When the biggest bakeoff buzz last night was whether or not James Cameron  was going to make an appearance, you knew it was destined to be Avatar's  night. Which it was -- and Cameron did show up for the reception at Kate Mantilini and hung around for the entire bakeoff. In fact, I walked with Cameron to the Academy. He was still aglow about the phenomenal box office performance and Golden Globes victory, but he's still not taking anything for granted. "We still have to get nominated," he cautioned.
I asked him about a potential sequel staying on Pandora or exploring another moon, and he had nothing new to report. Yet he proclaimed that "the visual effects are great but the most important thing is that it touches people here [pointing to his heart]." And he really wished that the late Stan Winston could've seen it.
Meanwhile, many agreed that the work this past year was especially outstanding. Weta Digital may have raised the industry bar, of course, but the stylistic diversity and overall execution on display in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince , Star Trek , District 9 , Terminator Salvation , 2012  and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen  signal a turning point of sorts.
Avatar's Joe Letteri said as much when we chatted beforehand: "It's interesting because a lot of it comes down to style, integration, how it works with the film these days because the work is pretty uniformly good. Everyone has a lot of stuff figured out and it's hard to fault the work that people are doing."
Tim Burke kicked off the supervisor-led presentations with his Potter intro (which relied on Double Negative, MPC, ILM, Rising Sun and Cinesite to provide most of the work): There's actually over an hour-and-a-half of total screen time visual effects, which covers a huge range of techniques from digital set extensions, full virtual environments, CG characters, full screen digital doubles, lots and lots of different effects animations…fire, smoke, rain, clouds, etc., etc…We tried a bit more dynamic Quidditch [using] a lot of digital doubles to free the camera up and full CG environments so that we can fly around at [high] speed and really create some energy for the sequence… and it culminates with a huge firestorm , which, again, is created as a CG simulation."
ILM's Roger Guyett emphasized how the passion and imagination of director J.J. Abrams powered the Star Trek reboot (which also included the contributions of Digital Domain, Lola and Svengali):"And we wanted to make a very bold statement with great sensitivity toward the very loyal fan base and the legacy of the show…we paid well attention to J.J.'s very distinctive camera style -- we were often having to blend between the real and the virtual worlds. A lot of these shots started with a blank canvas and that gave us a great opportunity to compose creatively, and use color and lighting design to help build the storytelling… We had lots of spaceships and we had to build ours to an incredible level of detail. J.J. really wanted the fans to enjoy the ships inside and outside. And there is a lot of simulation work in the movie: you see the destruction of Vulcan in different scales; the planet's surface itself… various lava fluids and all sorts of pyroclastic elements and then you see the entire planet swallowed by a black hole…"
Dan Kaufman touted the skillful work on District 9 (Image Engine, The Embassy, Weta Digital and Zoic), which had a budget of only $32 million and a production schedule lasting a little more than a year: "And Neill Blomkamp , our director, wanted to create a very natural, seamless, organic movie, and shoot in a spontaneous and improvisational way to capture the almost documentary feel to the look… This meant we had to have extremely flexible pipeline and tools so we could hit the ground running with such a limited post-production schedule… So for the aliens in District 9, Neill wanted something really, really alien, something that would be very strange and even repulsive to the humans in the movie as well as the audience. There are also several main characters who are aliens so we had to come up with a way to inject some kind of human expression into them so that audience could relate and connect to them on an emotional level. Now we only had the upper part of the face to show the aliens' emotions and so we came up with a system of overlapping plates that moved in conjunction with each other to provide the recognizable human expressions that we needed…
Charles Gibson touted the work on Terminator Salvation (which included ILM, Asylum, Rising Sun Pictures and Matte World Digital): "Every decision that we made was influenced by [this taking place in our world and not in a distant future]. We wanted to avoid the sterility of a completely post-production-based approach… Everything was reviewed very carefully in terms of the smartest way to do things… generally the most realistic, filmmaker-friendly, cost-effective and the benchmark for that was that if we had to make the film again, we would probably go and do it the same way we did it the first time. With the freedom, we could sort of drift between technique to make these choices. This was only possible because all the different technologies that we used have really progressed pretty dramatically in the past few years… ILM's toolset is really amazing too and keeps evolving. They have these physically-accurate lighting models that are just incredible; these reflective models and then radiating models; rigid body simulations, fracturing, explosive, liquid, collapsing flesh…"
For 2012, Volker Engel and Marc Weigert described Roland Emmerich's plan "to make a disaster movie to end all disaster movies" with the help of their Uncharted Territory, Scanline VFX, Digital Domain, Double Negative, Sony Pictures Imageworks, Pixomondo, Hydraulx, Crazy Horse Effects, Evil Eye Pictures and Gradient Effects. "Since we were shooting in Vancouver, we had to create via visual effects Los Angeles, Tibet, Yellowstone, Las Vegas, Washington, Hawaii and Rome -- and then destroy them," Engel explained. "We had tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, ash clouds and so on. Number two is the level of detail that we needed for all of this. For example, for the earthquake, it's not enough to create a photoreal environment, but we also needed to make it shake and break. That means you can't just build parts of houses, you have to build interior walls, roof structures, chimneys of single bricks, roofs of separate shingles, furniture inside, insulation material… rig it and sim it based on all the different material parameters. Yellowstone, for instance, we had hundreds of layers of rippling and breaking ground, falling chunks, trees, smoke trails, lava, dust and fire. The water masses later in the Himalayas, had to [attack] ships and buildings, plants, air craft, mountains [with] hundreds of layers of white water, foam, spray, mist. The third point was the choreography of the visual effects. As you know, if you do physics-based simulations, if you give the computer the right parameters you can pretty much get what reality would do, but, unfortunately, that wasn't what we want because we need to tell a story. So there's a constant balance between film time, which is always faster, and perceived reality and scale that you want to achieve…"
Letteri said, "Avatar is the story about learning to see a world that we don't understand and when we started we had two overriding ideas that we wanted to go with: One is wanted to see the world through the eyes of our characters; and the other is that we wanted to point the camera anywhere in the world and say, 'Let's go over there and shoot.' And what it really came down to is that Jim wanted to erase the boundaries between visual effects and live-action filmmaking. And he had some very specific ideas how to do that and, of course, he also wanted to do it in 3-D -- he wanted it to be a very immersive experience. So, right off the bat, the idea was to build a performance capture stage where you could work out ideas and take them either in a live-action direction, if need be, or completely digital if that would be the answer as well… The character designs were based very much on the actors performing them, especially around the jaw line and lips, because we thought having a really good guide and a really good match to the dialogue would help us a lot…and what you see on Pandora is largely digital and that was dictated largely by the necessity of having flexibility and the necessity of doing 3-D… We used a number of techniques to really try to bring the characters alive… We had naked characters and really wanted to get the body muscles as correct as possible, so we tried to get the biomechanics correct. We worked out new lighting models: we used spherical harmonics and image-based lighting -- HDRI -- to try and integrate lighting over a complete world but also to see that world reflected in a close-up of the eyes of the characters…"
And ILM's Scott Farrar closed the bakeoff with a little levity in his intro to Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, which substantially raises the robotic bar: "The biggest challenges were better acting… for the robots. And the sheer scope and scale of the show. First, we had 47 new robots to build in addition to rebuilding the previous 14, drawing inspiration from our photo library of auto parts, we continued to improve the photoreal look of the robots because two sequence would be shot on IMAX cameras… More detail was necessary for characters already built because an IMAX film frame is 8x larger than a 35mm anamorphic frame; 8x higher resolution; and 6x the storage space…Also, the camera moved into extreme close-up on Optimus and Devastator -- the most complex character ILM has ever built. So this caused massive increases in paint detail on the metal surfaces. Devastator contained 52,000 pieces and some of his IMAX frames took longer than we had time for. It's his fault that we had to develop a multi-res pipeline: five levels of resolution for each character because he had so many pieces…"
Afterward, the Samuel Goldwyn Theater lobby was buzzing with praise. All of the films seemed worthy of nomination. And everyone was impressed with the Dolby 3D presentation of the Avatar reel and how it was so much brighter than some theatrical screenings.
So, now we wait to see what two films will join Avatar: District 9, Star Trek and 2012 were the clear front runners. Some were talking sci-fi trio. Check back Feb. 2.
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.