CG, interacting with live actors. They are not polished CGI characters, though; instead, they have a fluffy quality to them - perfect for their role of stuffed animals who come to life.
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald
November 16, 2018
The beasts are back! The second installment of the Fantastic Beasts series, this film is filled with fantastic creatures big and small. In addition, look for magic, often the result of digital magic by VFX artists. Also, many of the environments are unique (think
Harry Potter scale), which are also CG creations.
October 12, 2018
Space is often considered the final frontier, and in First Man, about Neil Armstrong's trip to the moon, there is plenty of out-of-this-world effects. While there is some amazing digital work, the film also includes methods from the past, such as integrated archival footage and practical sets. And, in all honesty, the combination results in a more believable period look.
JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
June 22, 2018
The film is evolutionary, particularly in terms of the visual effects. Twenty-five years ago, ILM crafted its first CG dinosaur for the original film, and since then, has created an evolution. Indeed, there are still some amazing animatronics in the latest movie, but the many CG dinos in the film are amazing in every way, from the models to the animation. In one memorable scene, the dinosaur Blue is reunited with its trainer Owen, a shot in which the animators at ILM gave the cold-blooded character personality. There is also a volcano eruption, causing a massive stampede, as well as some all-CG shots. Thanks to this work, the franchise never gets old.
Mary Poppins Returns
December 19, 2018
Walt Disney Pictures
Decades after she left (5.4 in actual time, 2.5 in the film's chronology), Mary Poppins returns to Cherry Lane, turning the mundane into pure fun and magic. And, a broken bowl becomes the portal to a cartoon world - created with traditional-looking animation to mimic the look from the original film.
Mission: Impossible - Fallout
July 27, 2018
We all know that actor Tom Cruise likes to perform his own stunts in his action-packed films, and in his latest Mission: Impossible film, some of the more publicized stunts are in fact practical. But, that does not mean he, or the movie itself, lacked the assistance of CGI to up the ante. Quite the opposite. As Ethan Hunt performs a nighttime HALO jump, DNeg tracked the city of Paris into the plate and conjured up a raging storm below the plane. The film also contains two helicopters crashing into each other - a CG shot.
December 14, 2018
The best way to describe this movie is "epic." Think Lord of the Rings and
The Hobbit epic. (What else would you expect from the filmmakers of those franchises?) There are massive structures, massive machines, massive crowds, CG environments including a futuristic, steampunk version of London, now a giant machine.
Ready Player One
March 29, 2018
The central theme of virtual reality runs strong in Ready Player One, about a dystopian future filled with people effectively drugged by VR and a young man's quest to save the virtual world he thrives in and gain a fortune in doing so. This movie can be thought of as three films in one in terms of the work involved. There's the real-time game-engine version used by director Steven Spielberg for previs and production, the 90-minute photoreal animated feature created by ILM in which actors appear as avatars, and the final film, which includes that virtual world called the OASIS plus live action with visual effects set in the real world. In summary, a virtual pleasure for sure.
Solo: A Star Wars Story
May 25, 2018
Lucasfilm/Walt Disney Pictures
Whenever a Star Wars property hits the big screen, you know it will be a jaw-dropping experience. And, this was certainly the case here. ILM is one of the best at making digital magic, and for this film, they were led by Rob Bredow, one of today's best digital magicians. They also tapped special creature effects legend Neal Scanlan. Effects work pretty much span the full gamut, including CG characters and objects, digi-doubles, set extensions, matte paintings, greenscreens, and more to create vehicles, character performances, otherworldly environments, and spacecraft unique to the
Star Wars universe. From the speeder chase and train heist to the infamous Kessel Run, the VFX team had an immense challenge in creating over 90 minutes of visual effects required for the film. But the secret here was using state-of-the-art technology to deliver a look and feel of the past befitting the beloved hero, Han Solo.
The Nutcracker and the Four Realms
November 2, 2018
Walt Disney Pictures
The entire film looks magical. However, a large portion of the visual effects are used to bring the kingdoms to life. There are fully CG environments: a land covered in ice, a land overgrown with flowers, and a land covered in candy; they complement sets designed and built for the Fourth Realm and the palace. Separating each realm is a CG river with huge CG waterfalls. (Including all of the smaller waterfalls on each realm, CG artists created 23 individual CG waterfalls in all.) Lurking in the Fourth Realm is the Mouse King, a mysterious and monstrous character made up of 60,000 mice. Created entirely in CG, the Mouse King moves in a very cool, very specific way.
The Nutcracker, Mortal Engines, Black
Panther, Avengers, Ready Player One,
Jurassic World, Fantastic Beasts 2
As of this writing, 25 movies had been officially submitted for consideration in the Animated Feature Film category for the 91st Academy Awards. Many had limited showings within the US, making them relative mysteries outside of film festivals and special screenings (due to my limited exposure to them, I have left them off my pick list).
Dr. Seuss' The Grinch
November 9, 2018
Universal Pictures/Illumination Entertainment
We've seen the film presented in 2D cell animation, live action, and now it is appearing in amazing CGI, brought to life by the artists at Illumination. We all know the story by now, but this holiday tale surely will bring a smile to your face, thanks to the spectacular visuals and expanded world.
Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation
July 13, 2018
Sony Pictures Animation
The film takes the characters and animators out of their comfort zone with exotic and challenging locations beyond the familiar hotel grounds of the franchise. Particularly challenging was the water, which was everywhere in this film as the gang boarded a cruise ship for this journey.
Isle of Dogs
April 13, 2018
Studio Babelsberg/Twentieth Century Fox Animation
The film is a stop-motion-animated science-fiction film from Wes Anderson, and it clearly carries his unique style. (Many of the animators worked on his earlier creation, Fantastic Mr. Fox.) The hand sculpting was augmented with digital techniques. The film boasts 20,000 faces, and 1,105 animatable puppets were crafted by 12 sculptors. In addition, 2,000 more puppets were made for the background characters. This is a beautiful, well-crafted feature.
Ralph Breaks the Internet
November 21, 2018
Walt Disney Animation Studios
A lot has changed since Ralph and Vanellope made their debut in Wreck-It Ralph six years ago. Story-wise, the arcade gets a wireless router, which the two characters use to transport themselves to the Internet. Technology-wise, new techniques from other Disney Animation films have enabled the animators and artists to do more for this film - lots more in terms of the size of the environments and the number of characters.
September 28, 2018
Warner Bros./Warner Animation
In this cute film, a young yeti searches for a smallfoot (a human) to prove they exist. The team at Sony Pictures Animation, who worked on the film, pushed through technical challenges pertaining to snow and hair development, two of the film's larger technical challenges.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
December 14, 2018
Columbia Pictures-Marvel Animation/Sony Pictures Animation
There have been many Spider-Man films over the year, but this is one superhero film that is visually unique. It looks like a comic book that's come to life, in a graphic novel kind of style. In fact, the aesthetic is a result of computer animation mixed with hand-drawn comic book techniques, requiring up to 140 animators, the largest crew ever used by Sony Pictures Animation for a film.
The Incredibles 2
June 15, 2018
Superheroes are box-office gold, whether or not they are in live-action or animated films. Still, the sequel to the Disney*Pixar smash hit The Incredibles stands on its own laurels, thanks to the superhero animation team that went beyond the call of duty to deliver a compelling story wrapped around amazing animation. It is well above "Parr" in every way.
Isle of Dogs, Spider-Man