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Winter 2013 VFX Movie Preview

James Gartler takes us through key visual effects-driven films still waiting to hit theatres this winter.

In the coming months, cinemas will play host to a variety of star-crossed lovers in exotic, VFX-laden locations.  Here’s a run-down of some of the culprits competing for your bucks at the box office.

Jet Li in The Sorcerer and the White Snake. Image courtesy of Magnet Releasing.

Feb 8th – The Sorcerer and the White Snake

Some sixteen months after it first debuted at the 2011 Venice Film Festival, this romantic fantasy based on Chinese folklore is finally making its way to North American audiences.  Directed by Hong Kong legend Tony Ching, Snake tells the story of two demon snake sisters (one white, the other green) who become human and fall for mortal men.  This puts them directly at odds with demon-hunting sorcerer/monk Abott Fahai, played by a leaping Jet Li.  The Wushu champion-turned action star called the shoot one of the most physically exhausting of his career.  Reviewers, meanwhile, have criticized the picture for being visually exhausting, in spite of its nominations for Best Visual Effects and Best Action Choreography at the 2012 Hong Kong Film Awards.  Decide for yourself whether this world of snake demons, ice harpies and bat men is enchanting or overkill when the picture hits theatres this Friday.

Jeremy Irons as Macon Ravenwood in Alcon Entertainment's supernatural love story Beautiful Creatures, a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Image © 2013 Alcon Entertainment, LLC.

Feb 14th – Beautiful Creatures

Twilight may be behind us, but here to fill the void is Beautiful Creatures, the first in what’s sure to be a series of adaptations of Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl‘s Caster Chronicles.  This supernatural romance focuses on fifteen-year-old Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert) whose secret powers and spell-casting relatives will lead her either towards the Light or the Darkness on her next birthday.  Naturally, she finds herself drawn to a boy at school named Ethan (Alden Ehrenreich) whom she realizes has a role to play in her fate.  Effects houses Pixomondo, Scanline VFX, Method Studios and Pixel Magic are sharing the challenge of bringing all the hocus pocus to life on the big screen, though it’s worth noting that effects like the spinning dining room table were achieved on-set, the old fashioned way.  Here’s hoping the actors skipped lunch before shooting that scene.

John McClane (Bruce Willis) and son Jack (Jai Courtney) survey the wreckage left after their encounter with a band of assassins in A Good Day to Die Hard. Image TM and © 2013 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved.

Feb 14th – A Good Day to Die Hard

This latest installment in the on-going saga of John McClane may already be screening overseas, but the rest of us will have to wait until Valentine’s Day before we can say “Yippee Ki-Yay.”  Day sees Bruce Willis’ smart-mouthed cop travel to Russia to reunite with his equally adventurous son Jack now that he’s all grown up and working for the CIA.  Once again, Pixomondo and Method Studios are teaming up, along with Shade VFX and Screen Scene, to handle the visual effects.  Director John Moore, however, states those will be limited, as most of the explosive action was captured on-camera.  In other words, yes: they really did blow up all those beautiful Mercedes autos.

Nicholas Hoult as Jack in New Line Cinema's and Legendary Pictures' Jack the Giant Slayer, a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Image © 2013 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures Funding, LLC.

March 1st – Jack the Giant Slayer

As one might expect, it takes a lot of digital work to create an army of Giants descending from a kingdom high above the clouds.  To accomplish this, Bryan Singer engaged the help of The Moving Picture Company, The Third Floor, Digital Domain, Rodeo FX and Soho VFX.  His take on the tale of Jack and the Beanstalk makes considerable use of motion capture performances, which were lined-up in-camera during shooting using a process called Simul-Cam, previously employed in the making of James Cameron’s Avatar.  Regardless of how good the tall guys end up looking, this one is worth checking out purely to see three veterans of fantasy films acting alongside one another: Warwick Davis (Willow), Ewan McGregor (Star Wars) and Nicholas Hoult (X-Men: First Class).

Oscar Diggs (James Franco) and the witch Theodora (Mila Kunis) travel the Yellow Brick Road on their way to The Emerald City in Oz The Great and Powerful. Image © 2012 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

March 8th – Oz, The Great and Powerful

For the first time since the lukewarm reception of 1985‘s Return to Oz, Disney is stepping back into L. Frank Baum’s world of yellow-brick roads and sparring witches.  Instead of Will Vinton’s claymation nomes, however, audiences will be seeing digital effects courtesy of Evil Eye Pictures, Luma Pictures, Sony Pictures Imageworks and The Third Floor.  This 200 million dollar picture was shot with 3D cameras and uses a mix of green screen and practical sets to realize locations as diverse as the Emerald City and Quadling Country.  Of all the wonders glimpsed in the trailer, however, none seems as striking as the China Doll character, who was physically present on-set in the form of a puppet.  Here’s hoping James Franco, Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams and company handle her with care.

At the end of World War II, Japan lay devastated in Emperor. Image courtesy of Roadside Attractions.

March 8th – Emperor

Australia-based Iloura handled the visual effects for this drama/love story starring Tommy Lee Jones, Matthew Fox and Eriko Hatsune.  Based on the book His Majesty’s Salvation by Shiro Okamoto and set in Japan circa 1945, Emperor is easily the most sobering of this winter’s fanciful offerings, as it explores the final days of World War II.  Still, period pieces are often the test of any studio’s ability to enhance the story visually without distracting the viewer.

Our heroine’s passion is bullfighting in Blancanieves. Image courtesy of Arcadia Motion Pictures.

March 15th – Blancanieves

Though audiences have seen their fair share of fairy tale adaptations of late, none are likely to compare to this black & white retelling of Snow White, set in 1920’s Spain.  Macarena García stars as the young woman destined to take a bite of a poisoned apple, with Miribel Verdú playing the role of the loathsome stepmother.  Instead of simply wishing for true love, however, this heroine’s passion is bullfighting, which eventually leads her to a troupe of bullfighting dwarves.  Intertitles tell the story in this silent picture bursting with originality and visual artistry.  It may lack the explosive power of many of the other contenders on this list, but it’s definitely worth a look.

Jim Sturgess as Adam and John MacLaren in Upside Down. Image Courtesy of Millennium Entertainment.

March 15th – Upside Down

Imagine meeting your perfect mate, only for them to come from a world whose gravity requires both of you to remain where you are, or suffer dire consequences.  Actually, that sounds pretty tricky to imagine, making the accomplishments of Montreal’s Vision Globale and Paris’s La Maison all the more impressive here.  The effects houses helped to realize a love story in which the two leads exist on planets directly opposite one another, and often interact, as the title would suggest, while upside down.  Though Adam (Jim Sturgess) and Eden’s (Kirsten Dunst) tale of romance certainly seems visually captivating, audiences might be wise to brace themselves for a slight case of vertigo.

Channing Tatum as Duke and Dwayne Johnson as Roadblock in G.I. Joe: Retaliation. Image © 2012 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved. Hasbro and its logo, G.I. Joe and all related characters are Trademarks of Hasbro and used with permission. All rights reserved.

March 29th – GI JOE: Retaliation

After having its release date unexpectedly delayed by almost a year, this sequel to 2009’s Rise of the Cobra is finally hitting theatres having undergone a couple of noteworthy changes.  Additional scenes were added to expand upon the relationship between Duke (Channing Tatum) and Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson), and the entire picture was converted to 3D, making the destruction of London’s Parliament just that much more immediate.  To give this beloved ‘80s property the best treatment possible, Paramount engaged their own special forces to realize the effects, including Industrial Light and Magic, Digital Domain, Luma Pictures, Method Studios, Blind Squirrel Digital and Lola Visual Effects.  The big question, however, is whether or not this latest entry will once again leave fans and critics shaking their heads and crying “No!” or finally giving them reason to chant “Yo Joe!”

Tom Cruise as Jack Harper, one of Earth's last drone repairmen, in Oblivion. Image © Universal Studios.

April 12th - Oblivion

Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman star in this sci-fi epic set in a post-apocalyptic earth (aren’t they always?) left uninhabited and ravaged by an alien war fought some sixty years earlier.  At least, that’s the story Cruise’s drone repairman Jack Harper was told.  In this 140 million dollar adaptation of director Joseph Kosinski’s own unfinished graphic novel, Harper must uncover the answers, while wearing a cumbersome spacesuit no less.  Following on the heels of Tron: Legacy, Kosinski is delivering another stylish take on the future of mankind, with effects being handled by (you guessed it!) The Third Floor, Digital Domain and, for the sake of variety, Gentle Giant Studios.  In spite of the scope of the picture, with its beautiful floating city and wondrous space ships, the director still considers it a “small character-driven science fiction story in the vein of those science fiction films of the 1970s.”  Sounds promising.

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James Gartler is a Canadian writer with a serious passion for animation in all its forms.  His work has appeared in the pages of Sci Fi Magazine, and at the websites EW.com and Newsarama.com.

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