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Taking a Deeper Look at the VFX Oscar Nominees

Taking a Deeper Look at the VFX Oscar Nominees

It’s a tight race between “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” and “Interstellar,” yet all five contenders demonstrate how tech has freed artists to create captivating performances and believable environments.

1. For “Apes,” Weta Digital developed an on-set performance capture system (including bodysuits, cameras, markers, lighting) to shoot apes and humans together outdoors in less than ideal conditions. They also went beneath the skin to create physically-based skeletons, muscle systems and a new dynamics-based fur system. Because the apes talk, they added face shapes, adjusted the skin and rebuilt the eyelids and skin around the eyes, and improved moisture around the eyes while incorporating some of the actors’ likenesses into the apes’ eyes and brows.

With all of that, you had remarkable performances by Andy Serkis as Caesar and Toby Kebbell as rival Koba. But Weta excelled at environment and action as well, witness the bravura one-shot of Koba breaking into the colony with a tank, his disarming encounter with two drunken humans and the climactic Tower fight between Caesar and Koba. 

2. Double Negative introduced its own new tech for the wormhole and black hole in “Interstellar,” developing the Worm Renderer, which calculated warped space and ray traced all light paths. For the spectacular climax inside the black hole’s Tesseract, they achieved an inter-dimensional representation of time through practical and digital means, allowing a poignant conclusion to the father-daughter story.

At Christopher Nolan’s behest, there was no green screen in “Interstellar.”  Instead, DNeg used miniatures of the three spacecraft made by New Deal Studios and shot them under real lighting conditions with realistic exposure ratios, and got the cameras to behave naturally around them. And they used digital front projection using Barco projectors to immerse the actors in their space imagery. The crew shot the water and ice planets on location in Iceland, but DNeg enhanced the former with 4,000-foot animated waves and the latter with marble sheets of ice through a combination of CG and matte paintings.

3. For “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” the Russo brothers wanted a gritty, conspiratorial vibe from the ’70s (“Three Days of the Condor”), which meant a practical, grounded style. Apart from the impressive virtual recreations of Washington DC and digital doubling, the real star was ILM’s next-gen Helicarrier, “Project Insight,” a technological marvel and ultimate superweapon. ILM did a complete rebuild, and expanded from one to three massive airships. The CG models of Project Insight significantly became the largest in ILM history. Scanline VFX contributed to the Quinjet chase of Steve Rogers as he flees on his motorcycle as well as the tense Elevator flight.

4. James Gunn’s nostalgic space opera, “Guardians of the Galaxy,” was the surprise blockbuster of 2014, fueled by the oddball pairing of Rocket the raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel), the tree-shaped humanoid.
It also became a summary statement for the dysfunctional Marvel universe. Groot and Rocket were conceived separately and assets were shared between MPC (which developed Groot) and Framestore (which developed Rocket). 

Groot required some extremely complex modeling, rigging and animation. And a lot of attention was given to humanizing his facial expressions and eyes. Framestore captured the essential physicality and cunning of a raccoon, though some adaption of Rocket was required to fit him into the MPC pipeline. He was then integrated and animated into a number of MPC sequences (the “Cocoon,” the “Nebula Rebuild,” “Spores” and “Net”).

5. The return of Bryan Singer made “X-Men: Days of Future Past” a glorious mind-bender. Digital Domain delivered a new manipulation system that gave Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique a dynamic new look and added a new rigging system that mimicked her mutant ability in the virtual realm. DD also animated the 1973-era Sentinel robots, and recreated the 1973 White House and grounds. These 360-degree environments were developed to stand alone in pristine form and together in a unique fusion for a symphony of destruction.

However, Rising Sun Pictures stole the show at Saturday’s bakeoff with the dazzling Quicksilver (Evan Peters) Kitchen sequence. This generated the most enthusiastic response and helped deliver the nomination. It involved an intricate blend of live-action, CG props and VFX. Everything from frying pans, knives, pots of boiling soup, carrots and bullets were rendered in near microscopic detail, placed precisely within the geometry of the kitchen and choreographed to move and react realistically to lighting, other objects and characters. Then the frame rate was manipulated for the mischievous Quicksilver to throw off the assailants in hilarious fashion.

It’s great spectacle, which, after all, is what VFX is still all about.

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