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VFX Oscar Bakeoff 2007: The Return of the Magnificent Seven

Jill Smolin returns to the annual VFX Bakeoff to report on the seven contenders vying for Oscar consideration, which this year can be summed up as "digital jiggery-pokery."

If you have the QuickTime plug-in, you can view clips of the vfx in the movies by simply clicking the image.

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Boyd Shermis brought a refreshing irreverence to his presentation of Poseidon. He was asked by director Wolfgang Petersen to "out-Titanic Titanic, and out-storm his own Perfect Storm, but all this would have to be done without credible story or character. © Warner Bros.

We have come to expect brilliance from the annual love fest known as the Visual Effects Oscar Bakeoff, and the one held Wednesday at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences delivered an effortless array of delights.

This year, all kinds of films were represented: from those whose only virtue was their brilliant effects, to the film whose producers insisted it looked free of effects. There were the requisite number of explosions, flying men, women and dragons, a pirate ship, stormy seas, CG animals and, in a case of history repeating itself, a doomed luxury ocean liner. Even the film with the smallest slate of vfx contained around 600 shots.

Somehow, appropriately, each year both the work and the process of deciding the evening's seven films become increasingly complex. This year's challenge featured 306 eligible films, a dramatically and frustratingly shortened awards schedule and huge visual effects-heavy films that were released perilously close to the end of the year. Talking with the incomparable Jonathan Erland, the new chairman of the visual effects branch of the academy, is both illuminating and inspiring. (Erland, who began 30 years ago as a model maker on Star Wars, is responsible for establishing visual effects as a branch of the academy.) In describing this complex process, he notes: "Each time we do this, it's really agonizing. Somehow we winnow 300+ films to seven Each year, the committee revisits the whole process and tries to ensure it's as level a playing field as it's possible to get And the basic premises still apply. You're looking for the way in which all those disciplines advance the core of the storytelling. You're looking for not only dazzling effects -- though they're all dazzling these days -- you're looking for the way the tools are used, how they enhance the story, how essential they are to the story. Then you can start looking at all the effects."

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John Bruno showed a feast of impossibilities from X-Men: The Last Stand which included an unmoored Golden Gate Bridge landing on the shores of Alcatraz. and © 2006 Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved. X-Men character likenesses and © 2006 Marvel Characters Inc.

Erland kicked off the evening with some notable announcements, among them were that past chair Richard Edlund (who served for a remarkable decade) received the John A. Bonner Medal of Commendation, and that Ray Feeney is the recipient of the Gordon E. Sawyer Award. The program began after Erland shared a couple of jokes -- one about screening all the photochemical composites first (there were none, of course), and the second about the red timing-light, epoxied into its base after James Cameron unscrewed it when presenting for Titanic almost a decade ago.

This year's presentations began with another ill-fated ship, Poseidon, introduced by visual effects supervisor Boyd Shermis, who brought a refreshing irreverence not usually seen within the academy's hallowed walls. Shermis noted that director Wolfgang Petersen asked him to "out-Titanic Titanic, and out-storm his own Perfect Storm. But little did Shermis know that we'd have to do all that without credible story or character on Poseidon. His 4,330-frame opening shot took us from the depths of the ocean to its surface where a huge Poseidon sailed on an open sea, a live-action protagonist (Josh Lucas) and his motion captured co-actors on the ship's fully digital deck. What followed were 15 minutes of astonishing and disturbing shots of fire and lots and lots of water: John Frazier's special effects team flooded the model with 100,000 gallons of water, but amazingly, Industrial Light & Magic led the way in providing a tremendous leap forward in full volumetric 3D water simulation (in association with Stanford's computer science department) and complemented by innovative work in their own right by Moving Picture Co. and Scanline.

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Casino Royales Steve Begg talked about the "digital jiggery-pokery" his team had to create to fulfill the Bond peoples goal of having no visual effects. © 2006 Danjaq LLC, United Artists Corp., Columbia Pictures Industries Inc. Courtesy of Peerless Camera.

The tone continued with the second film, X-Men: The Last Stand, presented by vfx supervisor John Bruno. This film was a feast of impossibilities. In Dorian Gray-like creepiness, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart were both age-regressed about a quarter century. Houses, rocks, sunglasses and people levitated, pirouetted skyward and flew over San Francisco. In a disturbing sequence, The Golden Gate Bridge unmoored and landed on the shores of Alcatraz. And, in a moment that reminded me of the film industry's occasional absurdity, Bruno explained how his team had to paint on Hugh Jackman's trousers (after convincing the actor to shoot the scene in his skivvies) so the film could receive a PG-13 rating. (Now, that's all well and good, but I just don't understand how trousers can somehow make up for skin peeling away to bone, shattering bodies and all manner of death and destruction. OK, I know, this isn't a ratings article.)

Contributing probably the sweetest presentation was Steve Begg for Casino Royale. He almost seemed apologetic for the Bond reboot with Daniel Craig (the most successful at the box office in franchise history, incidentally), which he said started as a film with only 50-60 shots and ended up with closer to 600 in a film that producers insisted "would all have to be done for real." In a way, Casino Royale, which Begg hoped fulfilled the "Bond people's goal of having no visual effects," brought us back to a time when vfx was still an industry of problems and problem solvers. He mentioned the wire, rig removals, miniatures, CG, models and a lot of "digital jiggery-pokery" (my new favorite technical term), as well as the discovery that swatches of two boxes of purloined safety jackets made the best tracking markers.

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Jim Rygiel showed off Rexy, the seemingly ferocious tyrannosaurus rex skeleton that turns out to be as harmless as a puppy dog who wants to play fetch in Night at the Museum. & © Twentieth Century Fox.

Night at the Museum, meanwhile, provided a seemingly frightening moment that turns into a humorous one when a ferocious tyrannosaurus rex skeleton known as Rexy turns out to be as harmless as a puppy dog that wants to play fetch. Vfx supervisor Jim Rygiel listed the litany of animals Rhythm & Hues created for the film, including tigers, elephants and orcs. The film, which overflows with CG animals, tons of practical snow and a couple sequences that take us back to Darby O'Gill and the Little People, filled the evening's only comedy in which the supervisors concluded by saying, "we just had fun "

Vfx supervisor Michael McAlister's explanation of Eragon focused on CG dragon Saphiras acting abilities, illuminating what Erland observed as the industry's newest trend: "The animation field is the most identifiable as a new art form in film. The procedures and toolkits available to create animation have taken us to a more sophisticated level. When you think of incorporating animation in feature films historically, there's a huge difference between the kind of animation we had, to the animation we see now." The dragon, animated with traditional keyframing, acted, flew and interacted with her co-stars, and got more screen time than probably any actor -- digital or analog -- in this year's line up.

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Eragon focused on CG dragon Saphiras acting abilities explained vfx supervisor Michael McAlister. The dragon, animated with traditional keyframing, acted, flew and interacted with her co-stars throughout the film. & © 2006 Twentieth Century Fox.

Superman Returns heralded the return of a much beloved superhero. Vfx supervisor Mark Stetson's description of the film's 1,400 shots, accomplished by 15 facilities, featured a re-animated Marlon Brando as Jor-El, a dazzling digital double of Brandon Routh flying and rescuing a shuttle, remarkable crystal work, a CG yacht and (in another example of special effects sharing screen time with computer-generated effects) a "60-foot triple seven gimbal, 20-feet high that could push 75 tons in three seconds." A scaled yacht atop a computer-generated island epitomized the integration of these techniques, underscored the industry's continuing complexity and the necessity for up and coming supervisors to understand and experience the process beyond their desktops.

Erland remarks that this integration is nothing new. "Shows still have models, miniatures, matte paintings -- a multitude of techniques to make the total effects part of the show. Now we have the added complication of digital, but most of it is just an advanced form of the craft."

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Superman Returns featured 1,400 shots from 15 facilities. Mark Stetson showed effects such as a re-animated Marlon Brando as Jor-El, a digital double of Brandon Routh rescuing a shuttle, remarkable crystal work and a CG yacht. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

The evening concluded, fittingly enough, with more dizzying feats as John Knoll presented Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, whose 1,300 shots were completed in a frightening five months, which necessitated that the crew final 15 shots a day. In addition to ILMs revolutionary techniques, such as the pirates' much documented on-set performance capture, Knoll illuminated that they also deal with seemingly simple decisions, including "what to roto; what not to roto. We're using less and less bluescreen, if it's practical to roto." Of course, this production was replete with complicated and plentiful animation of the "fishy, barnacly guys," miniatures of all scales and shoots on the open seas that went for days. Allen Hall noted that they used a dozen 55-gallon drums of fog oil every day at one point, apparently depleting the world's supply.

With the ballots carried to the accountants downstairs, so ended an evening summed up best by the reliably articulate Erland: "It's interesting and exciting, and all that... it's white-knuckle fascinating is what it is."

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John Knoll presented the feats of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, whose 1,300 shots were completed in five months. Included were examples of ILMs revolutionary on-set performance capture technique. © 2006 Disney Enterprises Inc. and Jerry Bruckheimer Inc. Courtesy of ILM.

Stay tuned until Tuesday (Jan. 23), when we find out which three films are nominated.

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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