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2009 VFX Sneaks: 10 Movies to Watch

Stereoscopic sci-fi, the most influential graphic novel of all time, the return of a beloved franchise and a wizard named Harry are part of our 2009 cinematic sneak peek.

It's definitely the year that stereoscopic 3-D breaks out in a big way along with other advancements and pleasures. So what will we be watching and covering at VFXWorld? Here's a peek, so mark your calendars.

1. Avatar (Twentieth Century Fox, Dec. 18)This is obviously the movie event of the year, marking James Cameron's return to feature directing since helming 1997's Titanic, the highest grossing movie of all time. Avatar is the story of an ex-Marine who finds himself thrust into hostilities on an alien planet filled with exotic life forms. As an Avatar, a human mind in an alien body, he finds himself torn between two worlds, in a battle for his own survival and that of the indigenous people. Cameron and his team have created a frontier expanding approach to hybrid moviemaking to offer an innovative stereoscopic experience. Utilizing a new virtual cinematography system developed by Rob Legato, Cameron was able to look through a viewfinder while shooting performance capture as though he were making a live-action feature and select any realtime virtual camera he desired. Meanwhile, Weta Digital (led by Oscar-winning VFX Supervisor Joe Letteri) has incorporated new intuitive CG technologies to transform the live-action/ CG environments and characters into photorealistic stereo imagery, immersing the viewer in this alien world. This may be the true acid test for determining whether or not 3-D flies.


Watchmen, the most acclaimed graphic novel of all time, is one of the most anticipated films this year, but when it will be released is still a mystery. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

2. Watchmen (Warner Bros., March 6)Despite Fox now having the upper hand in its court battle with Warner Bros., everyone hopes the release date will not be delayed, so we can all enjoy Zack Snyder's cinematic take on the most acclaimed graphic novel of all time. And make no mistake: this is no 300: "Watchmen is a very traditional film in many ways," according to Production Designer Alex McDowell. "It's using enormous skill in CG to do some of the Forrest Gump-style compositing, making Mars work, all the obvious stuff like making the Owl Ship fly, but putting Manhattan into the environments was probably the biggest challenge… There were many, many more sets than I've ever built in a movie because of all the layering of time and space that we had to deal with, the character threads, there has to be so much material that has to be created to carry the story."


Star Trek will have more Star Wars by opening up space and ratcheting up the battles. Photo credit: Industrial Light & Magic. © 2008 Paramount Pictures.

3. Star Trek (Paramount Pictures, May 8)J.J. Abrams' movie about how the original crew came together aboard the USS Enterprise, pushed back from last Christmas, is now a must-see summer event. Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and Karl Urban play Kirk, Spock and Bones, respectively. According to scribes Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman, Abrams insisted on bringing more Star Wars into Star Trek by opening up space and ratcheting up the battles. ILM handles the extensive vfx under the supervision of Roger Guyett (M:i:III). And working directly with Guyett as a planetary science and imagery consultant was NASA's Carolyn Porco (who led the Imaging Science team on the Cassini mission at Saturn).

4. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (Paramount Pictures, June 26)Optimus Prime and the heroic Autobots return to battle the evil Decepticons in Michael Bay's sequel to his 2007 smash hit. This time, Shia LaBeouf discovers the origin of the Transformers on Earth, and is captured by the Decepticons, who have a master plan tied to the ancient pyramids of Egypt. Scott Farrar returns as visual effects supervisor. What can we expect? Certainly much more complexity and even moodier lighting: As for the Decepticons, look for Starscream, who is transformed into an F-22 Raptor.


The sixth Potter film arrives this summer and features vfx by Double Negative, MPC, Cinesite, Rising Sun Pictures, ILM and Luma Pictures. Photo by Jaap Buitendijk

5. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Warner Bros., July 17)In this sixth Potter film, also pushed back from last year, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) begins his sixth year at Hogwarts and discovers a mysterious old book that helps him learn more about Lord Voldemort's dark past. Director David Yates returns from The Order of the Phoenix. Vfx on this one is by Double Negative, MPC, Cinesite, Rising Sun Pictures, ILM and Luma Pictures.


Set in post-apocalyptic 2018, Terminator Salvation is the fourth film in the franchise. ILM does much of the heavy lifting on this with Asylum contributing as well. Photo by Richard Foreman. © Warner Bros. Pictures.

6. Terminator Salvation (Warner Bros., May 22)The fourth film in the Terminator franchise, Salvation (directed by McG) follows John Connor (Christian Bale) and the human resistance battle against Skynet and its army of Terminators in a post-apocalyptic 2018. ILM does much of the heavy on this (under the supervision of Ben Snow) with Asylum contributing as well. According to Charles Gibson (Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End), overall visual effects supervisor, who contributes to the movie's website blog, "… McG's take is to weave science-fiction elements into a state-of-the-art action film: The camera always moves, the imagery is raw and kinetic, the pace is insane. The creative challenge for me will be to bury the effects into the photography but to still protect our big visual moments… We've been waiting to see this world for years -- it's only been glimpsed and hinted at in the previous Terminator movies. We're able to revisit the elements that have been established, but we're going to be adding a whole lot more."

7. Where the Wild Things Are (Warner Bros., Oct. 16)Spike Jonze's beleaguered live-action/CG take on Maurice Sendak's subversive children's book finally hits theaters and we can't wait to see the idiosyncratic results. Newcomer Max Records plays Max, a young boy sent to bed without supper, who creates a forest inhabited by cuddly yet dangerous creatures that crown him their king. Jonze has stated that he's going for a palpable yet surreal experience, enhanced stylistically by mood and performance -- and that's been difficult to achieve. He ultimately went to Framestore for vfx assistance, but Animal Logic, Rising Sun Pictures and Iloura have contributed as well.

8. X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Twentieth Century Fox, May 1)It makes perfect sense to launch a series of X-Men origin stories with the popular Wolverine (Magneto is next in the works). Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) goes after Victor Creed (Live Schreiber), who will later become Sabertooth, for the death of his girlfriend, and winds up signing up for the mutant Weapon X program. Vfx is being handled by Digital Dimension, Hydraulx, Rising Sun Pictures, Soho VFX and Tippett Studio, among others.


Spike Jonze's take on Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are is bound to be idiosyncratic. Monsters vs. Aliens reaffirms DreamWorks' commitment to 3-D. © Warner Bros. (l) & ™ © 2008 DreamWorks Animation LLC.

9. G-Force (Walt Disney Pictures, July 24)Oscar-winning VFX whiz Hoyt Yeatman (Mighty Joe Young, The Abyss, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, E.T., Blade Runner) makes his feature directorial debut with this live-action/CG family feature from Jerry Bruckheimer about an elite team of highly trained covert guinea pigs employing unique tactics and nano-technology to thwart a looming global disaster. Vfx is by Sony Pictures Imageworks, and led by Oscar-winning VFX Supervisor Scott Stokdyk (the Spider-Man franchise). Will also be screening in Disney Digital 3-D.

10. Monsters vs. Aliens (Paramount/DreamWorks, March 27)And speaking of 3-D, how could we not resist including the stereoscopic poster child of Jeffrey Katzenberg and DreamWorks Animation? Nobody is more committed to 3-D animation than Katzenberg and this satire of '50s creature features (directed by Rob Letterman & Conrad Vernon) couldn't be more appropriate for launching DreamWorks' first fully-produced stereoscopic slate. Aliens are attacking Earth, and our only hope is a Dirty Dozen-style assault featuring a team of imprisoned monsters, including Ginormica(Reese Witherspoon), who stands an inch under 50 feet; Dr. Cockroach, Ph.D (Hugh Laurie); The Missing Link (Will Arnett); B.O.B. (Seth Rogen); and Insectosaurus. Ken Bielenberg is the vfx Supervisor (the Shrek franchise), and we can be sure there are plenty of spectacular effects, though Katzenberg and the filmmakers assure us that they are working hard to extend the proscenium rather than breaking it. Nonetheless, DreamWorks Animation has worked hard in attaining the three Holy Grails of 3-D: dark environments, moving quickly and quick cutting.

Bill Desowitz is senior editor of VFXWorld and AWN.

Bill Desowitz's picture

Bill Desowitz, former editor of VFXWorld, is currently the Crafts Editor of IndieWire.