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VFX Oscar Bakeoff 2009: The Dance of the Superheroes

The Academy held its annual VFX Bakeoff on Thursday, with Thomas J. McLean providing the full report with exclusive breakdown clips!

The old cooking adage of the proof being in the pudding was certainly the case for the annual Oscars visual effects bakeoff, held Thursday night at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences' headquarters in Beverly Hills. Seven films presented at the event -- Australia, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Dark Knight, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Iron Man, Journey to the Center of the Earth and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor -- and succeeded in making the case that 2008 was an impressive year for visual effects.

But the evening was all about whittling this list of seven down to three films that will be the official nominees for the 81st annual Academy Awards, which will be held Feb. 22 at the Kodak Theater.

For many, the event began with the annual reception held a few short blocks away at Kate Mantilini, where visual effects artists and execs, publicists and journos and many former vfx Oscar winners congregate for drinks, a buffet meal and a chance to socialize with their colleagues.

The socializing continued as people made their way to the Academy's spacious Samuel Goldwyn Theater, which filled to capacity as the 7:30 p.m. start time neared.

Introducing the event was Bill Taylor, the governor of the visual effects branch, who welcomed the "visual effects desperadoes" and explained the rules: The nominees for each film had five minutes to introduce their clips of finished footage from the film, which ran 15 minutes, and then had three minutes afterward to answer questions from branch members. A red light was to come on to indicate time's up -- and while it failed to activate on Taylor's cue, it worked fine during the main event. At the end of the presentations, Taylor continued, vfx branch members had 15 minutes to vote for their top three choices and drop their ballots off in the bins monitored by officers from the official Oscars accounting and tabulation firm of PriceWaterhouseCoopers. Taylor said the steering committee that had helped determine which films advanced to the bakeoff was the largest they had ever had, with 43 members.


Hellboy II was the largest character animation project ever undertaken by Double Negative. © Universal. 

The presentation order was determined by lot with overall visual effects supervisors presenting the reels. Up first was Hellboy II: The Golden Army, and Michael J. Wassel introduced the clip, running through the major sequences in the Guillermo del Toro film and explaining the use of six digital doubles and 24 CG characters, and the techniques used to create them. One sequence, in which a fertility goddess crashes through a wall, used motion control, prompting Wassel to joke: "Guillermo told me if I mentioned motion control, I'd be killed." The clip featured such major sequences as the Troll Market, the battle with the giant plant creature at the Brooklyn Bridge and the final battle with the mechanical Golden Army. Questions afterward concerned the methods used for the plant creature as he pulled his roots out of a building crumbling to the ground that was created with both miniature and CG effects, and referenced a clip on YouTube of a roadside bomb in Iraq.


Journey to the Center of the Earth offers a plethora of stereoscopic vfx. Courtesy of Frantic Films. © MMVII New Line Prods. Inc. and Walden Media LLC. 

Christopher Townsend then came on stage to introduce Journey to the Center of the Earth. The film, the first 3-D feature to be in the running for a vfx Oscar, posed special technical problems that required extremely high levels of precision to work. "Every choice about the placement of every pixel becomes exponentially harder," in 3-D, he says.

The film was shot with dual HD cameras to create true stereoscopic 3-D, requiring the creation of a dual-screen workflow that had to be built from the ground up and handle VFX tasks twice -- once for each eye -- on every frame. The clip itself was presented in Dolby Digital 3-D, with the audience members donning 3-D glasses to watch sequences from the film, which stars Brendan Fraser and was directed by Eric Brevig. Brief mention was made of the difficulty in getting the footage ready to show in the Academy theater, with a server problem during the day forcing some frantic preparations to ensure it all worked correctly.


A challenge to the Digital Domain team on The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor was to figure out the look and feel of the terracotta warriors. Courtesy of Digital Domain. © Universal Studios. 

Fraser also starred in the next film presented, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. Joel Hynek said director Rob Cohen put a high priority on the need for interaction between the digital armies of terracotta warriors, desiccated mummies and the actors. A lot of work was done on location with this film, with rotoscoping used to separate the actors from the background and achieving what Hynek called a more naturalistic effect than greenscreen mattes provide.

The clip of battling armies prompted questions about their creation, which was done mostly with Massive supplemented by choreographed movements that were dropped in to ensure correct actions. Another question inquired about an avalanche sequence that the nominees revealed was completely synthetic.


For such intricate tracking on Benjamin Button, Digital Domain made sure it could synchronize and time-code every frame. Courtesy of Digital Domain. © 2008 Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros.  

Eric Barba of Digital Domain introduced the work on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, for which a fully-rendered CG head based on the performance of Brad Pitt was created for the sequences in which he appears as a wizened old man early in the film. He drew attention to one such scene in which Pitt's character gets a haircut -- the first on-screen CG haircut," Barba says. Later sequences, when Pitt gets younger, involved a process jokingly called "youthening" and created by Lola FX, which worked with plastic surgeons to ensure an accurate look.

The reel, as with most presented, was like a condensed version of the film, showing off the visual effects highlights while still conveying a sense of the story. The reel drew questions quickly from the audience, whose queries revealed that seven animators worked on the facial animation system, details of the gimbals used on the ship sequence and revealed a digital face and hands in a scene in which floodwaters destroy the backward-running clock.


The Dark Knight's Gotham City environments and most of the action sequences were assigned to Double Negative, which created more than half of the 700 vfx shots. ™ & © DC Comics. Courtesy of Warner Bros. 

Up next was the most financially successful film of the year, The Dark Knight. A brief bit of confusion on Taylor's part as he mistakenly passed over the film and called up the crew for Iron Man, Nick Davis to joke in his British clip after Taylor was corrected: "That would have been a long flight for nothing." Davis spoke to the challenges of working on a film where the main action sequences were being shot in an IMAX-native format, requiring the vfx work to produce work that met its extremely high resolution.

That required the creation of special pipelines, especially given that there was no way to view the results in the end resolution without filming it out -- a two-week process that required footage to be sent from the U.K.-based vfx house to the U.S. for processing. There was a combination of practical and digital effects in a number of sequences, including the Batpod chase and the explosion of the hospital. The clip spotlighted most of the major action sequences from the film, which became the second-highest grossing film ever with $531 million (thus far) at the domestic box office. Warner Bros. is reissuing the film in theaters on Friday.


Iron Man, getting the beautiful profile of a superhero and having a suit that could be worn and perform accordingly was tricky. Courtesy of ILM. © 2008 MVLFFLLC. ™ & © 2008 Marvel Ent. All rights reserved. 

Rival superhero pic Iron Man was up next, introduced by John Nelson, who says the two main challenges were to make the world of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and the Iron Man suit as convincing as possible. He also was motivated by director Jon Favreau's dislike of obvious CG to create a look for the film that was as detailed and photorealistic as possible. He drew attention to several sequences in the reel, such as the Jericho missile strike, which began with digital effects and finished with a practical effect that he says was just the right mix, as well as a scene in which Gwyneth Paltrow's character reaches into Stark's normally-breathing chest -- achieved again with a mix of practical and CG techniques. The clip featured several sequences of Stark's machinery assembling the armor around him, which, it was revealed, were created after in post production by ILM using plates shot for other sequences.


Dust was added to the stampede sequence in Australia using both 2D and 3D elements, the latter generated in Houdini. Courtesy of Framestore. ™ & © 2008 Twentieth Century Fox. 

The final presentation of the evening was for Australia. Introduced by Chris Godfrey, he described director Baz Luhrmann's approach to the film as a mix of "Lucas and Lean" -- using the digital techniques of a George Lucas to create an epic in the style of David Lean. As such, about a third of the shots in the film have visual effects. Major challenges included the creation of a digital version of the town of Darwin, complete with 1930s and 1940s-era ships docked in the harbor and their subsequent destruction by Japanese bombers.

Many of the animals seen in the film -- especially the cattle in a major stampede sequence -- were digital. Another sequence in the film showing a herd of jumping kangaroos and a fly being tied for a fishing lure also were all created digitally. The clip focused heavily on the city sequences and the stampede. Questions afterward inquired about the use of miniatures, which the nominees said were not used on the film because -- they joked -- they require too much planning for the way Luhrmann likes to make movies.

As the red light came on for the final time, branch members headed for the lobby to cast their orange ballots for the nominees. The top three vote getters -- determined solely by the votes cast at the bakeoff -- will be announced as the nominees on Thursday along with the rest of the Oscar nominees. While predictions can never be made with 100% certainty, the reaction of the crowd would suggest The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Dark Knight and Iron Man are the leading contenders for the top three spots.

Thomas J. McLean is a freelance journalist whose articles have appeared in Variety, Below the Line, Animation Magazine and Publishers Weekly. He writes a comic book blog for called Bags and Boards, and is the author of Mutant Cinema: The X-Men Trilogy from Comics to Screen, forthcoming from Books.

Thomas J. McLean's picture

Tom McLean has been writing for years about animation from a secret base in Los Angeles.