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The VFX Bakeoff: Mixing Old School and New School

The VFX Bakeoff: Mixing Old School and New School

The Academy’s VFX branch voted for the five nominees Thursday night, and while frontrunners “Gravity,” “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” and “Pacific Rim” wowed the packed Samuel Goldwyn Theater, “World War Z,” “The Lone Ranger,” and “Oblivion” put on impressive presentations, too. For that matter, the remaining contenders acquitted themselves nicely: “Iron Man 3,” “Elysium,” “Star Trek Into Darkness,” and “Thor: The Dark World.” So who knows? There might be a surprise or two come next Thursday, upending my original predictions of “Gravity,” “Smaug,” “Pacific Rim,” “World War Z,” and “Elysium.”

Strategically, though, the supervisors stressed the mixing of practical and CG effects whenever possible, most likely appealing to old school VFX vets as much as high-tech practitioners. 

Weta Digital’s Joe Letteri explained that “Smaug” upped its digital character count to 60 (including every Orc) and that director Peter Jackson wanted to shoot the spider fight dimensionally to take advantage of stereo. The barrel flume chase set piece was both live-action and CG, containing real rapids, a circular track, and 20 tons of digital water. But naturally the CG Smaug was the centerpiece (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), totally keyframed and requiring complexity in facial animation, focusing on tongue, eyes, and lips. However, the addition of two forefingers and thumb on his wings effectively gave him hands to gesture with.

ILM’s Roger Guyett touted matching real with virtual in keeping with J.J. Abrams’ highly choreographed shot design for “Into Darkness.” Challenges included creating a red volcanic planet, toxic Klingon cities, and futuristic San Francisco and London. But they shot space action with IMAX large-format film cameras, which enhanced the impact.

For the heavy favorite, “Gravity,” Framestore’s Tim Webber emphasized the uniqueness and poetry of Alfonso Cuaron’s vision and the studio’s workflow, prevising and animating all of the CG space and weightlessness in advance and then later adding the faces of Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. They also had to join interior shots of the International Space Station and capsules, which were a combination of sets and CG extension. The 12-wire puppet rig, robotic-controlled cameras, and Light Box added to the combination of new and old techniques in creating a special situation that nonetheless points to the future of virtual production.

Christopher Townsend discussed “Iron Man 3″‘s multiple solutions and keeping it real on a very short post schedule. There were 41 CG suits with subtle performances. The new hero suit was in 500 shots, most of them CG, and was created by eight different companies (including Digital Domain, Weta Digital, and Trixter). Now able to fly in individual shots, it was highlighted in the opening sequence with Trixter creating complex animation showcasing the full impact of the pieces as they fly and mechanically attach to Tony Stark.

Image Engine’s Peter Muyzers emphasized the opulent world on the man-made space station for Neill Blomkamp’s “Elysium.” Image Engine focused on the hard surface of the ring structure (spokes and beams), and Whisky Tree created the landscape of Elysium: terrain, water bodies, mansions and other buildings, birds, and people.

ILM’s Tim Alexander touted the tremendous train work in Gore Verbinski’s underperforming if wildly fun “The Lone Ranger.” They mostly adhered to “The 50% rule” that evenly divided CG and practical. John Frazier’s team at Effects Works built two full-scale 1860s’ locomotives from the ground up because there were no existing period trains that could meet the requirements of the previs from both speed and safety. Powered by hidden twin diesel motors, the Jupiter train could run under its own power and pull a full contingent of train cars around a five-mile loop track that was custom-built for the movie. However, for the bravura 15-minute finale (naturally choreographed to “The William Tell Overture”), they went full-CG for trains and environments.

ILM’s John Knoll complimented Guillermo del Toro’s “Pacific Rim” in suggesting that it’s more about the monsters than the humans. The director emphasized character animation treating it like live action. There was above average shot complexity in the 1,566 shots. Most of the movie involved character interaction between Jaegers robots and Kaiju aliens with multiple layers of simulation on land and in the ocean with lots of atmospherics and intricate lighting.
For “The Dark World,” Jake Morrison described the great effort that went into building a more lived-in Asgard by Double Negative. After shooting five hours of aerial footage off the coat of Norway with fjords, greenery and rocky precipices, they married photogrammetry with high-resolution landscape data to create a large section of photorealistic terrain that could then be populated with fantastical buildings and landscapes.
Digital Domain’s Eric Barba explained the sense of ’70s spectacle and beauty that went into Joe Kosinski’s “Oblivion.” The biggest and most unique challenge was the Sky Tower Because the director wanted it shot in camera, Oscar-winning cinematographer Claudio Miranda (“Life of Pi”) came up with a modern version of front projection. They sent a small crew to Maui to shoot 15K photography footage that was blended seamlessly and re-timed by Pixomondo (“Hugo”). The footage was then transformed into 10 sets of composites to match the storylines. They set up 21 projectors within a small sound stage. The sky sequences were projected onto a semi-circular screen surrounding the set, providing almost all of Miranda’s lighting during principal photography. 
ILM’s Scott Farrar described the special zombie challenge of “World War Z,” one of the rare instances in which an expensive third-act reshoot paid off. Director Marc Forster wanted a breakthrough concept of speed and numbers. This necessitated a zombie rethink from MPC and Cinesite. Whether they were CG or live-action, an individual or a swarm, their movement would have to seamlessly blend. And it was important to decide when to use animated characters or performance. Their zombies were fast, cunning, and able to work on teams to forge streams, breach walls, form bridges like army ants. The driving force was the bite, like a fix to a junkie, so they devised the concept of leading with their teeth like an attack dog.
Stay tuned for the five nominees next Thursday.

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