It pretty much went as expected at last night's 84th Academy Awards: The Artist grabbed the top three awards, including best picture, and Hugo took most of the tech awards, including visual effects, upsetting Weta's remarkable performance capture work on Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Meanwhile, as far as animation, the favorites also won: Rango and The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. What was the lesson in all of this? Well, above all else, it was a year to celebrate the history of movies and the roots of filmmaking and storytelling. But aside from that, it was all about being adventurous and going outside the box, which all these winners have in common.
As Rango director Gore Verbinski, reiterated, he couldn't have made his dusty and iconoclastic lizard movie alongside Johnny Depp without going indie and without driving it with a live-action VFX sensibility from ILM. He went straight to producer Graham King (who, incidentally, also produced Hugo) for money to make the story reel. "So for the first 18 months we were just out of our house, seven artists and [screenwriter] John Logan, long walks, you know, barbecues in the backyard."
He also directed the voice actors in the only way he knows how: by getting them all together inside a stage and shooting controlled chaos: "I want them to act and react," he added. "I suppose I think it made it feel like it was occurring and we encouraged line overlaps and we encouraged people to be out of breath. So we really were kind of paranoid of the computer making things clinical, and it so lends itself to perfection. So suddenly you had the feeling I guess in the soundtrack that there was a tortoise talking to a lizard, because Johnny was talking to Ned Beatty and they were actually playing the scene together. So I think there's something in there. There's some sort of DNA underneath it all. But ultimately it was just a fear of having somebody sit with a bit of text in front of a microphone. I mean, I haven't done that since I was selling sugar water, Budweiser, you know, or whatever, doing commercials, but that's so distant from, you know, getting a performance."
When I asked Verbinski what the take away was in terms of moving back to live action, he replied that there is none, really. "I mean they're two completely different hats. I suppose underneath all of it it's just finding a story you want to tell in the same way you would if you were sitting around a campfire or something. But completely different. I mean, there are no gifts in animation. We have to fabricate everything, including the anomalies, and yet now I'm two days into shooting a live-action picture. I actually go back tomorrow to shoot, and there's chaos and you can't orchestrate things exactly how you want them, but when events happen, they're set in stone and you're done. I don't know how else to explain it. It's just every aspect of it is so different."
Meanwhile, Hugo's Rob Legato and Ben Grossmann of Pixomondo were flabbergasted to pull off their upset. It just goes to show that the Academy at large was so impressed by the 3-D and the supporting VFX that it all melded together into a wondrous, game-changing experience. The Academy even awarded the cinematography Oscar to Hugo's Bob Richardson, which is now an integral part of the virtual production and stereoscopic collaboration.
"What we are trying to do with the 3-D of the movie itself is to basically extend the art form of cinema by using the depth that you get and every shot was designed to take advantage of the depth that we would enhance the model of the story," Legato explained. "So, every shot was literally made to be in 3-D and designed to give you some depth or emotional response from it."
"And there's a lot of science behind it, but we try to take the science and distill it down to something that is so simple that it doesn't interfere with your instinctive creativity, so you can hear Marty [Scorsese] or Dante [Ferretti] or Bob[Richardson], and say what they feel the shot should emote," added Grossmann.
As far as prevailing over the more VFX intensive and hardware-driven Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Legato replied, "Here's a perfect blend and ours does not stick out but assists that and becomes part of the art form that the Academy sort of growing up with the visual effects world, and saying, we are now going to also appreciate the art of what you tried to achieve, what's literally on screen."
But the most fun I had backstage was asking the lone question of William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg about what their Oscar means for continuing to make shorts and apps at their Moonbot Studios in Shreveport, Louisiana. "I think an atomic joy bomb has just exploded in the northern part of Louisiana and the radioactivity will be of a very instructive and constructive type," Joyce rejoiced.
"And on top of that, our short was to serve two purposes," Oldenburg added. "One: to tell a great story; two: to serve as a calling card for our company, Moonbot Studios. And the whole point was to just try to get the world to recognize what we're capable of in Shreveport, Louisiana, and that there's a level of quality that they can come to expect based on what this short exudes."
"I mean, we have 35 young employees and we're basically surrounded by bayous, and they're incredibly gifted and so from the swampy lands of Louisiana, we have crawled forth with this, and it's lovely to be recognized," Joyce continued. "And we're, I don't know, what? We're going to not sleep for a year or something?"
No way: They've already released their next app, The Numberlys, a reworking of Metropolis for kids, which will then segue into another short and book. "German Expressionism and children I think go really well together," Joyce concluded.
Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and editor of VFXWorld. His blog is Immersed in Movies (www.billdesowitz.com), he's a regular contributor to Thompson on Hollywood at Indiewire and he's the author of the upcoming James Bond Unmasked (Spies), which chronicles the 50-year evolution of the iconic superspy from Connery to Craig.