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A Brilliant VFX Year: Oscar Nominees Say Why

Henry Turner asked Oscar-nominated visual effects supervisors from Return of the King, Master and Commander and Pirates of the Caribbean to evaluate each others work.

John Knolls work on the ghosts and skeletons in Pirates of the Caribbean impressed colleagues Joe Letteri, Stefen Fangmeier and Nathan McGuinness. © Disney Enterprises Inc. and Jerry Bruckheimer Inc. All rights reserved.

John Knolls work on the ghosts and skeletons in Pirates of the Caribbean impressed colleagues Joe Letteri, Stefen Fangmeier and Nathan McGuinness. © Disney Enterprises Inc. and Jerry Bruckheimer Inc. All rights reserved.

With two of the visual effects nominees also nominated for Best Picture, it is clear that vfx are no longer responsible for eye-popping sequences only, but are rapidly becoming as important to filmmaking as principal photography. In the event that either The Return of the King or Master and Commander takes home the Best Picture Oscar, a significant moment in the history of film will be marked a moment proving the ever-broadening integration of visual effects as a primary method of cinematic storytelling.

Visual effects have become so proliferate that it is my opinion that the category should be broadened, allowing more than three nominees. Indeed, as ILMs John Knoll (visual effects supervisor on Pirates of the Caribbean) points out, Every year now the quality of the work is really high, so the competitions tough. Theres no guarantee that all the really good, deserving work will get beyond the Bake-Off or even get in the Bake-Off. Joe Letteri, visual effects supervisor on The Return of the King, adds, You could see at the Bake-Off that all the work has hit a level of expertise that used to be something one could only strive for. Now its become the norm the bar has been raised for everyone.


Knoll and Letteri cite the flawless work in Master and Commander by McGuinness (left) from Asylum and ILMs Fangmeier (right).

Artists on Artists

Style in vfx runs the gamut from the dead-on accuracy of Master and Commander to the more fantastic achievements of Pirates and Return of the King. In what follows, the supervisors from each of the nominated films give their opinions of their fellow artists work.

The Word from Weta

The Return of the King is the favorite not only in the visual effects category, but also as an overall triumph. It not only has a chance to match the record of 11 Oscars set by Ben-Hur and Titanic, but also could become the first fantasy to ever take home the Best Picture statuette.

Letteri of Weta Digital is up for his third Oscar for his work on the trilogy. His thoughts on Master and Commander emphasize the invisible effects created by Asylum and ILM. When I saw Master and Commander my first impression of the work was that it was flawless. It made you believe the whole world of the film, really putting you back in that period. On the ship, you felt the intimacy of the surroundings and also the vastness of the ocean.


Letteri marveled at the details on the miniatures of the ships made by his colleagues at Weta Workshop for Master and Commander. Photo courtesy of Asylum.

Letteri marveled at the details on the miniatures of the ships made by his colleagues at Weta Workshop for Master and Commander. Photo courtesy of Asylum.

Of course, vfx are now cross-pollinated, so to speak. Enormous workloads often require the services of several effects houses on each film. While working on The Return of the King, Letteri had a chance to examine the ship models Weta Workshop created for Master and Commander. The two miniatures of the Acheron and the Surprise were fantastic, unbelievable models. They were something like 12 or 15 feet across, amazingly detailed and just beautiful: the rigging, the sails, everything. The effects artists would do the battle stuff by basically blowing shot at the boats, filming the destruction and then they would rebuild them every night. It was pretty amazing.

About Pirates, Letteri was most impressed by the character work on the Ghost Pirates. That was great, especially in the scenes where they are battling and going in and out of the light where you could see them actually changing from skeleton to human.

Shedding Some Industrial Light

ILMs Stefen Fangmeier, nominee for Master and Commander, detected signs that the massive scope of The Return of the King sometimes dulled his appreciation of the film. Obviously in The Return of the King we all knew what to expect there, in seeing it as a film in itself and as a continuation of the first two, and yet of course the scale got even more extreme. You sort of get saturated with that.


Letteri (left) of Weta notes that the technical bar continues to rise at the annual Bake-Off screenings. Because the competition is so great for the three Oscar nomination spots, ILMs Knoll (right) thinks that deserving work doesnt always get into the Bake-Off.

Despite his admiration for the CG character work, he thought that the quantity of effects somewhat lessened the overall impact of the film. Because they had to do so much work, there were different levels of quality in the effects. I think that maybe the most attention was given to the character work with Gollum and the spider, and yet there were other sequences that to me were less successful in terms of how they looked and how they fit into the film. I particularly noticed that at the Bake-Off, especially the whole battle with the Mumakils. There were some things that I could see didnt have quite the care because they had to do so much in so limited a time. Ive been in that place myself, where the scale and scope overwhelm the attention and care you can bring to detail.

In Fangmeiers opinion, the sheer amount of the effects distanced the spectator from the story and even the storys characters from one another. Of the films I remember as having an epic scope, I think of Lawrence of Arabia, and if you look at the crowds, therere hardly any people in there. The scope that I sometimes find more impressive is that of a landscape and nature with fewer people in it, films that let you concentrate on the characters. In Return of the King, you have these massive battles, and then there are two hobbits trying to get this ring to the mountain, and to me the two stories never felt quite connected.

Fangmeier at first had his doubts about Pirates of the Caribbean. I remember hearing about the project and I thought, Oh, this is silly to make a film after a Disneyland ride, and yet I think they really did quite a good job of making it entertaining. I dont think anybody could have done a better job with that film. The visual effects supported the film brilliantly especially the whole thing with the skeletons. Some of the boat work for me was a bit playful and not quite realistic, but that was in character with the fantasy.

Ahoy! From ILM

ILMs Knoll, supervisor on Pirates of the Caribbean, also emphasizes the invisible effects when speaking of Master and Commander. The film is so good that the audience gets involved in it and never thinks about how it was technically accomplished.


ILMs Fangmeier admired the CG work in ROTK, but thought that Gollum took the digital artists attention away from the details of the Mumakil battle. © 2002 and 2003 New Line Prods. Photos by Pierre Vinet.

Of The Return of the King, Knoll says, Theres a lot of very bold work. Again the story comes first and the visual effects are there to help to the story and support it. I think there are a number of shots that are there primarily for spectacle such as helicopter shots moving over the advancing troops, but I think theyre there for a good reason, to show the sweep of it all.

His appreciation for both films is based on different reasons. I liked Master and Commander because Im a big fan of those seafaring pictures and there hasnt been one for a good long time. I felt it really communicated very accurately what that era was like. In The Return of the King, it was wonderful to see how they built up everything in terms of how ambitious the work is. Each one doubled the complexity of the work that was done on the previous film, and for the most part Id say it was super-successful. They really transported you to an alien world that seems very real you can really believe the integrity of that world.

Granting Asylum

Nathan McGuinness of Asylum has scored his first nomination after having been in previous Bake-Offs with Black Hawk Down and Minority Report. Now nominated for his breathtaking work on Master and Commander, McGuinness speaks of his great pride in being nominated alongside such marvelous contenders. They all must be super-proud of their work!


In discussing The Return of the King, McGuinness speaks with true enthusiasm. Looking at the film as a filmmaker as well as a visual effects artist, Im still amazed by its intensity, size and scope. Even on the third go around they came up with even more amazing images, after having gone through such a giant journey. The creativity and the thought and the integration created by Peter Jackson and his team made The Return of the King spectacular

McGuinness points out that the character work set new standards. I think Gollum is technically a masterpiece of achievement. The Mumakils were incredible in design and execution. But really you have to take into account the entire job Weta did. To create 1,500 odd shots, and have such a level of amazing work, and come away feeling the third is even better than the first or second that was a huge effort. Hats off to Jim Rygiel as the head supervisor! That whole group at Weta is just amazing. They stuck together through all three films, and really kept it as mind blowing as ever!

McGuinness adds that Pirates is very similar in size and scope to Master and Commander. What stands out to me obviously are the skeletons. The texturing, the flesh and the bone, and the animation, was typically ILM spot-on perfect. The rest of the film was excellent, but the skeletons were the highlight for me from the visual effects standpoint. What was very clever was that overall they were able to put effects into the film in a way that matched the era, really suiting what the director wanted in terms of the style of the film.

Henry Turner is a writer and award-winning filmmaker, whose Lovecraft-inspired horror feature, Wilbur Whateley, won top awards at the Chicago International Film Festival. His writing on film has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Lecran Fantastique, Variety and many other publications. A longtime film festival executive, he has programmed for the Slamdance Film Festival, and currently heads FilmTraffick L.A.