Ellen Wolff reports back from the Academys vfx Bake-Off with highlights from the presentations.
A long line of visual effects aficionados wound around the block outside the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills on the night of Jan. 21. The annual visual effects branchs Bake-Off that determines the three Oscar nominees never fails to attract attention, and by the time branch chairman Richard Edlund took the stage the theater was packed.
Edlund began by referencing the huge box office returns achieved by visual effects films in 2003, and observed that often the effects are the most exciting parts of movies. He announced that the running order of the seven films under consideration, determined by lot, would be: Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (Buena Vista), Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (Twentieth Century Fox), The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (New Line), Peter Pan (Universal and Columbia Pictures), Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (Warner Bros.), X2: X-Men United (Twentieth Century Fox) and Hulk (Universal Pictures).
A digital debate raged in the battle between these two beasts. Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King © New Line Prods. Inc. Hulk © 2003 Universal Studios. All rights reserved. Credit: ILM.
In explaining the process by which the executive committee of the visual effects branch chose the seven films in competition, Edlund noted that 40 members of the branch cast secret ballots. While he remarked that the committee had culled these from 254 eligible films released last year, Edlund further explained to VFXWorld that the total list of eligible films was reduced quite rapidly. We understand that there are a few matte shots in lots of movies. But on the committees first pass, we put in movies that we thought had respectable visual effects in them. A movie needed to be nominated by someone and seconded by someone else. We followed Roberts Rules of Order.
Once we got down to about 40 films, we went through the nominating and seconding process again to arrive at a short list of 19. We dissected those films and then everybody chose up to 10 titles in the order they thought were most deserving. Its a secret ballot watched over by Price Waterhouse. Edlund added that the 40-person committee is about 10 people larger than most of the Academys executive committees, due to the complexity of the subject and the variety of disciplines involved. He asserted that theres a notable lack of partisanship on the committee, which includes people from various effects houses and different aspects of the craft. These people are the crème de la crème. Everyone hangs their swords outside the door.
Of course, partisanship was very much alive at the Bake-Off, as various individuals applauded their favorite films. To the voting members in the audience, Edlund explained that three choices should be listed on the ballots in order of preference, and he cautioned that listing the same film three times would not enhance its chances of becoming a nominee.
Unlike previous Bake-Offs that have frequently run late because Q&A sessions were often open-ended, this year presenters were only allowed three minutes after their reels to make further comments or take questions from the audience. A red light bulb next to the podium would glow to indicate when time had expired. In a deadpan reference to a past event in which Jim Cameron had unscrewed the light, Edlund promised, THIS bulb is epoxy-ed in.
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
Industrial Light & Magics visual effects supervisor John Knoll kicked off the presentation. He observed that Pirates, first envisioned as needing just 160 effects shots, seemed by todays standards to be a working vacation. But 675 shots were ultimately required to depict the vintage ships and skeletal pirates that figured prominently in the film.
The storys conceit is that when the cursed pirates are illuminated by the moon theyre revealed to be skeletons, and Knoll said to skeletonize the characters and extend the actors performances in a seamless way was the most complex challenge. Animation supervisor Hal Hickel, called the task of replacing actors with sword-fighting skeletons, Terrifying. Continuity was key. They couldnt use any flashy effects to cover the transitions from a photographed actor to a CG skeletal version every time the actor stepped into the moonlight.
Following the clip, Knoll and Hickel were joined onstage by effects coordinator Terry Frazee, who handled all the physical effects, and visual effects consultant Charles Gibson, (a previous Oscar winner for Babe.) Gibson stated that director Gore Verbinski wanted uninterrupted performances, and also wanted to be able to shoot with hand-held cameras, unconstrained by the demands of motion-control filming. There were no concessions for visual effects.
In fact, Knoll explained, only some of the miniature ships were shot with motion control. He remarked that that full-scale water effects were a challenge when compositing miniature ships, which were used for all the wide shots.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
Announcing the presenters from director Peter Weirs seafaring adventure, Richard Edlund quipped, Were getting our shipboard movies out of the way. There were more than a few similarities, including the creation of vintage sailing ships and all that water. Of course, Weirs film was different in that it was the only invisible effects offering of the evening.
Asylum visual effects supervisor Nathan McGuinness set up the reel by stressing that this assignment required 700 effects shots on a film that wasnt a visual effects film. He explained that 90% was shot in a tank on a full-scale ship replica. The challenge was to make it feel realistic, and to make the extensive ocean shots appear organic. By compositing pieces of live-action water footage together, McGuinness says they assembled what was essentially a giant jigsaw puzzle.
While ILM visual effects supervisor Stefan Fangmeier didnt get to comment before the reel was shown (the red light glowed before McGuinness finished speaking) he followed up with very specific details. Fangmeier noted that the reel included 300 cuts 200 of which were visual effects. Weir was very wary of doing anything synthetic that would stand out, recalled Fangmeier, whod been an Oscar nominee for The Perfect Storm. As a result, he admitted, We had to sneak in CG water and CG debris.
Since the major action was shot in a tank, special effects coordinator Dan Sudnick discussed the huge gimbal they used down at the Baja facility Fox had built for Titanic. For the long shots of ships at sea, Weta Workshops Richard Taylor created miniatures, leading Fangmeier to note, We had two ships chasing each other that never existed in reality.
Tasked with making Baja look like the Galapagos among other illusions visual effects designer Robert Stromberg explained that 22 full matte paintings were required for Master and Commander. The team ended its remarks with kudos to the roto artists. As Fangmeier observed, Only 50 of these shots were bluescreen, so everything else was rotoscoped.
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Here are some fun facts was how Weta Digital visual effects supervisor Jim Rygiel began his introductory remarks. We finaled 1,700 shots and 1,400 were in the film more shots than in the first two Lord of the Rings movies combined. He noted that visual effects dp Alex Funke had shot mountains of miniatures and that animation supervisor Randall William Cook had overseen thousands of pieces of animation. This resulted, Rygiel acknowledged, in an enormous task for visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri, and the Weta crew that put all those elements together.
Rygiel, a two-time Oscar winner for the previous LOTR films, highlighted the animated creatures that appeared for the first time in the third film, including the giant spider and a phalanx of elephantine beasts. He explained that it took 300 animatics before they arrived at something that pleased director Peter Jackson. The battle scenes featuring these creatures running amongst real and digital horses, admitted Rygiel, was an amazing three-ring circus.
Special mention was also made of the digital character Gollum, which Rygiel quipped had a face-lift for this film. He had lots of close-ups, and you can see crows feet around his eyes. Because Gollums body gets grimier as the film progresses, Rygiel added, We had to keep modifying him.
If it seemed like more than a five-minute introduction, it probably was. The red light that was supposed to glow had malfunctioned, prompting Edlund to interject, Youd think with all our high-tech skills we could get the light to work!
Following a chock-a-block effects reel, the Rings team was asked by an audience member If any of you ever said, No, to Peter Jackson? Rygiel gave an emphatic No! We worked seven days a week, sometimes 18 hours a day. We had 100 days of pick-ups, and Peter was still shooting in October. In the last eight weeks, we did 800 shots.
I feel like Im in a magician convention, said ILM visual effects supervisor Scott Farrar as he stepped to the podium to introduce director PJ Hogans take on the classic Peter Pan. This was an aesthetically-driven picture, asserted Farrar, who noted that the assignment contrasted markedly from the realistic effects usually done at ILM. He said this had challenged him to spend more time on the art of visual effects the color and lighting than ever before.
Of course, there were also the practical challenges of working with 11 flying children and a dog. For many shots, recalled Farrar, they had to replace all or parts of the flying children with CG. The technical term is switcheroo, he cracked. Added to that was a digital crocodile and Tinker Bell, who required 14 layers of rendered elements. Farrar recalled that it was daunting to find a depth of field that was appropriate to macro photography. We almost ran out of particles.
Joining Farrar onstage was special effects supervisor Clay Pinney, (an Oscar winner for Independence Day.) Despite the fact that the film was shot entirely on sound stages, Pinney noted that the director wanted an organic look. Pinney employed teeter-totter rigs for many flying shots, and used a high-tech gimbal to create a rocking ships cabin for Captain Hook.
Farrar noted that in addition to ILMs 1,000 effects shots, Peter Pan reflected the contributions of several companies, including Digital Domain, Sony Imageworks and R!OT. After screening the reel, Farrar and Pinney were joined by visual effects supervisor Mark Forker, who described the CG set extensions done by Digital Domain. They were like Legos that snapped together. PJ could basically art direct each shot individually and he did! It turned out we needed all of the overbuild that we did.
The red light flickered on before ILM animation director Jenn Emberly got to speak. But she sparked the audiences laughter when, in a Tinker Bell-like move, she pulled Farrar away from the podium and back to his seat.
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines
The first thing that ILM visual effects supervisor Pablo Herman did when he took the stage was remind everyone that its been 12 years since the last Terminator movie. He observed that the challenge of re-visiting the franchise required that they develop new approaches, especially with digital doubles and animatronics.
While ILM worked with computer experts from Stanford to help with the CG metal transformations, new developments were also happening on the practical effects side. Special effects coordinator Allen Hall, (an Oscar winner for Forrest Gump) explained that a new electro-hydraulic system for cars made it possible to create the demolition vehicle chase thats one of the films centerpieces. To get what director Jonathan Mostow wanted required a marriage between digital and practical effects, said Hall, with breakaway poles and buildings. Of course, to our crane, everything was breakaway.
The T3 reel opened with ILMs ingenious mushroom cloud animations, and barreled along with a non-stop mix of physical and digital sleight-of-hand. Herman noted that along with the year-and-a-half ILM spent on this project, the film also contained contributions from a variety of effects houses, including Digiscope, Sandbox, CIS, Digic Pictures and R!OT.
But ILMs chief collaborator on T3, as it was on T2, was Stan Winston Studios. Winston effects supervisor John Rosengrant was clearly happy with the animatronic breakthroughs they achieved for the latest film. We got to build real robots that could fly, and rise up to 10 feet high!
The collaboration with the Winston crew, added ILM animation director Dan Taylor, made it possible to maintain the performance between animation and puppeteering. While Taylor was responsible for animated effects that surpassed what ILM had ever done, he stressed that a blend is always the best solution. Its never one or the other.
When visual effects supervisor Michael Fink reached the podium to introduce X2, he acknowledged that it presented a different kind of challenge from the X-Men effects hed supervised. While he was again working with director Bryan Singer, it wasnt possible to regroup his original team. And there was always the unspoken requirement that the sequels effects should top those done before.
X-Men had utilized a plethora of effects houses and so did X2, including Rhythm & Hues, Asylum, CIS, Cinesite, Hammerhead, Grant McCune, Kleiser-Walczak,, Pixel Magic and Pacific Title. Fink recalled that the original breakdown of the script suggested between 800 and 1,000 shots, and despite some initial reservations, the film ended up requiring 850 effects shots and 150 digital fixes. Adding to the pressure, observed Fink, was that they were still shooting two-and-a-half weeks before delivery.
Having previously garnered an Oscar nomination for Batman Returns, Fink was experienced with fanciful effects in a stylized film such as X2. In setting up the reel, he highlighted the volumetric CG that enabled the Nightcrawler character to appear and disappear in a swirl of black smoke. He also pointed out the films extensive mix of real and digital pyro.
After the clip, Fink was joined onstage by visual effects supervisor Richard Hollander of Rhythm & Hues. Among R&Hs contribution to X2 was an airplane combat sequence that takes place among swirling columns of tornadoes. Hollander explained that the dogfight sequence was all virtual. It was the only way that could have been done.
Also on stage were special effects supervisor Mike Vezina and visual effects supervisor Stephen Rosenbaum, (an Oscar winner for Forrest Gump). Rosenbaums responsibilities on X2 included the character Cerebro, while Vezina oversaw practical effects such as the bursting of a huge dam. Achieved with a miniature that was 25 feet high and 85 feet wide, this climactic sequence was a one-take wonder. Fink got a knowing laugh from the audience of pros when he admitted, Ive always wondered what a take two would look like.
Eight-time Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor Dennis Muren knew the drill when he got up to introduce Hulk. Muren quickly enumerated all the digital dogs, helicopters, tanks, planes and environments that ILM created, and noted how demanding it was to visualize the films varied settings deserts, forests, cities and mountains, both day and night.
Muren provided a glimpse of ILMs technical strategy when he noted how realtime previs capabilities on set had helped them plan shooting angles. But he also chose to frame his remarks in terms of director Ang Lees aesthetic. He characterized Lees theme as one of deconstruction and reconstruction. Figuring out how to visualize that, said Muren, was a process of discovery.
Commenting on the animated Hulk himself, Muren observed that Angs dream was that the Hulk could run 100 miles per hour and jump three miles high. For ILM, he said, its the closest weve come to a digital human.
Following the reel, Muren was joined onstage by animation supervisor Colin Brady and special effects supervisor Michael Lantieri. (The fourth team member, visual effects co-supervisor Ed Hirsh, was shooting in Australia and could not attend.)
Lantieri, who previously won an Oscar for Jurassic Park, explained that there were no breakaways anywhere in Hulk. He prompted laughter from the audience when he said, I was encouraged to make as big a mess as I could!
In describing the animation challenges, Brady cited the films blend of motion-capture and hand animation. Noting that they even motion-captured the dogs in the movie, Brady ventured, I believe that was a first. As is typical of so many modern effects, none of the animation in Hulk was just one thing. Lots of procedural simulation was done as well. As Brady summed up, We ran all kinds of animation through a blender!
Thats a Wrap
Edlund wrapped up the evening by observing that the Bake-Off presented everyone with their yearly opportunity to see each other and grip and grin.
Given the total number of effects shots displayed, this Bake-Off, pound for pound, probably takes the cake. Despite the balky red light, the proceedings unfolded efficiently, finishing in three hours flat. Rumors that disgruntled fans of The Matrix films might try to disrupt the proceedings proved unfounded and the Bake-Off ended without a hitch.
For four-time Oscar-winner Edlund, it marked his ninth turn as moderator. Reflecting back on the evening, he observed how he thought the best sequences used camera motion and cutting techniques to make transitions work. When effects shots happen in the context of a scene, thats how you make a transition magical. Then the audience wonders, What did I just see? Thats what movies are all about.
Ellen Wolff is a Southern California-based writer whose articles have appeared in publications such as Daily Variety, Millimeter, Animation Magazine, Video Systems and the Website CreativePlanet.com. Her areas of special interest are computer animation and digital visual effects.