1.”Star Wars: The Force Awakens”: It’s the entire photo-real package from ILM on its 40th anniversary—old school, new school, the best that practical and digital has to offer. Patterned after the first trilogy, shot on location and using real sets, it’s also “a forward motion.” You’ve got realistic simulations and artistic-looking explosions, a cool-looking lightsaber that’s as unstable as Kylo Ren, the adorable BB-8 droid inspired by Marilyn Monroe and the effectively mo-capped Maz and Snoke. It’s “Star Wars,” and still the heavy favorite to win the Oscar.
2. “The Revenant”: And then there’s the bear, which represents ILM’s other great achievement, and poses the biggest threat to “The Force Awakens.” Everyone’s talking about the harrowing grizzly attack and the effectiveness of the photo-real animation. Overall, the scene’s the ultimate in naturalistic cinema and a brilliant collaboration all the way around, choreographed without a cut and containing powerful dramatic beats. What’s remarkable is the randomness of the attack and the sympathy for an animal that’s only protecting its cubs.
3. Mad Max: Fury Road”: This represents a testament to the continuing power and influence of George Miller’s dystopian road picture, supported and finished by invaluable VFX. It’s essentially one long desert chase in the War Rig, with 75 vehicles and 300 stunts, utilizing the new Edge camera rig. But VFX touched everything, keeping the vehicles moving and later adding a very stylized DI. And the postvis department provided basic tracking and roto and helped define the edit for this immersive thrill ride. But the standout VFX effect was the Toxic Storm (Iloura), which was a particle sim done in Houdini with an otherworldly look.
4. The Martian”: Ridley Scott’s Best Picture contender is also a great instance of supporting VFX. MPC referenced NASA archives and then matched the location shooting in Wadi Rum in Jordan by adding a more alien bronze/butterscotch look to the sky and landscape. The gigantic dust storm was created through a series of fluid sims. Meanwhile, Framestore built the CG Hermes inspired by ISS, the biggest craft to date for the London studio. The six solar array wings were crucial to the design, made of various layers of silicone, plastics and metals.
5. “Ex Machina”: The effectiveness of Alex Garland’s low-budget sci-fi thriller rests with the beguiling performance of android Ava (Alicia Vikander) and the ability of Domhnall Gleeson to fall in love with her. Double Negative did the outstanding CG work, first using sharpies and paper to design Ava, and then relying on body tracking and parts replacement without ever resorting to green screen to keep the actors focused and natural during the live-action shoot.