Crafts Roundup: Handicapping the VFX Oscar Race

Crafts Roundup: Handicapping the VFX Oscar Race

The VFX Oscar race has come down to zero-gravity and an innovative light box, a menacing dragon, Jaegers vs. Kaiju, three dystopian adventures, a “Star Trek” reboot with Khan, “Lone Ranger” train mayhem, and two Marvel superhero stalwarts. So let’s go under the hood in anticipating the likely ammunition for the Academy’s January 9th “bakeoff” in paring down the five nominees.


  • “Gravity”: Photo-real outer space 3-D immersion and weightlessness as we’ve never experienced before in Alfonso Cuaron’s breathtaking blockbuster. A reverse-engineered, animated jigsaw by Framestore, propelled by the light box with its LED panorama of projected footage on the panels (say goodbye to the green screen some day) and robotic motion control cameras by Bot & Dolly.
  •  “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug”: Weta Digital’s back with the best dinosaur ever seen onscreen (keyframed rather than performance-captured and voiced with menace and wit by Benedict Cumberbatch) along with a rollicking barrel flume chase that would make a thrilling theme park ride.
  • “Pacific Rim”: Industrial Light & Magic added ray tracing (via the Arnold renderer) to its arsenal, which was easier to set up and enhanced the masterfully animated Jaegers and Kaiju, atmospherics, and water simulation with greater realism, taking the CG mise-en-scene to a new level of sophistication.

Contenders and long shots, after the jump…


  • “World War Z”: The swift, athletic zombie predators added a fresh take to the genre and were quite menacing, thanks to MPC and Cinesite. They moved in pyramid-like hordes resembling ant farms or schools of fish, requiring special rendering. They also used live actors and contortionist dancers to help shape the movement, and it all comes together in the “zombie tsunami.”
  • “Elysium”: In Neill Blompkamp’s futuristic allegory about the haves and have nots, Image Engine and Whisky Tree created the opulent, Bel-Air style Torus space station (a computational nightmare with complex geometry for foliage, atmospherics, and water). Image Engine also animated the Raven bird of prey assault vehicle.
  • “Oblivion”: For Joseph Kosinski’s post-apocalyptic Earth, they shot the Sky Tower sequence totally in camera in real-time, which Pixomondo stitched together and created a 15K image that would play live on the set on the projector. Meanwhile, Digital Domain created the CG drones, the Tet space station (an inverted pyramid), and destroyed the resource gathers known as hydro rigs.

Long shots:

  • “Iron Man 3”: Digital Domain, Weta Digital, and Trixter collaborated on the 14 new “foundation” suits, a rework that ensured correct physical aspects for realistic movement as well as changing proportions and component details. Plus there was DD’s thrilling “barrel full of monkeys” plane rescue, shot with live actors free-falling and complete CG replacement.
  • “Star Trek Into Darkness”: ILM built an expansive view of this tricked out Enterprise, both inside and out, allowing the audience to get closer to the crew, and built the architectural worlds that define the futuristic London and San Francisco, which was a sleeker and more efficient retrofitting. 
  • “Thor: The Dark World”: Along with numerous battles, climaxing in Thor and Malekith’s epic battle between the realms, Double Negative created a more lived-in Asgard for the sequel, patterned after the coast of Norway, with fjords, greenery and rocky precipices. Blur (the prologue) and Method (Aether crystalline projectiles) also contributed
  • “The Lone Ranger”: ILM did a bang up job of creating train chases and crashes, with the wild third-act pursuit (choreographed to the signature “William Tell Overture,” of course) raising the bar to a “French Connection” level of complexity and craftsmanship. While they tried to adhere to a 50/50 live-action/CG rule, the final pursuit necessitated going all-CG for the environments.

My predictions: “Gravity,”  “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” “Pacific Rim,” “World War Z,” and “Elysium. Now if only the Academy’s Visual Effects branch will adopt the use of before/after progressions in their presentations to better grasp the complexity of the craft. “Gravity,” alone, should prove once and for all the necessity in doing so. 

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