Sony Pictures Imageworks, celebrating its 25th anniversary, is unique in Hollywood as the only studio-run visual effects and animation division. Formed in 1992 (now headquartered in Vancouver), Imageworks alternates between live-action/CG hybrids and animation with its younger sister, Sony Pictures Animation, which was founded in 2002.
Imageworks has won two Oscars (“Spider-Man 2” VFX and “The ChubbChubbs!” animated short) along with an Academy Sci-Tech award this year for an advanced shading program. But Imageworks first cut its teeth on “Speed,” “James and the Giant Peach,” “Jumanji,” “Starship Troopers,” and “Contact” before tackling “Stuart Little” in 1999, the first-CG-animated character to star in a live-action feature.
Since then, Imageworks spear-headed performance capture-based virtual production with director Robert Zemeckis (“Polar Express,” “Monster House”), and has continued to work on franchises including “Spider-Man” (“Homecoming” opens this week), “The Smurfs,” and “Hotel Transylvania.”
Here’s our ranking of the 10 best VFX moments from Imageworks:
10. Re-Inventing Invisibility with “Hollow Man” (2000)
For Paul Verhoeven’s modern reinvention of “The Invisible Man,” starring Kevin Bacon as a mad scientist obsessed with sex, Imageworks digitally removed Bacon from the footage and each scene was shot twice. When he was outlined in smoke, water, and blood, he wore a latex body suit, face mask, contact lenses, and dental plate. And a digital double was used to form an outline of his performance. The highlight was Elisabeth Shue barbecuing him with a flamethrower.
9. Flying High with “Superman Returns” (2006)
Bryan Singer’s Man of Steel reboot starring Brandon Routh contained new advancements in cloth simulation and digi-double animation. The idea was to make the flying scenes more intimate and immersive. Imageworks reworked its shader pipeline, added more cameras, and captured better textures using the USC Light Stage.
In addition, Imageworks built a digital cape (using the Syflex cloth simulator) with greater flexibility. The highlight was Superman safely delivering a Boeing 777 in a major league baseball park.
8. Going CG with “The Smurfs” (2011)
One of Imageworks’ greatest achievements was translating Peyo’s beloved blue crew into CG characters living in the real world. This involved capturing the silhouette, making the eyes believable and expressive, and getting the skin texture right so that it was fleshy but not creepy. Fur they knew, but getting the correct blue took lots of tests.
But the greatest advancement was naturalistic lighting with HDRI capture using the 360-degree Spheron camera. The highlight was the Smurfs causing mayhem at the famed F.A.O. Schwartz toy story in Manhattan.
7. Electrofying “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” (2014)
The standout effect in Andrew Garfield’s finale as the web-slinger was the animation of supervillain Electro (Jamie Foxx). This required advancements in lighting and rendering (the Sci-Tech award-winning Arnold for ray tracing) to pull off his blue skin and electrifying energy effects (firing a dozen different types of bolts, which cast their own illumination).
The highlight was the climactic Times Square showdown. Imageworks built a virtual Times Square as the battleground where Electro shows off his dazzling light show. They created a storm of electricity within Electro’s skin to visualize his rage.
6. Penguins Hang Ten in “Surf’s Up” (2007)
Sony Animation came of age with this surfing penguin mockumentary and Imageworks came up with some new twists. Most important was the wave animation control system, modeled one section at a time. The movie called for simple spilling breakers, classic tube waves, and huge waves.
For the mockumentary feel, the animators designed a digital camera interface that allowed them to translate hand-held photography directly into the animated scene. The highlight watching surfing master, Z (Jeff Bridges) teaching the aspiring Cody (Shia LaBeouf) how to surf.
5. Dr. Manhattan Steals “Watchmen” (2009)
For Zack Snyder’s ambitious graphic novel adaptation, Imageworks created the blue Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup) superhero and his environments. They captured the actor’s performance with the help of LEDs, so the character could serve as a blue light source for everything around him.
Imageworks also lit up the areas inside Dr. Manhattan, in keeping with his being made of the cosmos. The highlight was Dr. Manhattan walking over the hill in Vietnam (shot on a bluescreen with a buck of rice patties) and blowing up the Vietcong from the inside out.
4. Creating a CG Star with “Stuart Little” (1999)
E.B. White’s lovable white mouse (voiced by Michael J. Fox) became Imageworks’ game-changer. Never had so much care been lavished on a photoreal CG character that lives in the real world. And the work would serve as a springboard for everything else to come.
Stuart needed to read as a human in non-human form and respond to the other characters with believable emotions. They created a library of emotions and motions along with new digital techniques for his fur and wardrobe His head alone contained 500,000 CG furs. The highlight was Stuart winning the boat race in Central Park.
3. CG Junk Food for “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” (2009)
The breakthrough animated feature from directors Phil Lord & Chris Miller (“The LEGO Movie”), who recently departed the untitled “Han Solo” movie, required lots of R&D to make the food look yummy but not too photoreal. A cheese burger, for example, had to flop and lettuce had to have the right texture.
But the highlight was bouncing around in the interior of the Jell-O mold, which jiggled and wobbled and had refracting light (courtesy of Arnold). It was also the biggest CG set for Imageworks.
2. Grabbing the Oscar for “Spider-Man” 2 (2004)
The company’s lone VFX Oscar was a remarkable achievement in integrating live-action and CG. The suit was improved through a series of better cloth simulations that blended together, and the digi-double had more believable skin in extreme close-up with the mask off, and an improved muscular system.
Imageworks also upgraded its pipeline for the creation of digital buildings in New York and fully utilized the cable-mounted Spydercam to provide a greater sense of Spidey’s perspective. For that reason, the highlight was seeing him web-sling around the metropolis in a show of power and grace.
1. The Ultimate Hybrid for “Alice in Wonderland” (2010)
The $1 billion-grossing hybrid from Tim Burton represents Imageworks’ most ambitious achievement to date. With more than 1,700 shots and 35 characters, it offered a new synthesis of CG techniques, applying green screen work with live actors, virtual sets, CG animation, and part-animated, part-human characters into a coherent whole.
The highlight was Helena Bonham Carter’s Red Queen rushing around the palace like a baby tyrant. With a head three times normal size and a pinched body (thanks to Burton’s caricature), the VFX team scaled down everything and then re-attached the non-scaled version back onto the scaled-down version. “Off with their heads!”