The “Gravity” juggernaut, the surprising entry of “The Lone Ranger,” the new and improved “Iron Man 3,” the ascendance of “Star Trek Into Darkness” and the J.J. Abrams factor, and the power of the eponymous dragon from “The Desolation of Smaug.” We reflect on the great year for VFX with the lead supervisors of all five Oscar nominees.
“Everything about [‘Gravity’] was a different process,” reasserts Framestore’s Tim Webber. “Because of the total physicality of what happens in space and the fact that that can’t be replicated on Earth, we had to know what was going to happen in the final shot because it wouldn’t necessarily be happening when we shot it. So in order to capture the right camera moves, the right lighting, the right performance, the right eye lines, we would have to know what was going to happen in incredible detail. And there were a multitude of tools, techniques, and tricks at different times.”
Webber concedes that the lines were blurred between departments in this unconventional collaboration, especially cinematography and VFX, which has the Academy considering a new visual imaging category. But this was necessary to achieve the demands of the production, which was akin to animation, and the immersive experience. Even so, it’s the performance of Sandra Bullock that matters most, according to Webber and his colleagues, “and there’s no doubt that it is her performance on screen, even though certain aspects have been planned and manipulated and interpreted by the animators.”
But Webber thought it was a vintage year for VFX worth celebrating: “Smaug in ‘The Hobbit’ movie is fantastic, and some of ‘The Lone Ranger’ work, which you wouldn’t have necessarily thought was there, was amazing. ‘Iron Man 3’ is full of lots of good work that looks great. I had no idea that Guy Pearce’s work at the end was CG for a couple of shots. ‘Star Trek,’ again, full of a lot of impressive work. It’s a moment in visual effects history where it’s filmmaking through the medium of visual effects, and that made it incredibly satisfying for me.”
Interestingly, though, the Academy had no problem nominating Bullock for best actress despite the animated assistance while it has resisted nominating Andy Serkis for his performance-captured work as Gollum or Caesar. Undoubtedly, the difference lies in the use of Bullock’s actual face. However, it’s hard to deny that performance encompasses body language as well as face.
Which is wny the more expansive VES nominated Bullock’s animated Ryan along with Smaug, China Girl from “Oz the Great and Powerful,” and the Leatherback Kaiju from “Pacific Rim.”
With “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” there were a lot more digital environments, including the thrilling barrel river chase, along with CG spiders, a shape-shifting CG bear and, of course, the menacing and mischievous dragon voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, which was keyframed rather than performance-captured.
According to Weta’s four-time Oscar winner, Joe Letteri, there even appears to be a little less resistance to the higher frame rate. “People came up after the bakeoff and said they thought the 48 looked better this year. Peter [Jackson] tried to soften the effect with the time we spent on grading or maybe people are just getting used to it and appreciating more what 48 brings to it when compared to the 24.”
Letteri was also impressed with the work of his fellow nominees (including Weta’s animating “Iron Man 3’s” foundation suits and their transformations). “I think the trains did become a focus for that work on ‘Lone Ranger.’ What ‘Star Trek’ has going for it is a good combination of really well-done work and tight integration with the story. It fits really well. You’ve got 10 films up there now and you look at the ones that didn’t make it and you wonder how close it was. Digital is taking over more and more. Look at ‘Elysium.’ Ten years ago you would’ve built the ring as a big miniature. Now you can do that digitally and it looks great and it didn’t even make the cut.”
New to “Iron Man,” Chris Townsend’s task was to stay true to the rules while making the design language of Tony Stark’s world more special and futuristic, yet still grounded in reality. “I think there were various set pieces with the suits flying on to Tony [from Trixter] that was an homage to the very first time that Tony suits up. And then using that idea of the suit flying to him as autonomous pieces was used as a story device, especially in the glove/boot fight. The barrel of monkeys sequence was kept real by shooting people jumping out of the plane even though they wound up replacing most of the them with digital doubles. And the blowing up of Stark’s Malibu cliff house by Scanline VFX proved they could handle CG environments [as well as their signature fluid dynamics].
“Obviously ‘Gravity’ is the clear favorite going into it and I think from a technical approach what Framestore did to further the art of visual effects is phenomenal. But I think ‘The Lone Ranger’s’ presentation was very good at the bakeoff and the marriage of practical effects and visual effects was beautifully done and seamless. And I think it’s really nice to see a film rewarded for the technical and artistic category of visual effects even though it wasn’t critically or commercially that successful. I think ‘Trek’s’ work was great and similar in many ways to ‘Iron Man 3’ as a sequel. Some gorgeous set pieces with the ship coming out of the clouds. The red planet. All these space sequences. There was a beautiful aesthetic to everything. I think ‘The Hobbit’ is a phenomenal workload; the challenge of working at 48 frames is immense and Weta are supreme at handling that much data and putting it through. I still think it’s a new way of filmmaking — shooting at 48 frames — and Peter Jackson has been very brave to continue to do it after the negative criticism of the first one…once you accept it, it opens up a whole new world.”
As for “The Lone Ranger,” Gore Verbinski and ILM’s supervisor Tim Alexander utilized a 50/50 rule about splitting CG and practical until the bravura train chase finale, which inevitably turned mostly CG. “It was such a conscious decision from Gore to scout and shoot the film in a different way aesthetically. It put a burden on our shoot which went on for a very long time. Surprises were weather, being in uncontrolled conditions in New Mexico [where it snowed in May] and the Four Corners. And making sure that the right train was in the right order at the right train track in the morning was a big deal.”
One of the things Alexander liked about fellow ILM nominee, ‘Into Darkness,’ was the virtual San Francisco chase and that it shows off some of its latest water work with the Enterprise, leveraging from “Battleship” and “Pacific Rim.” “The best part of the ‘Iron Man 3’ reel was the house coming down. It looks very realistic. One of the parts I enjoyed most about ‘Smaug’ was the down-the-river chase with the barrels. Very cool and the water simulations are good and it’s well choreographed and very funny. ‘Gravity’ is beautiful. I was on the edge of my seat watching their reel. Again, I saw it in stereo in the theater and they had to basically cut their whole film down to 10 minutes and I think that some of the really amazing stuff was the camera work that they did and the large-scale simulations they did of the space station getting destroyed.”
For ILM’s Roger Guyett, “Star Trek Into Darkness” brought us deeper into the “Trek” universe. He’s currently prepping Abrams’ “Star Wars: Episode VII,” and embracing the same philosophy: “If you can afford to build it, then build it. Because you have a real space for that to react to. You have lighting that makes sense — there’s no cheating going on.
“And part of the fun in working with J.J. over the years is that you realize how important the emotional context is [with Cumberbatch reintroducing arch-enemy Kahn]. And he’s extremely economical in his use of visual effects. What is the point of the shot and how are you connecting to the audience in the moment? So much of the ‘Trek’ movie is done in the digital world and so you have to be keenly aware of why you’re doing something because a shot is not going to resonate with him unless he immediately understands what the impact of that story moment is.”
Guyett thinks the Academy could have selected any five of the 10 contenders. “Obviously Joe Letteri and those guys at Weta have that Middle-Earth world down. And clearly Peter Jackson and the audience love the characterizations that are built into that. And there’s a lot of hidden work there with all of the scales to work out. I think Tim and his team on ‘Lone Ranger’ did such a great job of putting these complicated scenes together with multiple elements and trying to work very hard in disguising the blends. And the scale of the work on ‘Iron Man’ is great, and I like the [barrel of monkeys] sequence. And ‘Gravity’ really is just very spectacular in combining the different elements of what visual effects can be now, and the choreography that Alfonso [Cuaron] did in designing the shots. I think their real challenge was making it look photorealistic and actually making the shots work the way Alfonso wanted.”