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2011 Summer VFX Preview

Ten exciting films to watch this summer.

Thor

It looks like a memorable summer of VFX with plenty of comic book superheroes, aliens, sequels, genre mixing, the return of the apes, the meaning of life and the explosive finale for our favorite young wizard.

10. Thor (Paramount, May 6, 3-D)

Here's a unique Marvel superhero: A fallen Norse god who must learn humility while saving Earth. Director Kenneth Branagh (Henry V) adds gravitas and wit to this comic book story of a dysfunctional family that's positively Shakespearean in scale and tone. Chris Hemsworth stars along with Oscar-winners Anthony Hopkins and Natalie Portman. The 1,300 vfx shots include a 10-foot flame-throwing metal juggernaut, a gigantic ice beast that comes out of hibernation and a race of frost ghosts. Wesley Sewell is the overall vfx supervisor and Digital Domain (supervised by Kelly Port) leads the pack of vendors that also includes Legacy Effects, Luma Pictures, BUF, Whiskeytree, Fuel VFX, The Base Studio and Narrate, among others.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

9. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (Buena Vista, May 20, 3-D)

Here's another franchise that needs to rediscover its light touch and rollicking sense of fun. Rob Marshall (Chicago) takes over for Gore Verbinski in helming the fourth sequel to Disney's popular Pirates franchise -- and the first in 3-D, courtesy of Cinesite. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) and Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) go after the fountain of youth only to discover that Blackbeard (Ian McShane) and an old flame (Penelope Cruz) are after it too. Can't wait to see how ILM raises its game with more human-looking creatures (this time spearheaded by Ben Snow). There's additional support from MPC, Hydraulx, CIS Hollywood and Rising Sun Pictures, among others.

Captain America: The First Avenger

8. Captain America: The First Avenger (Paramount, July 22)

A pivotal piece for next year's launch of Marvel's The Avengers has Chris Evans as Steve Rogers, who turns into Captain America, the country's defender, after volunteering for a secret research project that goes awry. Joe Johnston directs, and let's hope there's some of homespun charm of October Sky and The Rocketeer. Samuel Jackson reprises his role as Nick Fury and Hugo Weaving co-stars as The Red Skull. Christopher Townsend is the overall vfx supervisor with Double Negative as lead vendor and additional help from Matte World Digital, Fuel VFX, The Senate, Framestore, Lola VFX, Cinesite and others.

Cowboys & Aliens

7. Cowboys & Aliens (DreamWorks/Universal, July 29)

Jon Favreau segues from Iron Man to a supernatural western with James Bond (Daniel Craig) and Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford). Craig lands in Absolution, Arizona, in 1873 with a loss of memory and a mysterious shackle around one wrist, who teams up with hard-nosed Ford in combating marauders from the sky bent on taking over the planet. Olivia Wilde and Sam Rockwell co-star. ILM (under the supervision of Roger Guyett) does the bulk of the heavy lifting in a very busy summer for them, with additional work by Legacy Effects and others.

Super 8

6. Super 8 (Paramount/DreamWorks, June 10)

If there's a summer sleeper, this nostalgic, coming-of-age, sci-fi creature feature from J.J. Abrams could be the one. It's an ode to Spielberg produced by Spielberg (with a touch of De Palma's Blow Out for good measure) about a mysterious military train wreck in Ohio in the summer of '79, and an alien's escape caught on super 8 by a group of friends and amateur filmmakers. ILM (under Kim Libreri's supervision) provides the top secret vfx.

Green Lantern

5. Green Lantern (Warner Bros., June 17, 3-D)It's hard to rank the superhero movies, but this one arguably holds the most promise despite the off-beat casting of Ryan Reynolds as the DC guy imbued with otherworldly powers, thanks to a mystical ring, and entrusted with policing the universe with an intergalactic squadron. Martin Campbell (Casino Royale) directs; Karen Goulekas and Kent Houston are the overall supervisors, with Sony Pictures Imageworks leading the heavy-duty vfx charge (spearheaded by Jim Berney) and support from Rising Sun Pictures, Gnomon Studios and others.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

4. Transformers: Dark of the Moon (Paramount/DreamWorks, July 1)

Michael Bay and Shia LaBeouf both swear this one's better than the second, so, with inspiration from Pink Floyd and Victoria's Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley replacing Megan Fox as the love interest, we can only hope they've learned their lesson. The Autobots learn of a Cybertronian spacecraft hidden on the moon and try to beat the Decepticons in learning its secrets and gaining advantage in their final battle. At least we know the vfx will be great, and ILM is back (under Scott Farrar's leadership) with new hardware tweaks. Digital Domain also returns for support, among others.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

3. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Fox, Aug. 5)

Photoreal apes! That's what Weta Digital has created (under the supervision of Dan Lemmon) for this present-day origin story in San Francisco about genetic experimentation that leads to an all-out war for supremacy of the planet. Judging from the trailer, the chimpanzee Caesar is a CG wonder and Andy Serkis' best performance capture feat to date (talk about an evolution). Rupert Wyatt directs and James Franco stars as the compassionate scientist who inadvertently causes an all-out war for supremacy of the planet.

The Tree of Life

2. The Tree of Life (Fox Searchlight, May 27)

Every Terrence Malick film is an event, of course, and this one is reportedly a semi-autobiographical summary statement about the mystical relationship between humanity and nature that has been brewing for 35 years. It's about the loss of innocence for a young boy growing up in Texas in the '50s, which becomes an existential journey into the labyrinth of life in adulthood (played by Sean Penn), and, finally, the discovery of the miraculous. Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain co-star. Great summer counter-programming and the kind of nourishment we used to get more steadily decades ago. The scientific-based vfx is overseen by Dan Glass with assistance by the legendary Doug Trumbull, and vendors include Double Negative, Prime Focus, One of Us, Method Studios and others.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II

1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II (Warner Bros., July 15, 3-D)

It's hard to believe that Harry Potter's coming to an end with the all-out battle at Hogwarts to find and destroy Voldemort's final horcruxes. The rite of passage will be complete for our young wizard and also for London's Soho-based VFX studios (Double Negative, Framestore, MPC and Cinesite) that have come of age along with the phenomenal franchise. It's definitely the must-see film of the summer, and we anticipate that the VFX finally gets its due come awards time. Tim Burke, the overall visual effects supervisor, gave us a preview at the end of last year when he divulged that Hogwarts will be completely CG for the first time: "Of course, we've been developing R&D for Part II since back in 2009, when we started the digital build of Hogwarts [at Double Negative]," offers Burke. "Because, in order to achieve everything we needed for the massive fight sequences and the level of destruction, and to have flexibility later on, we decided, for the first time in the series, to do away with the miniature and turn to a full-CG environment of Hogwarts. So that's been ongoing for more than two years now and has been an absolute godsend. There have been so many changes in design and in shots and sequences and how the shots are being used. But because we have a CG model, we've just been able to go in and re-previs, re-block out. And, with the level of detail of our [CG] model, we can pretty much fly into any part of the school. So we've got complete freedom."

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.

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