Os­cars 2014: The VFX Con­tenders

Animation Magazine - - Content - By Thomas J. Mclean

by Thomas J. McLean

Most of the at­ten­tion in this year’s race for the Out­stand­ing Vis­ual Ef­fects Os­car is cen­tered on the ground­break­ing work of Grav­ity. And while the Al­fonso Cuaron-di­rected pic is the fron­trun­ner head­ing into the an­nual bake-off, the 10 films in con­tention demon­strate the wide breadth of what vis­ual ef­fects are ca­pa­ble of and an ex­cel­lent snap­shot of the cur­rent state of the art.

With Grav­ity as close to a sure bet for a nom­i­na­tion as pos­si­ble, the other four slots are very much up in the air. The nom­i­nees will be de­ter­mined at the academy’s an­nual bake-off event, set for Jan­uary 9, at which the 10 films that made the short list will present reels. A vote by at­tend­ing vfx branch mem­bers will fol­low to de­ter­mine the five nom­i­nees that will be pre­sented to the en­tire Academy mem­ber­ship for the fi­nal choice of win­ner.

Here’s a run­down in al­pha­bet­i­cal or­der of the films in the run­ning for the nom­i­na­tion:

Ely­sium

Con­tribut­ing VFX Houses: Weta, In­dus­trial Light & Magic, MPC, Method, Whiskytree, Em­bassy, 32Ten Stu­dios, An­i­ma­trix, Kerner Op­ti­cal, Im­age En­gine VFX Su­per­vi­sor: Peter Muyz­ers Vis­ual High­lights: Neill Blomkamp’s fu­tur­is­tic take on the class di­vide, which sees the wealthy aban­don­ing terra firma for a lux­ury space sta­tion, of­fers a gamut of vfx from the vi­o­lent spec­ta­cle of an ex­plod­ing ro­bot, to a gritty search for re­al­ism re­ly­ing on prac­ti­cal and in-cam­era ef­fects work, to the sleek sub­sti­tu­tion of he­li­copters for ver­ti­cal-take­off shut­tles and ac­tors in marked suits for bat­tle-ready an­droids. Build­ing the or­bit­ing par­adise of Ely­sium was another chal­lenge, as the crew mod­eled the ter­rain on the man­sions of Malibu, re­mov­ing Earthly el­e­ments and adding in the stun­ning back­ground of the ring and the heav­ens be­yond them.

Grav­ity

Con­tribut­ing VFX Houses: Frame­store, Ris­ing Sun Pic­tures, Prime Fo­cus VFX, Peanut FX, The Third Floor VFX Su­per­vi­sor: Tim Web­ber Vis­ual High­lights: Pretty much the en­tire movie is a vfx high­light, with some 95 per­cent of the movie cre­ated dig­i­tally. But noth­ing quite matches the open­ing shot, which runs an un­in­ter­rupted 13 min­utes be­fore a cut of any kind. Then it swoops in and around the space shut­tle as the movie in­tro­duces its char­ac­ters and lit­er­ally sends them spin­ning into the void af­ter space de­bris shreds their satel­lite-re­pair mis­sion. The re­cep­tion has been stag­ger­ingly pos­i­tive, and the way Web­ber col­lab­o­rated with di­rec­tor Al­fonso Cuaron and cin­e­matog­ra­pher Em­manuel Lubezki to in­te­grate the ef­fects into the sto­ry­telling and de­sign of the movie el­e­vates the craft to a new level. A nom­i­na­tion is guar­an­teed; an easy vic­tory on Os­car night is about as sure a bet as you’re likely to make this year.

The Hob­bit: The Deso­la­tion of Smaug

Con­tribut­ing VFX Houses: Weta Dig­i­tal, Weta Workshop VFX Su­per­vi­sor: Joe Let­teri Vis­ual High­lights: The hours-long jour­ney un­der­taken in Peter Jack­son’s pre­quel se­ries pays off in a big way with the ar­rival of Smaug. The gi­ant dragon is as im­pres­sive an imag­i­nary crea­ture as has been put on screen, aided in no small part by the mo­cap-ref­er­enced per­for­mance from Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch. Smaug is equally im­pres­sive in his lair: a mas­sive dun­geon full of enough gold coins to make Scrooge McDuck en­vi­ous, all of them tum­bling and rolling like waves. As if that wasn’t enough, The Hob­bit also fea­tures an amaz­ing for­est bat­tle with some men­ac­ing and gross gi­ant spiders and a rol­lick­ing chase in­volv­ing elves pur­su­ing bar­rel-rid­ing dwarves down a white­wa­ter ob­sta­cle course.

Iron Man 3

Con­tribut­ing VFX Houses: Weta Dig­i­tal, Dig­i­tal Do­main, Scan­line VFX, Trix­ter, Frame­store, Method Stu­dios, Fuel VFX, Cre­ative Cantina, Pro­logue, Luma Pic­tures, The Em­bassy, 4DMax, Cap­i­tal T, Lola, Rise FX VFX Su­per­vi­sor: Christo­pher Townsend Vis­ual High­lights: The ante was upped af­ter the suc­cess of Avengers, and Iron Man 3 set out to top it­self with more vari­a­tions on Tony Stark’s ar­mor than seen in all the pre­vi­ous movies put to­gether. But the real stun­ner in this Mar­vel movie was the may­hem-filled rocket at­tack on and de­struc­tion of Stark’s iconic Malibu home—al­most of which was done dig­i­tally. Also high on the list is a sky­div­ing se­quence known as the “bar­rel of mon­keys” scene, in which Iron Man saves the pas­sen­gers ejected with­out para­chutes from Air Force One. Throw in the funky look­ing Ex­tremis ef­fect, which causes those in­fected by it to over­heat to the point of de­struc­tion, and you’ve got an im­pres­sive can­di­date for an Os­car nom.

The Lone Ranger

Con­tribut­ing VFX Houses: ILM, MPC, Crea­ture Ef­fects, New Deal Stu­dios, 32Ten, Lola VFX, Gen­tle Gi­ant VFX Su­per­vi­sors: Tim Alexan­der and Gary Brozenich Vis­ual High­lights: While it was widely panned as the year’s most high-pro­file com­mer­cial and cre­ative flop, there was plenty of good vis­ual ef­fects work be­hind the mask. Most of it was missed be­cause it was in­vis­i­ble—hun­dreds of shots of pho­to­re­al­is­tic Old West en­vi­ron­ments and trains con­vinc­ing enough to fool even the most sea­soned ef­fects pro­fes­sion­als. Few ex­pect Ranger to make the cut for a nom­i­na­tion, but this is one film where a great reel at the bakeoff could make a big im­pact, as it did in 2006 when the oth­er­wise for­get­table Po­sei­don slid into a nom­i­na­tion. That year, in­ter­est­ingly enough, saw Ranger di­rec­tor Gore Verbin­ski’s pre­vi­ous fran­chise take home the VFX Os­car for Pi­rates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.

Obliv­ion

Con­tribut­ing VFX Houses: Dig­i­tal Do­main, Pixomondo, Third Floor, Gen­tle Gi­ant VFX Su­per­vi­sors: Eric Barba and Bjorn Mayer Vis­ual High­lights: “El­e­gant” is the only way to de­scribe the slick ef­fects work in this film. The sleek­ness of the home in the sky—com­plete with trans­par­ent swim­ming pool and ham­ster-wheel tread­mill—as well as the bub­ble­ship flown by Tom Cruise’s char­ac­ter are an en­tic­ing mix of prac­ti­cal and dig­i­tal ef­fects. The in­te­gra­tion of those fu­tur­is­tic de­sign el­e­ments with the all-dig­i­tal nat­u­ral im­ages of a dev­as­tated fu­ture Earth is an im­pres­sive, un- der­stated ac­com­plish­ment the vfx branch is likely to re­spond well to.

Con­tribut­ing VFX Houses: ILM, Base FX, Rodeo FX, Hy­bride, Ghost VFX, Vir­tuos VFX Su­per­vi­sor: John Knoll, James E. Price Vis­ual High­lights: It’s gi­ant ro­bots fight­ing mon­sters in the mid­dle of the ocean, so there’s hardly a frame in the movie with­out some kind of amaz­ing dig­i­tal ef­fect. The com­plex­ity of the ro­bots and mon­sters, and con­vinc­ingly em­bed­ding them in re­al­is­tic en­vi­ron­ments, made for some of the most thrilling ef­fects work of the year. Par­tic­u­lar stand­outs in­clude a de­struc- tive bat­tle in the midst of a dense Asian city, and the fi­nale’s un­der­wa­ter bat­tle se­quences.

Star Trek Into Dark­ness

Con­tribut­ing VFX Houses: ILM, Pixomondo, Kelvin Op­ti­cal, Atomic Fic­tion, Gen­tle Gi­ant VFX Su­per­vi­sor: Roger Guyett Vis­ual High­lights: This J.J. Abrams se­quel to the hit 2009 re­boot pushed the ef­fects into warp drive. See­ing the USS En­ter­prise emerge from its un­der­wa­ter hiding spot in amaz­ing de­tail was topped by Spock’s vol­cano ad­ven­ture, the pink-fo­liaged alien planet and a rocket suit chase through an as­ter­oid field. Star­ships crash­ing into cities and a fi­nale fight on a fly­ing garbage barge all add up to an im­pres­sive dis­play of ef­fects power.

Thor: The Dark World

Con­tribut­ing VFX Houses: Dou­ble Neg­a­tive, The Base Stu­dio, The Third Floor, Method Stu­dios, Gen­tle Gi­ant, Luma Pic­tures, 4DMax VFX Su­per­vi­sor: Jake Mor­ri­son Vis­ual High­lights: This lively se­quel con­tin­ues the adventures of Mar­vel’s Nordic-in­spired thun­der god hero with a grand vi­sion for the many realms of As­gard, which is in­vaded by a horde of Dark Elves seek­ing en­ergy. There’s a light deft­ness to the way the film han­dles the now-stan­dard scenes of su­per­heroes bat­tling each other and wreaking havoc through densely pop­u­lated cities.

World War Z

Con­tribut­ing VFX Houses: Ci­ne­site, Halon En­ter­tain­ment, MPC, 4DMax, The Aaron Sims Co., FX3X, The Third Floor, Legacy Ef­fects, Frame­store VFX Su­per­vi­sor: Scott Far­rar Vis­ual High­lights: Movie­go­ers have seen plenty of zom­bies be­fore, but never like this. In both quan­tity and qual­ity, World War Z raised the bar on zom­bie movie ef­fects, cre­at­ing hordes com­prised of thou­sands upon thou­sands of the un­dead walk­ers. Us­ing mas­sive crowd sim­u­la­tions and an­i­ma­tion tech­niques, the movie’s ef­fects work put some 8,500 zom­bies in a sin­gle shot and made con­vinc­ing their swarm­ing of the en­tire city of Jerusalem. That the zom­bies were fast-mov­ing and deadly dan­ger­ous in­stead of slow and sham­bling only added to the authen­tic­ity. When it comes to im­press­ing vot­ers, that—plus be­ing a rare horror genre can­di­date—may work in World War Z’s fa­vor.

Ely­sium Grav­ity

The Hob­bit: The Deso­la­tion of Smaug

Iron Man 3 The Lone Ranger Obliv­ion Pa­cific Rim

Star Trek Into Dark­ness Thor: The Dark World World War Z

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