As is customary at VFXWorld, we asked three of the Oscar-nominated visual effects supervisors to evaluate each others work on the eve of the March 5 Academy Awards: Joe Letteri from Weta Digital for King Kong, Dean Wright from Frozen Lake for Narnia and Dennis Muren from Industrial Light & Magic for War of the Worlds. Once again, their responses are indicative not only of what stood out last year but also of the importance of integrating vfx into the storytelling.
Barbara Robertson: Did you expect your colleagues to pick these three films from the seven contenders in the Bakeoff?
Dean Wright: No one could say anything was a lock. Usually you know three out of four, but it could have been any film this year. Most of the films in the Bakeoff would have been nominated in any other year. To make it to the last three is truly remarkable.
Joe Letteri: Were at a point where were not looking at technical achievements per se, not whether or not the effects were flawless, but how well the effects work to create the movie. I think these three films moved visual effects from the background into the storytelling part of the film. It would have been hard to move the story along without the effects in these films. You could say that of all the films in the bakeoff, but I think these three fit the effects into the story in a noteworthy way. With Narnia and Kong, its more obvious because you had main characters that were part of the film. With War of the Worlds, there was the overall feeling of putting you into the environment.
Dennis Muren: I thought all seven films were stunning. It was an unusual year. Any one of the films could have taken the cake in other years. Were splitting hairs to think this is better than that. There was beautiful work in Charlie. The city stuff in Batman was stunning. Potter had flawless work. Your jaw drops at every shot in Star Wars being a creation. I think it was a crapshoot. Everything was good.
I think we need five nominations. This year showed it could have happened and it should have happened. What was the budget for Kong? You probably could have bought 20 Capotes just for the effects budget. I hate to equate nominations with money, but it shows you the size of effects in movies now and why this branch deserves a couple more shots. The contribution is more than it was 10 years ago, which was amazing then. Its not a post process at all. It takes a lot of organization, talent, hundreds of people. Its closer to best picture. Were organizing people over a period of time. Were making the film.
BR: What was special about the effects in King Kong?
DM: The gorilla was phenomenal. The facial performance really worked; you could tell what he was thinking. There werent any artifacts or monkey business. The New York stuff was stunning, especially the Empire State Building. But, I think the performance of Kong pushed it. To have the motion capture consistent for 800 or 1,000 shots but it wasnt only motion capture. There was lots of hand animation, also. Wed done Mighty Joe Young before, but there werent as many shots and Kong is more expressive. Its good that [director] Peter Jackson gave Kong a lot of shots so that we could understand the character. Some directors dont want to spend the money. Also, I liked the stylized look. The whole thing was kind of artificial like a memory of what things are and that was a really good choice.
DW: It was a great spectacle. They made huge advances in creating digital environments. New York both nighttime and daytime set a new standard for creating digital cities. And, some of the acting in close ups with Kong is truly remarkable you really feel and believe those moments. And in the end battle, you get both. The CG camera work at the end make you feel like youre flying with the biplanes on their strafing runs, like youre on a camera mount on the plane coming toward the Empire State Building. The lighting the dawn going from predawn to dawn and seeing it changing across the cityscape was so well executed.
JL: With the original Kong, [the filmmakers] were asking the audience for suspension of disbelief. We werent asking them to suspend disbelief. We wanted to say, Just watch. Its real. You dont have to think about it any more. With the scenery, 1933 New York was really important to the story. If we had used modern day New York, it would have taken you out of the moment because everyone knows it, and knows you could just shoot the gorilla with a tranquilizer dart. But, if we could bring them back to 1933 In 1933, people hadnt been to the top of the Empire State Building. They hadnt seen gorillas in zoos; theyd only read about them. Thats why the film had the impact it did when it first came out. Thats what we were trying to recapture. We could have taken short cuts, but we didnt know when they might lead to something that would cause people to drop out of the film. So, we put a lot of effort into getting the details of New York correct.
BR: And Narnia?
DM: I like the variation and scale of the work. The thing about Kong was the stylized look, but Narnia was the opposite. They went with photoreal with armies of thousands of characters. The lion looked really good. Animals have been acting with people since way back, but, again, the director [Andrew Adamson] gave them enough shots for us to know what the characters are thinking. And, the animation and rendering were good enough that we didnt think about technique.
JL: Aslan looked like a real lion. The beavers were great characters with terrific personalities. Mr. Tumnus integration with goat legs. I loved the film. The battle scenes were terrific; they did a great job with the armies. There were so many individual characters, so many different types of creatures. And, the effects were so much a part of the story thats what we were trying to do, make the effects as integrated as possible. Lots of scenes had multiple characters with speaking parts that had to be built up. To do so much and get it done on time thats important, too.
DW: We were invited into creating the dramatic structure of the film with a host of characters, into precious and hallowed territory. I think the work all three of our lead companies did in creating the digital characters is phenomenal. Rhythm & Hues Aslan is a cinematic milestone in terms of look and acting. The variety of characters Imageworks did are phenomenal, and ILM, under the gun, created hosts of characters and made memorable moments. Everything we created had to fit into the world. Its been a thrill watching audiences respond to a character that moves them, makes them think, hits them emotionally, not manipulatively, but in a true way. Its more of an accomplishment than creating the biggest explosion youve ever seen, although I love big explosions. The environments are top notch. I think everything was necessary. Some might disagree, but thats what drove us. We tried to serve the story. We honed down and honed down until we had what we needed and no more.
BR: And War of the Worlds?
JL: I really liked War of the Worlds as a film. The way [director] Steven Spielberg handled the treatment of the story is terrific. The work was pretty flawless the destruction of the freeway coming apart, the neighborhoods destroyed, the people vaporized especially the way it was done as point of view: Youre always seeing the destruction approaching you. It makes you the viewer in the film. I think the contribution was how effortlessly the effects fit into the story. And, there was no fear on the directors part. He didnt have to do special set ups. He just said, Id like to get this shot, and Dennis and Pablo [Helman] could accommodate it.
DW: The visual effects were so integrated into the scenes, the big moments felt totally real. And, the style they shot, the in-the-moment execution of effects, the personal point of view, worked tremendously well for the film. While War of the Worlds had only 300 shots, they were long shots and they were all difficult. It took huge amounts of artistry to meld miniatures, effects elements, CG, and make everything photoreal and truly drive the story. It doesnt have big CG animated character shots like Narnia and Kong, but the effects were done so well, its a great example of how you can use these types of effects to help tell the story in a meaningful way. The two masters, Dennis and Pablo, took big events that could have been distracting, like explosions, and used them exactly in the way they needed to propel the movie along. They werent blowing things up to make bing bang, boom. The effects were used specifically to move the movie. You get scared. That was exactly what they wanted.
DM: We didnt have a thousand shots, but it was 45 minutes of work. I think our film, from what other people say, was completely different from the other candidates. The style was different. We were trying to make something poetic the lighting, composition, metaphors in the shots it was almost spiritual. I think we affected people at the bakeoff on an unconscious level like we did on audiences when it came out. What I really like are the things we were doing in War of the Worlds where we were getting into metaphors, where the images represent something else. I like the way of storytelling that isnt literal, when the story exists on different levels. How many times can you see something blow up? War of the Worlds is more than backyards blowing up, and the visual effects contributed to the way the story was told.
BR: Many people were surprised that Revenge of the Sith didnt receive a nomination. Any idea why?
JL: The work they did was amazing. It was great. You could see the progression. The effects got better and better during the three episodes. There was so much they had to create from scratch. I dont know why it didnt make it.
DW: I was surprised it didnt make it; theres not a bad shot in the movie. Maybe people saw it as recently honored. You dont know how close the voting is. They could have lost by one vote.
DM: Ill bet the vote was very close. When you think there were six Star Wars films, five were nominated and three won, thats pretty amazing. Theyre locked into doing something that has been recognized many times before, and no matter how well its done, a lot of it is based on the last show. But I was surprised. I thought Star Wars would be nominated.
BR: Do the nominated films or the Bakeoff list at large signal trends in visual effects?
DM: I think things are better, faster, easier. Were refining the tools. There are a lot of smart people all over the world solving problems and solving them faster. Talented people are making the tools the artists using the tools are adding plug-ins and writing software. Theres a foundation in place now that can be fine-tuned for the shows. Were getting close to having people walking around on the screen. Im not interested in creating Marilyn Monroe, but I wouldnt mind doing something unusual with a person. Motion will become more intelligent some of that is going on now in crowd scenes and more will be going on. But I dont know if that makes better movies or better effects.
JL: Visual effects are allowing directors to tell stories without having to create physical worlds that would be cost prohibitive like Jarhead. They can do the story with visual effects. I think well see more and more characters in films. Thats one of the things they did in Narnia had multiple characters with speaking parts. With character-oriented performances, its less of a question of whether something works technically as a visual effects shot, but whether you believe the character is who he should be. Its almost like casting. Also, were doing more and more of the design work up front. We worked on 1,000 shots before the camera rolled and used that to design how the live action would fit in. Then, after the film was shot, things changed, so we also had postvis.
DW: The shows keep getting bigger. I think thats OK as long as were judicious and only use whats needed and necessary. I think well see more and more digital characters inhabiting our films. The more youre able to create characters, the bigger the shows will grow because when youre using CG characters in storytelling, you have to create the shots. The characters are getting heavier roles, less cartoony in nature. The acting is expected to be more sophisticated and I think demands will be higher and higher on us to deliver that. Environments are becoming prevalent in so many movies now because its a huge help to productions. And, the tools are getting better and better for capturing lighting on set and recreating it digitally.
BR: Where do you see room for improvement?
DM: Restraint. Come on sometimes you can tell more with less. Its true of everything acting, lighting, writing, everything. Ive been saying for a few years now that special effects are not that special any more. After a while, youre numb to them. Maybe Im from another era, but I liked it when they were special, unique, unusual to see and you perked up. Now, a lot of shows not the ones in the Bakeoff have too many effects that are not dramatically integrated into a story. One place they are using restraint, throwing away stuff, which is good, is with bleach bypass. Any time you drain some of the color out of the shows, it helps the effects work better. And I like the look of the drained color, everything off to one side, cool going to warm. Its interesting to look at.
DW: Visual effects used to be secretive. Now, people are interested in the craft and we do a lot of how-to stories and behind the scenes DVDs. People learn how we do it. So now were not creating a mysterious, amazing thing, were not creating magic in front of their eyes that people want to see more and more of. Now, the effects have to be totally integrated and necessary to propel the story along. Were seeing a maturation of visual effects as a whole. We have to be careful that were using the tool appropriately.
BR: Why do you think most of the films in the Bakeoff were fantasies?
JL: Fantasy is a great genre. You dont have a lot of predictive baggage. Youre not fighting peoples expectation of what the world looks like in 40 years. You can focus on the characters. Lord of the Rings is fantasy. Kong is fantasy. Narnia. People probably think of the original Star Wars as science fiction but George [Lucas] cleverly cast it as fantasy by saying it was not a prediction of the future, but something that happened long, long ago. It frees you up.
Barbara Robertson is an award-winning journalist who has covered visual effects and computer animation for 15 years. She also co-founded the dog photography website dogpixandflix.com. Her most recent travel essay appears in the new Travelers Tales anthology, The Thong Also Rises.