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Oscar Nominees Discuss 'Pirates', 'Poseidon' and 'Superman Returns'

Thomas J. McLean chats with vfx supervisors John Knoll, Boyd Shermis and Mark Stetson about their Oscar-nominated work and the selection process. Includes QuickTime clips!

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Boyd Shermis and Mark Stetson were very impressed with the character design for Davy Jones. © 2006 Disney Enterprises Inc. and Jerry Bruckheimer Inc. Courtesy of ILM.  

If you have the QuickTime plug-in, you can view three clips showing vfx work by simply clicking the image.

It's Oscar time, so once again, VFXWorld spoke with this year's nominated visual effects supervisors -- John Knoll for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, Boyd Shermis for Poseidon and Mark Stetson of Superman Returns -- to discuss each other's work and last year's accomplishments, which included ILM's Imocap system for Dead Man's Chest, full volumetric 3D water simulation from ILM, MPC and Scanline for Poseidon and improved image-based rendering by Sony Pictures Imageworks for Superman Returns.

Thomas J. McLean: Looking at this year's nominees, what made Poseidon stand out?

John Knoll: I think that the work looks really good. I was pretty impressed with it on bakeoff night. I think the water is pretty convincing. That's pretty hard stuff, as I now well know from doing stuff like that on Pirates 3. And that's just the water. The ship itself is pretty impressive too.

Mark Stetson: I liked the underwater scenes after the ship capsized. I thought the water was the focus of the movie, and water was the focus of some of the scenes in our movie. We had to solve many of the same problems. I was particularly struck by the artfulness of some of the underwater shots. I also particularly liked when you got in close (on the ship) toward the end of that opening shot.

TJM: How about Superman Returns?

Boyd Shermis: Most people would point to, and I still point to, the 747 crash. Most of the flying is pretty good. Sony did the build on that if I'm not mistaken. But there are certain things about the Imageworks rendering that feel a little too velvety to me and not too lifelike. There's just something about it that kind of bugs me.

JK: Superman's got a lot of things to like about it. There's a large variety of work and I think a lot of it looks really good. I like parts of the airplane sequence and I like the space shots.

TJM: And Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest?

BS: I was very impressed with the Davy Jones character. The miniature work, the landscapes, the mattes, the digital water. I would say it's Davy Jones, the quality of the rendering on the face and clothing.

MS: Davy Jones. I think John did a nice job solving the problem that he had, which is to work the character design to the end and the need to make a performance out of it. It was very artful and he had a nice opportunity and he did a really good job capitalizing on it.

TJM: What effects most impressed you this year?

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Knoll and Stetson found the water convincing in Poseidon. Both vfx supervisors also found the ship equally impressive. © Warner Bros.  

BS: I would point to Davy Jones and the work they did (on Pirates) just in using their Imocap system. I wouldn't say it was a quantum leap forward, it was a step forward in the way we can integrate CG characters into a live action environment. I was also impressed by some of the dragon work that was done on Eragon. Children of Men, there were a number of really impressive shots in there and most people wouldn't have recognized it if they hadn't seen the film. In X-Men, the anti-aging routine that was done on the two lead characters, that was pretty impressive. Certainly the destruction of the home was, I thought, well done. The miniature work in Casino Royale ended up being pretty impressive to me, as well as the way they integrated a lot of their visual effects overall.

MS: I was impressed with the overall level of quality and sophistication in the visual effects this year, throughout all the films that were represented. I just though that everything is becoming so smooth and sophisticated. I think the overall level of quality at the bakeoff was really remarkable. It was hard to find a clinker in the whole group. I really liked the work in X-Men, the way the physical effects integrated with the postproduction visual effects.

TJM: Were there any surprises in the films chosen or not chosen either for the bakeoff or the nominations?

JK: I was surprised at a couple of omissions. I thought Mission: Impossible III probably should have been on the long list and Charlotte's Web should have been on the long list.

Casino Royale, I think, while it turned out real well and I loved the movie, I just don't think the achievement is there compared to what everybody else is doing.

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Shermis and Knoll singled out the 747 crash, flying sequences and the space shots in Superman Returns. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.  

BS: The only one that surprised me was Casino Royale. Initially, I wasn't convinced it was a contender, but it certainly deserves to be there. I was surprised that Poseidon did, frankly. I wasn't sure that enough people had seen it or that enough people were behind it. I wasn't surprised that Superman made it, my comments about the rendering notwithstanding. They did a great job.

TJM: What do you think of the Academy's process with the bakeoff and the way the nominations are chosen. Is it a good process for the field?

JK: I think the whole process of the bakeoff is very valuable, to let the candidates make the case for their picture, to show the work and talk about what makes it special and be able to point it out. Now that said, I think the process of getting down to the seven needs to be looked at because there are these strange omissions. There's no forum for making your case before that decision. I just think the process could be a little fairer, that maybe there's something that could be done, at least give everyone the chance to write a few paragraphs about their picture and have that considered. I think that there may well be pictures worth of consideration that no one speaks up about them because maybe they don't know what went into them.

MS: I think the studios' choice to release so many films close to the end of the year, combined with the current climate of security concerns, hurts the chances of those films for Academy consideration. It would be good to find a way to improve the exposure of the late-year releases within the vfx branch.

BS: I think from a very basic, fundamental point of view, I think it works. People will point to a number of different issues and I won't argue with any specific issues people have with it. I think the biggest problem people have with it is the steering committee. The meeting is held in mid-December and they're being asked to review and consider films that few if any of them have actually seen and they're being asked to pass judgment on them. So I understand people have issues with that. What I will maintain, however -- and I know a number of my colleagues feel this way about it -- is that the seven that get chosen may or may not be the exact seven that maybe ought to be considered, but within those seven, the top three almost always are going to be or nearly always going to be considered.

TJM: Do the nominees say anything about trends in the visual effects world?

MS: To me, I see a growing confidence and maturity in the application of visual effects to practically any film story-telling requirement.

BS: I can only draw one conclusion and that is that films that spend a great deal of money on visual effects and give the visual effects crews plenty of time or plenty of money and you're going to end up with quality stuff.

TJM: Do you think more films that make subtle use of visual effects will play a bigger role in future Oscar races?

MS: The visual effects branch is a very sophisticated audience. Subtle effects have often been recognized and will continue to be. Part of the criteria for nomination is the contribution of visual effects to the storytelling of the movie. To the extent that subtle use of effects do so, in a way that is also seen as creatively and technically excellent, worthy of the "best achievement in visual effects," they will continue to be recognized.

JK: I think they tend to get neglected just because bigger pictures just have so much more stuff in them and so much more dramatic stuff. Pictures that are using effects more invisibly just don't get the attention.

TJM: Do you think three nominees is enough or is enough good work being done to justify five?

MS: Based on the quality of the work this year, I think five would be justifiable.

JK: Yeah, I do feel a little like the seven films on the long list and the three nominations were left over from an era where there was a lot less of this work being done. There are so many more films that are really deserving of consideration. Visual effects are such an important part of filmmaking now that I think you could easily justify five nominees. I think the long list should probably be more than seven.

Thomas J. McLean is a freelance journalist who specializes in writing about visual effects, Oscars, TV, comic books, games and technology. His writes the Bags and Boards blog on the comic book industry for Variety.com at. His first book, X-Men: The Movie Trilogy and the Comics will be published in March 2007 by Sequart.com Books.

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