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2008 VFX Year in Review

VFXWorld picks its top 10 favorite vfx movies in this year-end overview.

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From a CG head on a live actor’s body to makeup and "youthening" effects, the combination of techniques and skill puts The Curious Case of Benjamin Button at the top of our vfx list for 2008.

It was another year of superheroes, sci-fi, fantasy, action/adventure and a few breakthroughs along the way. Have we crossed the Uncanny Valley? Wait and see. Here's our top 10 vfx highlights for 2008:

1. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button Vfx artistry was obviously crucial to telling the F. Scott Fitzgerald-adapted story of a man (played by Brad Pitt) aging backwards in this Christmas Day release. From a CG head on a live actor's body to makeup and "youthening" effects, the combination of techniques and skill put this film at the top of our vfx list for 2008. However, the invisibility of the work and the ability to keep viewers completely in the story are its crowning achievement. The whole story on Digital Domain's four-year journey with director David Fincher to develop a photoreal digital human, and the critical contributions of Lola, Hydraulx, Asylum and Matte World Digital will soon be covered in depth by VFXWorld. Boasts John Gaeta, vfx supervisor on Speed Racer: "Benjamin Button is a frontier expanding application of visual computing and hand crafted illusion... and done so in a way that can touch your heart."

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Speed Racer, an unappreciated gem, provided some of the most exhilarating thrills of the year. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

2. Speed Racer

Speaking of expanding frontiers, Gaeta, Co-VFX Supervisor Dan Glass and their talented vfx gang certainly did that in providing some of the most exhilarating thrills of the year in this unappreciated gem from the Wachowskis. Shame on the Academy for not entering it in the semi-finals. But props to Digital Domain, BUF, CafeFX, Evil Eye, Sony Pictures Imageworks, ILM, Christov Effects and Design and the other contributors. They mashed 2D and 3D into a new "Photo Anime" look with cool spherical bubbles and wrapped it around "Car Fu" fun. It opened our eyes to new possibilities for digital cinema: "There were lots of ideas left on the table from The Matrix," Gaeta explains, "but there were lots of possibilities in deepening the form, which weren't as doable as they are now with the abilities of digital cinema end to end post processing. So we said, let's loosen up and move away from this deep photorealistic and integrationist approach, and try to pursue the nuances of anime a little closer to the bone. And so that began this slow but steady remaking of the rules of this universe. It seemed that to pay homage to the spirit of this animation format, we needed to find the language that the average viewer can understand. Camera movement and editing and in anime when there are rays behind an object for graphic impact, they know what it means. It boosts the energy and emotional underscoring of an event. We deconstructed a number of anime to find the basic language and started to translate that graphically into our conception of what the movie should be."

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The suit makes the Iron Man. Courtesy of ILM. © 2008 MVLFFLLC. ™ & © 2008 Marvel Ent.

3. Iron Man

How to make Robert Downey Jr. put on the Iron Man armor and look like a believable superhero? That was the challenge that director Jon Favreau required of Industrial Light & Magic and they achieved it with their customary brilliance and flair. Thus, a more realistic CG approach was tackled at the outset by VFX Supervisor Ben Snow, who did an early test for Favreau and John Nelson, the overall vfx supervisor. And the demands of Imocap were more complex than on the Pirates of the Caribbean films: To make the visible parts of Downey match with the CG parts of Iron Man required extremely accurate tracking. "On this, where you have a shot where Robert is walking around and it's basically his real head and we're adding the suit all over his lower body, it really had to be spot on or his head would slide around and it would look weird," explains Animation Director Hal Hickel. In animating Iron Man, Hickel says they tried to give the armor a sense of weight and power without making the armor seem clumsy or slow. Meanwhile, The Orphanage was instrumental in developing the look of Iron Man's RT thrusters, as well as the heads-up display seen from Tony Stark's point of view when he's operating the armor.

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The bar was raised on The Dark Knight in which vfx and special effects combined seamlessly into a coherent and consistent look. & © DC Comics. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

4. The Dark Knight

Maintaining the realistic approach to vfx that proved so successful on Batman Begins, the bar was raised on The Dark Knight in which vfx and special effects combined seamlessly into a coherent and consistent look. Nick Davis oversaw a global effort, in which Double Negative once again handled most of the Gotham environments and action (including the marvelous IMAX shots) and Framestore tackled intricate Two-Face CG work for more of a subtractive effect. "Chris Nolan had had a very positive experience with the work that had been achieved on [Batman Begins], and he wanted to maintain the same gritty, super realistic approach to the visual effects," Davis explains. "He wanted a movie to be as 'un-effectsy' as possible. The shots had to feel real. To this purpose, we did a lot of location work, whereas on the first movie, the majority of the scenes had been captured on stage. The fact that we shot on location, notably in Chicago and Hong Kong, allowed us to ground the movie in reality. We shot as many real elements as possible."

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An organic blend of old and new techniques is featured in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. ™ & © 2008 Lucasfilm Ltd.

5. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Trying to emulate the iconic look and feel of the previous three Indiana Jones films required more CG than anticipated on Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. But VFX Supervisor Pablo Helman and ILM were up to the task of delivering the needs of Steven Spielberg and creating an organic blend of old and new techniques. He says the environments were an organic blend of Digi-matte and stagework. An important new digital tool pertained to jungle repopulation by dragging and dropping virtual vegetation onto a 3D scene. The vfx team was also able to take advantage of production designer Janusz Kaminski's full lighting so the overall look would be complete and consistent. In fact, the opening Area 51 warehouse sequence, which took eight months to complete, was shot with smoke and lights and also required CG enhancement. "Steven relies on both previs and postvis," Helman reiterates. When analyzing the destruction of Doom Town, Helman explained that he first did a demo on the Avid to show how it would work with miniatures. "Steven came up with the idea of a triangular composition of sun, explosion and Indy," Helman adds.

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Pixar tweaks its virtual camera in WALLE. © Disney-Pixar.

6. WALLE

Leave it to Pixar to expand the frontiers of animation (including vfx) with this sublime story of a lovable robot searching for humanity in Andrew Stanton's acclaimed second feature. Utilizing the vfx experience and wisdom of producer Jim Morris (formerly with ILM) as well as ILM legend-turned consultant Dennis Muren, Pixar tweaked its virtual camera to successfully emulate the look of classic '60s/'70s (including rack focus, barrel distortion and certain ovals of light), and radically altered their approach to depth of field with more of a shallow focus that would never look good in 3-D. "The effects on WALLE were wide ranging," explains Chris Chapman, an effects sequence lead. "The film was heavy with man-made effects such as explosions, energy effects, propulsion effects, as well as more natural phenomenon such as dust storms, acid rain, sludge and solar flares." He adds that there were two primary vfx challenges: "Since the look of the movie was to be a more filmic style, we had to design the effects to fit within that framework. The second challenge was the sheer number of effects needed on the film. On Earth, for example, it was not uncommon for an average shot to have four or five effects elements just for 'environmental keep alive' where dust might be blowing about or trash moving around in the background. When you layer effects related to characters and story points on top of that, the number of effects adds up rapidly. The main way we went about solving the integration of the effects into a filmic world was by scrutinizing reference footage and essentially extracting its essence and imbuing that into our effects."

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The scope of Prince Caspian is an epic leap, effects wise. © Disney Enterprises Inc. and Walden Media LLC.

7. The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

The vfx bar was raised with this second Narnia installment, with Dean Wright and Wendy Rogers supervising the work primarily done by MPC (CG Reepicheep, full CG Narnians, CG Narnian/actor hybrids), Framestore (CG Trufflehunter, CG Aslan, CG squirrel Pattertwig, Dryad Dream, Tube Station transition, Magic Door, Cair Paravel) and Weta Digital (CG Bear, CG Werewolf, CG Ice and CG White Witch). "The scope of this movie is so much grander," Wright observes. "It really is an epic leap, effects wise. We had a lot more CG characters and much more physical interaction with human characters. We also had a large amount of environment work, which was minimal in the first movie. It was so much work that I was glad Wendy joined us to co-supervise the effects."

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For The Spiderwick Chronicles a number of new tools were developed. Courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

8. The Spiderwick Chronicles

The amount and variety of unusual creatures adapted from the fantasy/adventure books were so immense that the vfx were shared by ILM and Tippett Studio. Legendary animation and vfx pioneer Phil Tippett served as creature supervisor and his studio Tippett did animation and design work on Hogsqueal, the Troll, Redcap, the goblins and bull goblins. Tippett developed a number of new tools to enhance the pipeline, including the creature manager, which provided animators a nice interface to the pipeline, and Riot Control, which allowed them to make use of particle maps and vary the cycles in order to undertake a scene involving 120 goblins. Under the vfx supervision of Tim Alexander and animation supervision of Tim Harrington, ILM handled several key creatures and environments. Thimbletack proved to be the most complicated: "We've done facial animation before, and we had a pretty good system," says Harrington. "But we thought this would be a great opportunity to push the R&D department to come up with some new tools for creating facial animation. For instance, Thimbletack, we knew he was going to have to go through a wide range of expressions, and in some shots he would go from happy to angry to confused all within the span of two or three shots because he's kind of a manic character. So, the R&D department created this next-generation animation system called the Fez. It's basically replacing our old Cari facial animation system."

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The Day the Earth Stood Still updates the original vfx. ™ & © 2008 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.

9. The Day the Earth Stood Still

Despite the final execution of director Scott Derrickson's remake of this sci-fi legend, you have to acknowledge the fine work performed by Weta Digital, Cinesite and the other vendors, with overall supervision by Jeff Okun. Early on, the team decided to update the technical approach of the original movie and take it to the next generation of vfx. That meant no man-in-a-suit for Gort, and no practical model for the spaceship. "We wanted to make sure that the visual effects would not upstage the story and we wanted to honor the spirit of the original film," Okun notes. "So, we took the point of view that we should try and make everything feel as if it were happening right now, as if it were real." This approach led to a specific path of research: What would an alien race do to deliver their message to Earth in a manner that we, the apparent primitives by comparison, would understand and not be afraid of? Possible answers to this question were tossed around in numerous round table discussions. Team members would suggest ideas based on movies, books, articles, documentaries, images and on discussions with scientists from various fields. Nanoparticles were discussed, SETI was interviewed, Microsoft contributed concepts and prototypes. This data was then processed to elaborate a kind of physics that could be applied to the action and intentions of the aliens in the movie.

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The "Bodyflight" highlights Quantum of Solace. © 2008 Danjaq, LLC, United Artists Corp., Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc.

10. Quantum of Solace

There's nothing quite like the tight collaboration between visual effects and special effects on a James Bond film, which Visual Effects Designer Kevin Tod Haug discovered on Quantum of Solace (directed by Marc Forster), the direct follow-up to Casino Royale that further explores the damaged psyche of Daniel Craig's 007. Working with Double Negative, Framestore, Machine FX, MPC and MK12, Haug oversaw 900 vfx shots within the long-standing Bond tradition of depicting realistic-looking action. "The rule was don't do anything that you're not 100% certain won't look good, don't get experimental, don't over reach, just do what needs to be done and do it as well as possible," Haug recalls." It was a sort of rear-guard action from day one to make sure that we didn't end up with 12 weeks to go and some horrible mess to sort out." The most difficult challenge was the aerial encounter with Bond and accomplice Camille in a DC-3 and the baddies trying to shoot them down in a Marchetti (handled by Double Negative). All of the interiors in the DC-3 were shot against bluescreen in a gimble at Pinewood Studios. The background was made up of digitally-generated environments, which were mostly made up from plates shot in Mexico. Back at Double Negative the team used proprietary software Stig and dnDoubleVision to create these environments. However, during the climactic freefall, it was decided that a sophisticated combination of CG and live action would provide a more visually realistic approach to the "Bodyflight" sequence. Craig and Olga Kurylenko performed in a vertical wind tunnel in which the airflow is strong enough to support a person above the floor. The actors appear to be skydiving but did not need to wear a parachute during filming. This method became known as "event capture" and involved shooting the action using 16 in-sync cameras: 8 4K Dalsas, 7 HD Cine Altas and 1 Arri 3 (hand-held in the simulator with the actors). Thus the team was able to reconstruct any digital move they wanted after the shoot using all the cameras. A procedural image-based modeling method was then devised that created a closed mesh representing the surface of the actors at each frame of the event capture. "That was very dangerous," Forster admits. "And that was a real challenge for Kevin to finish up in time. And that hasn't been done before because usually they shoot parachute sequences against greenscreen with a fan."

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of VFXWorld and AWN.

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