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2013 VFX Bakeoff: Grounding the Fantastical

Here's a rundown of the 10 films from last night's VFX Bakeoff presentations at the Motion Picture Academy.

For the second consecutive year, the Academy went with 10 semi-finalists at the annual VFX bakeoff, with voting members of the branch narrowing the field to five nominees, which will be announced next Thursday morning. Nine out of the 10 demo reels were projected digitally (with The Dark Knight Rises the lone film holdout) and four were shown in 3-D. However, higher frame rate made its first appearance with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey [Returning to Middle-Earth with The Hobbit], which was screened at 48 fps without a hitch. The presentations were once again limited to five minutes and were informative and succinct, while the 10-minute reels were effective, for the most part, though not always smooth during transitions.

Considering the emphasis on the fantastical, there was still an attempt to ground everything in a reality that was relatable as well as exciting. Naturalism, therefore, is still very much the trend, though Ang Lee's Life of Pi [Life of Pi: Grabbing the CG Tiger by the Tail] (one of the front-runners) stood out for its otherworldly beauty.

Life of Pi. Image ™ and © 2012 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.

Indeed, Bill Westenhofer of Rhythm & Hues kicked off the evening with a thorough presentation of Life of Pi, describing the unique virtual production and stereoscopic challenges and throwing in a little humor: "From a visual effects standpoint [700 out of 960 total shots were VFX], we had to figure out how we were going to realize this ocean and this ferocious co-star…. Often it was the job of the sky and the ocean to resonate with Pi's emotional state and reflect what he's thinking at the time. And if that weren't hard enough, Ang wanted to shoot this movie in stereo. It wasn't bad enough to have animals, water and children -- he had to have stereo in the mix. I guess he's a glutton for punishment."

As for Richard Parker, the Bengal tiger that's the CG star of the movie, "the digital model took about a year to create; it features around 10 million hairs and some frames could take over 30 hours to render. The rig itself was one of the most complicated we've ever built: just the number of controls in the paws outshined some of the facial rigs that we've done in the past. It had a dual path skin system because tigers are really a mass of muscle with a lose draper of skin. Dealing with wet fur was hard as well."

The Avengers. Image courtesy of Weta Digital.

Janek Sirrs discussed The Avengers [Getting Animated Over The Avengers | Victoria Alonso Talks VFX Production, Marvel and The Avengers] and what producers fear the most: a superhero ensemble movie. "Not only did director Joss Whedon insist on having the superheroes fight one another, but they also had to appear together in a 40-second digital long shot, just to make difficult. But to achieve all this, we also had to generate highly detailed digital doubles for all the major characters…. We also built two versions of the Iron Man suit to show an evolution in Stark technology and to also satisfy the marketing department as well, I think."

Of course, the Hulk was the greatest character challenge and actor Mark Ruffalo was an inspired choice. One of the great design decisions was to incorporate Ruffalo into the look of him, and the actor was gracious enough to go through every manner of torture they could come up with. "Performance wise, Joss worked closely with the animators to make sure that the Hulk always conveyed the proper level of rage."Along with new procedural shading and facial capture advances, ILM came up with a new set of retargeting tools for the Hulk.

[Watch AWN's interviews with Marvel Exec V.P. Victoria Alonso, ILM and Weta vfx supervisors (respectivley) on The Avengers Jeff White and Guy Williams on AWNtv]

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

Four-time Oscar winner Joe Letteri of Weta arguably gave the most in-depth and polished presentation for The Hobbit. Among other things, including a more dynamic way of digitally shooting forced perspective for 3-D, he described the new advances for Gollum: "For me, one of the favorites to work with again was Gollum. We tried to keep him so he looked like the same character but really we just rebuilt him from the inside out: a whole new set of tools that we developed to do tissue and muscle simulation for the body, for the dynamics. We were able to capture Andy's entire performance real time on set this time, so it was the first set-up we did and drove a lot of nice character moments. In fact, probably our biggest contribution to the film was our characters that we were able to bring to the world. Peter [Jackson] really had this idea to creating new characters in new designs, things that 10 years ago we were doing characters in masks. For example, now the three trolls have new designs and full dialogue in a whole scene they've got to carry by themselves. We always use the same techniques: a mixture of performance capture and keyframe animation to bring them to the screen."

Skyfall. Image © 2012 Danjaq, LLC, United Artists Corporation and Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All rights reserved.

Skyfall [Bond Gets a CG Komodo Dragon for Skyfall], the first billion dollar James Bond movie, marked the 50th anniversary of the longest-running franchise, and Steve Begg described how they kept it old school with a lot of in-camera work while at the same time embracing CG characters for the first time (a scorpion and Komodo Dragon). He also explained how instead of using a scale train model for the elaborate underground Tube station crash, they made a real one comprised of two 60-foot carriages.

"It's the first we shot in a digital format on the Arri Alexa and I think it gave Bond a very unique look, courtesy of Roger Deakins' gorgeous cinematography. Nonetheless we used every trick in the book and I didn't feel we were tied to one approach. There were about 1,350 visual effects shots and extensive work was done by Double Negative for the Turkish pre-title action sequence, which involved multiple head replacements, rig removal for both the car and motorbike sequences, and the same for the Digger on the train, where the special effects guys had fun trying to stop that 20-ton monster from falling off the train…" For the emotional destruction of the Aston Martin DB5, they made a 1/3 scale model from a 3D printer but actually destroyed an old Porsche.

The Dark Knight Rises. Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

Paul Franklin regaled the voters with the making of the final installment of Chris Nolan's trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, which also took advantage of the best old school and new school techniques while also relying more heavily on shooting in IMAX. This was "the most realistic and most believable Batman movie ever." Every frame had to look like they shot it in the real world… and a great reliance would be placed on large-scale practical work, but playing with seamless digital effects would always take their lead in Wally Pfister's cinematography. The key to the success of this approach was to bring VFX closer to the production. It was important that [Nolan] should be speaking directly to the people who are actually working on the shots and that VFX development should start as soon as possible. This was especially true of the prologue: a mid-air heist that introduces bad guy Bane. Its early release, a full seven months ahead of the film, meant that all the departments had to hit the ground running, well ahead of the official start of production. VFX put together a detailed animatic to which all HODs had input, ensuring that we were able to push the envelope on the action whilst keeping as much as possible of it within the realm of what could be shot for real."

[Watch AWN's exclusive interview with Paul Franklin on AWNtv.]

Snow White and the Huntsman. Image © 2012 Universal Studios.

Snow White and the Huntsman [Snow White Gets Grimm] offered an opportunity to re-imagine the Grimm fairy tale with several design twists for the dark forest (with lots of Maya and Houdini simulation) and characters (2D warping was used for the dwarves with different proportions instead of relying on forced perspective and other conventional shrinking techniques). Cedric Nicolas-Troyan and Philip Brennan offered the highlights in tandem: "We wanted to give the film a distinctly modernistic [look]," Troyan said. "We wanted it to have something very familiar but also extraordinary because you haven't really seen it that way before. The Mirror Man was a great example of it [full of liquid, cloth and particle simulation]."

The Amazing Spider-Man. Image © 2012 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Spidey was rebooted with The Amazing Spider-Man [Rebooting a More Organic Spider-Man | Spider-Man’s Lizard Part 1: The Animation | Spider-Man’s Lizard Part 2: The Digital Effects] at Sony Pictures Imageworks and Jerome Chen explained how they went for a more naturalistic reinvention. The film was designed to be a native 3-D experience captured on Red Epic cameras and Imageworks concentrated on Spidey, the Lizard (grafting elements of actor Rhys Ifans onto the character) and the New York environment. "In execution, our hero is created with a blending of physical and digital techniques. Andy Armstrong and John Frazier worked to create complex wire and trestles to fly costumed Andrew Garfield or the stunt double not only on stage but also on location. In some cases, we transitioned to a digital Spider-Man when he becomes more superhuman. Randy Cook's animation team at Imageworks studied the live-action footage of Andrew and the stuntmen… and no motion capture was used for the character -- Spider-Man's performance is a hand-crafted achievement."

Cloud Atlas. Image © 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. in The United States of America and Canada and © 2012 Cloud Atlas Production GMBH and X Filme Creative Pool GMBH. Image courtesy of Method Studios.

Dan Glass described the ambitious Cloud Atlas [Getting Cosmic with Cloud Atlas] from the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer as an indie passion project (shot with two production teams) that even novelist David Mitchell thought was unfilmable. However, the complex web of six different time periods with actors portraying multiple characters in full makeup offered a creatively fulfilling experience. "The movie's an intricately edited piece that jumps from narrative to narrative, tone to tone, thriller to farce, love story to science fiction." His comment, "If you didn't see the movie or trailer, watching this reel certainly won't help you get a sense of this movie," drew the biggest laugh of the evening.

"The main thing is the overall variety: everything from environments to effects from invisible comp work to character augmentation from hard surface vehicles and cities to digital actors. The work was always trying to play service to the story but naturally the science fiction material takes more center stage [dominated by Neo Seoul]. All the exteriors are CG: a lot of heavy design in architecture, advertising, vehicles, transit systems; interiors were frequently affected by animated walls and advertising, computer screens and systems and interfaces were thought through and presented as Orisons."

[Watch AWN's exclusive interview with Dan Glass on AWNtv.]

John Carter. Image ©2011 Disney. JOHN CARTER™ ERB, Inc.

Andrew Stanton's much maligned John Carter [John Carter: The Original Space Adventure | Andrew Stanton Talks John Carter] certainly shined with its naturalistic VFX. Peter Chiang said it took 2,000 shots to realize the CG characters (the Martian characters, the eight-legged rhino beasts, a huge 10-legged dog-like creature, and the White Apes), the vast Martian world, and the sun-powered aircraft and airships. "The Thark characters were the largest component of the visual effects in the film… and Andrew wanted to capture a gritty realism and insisted that his actors play their parts on the set amongst the human characters. To support this, Chris Corbould and his team built stilts, backpacks with large heads to enable the actors to move around the set at the correct height and deliver unencumbered performances." They used a FACS-based facial capture system and Maya for the animation.

Prometheus. Image courtesy Twentieth Century Fox.

And last but not least was Prometheus [An Exploration of Prometheus Previs | Prometheus: Bringing Alien into the 21st Century], Ridley Scott's own 3-D reboot of Alien. Richard Stammers explained the creature and space craft work along with the planet environments. "The two main spaceships, the Prometheus and the alien juggernaut, represented our most detailed digital assets. Each were modeled and textured in an extremely high level of detail. In fact, we spent around 450 days alone on texture work for those ships just to get the scale right. Animation, too, was key, and a fine balance between weight and agility. And both ships required some pretty hefty fluid simulations to create the interactive dust for when they land and take off and also when they collide. When the Prometheus crumbles was a very difficult shot to achieve requiring bespoke modeling and destruction tools to get the animation just right. This was layered with CG fire simulations and many practical elements, too. Almost every exterior shot from the planet had a powerful CG background. Ridley wanted an alien that was beautiful yet monumentally bleak."

And there you have it: What will the five nominees be? I think Life of Pi, The Avengers, The Hobbit, and The Dark Knight will be there, with Prometheus, The Amazing Spider-Man, and Skyfall battling for the last spot.


Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld, the owner of Immersed in Movies (, a columnist for Thompson on Hollywood at Indiewire and author of James Bond Unmasked (, which chronicles the 50-year evolution of 007 on screen, featuring interviews with all six actors.