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On the Road to the 96th Oscars: The Visual Effects Nominees

Take a deeper look at ‘The Creator,’ ‘Godzilla Minus One,’ ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3,’ ‘Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One,’ and ‘Napoleon,’ all vying for the Best Visual Effects Oscar at the 96th Academy Awards coming March 10, 2024.

As notable as the five nominees are for Best Visual Effects at the 96th Academy Awards, being hosted by Jimmy Kimmel, coming March 10 to the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, are those not making the final cut, in particular Oppenheimer and Barbie.  There may be an element of retribution involved in both cases: Oppenheimer was embroiled in semantic debate as to what is classified as visual effects (photographic elements were composited together digitally); while for Barbie, Warner Bros. has been called out for removing bluescreens from promotional material for a project that kept VFX Supervisor Glen Pratt busy on 1,300 visual effects shots, 20 of which were fully CG.  Countering this argument is the fact that Napoleon and Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One were not penalized for downplaying the role of CGI, though it is widely accepted that the comments made by Ridley Scott were taken out of context. And, despite voicing a documentary for ILM, Tom Cruise routinely minimizes the visual effects work probably out of fear it will ruin the studio narrative that he performs his own stunts - which is true - but not without digital assistance to make the action set pieces even more cinematic and safer.   

Despite the questionable politicking taking place, this year’s set of nominees does include two major feel-good stories. On The Creator, digital artist turned filmmaker Gareth Edwards reversed engineered his usual world building methodology to make economical and efficient use of post-production and get the most possible out of the $80 million budget.  The other one is Godzilla Minus One, a Japanese production made for $15 million. Yes, you heard me right. It’s the first time since 2009’s South African-produced District 9 that an international feature has been nominated. Plus, filmmaker Takashi Yamazaki, who doubled as his own visual effects supervisor, is the only director since Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey to be listed as a nominee. 

And as usual, there is an MCU contribution; the emotional backstory of Rocket has propelled Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 to the front of the queue, though a Marvel comic-based film hasn’t taken the VFX Oscar since Spider-Man 2 in 2004. Another interesting piece of trivia is that Special Effects wizard Neil Corbould notched a trio of nominations this year - for The CreatorNapoleon, and Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One – while ILM VFX Supervisor Simone Coco snagged nominations for both Napoleon and Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One.  As it stands, based on it’s 5-VES Award win last week, The Creator is the favorite, though you shouldn’t discount Napoleon spoiling the party, much like what happened to the French Emperor courtesy of the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo. 

Here's a great rundown from the Academy - congrats to all the nominees!

The Creator

Jay Cooper, Ian Comley, Andrew Roberts and Neil Corbould

While visiting a studio boasting cutting edge technology, Gareth Edwards discovered a poster illustrating the steps for making a movie and realized that the methodology has essentially remained the same for over a century.  Also, remembering the painful experience of trying to fix shots after the fact as a digital artist, Edwards decided to reverse engineer the world building process by letting the locations drive the conceptual designs rather than the other way around. The result is a seamless mix of CG and real elements that are indistinguishable to the human eye and a post-production process that minimized cut visual effects shots and avoided endless iterations.

One of the film’s visual touchstones was its use of the Sony Walkman’s 1980s product design as a driving force for the retro-future aesthetic.  Plates were shot with human actors; it was later decided which actors would be turned into Simulants, whose emotional state affected the rotation speed of their exposed spinning robotic rings.  Virtual production was part of the equation for the third act, which takes place in an orbiting military space station. ILM was the main vendor for the 1,600 visual effects shots, with other significant contributions coming from MARZ, Atomic Arts, Folks VFX, Fin Design + Effects, Outpost VFX and Crafty Apes.          

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Godzilla Minus One

Takashi Yamazaki, Kiyoko Shibuya, Masaki Takahashi and Tatsuji Nojima

For director Takashi Yamazaki, capturing the original 1954 Godzilla’s balance between the human drama and monster moments was critical. In addition to directing and serving as VFX supervisor, Yamazaki wrote the screenplay; each role influenced the other, streamlining post-production as there was no miscommunication on approvals or the creative direction for shots.  The design process was driven by storyboards, which were expanded upon with previs and postvis.  Interestingly, the previous Godzilla suits inspired the overall silhouette of the iconic kaiju, and no motion-capture was utilized in the creature animation, which had to be both godly and monstrous.

As for the world building, the Ginza district of 1947 Tokyo had to be recreated using archival photographs; the art department constructed a period appropriate street set in a parking lot that was extended digitally with other buildings and miscellaneous objects.  The first ocean battle, shot on location, was hampered by unstable weather and a seasick crew. The natural imagery made the scene more believable; however, the real waves contributed to the complexity of creating waves generated by Godzilla.  The total amount of data for simulating the ocean equalled one petabyte.  Various tricks were utilized to work Godzilla into the frame. All told, the 620 shots produced by Shirogumi accounted for two thirds of the film’s two hour and five-minute screentime.    

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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3

Stephane Ceretti, Alexis Wajsbrot, Guy Williams and Theo Bialek

This year’s sole representative of the MCU has done an amazing job as a franchise to create CG principal cast members that resonate with audiences. And Rocket Racoon’s backstory serves as the beating heart of a film that provides as much emotion heft as toe-tapping pop music riffs or sarcastic one-liners. Along with Rocket, and the one word-speaking Groot, a new addition to the CG persona catalogue is the astronaut dog Cosmo. The film’s world building remains on a galactic scale, with Knowhere making a reappearance and Counter-Earth getting destroyed. 

3,000 visual effects shots were produced by Framestore, Wētā FX, Sony Pictures Imageworks, ILM, Rodeo FX, RISE, Crafty Apes, BUF, Lola VFX, Perception, Compuhire, and SDFX Studios.  For the hallway fight, 18 separate shots had to be stitched together for a oner that lasts 90 seconds; it couldn’t be one second longer or shorter because the rhythmic pacing was set to “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” by the Beastie Boys. The action had to be figured out by Wētā FX and re-speeded to the desired length. Whenever there was a change in the re-speed in or out point, the time had to be stolen from somewhere else in the sequence.    

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Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One

Alex Wuttke, Simone Coco, Jeff Sutherland and Neil Corbould

In the Tom Cruise spy thriller, whenever there is an action sequence, you can guarantee that visual effects were playing a significant role, whether recreating the historical landmark known as the Spanish Steps for the Rome car chase, or derailing a train, leaving a dangling Rebecca Ferguson and Cruise struggling to avoid a falling CG piano in a scene that harkens back to an iconic video game moment in Uncharted: A Thief’s End.  In the action sequence, shooting on locations in Norway, UK and a studio backlot had to be integrated to elevate the peril of the Orient Express carriage dangling over the edge of a blown-up bridge that was enhanced further by a CG valley and river quite a distance below. 

The airport luggage sequences used a CG set extension while volumetric simulations were done for the impending sandstorm that rolls over the dunes and descends on the Abu Dhabi town. The ramp used for the signature, highly publicized motorbike cliff jump was replaced with digital terrain that had to digitally interact with Cruise’s vehicle through an added suspension and dirt on the wheels. Because of the various camera formats, ILM had to implement several image pipelines.  Visual Effects Supervisor Alex Uttke spent four years on the film, which was delayed because of the pandemic; he was responsible for a whopping 3,700 shots handled by ILM, Atomic Arts, beloFX, BlueBolt, One of Us, Blind LTD, Rodeo FX, Alchemy 24, Lola VFX, Territory Studio, Cheap Shot VFX, and Untold Studios

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Charley Henley, Luc-Ewen Martin-Fenouillet, Simone Coco and Neil Corbould

By the far, on Ridley Scott’s epic of the famous French general, the hardest aspect of the visual effects work was creating battles filled with CG soldiers fighting indistinguishably alongside onset extras given the production’s incredibly detailed attention to accurate costume design. Motion capture sessions were held to ensure that vendors like ILM could produce the 63,539 variations of crowd agents created for the film. The air mortars proved to be so effective that one point, Scott feared he had seen a stunt performer blown-up!  As many as 14 cameras were shooting at one time for the battle sequences that feature an animatronic horse getting hit by a cannonball.  

The second significant use of VFX involved turning British architecture into French architecture, as principal photography took place in the UK and Morocco, necessitating a large number of digitally altered roofs, windows, and stonework. The third was handling natural elements such as smoke, birds - especially pigeons and their excrement - and believe it or not, dogs. Over a period of 30 weeks 1,046 visual effects shots were created by MPC, ILM, BlueBolt, Outpost VFX, One of Us, Light VFX, in-house team, PFX, Ghost VFX, The Magic Camera Company, Argon, and The Third Floor. A monumental achievement was the recreation of the Battle of Waterloo in a way that allowed audiences to understand the unfolding military strategy while still losing themselves in the chaos of war.   

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Trevor Hogg's picture

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer best known for composing in-depth filmmaker and movie profiles for VFX Voice, Animation Magazine, and British Cinematographer.