2013 VFX Bakeoff: Grounding the Fantastical
Paul Franklin regaled the voters with the making of the final installment of Chris Nolan's trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, which also took advantage of the best old school and new school techniques while also relying more heavily on shooting in IMAX. This was "the most realistic and most believable Batman movie ever." Every frame had to look like they shot it in the real world… and a great reliance would be placed on large-scale practical work, but playing with seamless digital effects would always take their lead in Wally Pfister's cinematography. The key to the success of this approach was to bring VFX closer to the production. It was important that [Nolan] should be speaking directly to the people who are actually working on the shots and that VFX development should start as soon as possible. This was especially true of the prologue: a mid-air heist that introduces bad guy Bane. Its early release, a full seven months ahead of the film, meant that all the departments had to hit the ground running, well ahead of the official start of production. VFX put together a detailed animatic to which all HODs had input, ensuring that we were able to push the envelope on the action whilst keeping as much as possible of it within the realm of what could be shot for real."
[Watch AWN's exclusive interview with Paul Franklin on AWNtv.]
Snow White and the Huntsman [Snow White Gets Grimm] offered an opportunity to re-imagine the Grimm fairy tale with several design twists for the dark forest (with lots of Maya and Houdini simulation) and characters (2D warping was used for the dwarves with different proportions instead of relying on forced perspective and other conventional shrinking techniques). Cedric Nicolas-Troyan and Philip Brennan offered the highlights in tandem: "We wanted to give the film a distinctly modernistic [look]," Troyan said. "We wanted it to have something very familiar but also extraordinary because you haven't really seen it that way before. The Mirror Man was a great example of it [full of liquid, cloth and particle simulation]."
Spidey was rebooted with The Amazing Spider-Man [Rebooting a More Organic Spider-Man | Spider-Man’s Lizard Part 1: The Animation | Spider-Man’s Lizard Part 2: The Digital Effects] at Sony Pictures Imageworks and Jerome Chen explained how they went for a more naturalistic reinvention. The film was designed to be a native 3-D experience captured on Red Epic cameras and Imageworks concentrated on Spidey, the Lizard (grafting elements of actor Rhys Ifans onto the character) and the New York environment. "In execution, our hero is created with a blending of physical and digital techniques. Andy Armstrong and John Frazier worked to create complex wire and trestles to fly costumed Andrew Garfield or the stunt double not only on stage but also on location. In some cases, we transitioned to a digital Spider-Man when he becomes more superhuman. Randy Cook's animation team at Imageworks studied the live-action footage of Andrew and the stuntmen… and no motion capture was used for the character -- Spider-Man's performance is a hand-crafted achievement."
Dan Glass described the ambitious Cloud Atlas [Getting Cosmic with Cloud Atlas] from the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer as an indie passion project (shot with two production teams) that even novelist David Mitchell thought was unfilmable. However, the complex web of six different time periods with actors portraying multiple characters in full makeup offered a creatively fulfilling experience. "The movie's an intricately edited piece that jumps from narrative to narrative, tone to tone, thriller to farce, love story to science fiction." His comment, "If you didn't see the movie or trailer, watching this reel certainly won't help you get a sense of this movie," drew the biggest laugh of the evening.
"The main thing is the overall variety: everything from environments to effects from invisible comp work to character augmentation from hard surface vehicles and cities to digital actors. The work was always trying to play service to the story but naturally the science fiction material takes more center stage [dominated by Neo Seoul]. All the exteriors are CG: a lot of heavy design in architecture, advertising, vehicles, transit systems; interiors were frequently affected by animated walls and advertising, computer screens and systems and interfaces were thought through and presented as Orisons."
[Watch AWN's exclusive interview with Dan Glass on AWNtv.]
Andrew Stanton's much maligned John Carter [John Carter: The Original Space Adventure | Andrew Stanton Talks John Carter] certainly shined with its naturalistic VFX. Peter Chiang said it took 2,000 shots to realize the CG characters (the Martian characters, the eight-legged rhino beasts, a huge 10-legged dog-like creature, and the White Apes), the vast Martian world, and the sun-powered aircraft and airships. "The Thark characters were the largest component of the visual effects in the film… and Andrew wanted to capture a gritty realism and insisted that his actors play their parts on the set amongst the human characters. To support this, Chris Corbould and his team built stilts, backpacks with large heads to enable the actors to move around the set at the correct height and deliver unencumbered performances." They used a FACS-based facial capture system and Maya for the animation.
And last but not least was Prometheus [An Exploration of Prometheus Previs | Prometheus: Bringing Alien into the 21st Century], Ridley Scott's own 3-D reboot of Alien. Richard Stammers explained the creature and space craft work along with the planet environments. "The two main spaceships, the Prometheus and the alien juggernaut, represented our most detailed digital assets. Each were modeled and textured in an extremely high level of detail. In fact, we spent around 450 days alone on texture work for those ships just to get the scale right. Animation, too, was key, and a fine balance between weight and agility. And both ships required some pretty hefty fluid simulations to create the interactive dust for when they land and take off and also when they collide. When the Prometheus crumbles was a very difficult shot to achieve requiring bespoke modeling and destruction tools to get the animation just right. This was layered with CG fire simulations and many practical elements, too. Almost every exterior shot from the planet had a powerful CG background. Ridley wanted an alien that was beautiful yet monumentally bleak."
And there you have it: What will the five nominees be? I think Life of Pi, The Avengers, The Hobbit, and The Dark Knight will be there, with Prometheus, The Amazing Spider-Man, and Skyfall battling for the last spot.
Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld, the owner of Immersed in Movies (www.billdesowitz.com), a columnist for Thompson on Hollywood at Indiewire and author of James Bond Unmasked (www.jamesbondunmasked.com), which chronicles the 50-year evolution of 007 on screen, featuring interviews with all six actors.