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2012 VFX Bakeoff: And Then There Were 10

Here's a rundown of last night's VFX bakeoff presentations at the Academy.

The Motion Picture Academy tried an experiment this year by expanding the bakeoff from seven to 10 entries and then compensating by shortening the presentation from 15 minutes to 10. The result last night at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater had mixed results, judging from some of the responses I got. While the introductions were informative and often lively, some of the demo reels suffered from a lack of cohesion. Frankly, that's what happens when the VFX is spread throughout with lots of characters and action. I also heard complaints that there wasn't sufficient time to explain the VFX in full detail. Then again, it doesn't make sense to have a bakeoff just to narrow the field from seven to five nominees.

Also, there was an embarrassing snafu when the wrong reel was screened for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. This was a bakeoff first: they stopped the presentation at the beginning of the reel when they realized they had the wrong file, and didn't fix the problem until the end of the program when they played the rest of the reel (presumably from the correct file). Since Deathly Hallows Part 2 is one of the strongest Oscar contenders -- a fitting finale for the most successful franchise in film history and a VFX landmark for putting the UK industry on the map-- we'll have to wait and see if there is any serious fallout.

Martin Scorsese tackles 3-D for the first time. Image © 2011 GK Films. All Rights Reserved.

For Hugo, Martin Scorsese's love letter to early French cinema, Rob Legato, the VFX production supervisor, began the evening by joking about the bravura opening sequence into the train station and up to the clock. All the important elements had to be virtually created and when the director asked to see the scene, Dante Ferretti, the production designer, told him, "Maybe Mr. Rob will show you." But, of course, Legato had yet to build this wondrous environment. "So we start and we prevised the entire Paris and it's almost all CG until we reach into the train and then it was basically real people shot with four cameras, so that their action is not endangered as we're driving straight through it. And that's the first bit. And then we blend into a live-action set and then immediately tilt up to Hugo and it just becomes a full CG clock and right into his eyeball to start the next scene, which, of course, is something basically from Goodfellas…"

ILM closely collaborated on the Chicago shoot, the location of the epic final battle. Image Courtesy of ILM. © 2011 - Paramount Pictures.

With Transformers: Dark of the Moon, ILM raised the bar for robot animated performance and relentless destruction. Scott Farrar, the VFX production supervisor, said it produced "the biggest effects extravaganza he's ever been involved with. This was all about the light. I said to Michael Bay early on that let's make it darker, moodier, film noir style. And we did that, when appropriate. We tried super slow motion to emphasize the transformation, so you could see all the articulated movement more closely in 3-D. Our metal robots are composed of thousands of pieces and this is exciting to see in 3-D, especially in close-up of a robot's face. In 3-D, you can discern the depth, the nooks and crannies of the face or the body. On the face of it, there is continuous action, explosion and demolition. That's certainly an important part of this work. It's very important to me to create emotion and have them act. They must deliver important dialog and exposition. It's not Shakespeare, but they could do Shakespeare."

Andy Serkis' performance capture performance formed the DNA for Weta's character work. Image © 2011 - 20th Century Fox.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the frontrunner as a result of Weta's acclaimed CG Caesar, was succinctly and informatively detailed by Joe Letteri, the four-time Oscar winner and VFX production supervisor. "One thing we wanted to do different was to try to make sure that the performance that he was giving us on the day was the one that we stayed on. So what we did was rewired our motion capture system: we switched from using reflective LEDs on suits to active LEDs. They were infrared so the film camera didn't see them and then we embedded our motion cameras on every set where the apes were called for on a given day. So it became part of the normal rigging process. For the facial capture, we used a system very similar to the one we developed for Avatar and Tintin, which was a single camera mounted to a head rid in front of the face. But I just want to point out that you can't really quantify performancebelieve me, we're tryingbut it really takes an animation team… because you really don't know you have it until you do. There's really no substitute for that experience and that combination. We also built a hugely detailed model for the eyes; came up with a new fur system, so rather than growing fur procedurally, we decided to build a system where the artist can groom every fur directly; we did develop new muscle systems and new muscle systems for the face because there are lots of dynamic simulations; we go on top of the animations. And also the animation itself had to be re-jiggered."

This is the "ultimate trip" of the millennium. Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

The Tree of Life was definitely the odd man out, in which Eternity is created in a standalone sequence for Terrence Malick's meditation on nature and grace. Dan Glass, the VFX production supervisor, joked about the four-year process that's antithetical to the craft. He even questioned his sanity. "The fact that the subject itself concerns eternity was a cruel in-joke." Howls of laughter ensued. He described "the skunkworks" lab set up in Austin, where Doug Trumbull came in to consult on the photographing of practical elements for the Astrophysical realm. "This project was less about creating a volume of work and more about sustaining a variety. The work is subtle and relatively uneventful. It's great strength is its attention to detail for the camera movement composition, animation and compositing."

The mermaids were enhanced by a new ILM facial system that decomposes expressions into individual shapes and a new application of Imocap. Image © Disney Enterprises Inc.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is a stripped down version of its former self, though shot natively in stereo, which Charles Gibson, the VFX production supervisor explained. Yet the most noteworthy work was ILM's mermaid attack (under the supervision of Ben Snow): "We see mermaids in several forms," Gibson suggested. "They started out as kind of hybrid top/bottom, classic, Splash version. And then we seem some amazing tracking work by ILM where they managed to in stereo 3-D explicitly sort of fuse a digital tail onto a human. But once the battle starts, they're completely CG, and there's a design change in the middle of the film where they went for a more realistic look when the mermaids are in their creature attack form. And ILM stepped up to the challenge and was able to create photorealistic tops for the CG mermaids."

The Burj sequence makes Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt look like Spider-Man. Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol. Image © 2011 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Mission: ImpossibleGhost Protocol, the most surprising entry, was given a thorough rundown by ILM's esteemed John Knoll, the VFX production supervisor who was thrilled to work with Brad Bird on his maiden live-action film. He described the Red Square bombing, Tom Cruise climbing the Burj, the sandstorm chase, wrecking the new BMW Vision hybrid prototype, the climax inside the robotic parking garage and the missile flight. He also mentioned the extra visual kick supplied by IMAX. "When Tom's climbing the Burj, about half of that is really Tom climbing the Burj at full height, and most of the work there is painting out the safety cabling and the reflections of the cable and the reflections of the reflections and the camera and whatever crew members were in there. And that was one of our IMAX sequences, so the removals were challenging."

Shaw is quite the energy absorber and V-ray and rendering out of the box proved instrumental. Courtesy of Fox.

Veteran John Dykstra discussed his first global experience as production VFX supervisor on X-Men: First Class: introducing new and old characters and lots of environments and destruction. "Each of our 12 characters, old and new, needed unique signature powersand each power had to be visually engaging based on the comic books and film genealogy. All of our animation was performance based. For example, Emma Frost (January Jones) had to perform as a human diamond. [Everything] was critical to the look of the diamond and the sharp edges were really important to giving it that extra sense of tempra. Kevin Bacon is another great example of the genesis of our characters. Shaw in the comic books simply swells up when he imbibes energy; we thought it would be much more interesting to see energy moving through him in a physical way. Shaw's body ripples at the point of impact, ripples become waves as the energy transfer continues. Eventually the magnitude increases until Shaw sprouts multiple hands and heads. These appendages are linked together with webbing, creating truly disturbing images, which seems totally appropriate for our master villain."

An all CG Hogwarts is one of the many vfx highlights of the Harry Potter finale. Image © 2011 Warner Bros. Ent. Harry Potter Publishing Rights © J.K.R. Harry Potter characters, names and related indicia are trademarks of and © Warner Bros. Ent. All Rights Reserved.

Despite the mix-up with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, Tim Burke, the VFX production supervisor, did a terrific job encapsulating the noteworthy achievement on the Potter finale: the first-time CG Hogwarts (principally done by Double Negative but with MPC handling some of the environments and half the school grounds). "Requiring more than two years' worth of modeling and texturing by a team of over 30 artists, the school itself was made from more than seven individual buildings modeled with three levels of detail all of which combined to build an asset with more than 7 million polygons… At its widest point, the [virtual] Hogwarts set recreated more than 10 miles of Scottish terrain." This provided flexibility and quicker iterations for turnaround. They could fly around courtyards and into windows during critical moments of the battle, for a more visceral and immersive experience.

Image courtesy of Digital Domain.

Real Steel, the futuristic boxing film, offered a new virtual production paradigm, taking the Simulcam developed for <Avatar> to the next level by placing it in a real world setting. VFX production supervisor Erik Nash explained the new procedure principally carried out by Digital Domain and Giant Studios. There were a dozen unique and fully articulated CG robots (with three hero animatronic robots supplied by Legacy). He described the significant breakthrough: "DD and Giant Studios developed a virtual production pipeline tailored specifically for this movie. This enabled us to create the boxing sequences from MoCap through onset takes to shot turnovers in a remarkably efficient manner. This virtual production system was instrumental in enabling the production to shoot the movie in 71 days with no second unit." Shooting with the Simulcam on set with MoCap actors resulted in a more visceral viewing experience when replaced with the animation.

Chris Evans was transformed into the scrawny Steve Rogers. Image © 2011 - Paramount Pictures.

Finally, VFX production supervisor Christopher Townsend nicely laid out the most important work on Captain America: First Avenger: the creation of "Skinny Steve" by Lola. "But the biggest and most unique challenge was creating Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) before he becomes Captain America," Townsend suggested. "After experimenting with different approaches, they settled on the most straightforward: a 2D manipulation of the image. "Lola literally mesh-warped Chris' whole physique frame by frame… thinning out and intricately re-sculpting his muscles and changing the contour of his torso. Extensive lighting of areas had to be done to remove the shadows caused by his stomach. [Changing] Chris' face was probably the hardest part. Thinning out his facial features and his neck, narrowing the square of his jaw just enough to make his new head fit on his body without losing the characteristics that make Chris recognizable."

We'll find out on Tuesday what the five nominees will be.

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Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and editor of VFXWorld. He has a new blog, Immersed in Movies (www.billdesowitz.com), and is currently writing a book about the evolution of James Bond from Connery to Craig, scheduled for publication this year, which is the 50th anniversary of the franchise.

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