With the VFX Oscar shortlist coming in the next week, I predict the race will come down to seven contenders: "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," "Interstellar," "Guardians of the Galaxy," "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies," "Godzilla," "Transformers: Age of Extinction," and "Maleficent." Beyond that, look for the big battle between Caesar, Gargantua, and Groot.
1. Andy Serkis’ amazing Caesar is still the one to beat. Weta Digital revamped its performance capture system (including bodysuits, cameras, markers, lighting and simulation of fur, skin, moisture, and especially the eyes), and went more photo-real by shooting outdoors primarily in Muir Woods under less than ideal conditions. Added detail and fidelity of performance weren’t enough: the process had to hold up to the rough elements as well as the scrutiny of IMAX 3-D, which provides further depth and dynamic composition.
We’re not even aware that Caesar is CG anymore after the look and intensity of the opening close-up. From there, it just gets better as we witness the tug of war of his epic struggle. It’s such a close-knit collaboration between Weta and Serkis and it’s time that the Academy honor him as well for his invaluable contribution.
2. Will the Academy honor two sci-fi movies in a row after "Gravity"? Christopher Nolan’s experimental space adventure is certainly worthy and Double Negative’s work is spectacular. In fact, the Gargantua black hole is so brilliant that physicists will now have actual models to study for the first time, thanks to the breakthrough Worm Renderer, which calculated the relativistically warped space around it and ray traced all the light paths around it.
Dneg also made use of miniatures of the three spacecraft by New Deal Studios as well as front projection with Barco projectors instead of green screen, which not only provided a great look visually but also allowed the actors to put themselves in that space.
3. Marvel’s "Guardians" rocketed to number one at the box office this year ($331 million domestically and $770.6 million globally). Since Vin Diesel’s lovable Groot taking root in our hearts, you can’t ignore its VFX chances. MPC CG-animated Groot, spending more than six months developing the tree-shaped humanoid, which required some extremely complex modeling, rigging, and animation. For example, all of his branches were modeled and rigged individually to allow his body to keep it’s rigid, wooden feel. The only words Groot knows are “I am Groot,” and therefore a lot of attention was given to humanizing his facial expressions and eyes.
Meanwhile, Framestore animated the badass Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) as well as Groot in a hand-off of assets when they performed together. The first creative challenge was creating a believable talking, bipedal raccoon. Rocket needed to look naturalistic, but at the same time he had to be made to do things raccoons don’t do, such as shooting people with big guns.
4. "The Battle of the Five Armies" represents the culmination of Peter Jackson’s 20-year cinematic love affair with Tolkien. He therefore caps his "Hobbit" finale with total war, a psychological thriller containing more of Benedict Cumberbatch as the vengeful Smaug and the shape-shifting Dark Lord, Necromancer/Sauron (no doubt the inspiration for Voldemort).
With Middle-earth as a battlefield above and below the Lonely Mountain, the VFX is much grander and complex. Weta unveils its new physically-based renderer, Manuka, for greater model complexity and for breaking down light transport from beginning to end. It will surely come in handy with the upcoming "Avatar" sequels, and was already tested in parts of "Dawn of the Apes" (rendering all the apes with their massive fur in nearly one pass).
A new wrinkle, though, is that the Dinobots transform from humanoids, not vehicles. They are bony with pivots and joints and hinges and shock absorbers. If only they were more prominent in "Age of Extinction."
7. Finally, you can’t discount "Maleficent." Consider the enormous presence of Angelina Jolie as the beloved Disney villain-turned empathetic ally, and the fact that it ranked fifth at the box office. In terms of VFX, though, the major tech advancement was Digital Domain’s facial capture of the three flower pixies played by Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, and Juno Temple, which required a more complex range of expressions and mouth shapes (assisted by a new system developed by Disney Research in Zurich, as well as digital 3D models supplied by the Light Stage system of Paul Debevec, chief visual officer at USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies).
We’ll find out soon enough if all seven get shortlisted for Oscar consideration.