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The 16th Annual VES Awards: Reactions, Photos and More

Get a peek at the winners onstage and backstage at this year’s grand Visual Effects Society bash.

A packed Beverly Hilton ballroom, filled with 1000 of the entertainment industry’s best, brightest and most sleep deprived, celebrated all things rendered at the 16th Annual VES Awards this past Tuesday evening. While Hollywood hand-wringing continues unabated amidst the rise of the planet of the streaming services and a fundamental shift in which hand gets first crack at consumer pocketbooks, the VES’ yearly awards show represents an important break in the action, when, for an evening, the industry can forget Apple is getting into the movie and TV business and instead, focus needed attention on the world of visual wizardry that consumers, and studios, more and more take for granted. For one night at least, artists pushing the envelope with digital characters, photoreal environments, fantasy worlds and all sorts of simulated mayhem come together to schmooze, reminisce and celebrate their collective excellence.

Hosted again this year with good natured cherubic indifference by actor and comedian Patton Oswald, the show awarded 24 teams for excellence in films, episodic TV, commercials, special venue projects and games. Pixar’s Coco took home four awards, including top animated feature, while Weta also took home four awards, including top photoreal feature, for their work on War for the Planet of the Apes. Game of Thrones was honored with five awards, including best photoreal episode, while Samsung’s ‘Ostrich’ commercial received three awards, all taken home by MPC.

Two other noteworthy highlights of the night were Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige presenting a VES Lifetime Achievement Award to acclaimed actor and director Jon Favreau, as well as Oscar-winning producer Jon Landau presenting the George Méliès award to the legendary four-time Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor, Joe Letteri, in recognition of “pioneering significant and lasting contributions to the art and science of the visual effects industry by way of artistry, invention and groundbreaking work.” A third highlight was Pixar’s Oscar-winning Lee Unkrich, the director of Coco, presenting the award for top animated feature to…himself and his senior Coco production team. Folks, we never saw that coming. A special shout out also to VES executive director Eric Roth, not just for pulling off yet another great awards event, but for stepping up and declaring, loudly and proudly, his and the VES’ support for #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, calling for an end to unwarranted workplace harassment and sexual abuse. He could have easily sidestepped the issue, but didn’t.

Here’s a smattering of images from the awards show stage, the backstage pressroom and red carpet, as well as remarks from some of the night’s winners, all smiles, laughs, hugs and backslaps:

Walt Disney Imagineering executive producer Amy Jupiter: “We won for the second year in a row, which is great. That means Walt Disney Imagineering is standing behind us, clearly helping us to put visual effects where they belong…in experience design. What else can I say? I love working with these guys. I have a great crew. We’ve got this amazing partnership with Weta, Lightstorm…that was really exciting. A good design is not about budget. It’s about immersion.”

VFX supervisor Erik Henry: “We are so pleased. This show made us friends for life. We watched that show as much as the next person. The visual effects were great, but the storytelling was amazing. And the photography was beautiful.”

VFX producer Terron Pratt adds, “We had such a great sandbox to play in. It’s a dream to create visual effects for a show like this.”

In acknowledging his special honor, Senior VFX supervisor and Weta studio director Joe Letteri shares, “This really is a visual effects community in a way that didn’t exist before the VES started doing these awards 16 years ago. It’s pulled everybody together in a way that recognizes all the crafts that go into creating visual effects for a film. That’s pretty spectacular, that the artists who do the work are the ones being honored here tonight. Though we’re at the tail end of the process, that’s the nature of the work. We’re there to finish off a film. A lot of times there are decisions made at the end of the process, changes the director will request, and we have to respond to those. There’s all that pressure to do it, but that’s why we’re here.”

Lead technical director Michael Frederickson: “We’re excited! Very excited. In a way, it’s kind of luck. Because everyone in that room and everyone back at the studio is capable of so much, it’s kind of luck getting on the right project at the right time with a story that calls for you to put something big and amazing on the screen. We’re really proud to accept it, but also, acknowledge that there’s a little bit of luck involved, and a lot of other people involved in putting it onscreen.”  

Jamie Hecker, sets technical lead, jumps in to add, “I cried watching the storyboards for this movie. I was so happy to work on it. Now I’m going to go cry in my room.”

Lighting artist Jonathan Pytko next adds, “Lots of us have been on lots of projects where halfway through we say, ‘We’re never going to do that again.’ Then up comes another project and we sign right up for it. This is for that project we said we’d never do again but then signed up to keep doing it.”

Michael leans back in and continues, “With environments at Pixar, I’ve always been proud of how we always talk about the history and rules so that when you see it, it’s not about cheap spectacle. We think environments can add to the storytelling. It makes the audience think more about, “How did this get here? Who occupies it?” It was also really fun, when we first saw the city, to bring a moment of inspiring awe to the audience. You see something really big and it amazes you. It’s not every storyteller that intuitively thinks to use visuals that way and will create a moment to let an environment do that work in the storytelling. It’s really exciting as technical directors and effects artists to do that with our skills, and really feel like we’re doing something more than trying to wow you.”

Jamie chimes in and concludes, “Wow, I just do what I’m told. I guess I’m doing it all wrong.” Best line of the night.

Character modeling and articulation lead Michael Honsel: “It’s overwhelming. It’s the first time being up here receiving this award. It’s a lot of work creating these characters. There are people around you that recognize it, but it’s really nice to get that recognition from a wider audience and members of the VES.”

Cloth simulation lead Emron Grover adds, “We’re really proud of Coco and everything Coco represents. The message that it gives to the whole world. To see it recognized, it makes us happy because the film is so beautiful. To have been a part of that, it’s an honor to me to work on a character like Hector. Though it was one small part, it was a part that was loved by the world. It’s humbling to be part of that.”

Kristopher Campbell: “It feels amazing. I don’t know what else to say. It’s super cool.”

David Hale adds, “It’s great to expand with more than just effects. We have crowds, we have simulations, work that’s more character based represented on screen. That’s really special -- expanding visual effects to not just be the explosions that these guys do amazingly well, but also the crowd work, the simulation work, the clothing, the hair and all the bits that go into making characters.”

Lead animator Dennis Yoo: “This feels incredible. This is one of those awards that comes from our peers and is the culmination of everything we’ve done and is like the cherry on the prize. We’re already proud of the work, but this is just amazing.”  

Lead animator Ludovic Chailloleau adds, “It’s good to see that people enjoy what we did, that the love we put inside is recognized too. It’s great.”

Lead creature TD Tim Forbes concludes, “It’s important to notice that this is the third time Caesar has won it. Every time, we have to make it better than before. I thought Apes 2 was incredible. So, with Apes 3, we wondered what we could do to make it better. We had to lift the level again. I think we did that. The award is a testament to the amazing teamwork we had. Not just the four of us but a large number of other people. The collaboration made it a really fun project to work on. Being recognized by our peers makes all the hard work we put into the project even more worthwhile. We were already so happy with the work. This really tops it off.”

VFX supervisor Dan Lemmon: “That was awesome. The work is so strong this year that anyone could have won. We feel very lucky and honored to be recognized by a jury of our peers. Dan Barrett’s team of animators worked so hard to get all the detail we were seeing in the actors’ performances to carry through onto the apes. The facial anatomy of the apes is so different from the actors that were playing them. It’s a real challenge to figure out how to take what Andy Serkis is doing and translate that to something that looks like an ape. There is something wonderful about the craft, the process of sitting down and figuring out what it is that makes Andy’s performance so engaging. We had a tremendous partner in our director, Matt Reeves, who was so tuned into the story and the characters and the performances. He really had his finger on the pulse of what made these characters interesting and engaging. He kept us on target in terms of matching and being faithful to what the actors were doing.”

Animation supervisor Daniel Barrett concludes, “I’m very excited. Absolutely. It’s such a collaborative process. The performances would be nothing without the actors and what we see on screen would be nothing without the animators and the motion editors who did all the work to put them there. It’s a great thrill. We’re very, very happy.”  

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Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.