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Should VFX Oscar Reward Groundbreaking, Innovative or Just Clever?

Doug Larmour, MPC London's Head of Compositing, launches his blog on AWN, questioning and analyzing the reasons why Inception won the Oscar this past Sunday.

So welcome to my inaugural Blog from the inside of MPC. "Who are you?" I hear you cry, "and why should we read on?"

Well, my name is Doug Larmour and I'm the head of Compositing here at MPC London and I’ve been tasked with giving you an insight into the day to day challenges that we face, as well as the thoughts that crop up in our heads while working at the sharp end of the VFX pipeline in one of the best VFX houses in the World. If that tickles your fancy then read on...

So what are we thinking right now?

Well I suppose right now, because its awards season, I would say the thing that most people are talking about is: why Inception won the Oscar for best visual effects this year? Obviously, we at MPC were all hoping that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 got the nod. Our own Nicolas Aithadi was nominated. We did a fine array of work with some great environments, digital double work and spectacular wand effects going into the broomstick chase; some really tricky transformation work utilising some really interesting new techniques as well as a very bespoke apparition. I think it’s definitely some of the best work that has been done in Soho this year, but then I would say that.

So why did it win? First of all let me say well done to DNEG for all their splendid work. The environment and destruction work that they did especially in the limbo sequence was lovely to behold. However, what struck me was that, for the first time in a while, it seemed that the judges at BAFTA and in the Academy gave this award more for how well the physical special effects were done and then seamlessly woven into the visual effects rather than just the visual effects themselves*. I can't really see anything overwhelmingly different or wildly new within the film's VFX, the environments and destruction on a grand scale has all been done before, (Roland Emmerich's 2012 for example last year), although to DNEG's credit they did do it very well. However, in the recent past the awards have all gone to films where the VFX have been groundbreaking (viz: What Dreams May Come for its paint texture; Lord of the Rings for its crowd, grand environments and Gollum; King Kong for the big furry creature; Avatar for an entirely believable race of motion captured digital doubles; the environments and its huge stereo achievement).

However this year, what seemed to be clever about Inception was the building of the revolving corridor and the way that the special effects crew physically immersed the actors into a large number of very convincing explosions and the sheer scale of the special effects work. This work is what seemed to be innovative and make the difference. That and the fact that the effects were in a good movie too of course. If it were to go to innovation in the VFX field alone then I would say that Alice in Wonderland (for the style of its characters and its very creative approach to the stereo conversion issue) or Potter (for the sheer scale and range of vfx delivered to a high standard) would have be equally deserving, but you cannot discount the influence having your effects in a really good movie has on the voters. Well done to all involved though.

What I did find most interesting about Inception winning the awards though, is the fact that it wasn't a stereo film. Since Avatar broke box office figures last year, the numbers of films with a stereo delivery has exploded and a whole new industry (stereo conversion) has been born. It also seems that the VFX laden tent pole movies are also the most likely to have a 3D release. This has meant that almost all the movies that MPC are working on have some form of stereo delivery. Does the fact that the BAFTA and Oscar went to a non-stereo show mean that the vfx world is losing its love affair with the extra dimension? I know a lot of people who would say that especially when a film has been post stereo converted, that the 3D gag has compromised the final VFX and so they will be happy if stereo is on the wane.

However, we are all getting much better and cleverer in how we approach making a film in stereo now that we have all had a little more experience. There are more movies being made this year in full native stereo, and more vfx houses are biting the bullet and, if the show has been shot mono but is delivering stereo, they are doing their own stereo conversion of the shots they are doing the vfx on and producing any full cg shots in stereo as a matter of course now; so this means that the effects will not be compromised by a rushed stereo conversion after the fact and they will be designed to be full stereo in the first place. It is precisely because the effects in Avatar were designed in stereo that they looked so good. So maybe the fact that the awards didn't go to a stereo show is down to the fact that we are becoming a lot more knowledgeable about the stereo process and thus less impressed by it especially when it is done after the visual effects rather than before. Do I think we are losing our love affair with stereo? No. There are too many films being delivered stereo to say that yet. Do I think a film that has been stereo converted will win a VFX award, however, is a different question altogether, and we will have to wait and see but my hunch is that it will not happen until that stereo conversion is done remarkably well, which I am not sure we have seen happen yet. Luckily for Inception, it did not suffer from having been post converted and so the VFX could sparkle this year. Well done to them!

And that is about it for this first installment of my Blog. In the next few months I imagine we'll touch on the stereo world again as well as the other challenges that we are facing here at MPC. In the meantime, we have a lot of work to do to keep us busy. The last installment of Potter, X-Men: First Class and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides are all on the horizon and look out for some really cool work that's coming out of MPC Vancouver. We have finally finished Sucker Punch over there and that has some crazy fan boy Samurai action going on! More info on those to follow in later editions too, but not until the non-disclosure agreement allows! Ah, the world we live in. It is exciting though.

Doug Larmour

(Head of Compositing MPC London)

*BAFTA and The Academy offer the award for Special Visual Effects (although the Oscar name just says 'visual effects') and this takes into account both the special effects and the Visual effects in equal measure.

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