Now that the VFX Oscar category has been expanded from three to five nominees, what's to become of the bakeoff? That was a hot topic of conversation last night during the reception at Kate's. Apparently one plan being considered for next year is to expand the bakeoff shortlist from 7 to 10 while trimming the 15-minute demo reels to 10.
"To me, the bakeoff is like an essential part of modern VFX culture," suggested Paul Franklin, the visual effects supervisor for Inception . "It's something that everyone aspires to: everyone wants to win an Oscar. But the actual bakeoff itself -- when I got to the bakeoff with Batman Begins  as part of that team five years ago -- a huge part of it was that you were there, in front of your peers in the industry. Whereas if it's just some anonymous committee that decides on it, you've got no idea, they could've just spun the dice. But you feel if you got up there and gave a good account of yourself and you got people to see it and you can actually gauge people's reactions, it's a special night. And it would be a real shame if they did away with it."
Eric Barba of Digital Domain starting things off by reminding his VFX colleagues that the groundbreaking Tron was not even allowed to compete for an Oscar because computers were considered an unfair advantage. He then admitted it was intimidating trying to live up to a legend with Tron: Legacy . But Digital Domain not only raised the stakes with a host of new vehicles and environments in raising the Tron bar, but also how important it was to shoot in 3-D for an immersive experience. However, the biggest challenge was improving its performance capture capability (Face Plant) for turning the 60-year-old Jeff Bridges into the 35-year-old Clu avatar. Everyone knows what Bridges looked like in Against All Odds, and that's what they were aiming for, using the actor to help drive the performance as his younger self. This involved a smaller footprint, writing better tracking data and improved data wrangling (with the help of EA in Vancouver), but also putting the volume process into the hands of the animators with a new interface for faster and quicker results.
Meanwhile, in his Inception presentation, Franklin described how each sequence had its own unique technical challenge: the zero gravity required monumental rig and wire removal, plus rebuilt environments and floating CG objects at the end, and necessitated roto because there was no greenscreen work. The strange Limbo City featured all sorts of conceptual challenges and they arrived at a procedural method for combining the structure of a glacier with 20th century architecture. For the Bond-inspired ski chase, they needed very convincing environment work and practical miniatures from New Deal and then blowing it all up. And for the folding city-- which has become the film's iconic image -- they had a large logistical challenge in recording and reproducing the architecture of Paris so that it held up to the scrutiny that it demanded.
For Scott Pilgrim vs. the World , Frazer Churchill explained how they were tasked with translating Bryan O' Malley's manga artwork and director Edgar Wright's pop cultural vision into a graphical-looking film. This was apparent in the very stylized fight sequences, all of which were based in a hyper-real, alternate world. Double Negative and Mr. X went through every storyboard to establish how to realize each frame: they'd identify which shots they thought would be slo-mo, Phantom digital, film, VistaVision or regular spherical; how much set to build, how much set-extension, which characters would be shot in bluescreen or digital. Each frame in SP became a marriage of physical & digital techniques, and they locked down their approaches early on, thanks to the extensive storyboarding, test shooting and previs that had already been done.
With the penultimate Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 , Tim Burke explored how they've continued down the path of gritty realism for this road movie outside of Hogwarts for the first time. He said that MPC's opening set piece featured six of Harry's friends shape-shifted to look like the famous wizard to fool the Death Eaters. There was plenty of CG environments, CG digi doubles and a mixture of stunt work and face replacements. For the sake of believability, they used the real performances of each actor to drive the CG Harry and then made the transformations a hybrid of Harry and the real characters. This entailed Daniel Radcliffe playing Harry seven times and using motion control to shoot multiple passes for every single shot with Radcliffe. Burke also described the improvements in both look and performance for Nagini the snake (MPC) and Dobby and Kreacher (Framestore).
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.