2013 VFX Bakeoff: Grounding the Fantastical
For the second consecutive year, the Academy went with 10 semi-finalists at the annual VFX bakeoff, with voting members of the branch narrowing the field to five nominees, which will be announced next Thursday morning. Nine out of the 10 demo reels were projected digitally (with The Dark Knight Rises the lone film holdout) and four were shown in 3-D. However, higher frame rate made its first appearance with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey [Returning to Middle-Earth with The Hobbit], which was screened at 48 fps without a hitch. The presentations were once again limited to five minutes and were informative and succinct, while the 10-minute reels were effective, for the most part, though not always smooth during transitions.
Considering the emphasis on the fantastical, there was still an attempt to ground everything in a reality that was relatable as well as exciting. Naturalism, therefore, is still very much the trend, though Ang Lee's Life of Pi [Life of Pi: Grabbing the CG Tiger by the Tail] (one of the front-runners) stood out for its otherworldly beauty.
Indeed, Bill Westenhofer of Rhythm & Hues kicked off the evening with a thorough presentation of Life of Pi, describing the unique virtual production and stereoscopic challenges and throwing in a little humor: "From a visual effects standpoint [700 out of 960 total shots were VFX], we had to figure out how we were going to realize this ocean and this ferocious co-star…. Often it was the job of the sky and the ocean to resonate with Pi's emotional state and reflect what he's thinking at the time. And if that weren't hard enough, Ang wanted to shoot this movie in stereo. It wasn't bad enough to have animals, water and children -- he had to have stereo in the mix. I guess he's a glutton for punishment."
As for Richard Parker, the Bengal tiger that's the CG star of the movie, "the digital model took about a year to create; it features around 10 million hairs and some frames could take over 30 hours to render. The rig itself was one of the most complicated we've ever built: just the number of controls in the paws outshined some of the facial rigs that we've done in the past. It had a dual path skin system because tigers are really a mass of muscle with a lose draper of skin. Dealing with wet fur was hard as well."
Janek Sirrs discussed The Avengers [Getting Animated Over The Avengers | Victoria Alonso Talks VFX Production, Marvel and The Avengers] and what producers fear the most: a superhero ensemble movie. "Not only did director Joss Whedon insist on having the superheroes fight one another, but they also had to appear together in a 40-second digital long shot, just to make difficult. But to achieve all this, we also had to generate highly detailed digital doubles for all the major characters…. We also built two versions of the Iron Man suit to show an evolution in Stark technology and to also satisfy the marketing department as well, I think."
Of course, the Hulk was the greatest character challenge and actor Mark Ruffalo was an inspired choice. One of the great design decisions was to incorporate Ruffalo into the look of him, and the actor was gracious enough to go through every manner of torture they could come up with. "Performance wise, Joss worked closely with the animators to make sure that the Hulk always conveyed the proper level of rage."Along with new procedural shading and facial capture advances, ILM came up with a new set of retargeting tools for the Hulk.
Four-time Oscar winner Joe Letteri of Weta arguably gave the most in-depth and polished presentation for The Hobbit. Among other things, including a more dynamic way of digitally shooting forced perspective for 3-D, he described the new advances for Gollum: "For me, one of the favorites to work with again was Gollum. We tried to keep him so he looked like the same character but really we just rebuilt him from the inside out: a whole new set of tools that we developed to do tissue and muscle simulation for the body, for the dynamics. We were able to capture Andy's entire performance real time on set this time, so it was the first set-up we did and drove a lot of nice character moments. In fact, probably our biggest contribution to the film was our characters that we were able to bring to the world. Peter [Jackson] really had this idea to creating new characters in new designs, things that 10 years ago we were doing characters in masks. For example, now the three trolls have new designs and full dialogue in a whole scene they've got to carry by themselves. We always use the same techniques: a mixture of performance capture and keyframe animation to bring them to the screen."
Skyfall [Bond Gets a CG Komodo Dragon for Skyfall], the first billion dollar James Bond movie, marked the 50th anniversary of the longest-running franchise, and Steve Begg described how they kept it old school with a lot of in-camera work while at the same time embracing CG characters for the first time (a scorpion and Komodo Dragon). He also explained how instead of using a scale train model for the elaborate underground Tube station crash, they made a real one comprised of two 60-foot carriages.
"It's the first we shot in a digital format on the Arri Alexa and I think it gave Bond a very unique look, courtesy of Roger Deakins' gorgeous cinematography. Nonetheless we used every trick in the book and I didn't feel we were tied to one approach. There were about 1,350 visual effects shots and extensive work was done by Double Negative for the Turkish pre-title action sequence, which involved multiple head replacements, rig removal for both the car and motorbike sequences, and the same for the Digger on the train, where the special effects guys had fun trying to stop that 20-ton monster from falling off the train…" For the emotional destruction of the Aston Martin DB5, they made a 1/3 scale model from a 3D printer but actually destroyed an old Porsche.