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VFX Oscar Bakeoff 2008: What's Striking About These Contenders?

The Academy held its annual VFX Bakeoff on Wednesday, and once again Jill Smolin provides a full report with exclusive breakdown clips!


The Golden Compass makes viewers believe that animals can metamorphose from moth to mouse to cat, and carry on conversations in the process. © 2007 New Line Cinema.

Each year at this time, we get to do what we love: talk about, revel in and celebrate last year's coolest visual effects films and the ridiculously talented folks who made them. This year, though, things are a bit different. The mood of the industry is a bit subdued, certainly, as the WGA strike is in its 11th week now, and, as of this writing, only the Spirit Awards is confirmed to air. Despite those conflicts, however, exciting changes are already changing this fascinating voting process.

Each year, committee members of the Visual Effects branch of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences hang their partisan colors at the door and work tirelessly to select seven remarkable pieces of work, which are later voted on by voting members of the Visual Effects branch, whose votes reduce those seven to the three films brought to the general membership of the Academy, whose final selection results in an Academy Award (phew). This year, the task was even more complex. Under the leadership of Visual Effects branch Chairman Bill Taylor (with governors Craig Barron and Richard Edlund), the branch devised a necessary solution to counteract the daunting combination of an increasingly early awards season and late-releasing visual effects-heavy films. Rather than wait until Jan. 3rd to select the much- awaited short list, on Dec. 14, the committee released a list of 15 films as highly recommended viewing. According to Taylor, this way, members had a very manageable list of recommended films to see before Jan. 3rd, and studios could opt to arrange screenings for the branch.


Transformers with its nimble and athletic, ninja-style moves, even appeals to those outside the target demographic. © DreamWorks LLC/Paramount. 

The initial list was impressive, illustrating diverse projects, blockbusters, hidden treasures and -- for the first time -- a couple animated features: Beowulf; The Bourne Ultimatum; Evan Almighty; The Golden Compass; Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix; I Am Legend; Live Free or Die Hard; National Treasure: Book of Secrets; Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End; Ratatouille; Spider-Man 3; Sunshine; 300; Transformers and The Water Horse. In addition to remarking on the inclusion of smaller films on the list, Taylor said of the animated features, "Why not?" noting that the Animation branch is now considering motion capture a form of animation. (The industry has obviously evolved beyond the last decade's scores of emotional conversations and SIGGRAPH panels that argued this very point.)

As Taylor noted, fully animated features now include copious amounts of simulations of water, wind and what used to be called effects animation, so where do you draw the distinction? Now you look at a fully animated feature and wonder, if it had been a live-action film, which sequences would have been generated by effects? Taylor adds that, "it gets complicated when you consider that one of the watermarks of an effects film is seeing how the effects are integrated into the film." When the film is all animation, that point is moot.


Hundreds of effects made The Bourne Ultimatum seem like a documentary rather than a complex visual effects feat. © 2007 Universal Studios. Courtesy of Double Negative.

The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences is constantly challenging itself to refine the process, to ensure that quality, artistry and integrity run as high as they can. On Wednesday, we got to see the results of this year's efforts, which will be further refined next year.

And so it began. As usual, Wednesday was the highlight of any visual effects fan's year. How could it not be? It's a veritable feast of sumptuous visuals, accompanied by the brilliant chefs who concocted the secret recipes in darkened rooms around the globe. Taylor welcomed us to "the greatest show on earth," continuing that "this was the toughest year ever, with the greatest number of non effects obstacles to overcome... yet the impossible was achieved with such grace." He noted that 46 members of the steering committee selected the seven films we were about to see, and that the running order was decided by lot, but would have been pulled out of a hat had he had a hat to pull them out of."

Diving in, Visual Effects Supervisor Mike Fink introduced "[The] Golden Compass, which took us from Oxford to imagined worlds of snow, water and sky." We traversed frozen deserts on the back of an armored bear; we sailed across tormented seas [the first of an evening of water]; we watched as computer-animals, with all manner of fur and feathers, interacted with humans; we flew above vast vistas in fantastical flying contraptions compelled to fly by the magic of their visual effects creators. The experience made me wish (almost) that I didn't understand this universe of computer generated miracles, but could instead believe that animals could indeed metamorphose from moth to mouse to cat, and carry on conversations in the process.


More than 2,000 vfx for Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End were completed on a schedule that was two months shorter than the previous film. © Disney Enterprises Inc. All rights reserved. 

From the wilds of frigid north, we traveled to an entirely different kind of fantasy, where cars transform to robots and exhibit more genuine emotion than the human actors who share the screen: such is the skill of the animators. Though I must admit to being beyond (way beyond) the demographic of Transformers, (but I actually paid to see the film), these icons of metal, power and, well, cars, were astonishing. According to Visual Effects Supervisor Scott Farrar of Industrial Light & Magic, who presented the reel, the animators were given direction to make their robot charges "nimble and athletic, with ninja-style moves, yet capable of exhibiting brute force." Six thousand reference clips, 10,000 parts to move, 47 transformations and an inordinate amount of animation talent, made you believe your VW might, in fact, be an entirely different kind of transportation device.


Evan Almighty featured water, hundreds of animals, a huge ark and a giant flood. © 2007 Universal Studios. Photo credit: ILM.

Car chases followed, as Peter Chiang of Double Negative presented The Bourne Ultimatum. One big chase -- car, people and motorcycle -- looked as if they all played out in front of the camera, and while many were, the effects ensured the believability of the situation, and the safety of the actors. Hundreds of effects, including rigid body dynamics (lots of falling glass), stunt doubles whose faces needed replacing, explosions, extensive matchmoving and a few CG cars, ensured that you experienced more of a documentary feel from director Paul Greengrass than a complex visual feat.

Subtle effects lent way to Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, whose effects were anything but subtle. As ILM Visual Effects Supervisor John Knoll (last year's Oscar winner) articulated, the burden of creating universes for the film's themes of "life and death, love and war" fell fully on the effects department, who needed to complete the slate of 2,000+ effects on a schedule that was two months shorter than the previous effort. In an evening where water played as integral a role as any of the actors, practical effects wizard John Frazier documented the creation of the largest gimbal ever, which could pitch and roll up to 110 degrees. Along with Digital Domain with sequences supervised by Bryan Grill, they ensured "that the water went where the script demanded, rather than where physics required it to go."


I Am Legend presented a desolate New York, which required visual effects to get rid of things that shouldn't be there. Courtesy of Warner Bros. 

Going from pirates to Noah, Evan Almighty (presented by ILM Visual Effects Supervisor Bill George) brought us even more water, hundreds of animals (most of them real -- calling them practical doesn't seem quite accurate, somehow -- with the CG animals made by Rhythm & Hues) and an insanely huge ark constructed to hold all those creatures, and withstand a giant flood that carried the tub all the way to the capitol steps. Miniatures, models, a god crane, an enormous bluescreen shoot and -- I would imagine -- a fair amount of patience contributed to this film (pairing animals on set doesn't really sound like a seamless process, in the slightest).

Visual Effects Supervisor Janek Sirrs presented I Am Legend (worked on by Sony Pictures Imageworks), a remake of The Last Man on Earth and The Omega Man. Creating a desolate New York "required visual effects to get rid of things that shouldn't be there." The team called in botanists to determine which plants would have grown in those conditions. They created 43 creatures, putting a spin on the familiar. The team indicated that though the monster-creation process started with motion capture, as their actions became more extreme, the team turned increasingly to keyframe animation.


The highly stylized 300 combined the simplicity of past effects solutions with bluescreen, matte paintings, miniatures, computer-generated water and DI work. Courtesy of Warner Bros. 

300 took the process of imagery and violence to a whole new level. According to Visual Effects Supervisor Chris Watts, this highly stylized film combined the simplicity of past effects solutions -- coffee stains for the sky, balsamic vinegar for the blood -- with "acres and miles" of bluescreen, matte paintings, miniatures, more computer-generated water (from Scanline). Add to that an intensely stylized production design and DI process, and you have the glorious (gory-ous?) violence of Frank Miller's graphic novel.

In the hall after the ballots were turned in, a friend that has contributed significantly to the industry over the last couple of decades, said something telling: "Remember back when we came to these things and we thought things looked good when we could only see a couple dozen matte lines?" Yeah. Light years have passed since then. Now we actually believe we could be watching impossibly listing ships amidst a violent heaving maelstrom, massive fields of fighting Spartans, an ark teeming with animals, monsters terrorizing a desolate New York, talking bears who seem like the next alternative transportation, car chases The French Connection could only dream of, puzzle-like robots who drive the protagonists into the sunset, and realize just how far we've come. Business as usual? Hardly. And thank goodness.

Jill Smolin has been a grateful member of the visual effects industry for about a decade, and has documented the industry (before it was one) for about twice that long. She is currently SIGGRAPH Conference entertainment director, overseeing the expanded Computer Animation Festival for SIGGRAPH 2008.