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2016 Academy VFX Bake-off: 10 Oscar Hopefuls Vie for Nominations

Annual voting event showcases visual effects for the Academy’s shortlisted films: ‘Ant-Man,’ ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron,’ ‘Ex Machina,’ ‘Jurassic World,’ ‘Mad Max: Fury Road,’ ‘The Martian,’ ‘The Revenant,’ ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens,’ ‘Tomorrowland’ and ‘The Walk.’

It’s once again that time of year when the motion picture industry’s visual magicians get together, swap notes on the latest nasty VFX project underbid they’ve had to counter, and select the five best VFX-driven films. This past Saturday evening, the visual effects branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences held its 2016 “VFX Bake-off,” the annual event where members view presentations of the top 10 visual effects-driven films of the past year prior to voting for the final five nominees. And once again, these VFX wizards showed there is practically no mind-bending, gut-wrenching and spectacular visual they can’t create.

A long but fun night, the nearly four-hour event, held at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills, CA, featured five-minute presentations followed by 10-minute screenings of selected finished shots from each of the shortlisted contenders announced back in December.

The Bake-off traditionally has brought together some of the industry’s greatest luminaries and artists, all there either to promote their own work or support the work of others. This year was no different, with Oscar and BAFTA-winning and nominated VFX supervisors such as Rob Bredow, Stefen Fangmeier and Bill Kroyer in attendance.

And while voting has already been completed, until the nominations are announced on Thursday morning 10 films remain in the running in the Visual Effects category for the 88th Oscars. Along with clip reels, trailers and behind-the-scenes featurettes detailing the creation of some of 2015’s most spectacular imagery, here are the 10 shortlisted films, in the order in which they were presented:

Ant-Man (presented in 3D)

Production VFX Supervisor Jake Morrison kicked off the evening with his presentation of the effects created for Marvel’s Ant-Man, directed by Peyton Reed, which were provided by Industrial Light & Magic, Double Negative, Luma Pictures, Method Studios, Cinesite, Trixter, Lola VFX and capital T.

Earning a laugh, Morrison said one of the most challenging tasks was realistically de-aging Michael Douglas for his role as Hank Pym, considering that most of the world was well aware of what Douglas looked like 20 years ago.

The primary challenge of the project, however, was creating photoreal macro-scale worlds that the filmmakers could drop Ant-Man into without pulling the audience’s attention away from the story. “My favorite thing about this film is we shot miniatures that were actual size,” Morrison said, describing the miniature sets and a dedicated “macro” unit, which ran 40 days alongside the principal photography unit with a full complement of 25 crew members. “We built every single macro set at 1:1 scale,” Morrison recounted, “and then we shot each sequence as closely as we could.”

To supplement the macro footage, the macro unit also employed three high-resolution 3D scanners to shoot more than half a million still images which were later stitched together to create 3D versions of the tiny sets.

Morrison also noted that the explosions were detonated at the macro level as well. “Let’s be honest here, the special effects crew likes to blow up big things,” he quipped. “The bigger the explosion, the happier the crew. Potentially, this could have been the worst show ever for the special effects crew.”


Industrial Light & Magic VFX Supervisor Craig Hammach presented the visual effects of director Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland, which, in addition to lead VFX house ILM, were provided by Hybride, Rodeo FX and Whiskytree. Containing more than 1,200 VFX shots, the Disney feature was delivered entirely in 4K resolution, using Dolby’s Extended Dynamic Range in select theaters, which added greatly to the complexity of the work.

Hammach also discussed the efforts that went into the design of the city of Tomorrowland -- which appears in the film in three separate variations -- and the broad diversity of VFX work that appears throughout the movie, such as the virtual recreation of the 1964 World’s Fair, in which the VFX team was tasked with splitting the Eiffel Tower in half and launching a Jules Verne-designed rocket into space.

CG environments were also supported with practical elements such as a functional 50,000-pound monorail system. “At one point we had four Gimbal rigs and an aerial rig working on five sound stages at the same time,” Hammach related.

Working alongside production designer Scott Chambliss beginning in 2012, Hammach said it took two years to develop the city of Tomorrowland. Once that aesthetic was set, the city itself then had to be built from the ground up -- including the landscape, city planning layout, architecture, and even robots and vehicles -- with even the smallest details designed to support it and create a sense of balance and harmony.

Jurassic World

Next in line, Industrial Light & Magic VFX supervisor Tim Alexander presented the visuals for Colin Trevorrow’s latest installment in the Jurassic Park franchise, which, in addition to ILM, included work from Image Engine, Hybride and the legendary Tippett Studio. “It’s probably no surprise that we felt immense pressure from a visual effects standpoint since the original movie is so beloved,” Alexander commented, describing the mandate to create effects that were “nostalgic yet new.”

According to Alexander, motion capture embellished with keyframe animation was the primary technique used to bring the film’s raptors to life, an approach that simplified multiple takes, spontaneous actions, ensemble performances and complex blocking. Maquette puppets were also employed on set, including scale models of both Tyrannosaurus rex and Indominus rex, and the production also used an animatronic model of the apatosaurus -- built by Legacy Effects -- so the actors could have something tangible to interact with during their performances.

The gyrosphere sequences proved to be challenging from both a special effects and digital effects standpoint, Alexander said, and had to be shot on location because the reflections of light would have been nearly impossible to fake on a green screen stage. Three separate rigs were designed to control the inner motion of the ball, and the VFX team was then responsible for removing the rigs and adding the reflective glass around the ball as well as the dinosaurs and the reflections of the dinosaurs within the ball.

ILM also developed the CineView iOS app for the project, which allowed the filmmakers to place dinosaur assets within a scene in real-time so they could make decisions about framing, lensing and scale on the spot, and which greatly helped with plate reconstruction during post-production since the framing was more accurate.

The Martian (presented in 3D)

VFX heavyweight Richard Stammers presented the visual effects for director Ridley Scott’s The Martian, which were provided by MPC, Framestore and The Senate. Emphasizing the mix of practical and CG effects, Stammers, who served as the production’s overall VFX supervisor, noted that the production worked closely with NASA to ensure as much scientific accuracy as possible, and that the entire film was shot in native stereo with zero-gravity sequences captured completely in-camera.

“Ridley was very keen to shoot our zero-gravity sequences as practically as possible, believing that a tangible approach was far more engaging for the cast,” he recounted. Practical sets were expanded with CG extensions, and the VFX team used tech-viz to pre-program motion control rigs to work in sync with the stunt team choreography.

With only a year for production and post, each of the movie’s three major locations -- Earth, Mars and space -- were handled by a separate VFX house. MPC delivered 425 shots of the Martian landscape, including the terrifying sandstorm at the beginning of the movie, while Framestore delivered 338 sequences set in space, including the massive space ship Hermes and the film’s climactic ending.

Stammers said the more than 700-foot long Hermes spacecraft was the most complex digital asset for the film, noting that the details were drawn from the International Space Station with the advice of NASA. Lavish establishing shots and extreme close-ups demanded a highly-detailed CG model that was in constant use as set pieces for the interactions of the crew and their space walks.

The Walk (presented in 3D)

Rounding up the first half of the evening, Production VFX Supervisor Kevin Baillie presented the visual effects for director Robert Zemeckis’ high-wire film, The Walk, which were provided by lead vendor Atomic Fiction alongside UPP and Rodeo FX. Baillie said Zemeckis wanted to put the viewer “inside the experience of walking between the two towers.”

Noting that the budget for the entire film was only $35 million, Baillie said there were 826 shots in the film, 672 of which were VFX shots -- comprising more than 80 percent of the movie. The production began with the creation of a two-hour animatic, which then became the basis for the film. A custom cloud-based rendering solution enabled 9.1 million core hours of rendering at a significant savings over traditional methods.

Avengers: Age of Ultron

For sheer visual effects production volume, no other show compares to director Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. As overall production VFX supervisor Christopher Townsend described, the project involved 20 vendors in addition to ILM -- including Trixter, Double Negative, Method Studios, Fuel VFX, Framestore, Cantina Creative, Luma Pictures, Lola VFX, Territory Studio, The Third Floor, Animal Logic, Soho VFX, Zoic Studios, RISE VFX, Blur Studio, The Secret Lab, Black Ginger, capital T, Technicolor VFX and Exceptional Minds -- and roughly 2,000 artists toiling across seven countries, sharing assets and designs in order to maintain the consistent look and quality needed across the entire film.

The list of key areas is enormous: complex virtual environments; digital forests and synthetic landscapes; massive fluid and rigid body simulations; practical explosions mixed with digital fireballs; CG shields, arrows and hammers; wire rig and pregnant belly removals; a completely redesigned Incredible Hulk that required ILM’s complete rebuild of their skeletal, muscle, skin, hair and shading systems; a broken but foreboding Ultron Prime -- a robot that looked like Ultron but acted like James Spader, complete with hundreds of rigid sliding panels in his facial rig alone (described as “creepy, weird and a little bit wonderful”); hundreds of flying robots; numerous Iron Man suits; a gargantuan Hulk vs. Hulkbuster fight; a new character named Vision, who they backed into from the other side of the Uncanny Valley to make slightly surreal and strangely perfect; a helicarrier; and a grand finale complete with an entire city rocketing into the atmosphere are just a few of the highlights.

Townsend humorously described actor Paul Bettany arriving on set in magenta makeup and a body-hugging costume lined with tracking dots outfitted with a skull cap, rubber neck piece and a cooling system hose riding on his back, and asking, “You’re going to make me look butch, right?”

The Revenant

VFX Supervisor Rich McBride drew a big laugh right off the bat, claiming, “This is as terrifying as showing shots to Alejandro. Almost.” That was the first, but not last, humorous reference to director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s intense and demanding filmmaking style. After thanking the Academy for the honor of presenting, McBride went on to quip, “However, if you haven’t heard, there are no visual effects in The the filmmaker would like you to believe.” But soon he was all business, sharing varying aspects of the film’s 630 VFX shots, created by ILM, MPC, Cinesite and Gradient FX and comprising 122 minutes of the finished movie. Lengthy takes, shot under fantastically harsh conditions, produced multiple plates which were then seamlessly stitched together to ensure that the visual effects were the last thing the audience thought about. Iñárritu said everything had to be “beautifully shitty,” according to McBride. “Find the beauty, find the poetry, find the magic, but not too perfect and not too convenient.”

McBride shared how in the director’s early discussions with him about the pivotal scene in the movie, the bear attack, Iñárritu declared, “If this scene fails, the movie fails. If there is one moment that is not believable, then everything breaks.” No pressure there! Shown to the audience in its entirety, the bear attack was stunning in its execution and impact, featuring extensive shots of hand-to-hand fighting, as well as augmented environments and CG animals added to enhance the narrative.

Under the direction of Iñárritu, the sequence was a massive collaboration between lead actor Leonardo DiCaprio, cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, stunts, costumes, makeup effects, and visual effects. Each and every moment and movement was based on video reference with the director approving each step of the choreography and keyframe animation along the way. McBride described the incredible attention to blood, mud, claw marks and “crap” stuck to both DiCaprio and the all-CG bear. Later, during the Q&A, McBride slyly alluded to the fact that a stunt-man was also used in the scene, jokingly adding that the director spoke to him the night before and hoped he wouldn’t share key details of the film. No such luck.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

ILM’s Roger Guyett, the film’s overall VFX supervisor and 2nd unit director, said the ultimate goal was to create a movie experience that evoked the feeling of one of the original trilogy films, films that have created an incredibly passionate fan base throughout the world. No pressure there! Director J.J. Abrams wanted to make a movie that blended concepts from the original films with today’s contemporary technology. As such, the foundation of their approach was to build sets where possible, use real locations, and shoot in-camera creatures and effects when they could.

As Guyett explained, the film comprised 2,100 visual effects shots -- created by Industrial Light & Magic, Base FX, Kelvin Optical, Hybride Studios, Blind Ltd. and Tippett Studio -- that included star cruisers, TIE fighters, a ship graveyard, the Millennium Falcon, practical pyrotechnics, destroying large sections of the star cruiser hanger, desert sequences shot in UAE, practical and digital shots of the new BB-8 droid, a new version of a trench run as rebel alliance fighters launched their attack on the star destroyer, a motion-capture Lady Ma, a motion-capture Andy Serkis as supreme leader Snoke, and so much more.

Guyett also described the new digital simulation system developed at ILM designed to handle billions of particles in the film’s atmospherics and destructions such as sequences of the Millennium Falcon taking off from the desert planet Jakku and crashing through the snow and trees of Takodana, as well as the massive oscillator explosion after the trench run attack and the collapse of the ground around hero characters during a 3D lightsaber battle.

Ex Machina

VFX Supervisor Andy Whitehurst presented the visual effects for Ex Machina, a film centered around a young programmer’s evaluation of a female android, with VFX provided by Double Negative, Milk VFX and Utopia.

On such a low-budget film teamwork was crucial, Whitehurst emphasized, explaining how director Alex Garland wanted something that was beautiful, elegant and could be done as simply as possible. The key in designing the android Ava was making audiences believe that a human could become completely emotionally obsessed with her -- a tricky design problem to solve.

After sharing that the film’s production budget was a mere $15 million, Whitehurst stressed how he’s never seen a film where VFX felt more included in the overall production, and how everybody involved on the post-production side felt intellectually, artistically and emotionally invested in the show. They were also able to apply money saved from efficiently avoiding overtime in the live-action shoot to additional VFX work, and made extensive use of sharpies and paper to design Ava before ever committing to expensive CG work.

Whitehurst said that body tracking and parts replacement was the toughest VFX work on the show, and that in the end they didn’t use green screens for three reasons: lighting issues, the speed of the shoot, and the desire to keep the actors focused, noting -- to laughter from the audience -- that actors generally start behaving weirdly in front of green screens.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Closing out the evening, Production VFX Supervisor Andrew Jackson presented the visual effects for George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road, which were created by Iloura with assistance from Method Studios. Jackson began by mentioning that almost all the live-action shots in the film are real, and that he is still amazed, when watching the clips, how much they were able to capture in one take in camera. He highlighted one scene where, emerging from the flames and smoke of the burning fuel truck, men perched on the end of 20-foot pendulum poles attached to moving vehicles descend on Charlize Theron’s Furiosa as she bears down on a flamethrowing Volkswagen, the entire scene captured in-camera with a minimal amount of stunt-rigging and wire removal.

And while Jackson spoke of his appreciation for the film’s tremendous practical effects work, he was equally effusive discussing the film’s extensive CG effects, comprising some 2,000 shots. As Jackson described, given the overwhelming practical approach to the film, the VFX was focused mostly in a few key areas: the Citadel and crowd extensions, which were all CG; the toxic cloud, also all CG; landscapes, of which almost every scene in the film had some digital modification or replacement; the heightening and narrowing of the canyons as well as the explosions, which were shot practically in a separate quarry; and a large amount of scenic cleanup, such as vegetation and tire track removal.

And, of course, as Jackson noted to much audience laughter and applause, the film had a lead character with only one arm.

The 88th Academy Awards nominations will be announced live on Thursday, January 14, 2016, at 5:30 a.m. PT at the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills.

The 88th Oscars will be held on Sunday, February 28, 2016, at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood, and will be televised live by the ABC Television Network at 7:00PM eastern/4:00PM pacific.

Jennifer Wolfe's picture

Formerly Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network, Jennifer Wolfe has worked in the Media & Entertainment industry as a writer and PR professional since 2003.