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VFX Bakeoff: What’s On the Menu for the Oscar Race

Jill Smolin attends the VFX Bakeoff and reports back on what visual effects wonders are being served for this years Oscar race.

What will impress the Academy  subtle or sensational effects? Lemony Snickets images  & © 2004 Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved. I, Robot images  and © 2004 Twentieth Century Fox. All rights rese

What will impress the Academy subtle or sensational effects? Lemony Snickets images & © 2004 Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved. I, Robot images and © 2004 Twentieth Century Fox. All rights rese

As usual, Wednesday nights Visual Effects Bakeoff at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was a treat. This is the evening when visual effects luminaries and their fans gather, watch reels of delicious vfx (sometimes better than the films in which they were featured) and listen to supervisors explain the work. Though I never lose sight of the fact that this is a meeting to determine which three of the seven short-listed visual effects films will be nominated for an Oscar, it really is a lot like going to a party where everyone knows and likes each other and their work. This year was no exception: The conversations were great, the explanations were entertaining and informative and the work was of course just gorgeous.

The evening really kicks off with a reception nearby at Kates (formally known as Kate Mantilini). Its here that visual effects professionals schmooze, chat, catch up with each other, talk about the projects theyre working on, the projects theyve completed and the projects theyre going to work on, not to mention their kids and life in general; all those things that go unsaid when youre working crazy days and nights on a project for weeks on end.

Over at the Academys Samuel Goldwyn Theater, we do the same thing except without the martinis. I always feel a bit sorry for the ushers who watch us like were unruly children, as we happily chat in half completed sentences, occasionally look blankly trying to remember someones name or dive across seats to hug an old friend now living on the other side of the world.

We do eventually sit down. Those of us there as fans fill the side seats and read the evenings running order off green sheets. Those of the 253 members of the visual effects branch of the Academy attending to vote (this is a working meeting, after all), sit in the center, preparing to select three of seven films before handing their completed ballots to the Price Waterhouse Coopers officials at the end of the evening.

Lets not forget that getting to the short list is a huge accomplishment: Starting with the 267 films eligible for Academy consideration, the steering committee of the visual effects branch narrows the field to the 40 films that contain significant vfx. From there, through a secret vote, the committee narrows the field to seven. Chaired by the esteemed Richard Edlund, the committee is comprised of 40 prominent visual effects creators representing numerous disciplines, including, as Edlund says, makeup effects, visual effects supervisors who were camera men like myself, visual effects supervisors who were CG oriented, Jim Rygiel, whos a painterthere are people from all different walks of the industry, confirming Edlunds observation that the visual effects branch is the most complex of the Academys branches.

With so many films, sometimes there are surprises. Edlund notes, The Polar Express was a remarkable omission Though the film featured a great deal of animation, the main characters were motion captured. Noting some possible reasons for the films exclusion, he added, Sometimes a movie gets overlooked. Last year, The Matrix [sequels were] overlooked and everyone was shocked about that. This year Polar Express was overlooked, but when you look at the movies that didnt get overlooked, theyre pretty damn great.

Speaking of overlooked, Digital Domain, which was recognized for its stellar contribution to I, Robot, was nonetheless omitted from the list of contributors (a maximum of four) to The Day After Tomorrow. Granted, the case of The Day After Tomorrow is a complicated one, as 13 studios worked for an exceedingly long time to freeze, flood, crack, blow and create just about every possible stormy circumstance they could come up with in a largely computer-generated universe. Upon examination of the names put forward for the film, however, the steering committee noted the absence of Digital Domain, whose contribution had been significant. According to Edlund, There are 35 members of the (executive) committee; one member made a motion that we examine the credits on this movie, and this was the outcome.

The Academy even dealt with the flood of controversy that swamped the effects work done for The Day After Tomorrow. © 2004 Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved.

The Academy even dealt with the flood of controversy that swamped the effects work done for The Day After Tomorrow. © 2004 Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved.

That decision came after a number of hours of intense conversation, and is a decision that underscores the complexity of production, and the business and time pressures of an industry of great people who give us beautiful images. Added Edlund, The Academy is kind of like the conscience of the industryGetting the Oscar is a very big life thing; it changes peoples lives, so we have to be very careful.

Beginning the evening of awe-inspiring work, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban visual effects supervisor Roger Guyett used his five-minute introduction time to show us just how magical magic can look. He took us on a wild journey through London and Hogwarts. During the subsequent Q & A, the crew revealed how they were able to perfectly match movements of live-action Harry Potter to the computer-generated Hippogriff he rode: By creating a motion control rig of the creature into which they programmed the animation, the actors were able to ride the creature, reacting to actual movements. At that point, movements of both actor and CG creature matched so compositing was relatively simple. Magic.

The Aviator, augmented by vfx supervisor Rob Legatos hilarious impersonation of director Martin Scorsese, took us back to traditional processes: two-and three-strip Technicolor, in-camera miniatures, hanging miniatures, a 1922 perspective gag, models and miniatures, which led Legato to describe the experience as breaking old ground.

Lemony Snicket was up third in the slate of films selected at random out of a hat. Combining traditional and digital effects processes, vfx supervisor Stefen Fangmeier illuminated the models, miniatures, perspective tricks and facial and full-body animation work that allowed 18-month-old Sunny to play with a snake and bite just about everything.

Moving to Chicago with I, Robot, vfx supervisor John Nelson illustrated the 1,060 shots of robot/human interaction, set extensions, created backgrounds, miniatures and more. He highlighted animation director Andy Jones facial animation work on Sonny, the main character whose performance outshone his onscreen human counterparts.

The biggest effects extravaganza of the year, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, may not be a shoo in with the field of competition so tough.  & © 2004 Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.

The biggest effects extravaganza of the year, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, may not be a shoo in with the field of competition so tough. & © 2004 Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow gave us a stylized look created almost completely digitally. As every frame was a visual effects shot, vfx supervisor Scott Anderson showed us just what you can do when everything but your actors are created out of whole cloth.

Vfx supervisor Karen Goulekas took us to a very frozen New York in The Day After Tomorrow. With effects created by 13 companies, she illuminated the vastness of the project: creating known phenomena, inventing unknown phenomena everything from hand-animating ice cracks to computational fluid dynamics for water flowing around buildings in a digitally-constructed New York City.

Finally, we were treated to a very different view of New York with Spider-Man 2. Vfx supervisor John Dykstra pointed out the CG hair, full body humans, CG building, seamlessly integrating animatronic and CG tentacles and the car that crashed through a deli window at 65mph. Dykstra also mentioned the spider-cam that photographed a 4,000-foot length of Wall Street, at one point entering a limo at 25 mph, (a great effect the production didnt use, but that I had to mention anyway).

And, ultimately, thats what its all about: Effects you create cause theyre just so cool youre happy to find the movie that can hold them. And if they end up unused? Well, theyre still really cool effects you might be able to use later.

Now we wait for the announcement of the nominations next Tuesday at 5:00 am PST, when they narrow the field to the lucky three.

Jill Smolin has been a grateful member of the visual effects industry for about a decade, and has documented the industry (before it was one) for about twice that long.

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