Take a closer look at the winners of the 17th annual VES Awards, both onstage and off, at this year’s Visual Effects Society gala.
Many of the entertainment industry’s top visual artists, replete with fancy tuxes and elegant gowns, filled the Beverly Hilton Hotel ballroom this past Tuesday evening to celebrate the 17th Annual VES Awards.
Hosted for the sixth time by actor and comedian Patton Oswalt, with his usual snarky, casually open-collared aplomb, the show honored winners in 24 different categories recognizing outstanding visual effects artistry and innovation in film, animation, television, commercials, video games, real-time and special venue projects.
Avengers: Infinity War, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Lost in Space were the evening’s big winners, each taking home four awards. Legendary filmmaker Roger Corman, who was pioneering “B-Movie” special effects using spit and paper mâché before most audience members were even born, was the evening’s final presenter, an especially meaningful nod to cinematic history for an industry that, more than most, reveres its elders and heavily relies on veteran inspiration, leadership and mentoring in the ongoing training of artists at every level.
No VES Awards would feel complete without Oswalt’s good-natured ribbing of Visual Effects Society executive director Eric Roth. Welcoming the gathering of “alcoholic shut-ins” and acknowledging Roth as “the human dynamo,” Oswalt continued by proclaiming, “Roger Ebert once said you cannot argue a man out of a boner or a laugh. But he never met Eric Roth ladies and gentlemen! There he goes... Eric Roth... almost done rendering!” Continuing his warm-up set, Oswalt took his most cutting shot, eliciting both groans and laughs: “The VES Awards are now 17 years old. Seventeen years old! Just on the cusp for Bryan Singer.”
In addition to the two dozen category awards, three honorary VES Awards were presented on Tuesday night. Jimmy Kimmel presented the VES Award for Creative Excellence to award-winning creators-executive producers-writers-directors David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. Evan Rachel Wood presented the VES Visionary Award to acclaimed writer-director-producer Jonathan Nolan. And Steve Carell presented the Lifetime Achievement Award to Oscar-nominated producer and founder and CEO of Illumination Chris Meledandri. More on those later.
It should also be noted that, once again, this year’s playlist of music cues, blasted while presenters and winners strode to the stage, was a wonderful “Who’s Who” of 8-track classic rock staples, many I haven’t heard since bopping around the San Fernando Valley in my cousin’s Trans Am, trolling for unwitting adults to buy us beer. Good times... good times.
Here’s a look at some show highlights, starting with the four teams awarded for Avengers: Infinity War:
VFX supervisor Dan DeLeeuw: “It’s amazing. Everyone says how awesome it is to be recognized. But until you’ve been here, and been recognized, you don’t really know how awesome it is to be recognized. My team is just amazing. An amazing team.”
VFX supervisor Matt Aitken adds, “It’s the top prize of the night and it’s incredible to be part of this achievement. Marvel is just a fantastic group of people to work with. On behalf of all the artists at Weta Digital, it’s just a huge honor.”
VFX supervisor Kelly Port jumps in as well: “To say this is a collaboration is a giant understatement. With over 2,400 credited artists and production staff on this film, it’s truly humbling to be honored and represent that entire crew.”
VFX producer Jen Underdahl followed with a final sentiment: “Super hard to follow that one, but in the same vein, I want to share my gratitude to all the lifeforce, effort and talent that all the artists, production managers and producers brought to this effort. It was made on their backs and its truly and honor to represent them. We’re deeply grateful for the award.”
3D artist Harwell Durfor: “We won! This project was so awesome. Winning is the cherry on the top!”
Senior FX technical director Vasilis Pazionis adds, “These guys are awesome. They’re passionate. They’re a great team to work with.”
Effects supervisor Ashraf Ghoniem chimes in, “It’s great to be recognized for all the hard work we put into this. To get that recognition just feels amazing.”
In one of the evenings most notable celebrity sightings, Gru, the grumpy hero of Despicable Me franchise fame, strode to the dais. Low and behold, to everyone’s feigned surprise, celebrity voice talent Steve Carell removed his rubber mask, then introduced Lifetime Achievement Award honoree Chris Meledandri, gracefully noting, “He is as kind and gracious as he is talented. He cares deeply about the art and science that go into these films. He is a purveyor of joy and the world is a better place because of him.”
Meledandri spoke humbly and eloquently, sharing with the audience his early love of cinema and how he was forever changed by seeing films like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey as a young kid. “In my mind, I’m way too young for a lifetime achievement award,” he explains. “I grew up in New York City. I had parents who loved cinema. They took me to see Easy Rider when I was nine years old. Movies have always been the window through which I learned about life.” He adds that he started producing movies on his own when he was 25, and “Boy, did I make some shitty films.”
Meledandri was working at Fox when a young director showed him a few sequences in which cockroaches performed Busby Berkeley musical numbers, animated at a studio called Blue Sky. “I was spellbound,” he exclaims. “I funded the completion of their short film, Bunny, (which won an Oscar in 1998) and then asked Chris Wedge to direct Ice Age... No matter how challenging making a movie can be, every time I see life breathed into a new character, or enter a newly created environment, every time, I feel the chills I felt that first time watching 2001.”
Acknowledging the growth of his studio, Illumination Entertainment, Meledandri says, “Twelve years, 1,000 people, and nine films later, every film has been directed by a person who started with us, never having previously directed an animated feature film. Illumination may have started as the dream bouncing around my head, but it’s been built by a phenomenal team of colleague and advisors and I share this award with them.”
Thanking a number of colleagues for their collaboration and support, Meledandri concluded his speech by noting, “The single most important moment in my career was asking the exceptional Janet Healy to come work with me. She has been my producing partner, she has been invaluable to the evolution of Illumination and she is a pioneer in our business and the finest producer I have known... Every day, we all join in a noble mission. We contribute our creativity and craft to bring joy into the lives of audiences. That joy has the potential to unite people of all ages and cultures, in a shared experience of story that explores universal truths and has a visual expression that invites us to discover, and discover in ways never before imagined. That... is wonder! And that is what we all do together. And while it can be experienced on many different screens, none of them are as awesome as that majestic silver screen surrounded by darkness where we all began our journey.”
VFX supervisor Danny Dimian was jubilant in his reaction: “This is amazing. It’s an amazing team. Chris and Phil pushed us. I don’t know what to say.”
Head of character animation Joshua Beveridge leans in and adds, “We have nothing but gratitude. All of our bosses, from the top down, from day one, encouraged us to take risks. And they let us do the best we possibly could because they created an environment that let us do just that. The team rose to the occasion.”
“Until the very end, we were all on pins and needles thinking, ‘Is thing gonna work?’” Dimian breaks in.
Look development supervisor Bret St. Clair pipes in, “We aren’t exaggerating. It was a big risk. We could have easily failed. We were living on that edge the entire time. It wasn’t until the audience told us otherwise that we felt differently.”
Dimian jumps in again: “We’re representing 700 artists that poured their hearts and souls into this film every day. They lived and died with every shot.”
“From day one we were told ‘See how far you can go. Just push it!’ We were encouraged to fail,” Beveridge notes.
VFX producer Christian Hejnal concludes, “We had an expression on this show. Everyone who came on the film was told, ‘If it’s not broke, break it!’”
Effects animation supervisor Ian Farnsworth: “I’m just blown away. These are the people that we work with, which makes it such an honor for us to be recognize for something we did.”
Effects animation supervisor Pav Grochola adds, “We’re very honored to be part of this award, and honored that our work is being recognized by not only the public but by the more critical industry world. This film took a lot of risks in the way it was made. And, it’s amazing that it’s received the reception that it has. The success of this film has exceeded our wildest expectations.”
Head of layout Dave Morehead: “To be recognized by your peers is such an important thing. Everyone here knows what it takes to do this work and being recognized by them means so much to us. This was a risky film, and it was great being turned loose, to let go and go nuts. Chris and Phil were always telling us, ‘More... just go bananas! Let’s do something really fucking crazy!’
St. Clair, a double winner on the night, adds, “Sometimes you get really jaded doing what we do because it’s always the same thing... make it a little better... make it a little better. This time, there were no rules and every artist came to the table with solutions to problems.”
Miniature effects supervisor Ian Hunter: “Like Kevin [Elam] mentioned on stage, I want to send another shout out to Damien Chazelle. Great director who had a great vision. He gave us so much guidance, which is key to why the work looks so great and the movie was so well received. It was also really humbling to honor the effort and commitment of the people involved in those space projects. Deconstructing and reconstructing all that archival footage let us see what all those men and women at NASA went through, especially the astronauts, and what it took to get to the moon.”
Oscar-winning director John Kahrs (Paperman) comments: “I’m pretty surprised. Tonight was great. Very happy.”
Kevin Dart laughs and jokes, “Seeing all the amazing reels, I figured, ‘Ah, well, this is over.’”
Cassidy Curtis then adds, “I think it’s just incredible that this group of people recognized something that is just so different. It’s not photorealistic, it’s not based on anything we’ve already seen. It has a different look and I’m so excited that our film is something this group of people recognizes as important and worthy of their attention.”
Comedian and talk-show maestro Jimmy Kimmel came on to introduce David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, winners of the VES Award for Creative Excellence. Speaking of the pair’s groundbreaking HBO series, Game of Thrones, Kimmel drew a big laugh by telling the crowd, “This is a show that changed the way we think of television. A show that raised the bar 10 notches and answered the question, ‘Can I masturbate to dragons?’ with a resounding, ‘Yes, I can.’ The crowd laughed again when he added, “Game of Thrones might very well be the most anticipated show in the history of television. Everywhere you go, you hear people saying, ‘When the fuck is it coming back already?’”
Benioff and Weiss then strode onstage, to the familiar GoT theme music, which, to many in the animation community, has forever been ruined by the brilliant South Park episode where George R.R. Martin men’s chorus sings, “Wiener... wiener wiener... touch my wiener...”
Weiss began a hilarious riff on how unappreciated he and Benioff felt regarding their technical achievements on the show. “It’s wonderful to hear such nice things said about the show. But does anyone out there ever give David and I any credit to the contributions we’ve made in the field of compositing? Or fluid simulation? Or real-time motion tracking, or set extensions and CG elements? Have we ever gotten a single compliment about our ground-breaking sub-surface scattering algorithms? Or our ambient occlusion maps? Which are gorgeous! The way people act, it’s like we had had nothing to do with these things. Like some other people were actually responsible for it all and we were just stomping around taking credit for their work.”
Benioff then leans into the mic and says to Weiss, “That’s sort of what we’re doing now, up here. Taking credit for that work,” to which he replies, “Nah...” The two went on to thank a host of people responsible for producing their show’s award-winning visual effects, noting about their hard work, to great laughter, “We write, ‘Dragons fly around and burn shit.’ They do it all.”
Oswalt, whose stage time seemed less frequent than in previous years, scored one of his best bits when introducing Avengers: Infinity War directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, admonishing the audience that everyone knows next year, their highly anticipated film, Avengers: Endgame, is going to win everything, and everyone has already begun cursing that reality. “Don’t run away from the truth sir,” he yells at someone in the front table. “They’re going to win every award. Sit down. I know you’re angry, fucking Christopher Robin director. I assume everyone here hates the Avengers movies (cursing the Marvel films under his breath). It was like the year I hosted and Gravity came out. I’ve never seen a more sullen bunch of visual effects people. ‘We know... just give them the goddam award already so I can go home.’”
VFX producer Terron Pratt: “We’re really excited. It was an honor just to be nominated. Everyone says that, but it was so rewarding to see so many of our artists represented and awarded here this evening. Taking home this award is pretty incredible.”
Animation supervisor Chad Shattuck: “It’s exhilarating. I’m so excited. I love it! I feel really honored.”
Animator Julia Flanagan adds, “Our baby won an award!” Animator Paul Zeke then adds, “It’s difficult to make a character with no face look like he’s feeling protective. But definitely a lot of fun to work through that.”
Lead lighting TD Philip Engstrom: “The whole experience is amazing. To see so many talented people, to be awarded by the VES, it’s just amazing. We’re super happy.”
Concept artist Martin Bergquist adds, “It’s such a huge honor to be here to receive an award that is for the artists, by the artists. I’m so grateful.”
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.