While 2018 has been a stunning year for character animation and world building, powered by “Ready Player One,” “Black Panther,” and “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom,” the Oscar race for Best Visual Effects shapes up as a showdown between “First Man” and “Avengers: Infinity War” — reshaping in-camera VFX for NASA’s trip to the moon versus Marvel’s brilliant CG Thanos.
On “Avengers: Infinity War,” Digital Domain created Thanos in parallel with Weta Digital. The success of both Thanos characters was a result of conveying every nuance of Brolin’s onset performance via DD’s new high-res facial capture system, which captured Brolin’s facial data and then added the actor’s low-res onset performance. Through analysis and fine-tuning, the animators accurately joined Brolin with Thanos, which could yield Marvel its first VFX Oscar. The level of photo-real performance capture definitely raises the bar for a humanoid.
Universal Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures
Damien Chazelle set out to redefine shooting in-camera for “First Man,” dramatizing NASA’s Apollo program starring Ryan Gosling as astronaut Neil Armstrong. As a result, DNEG (Oscar winner for “Blade Runner 2049”) used a diverse mixture of visual effects, special effects, archival footage, and scaled models to help create the 1960’s documentary style film. Chazelle’s space epic benefited from 90 minutes of rendered footage on a 360-degree spherical LED screen while shooting in-camera with full-scale practical crafts (for the standout X-15, Gemini 8, and Apollo 11 sequences). DNEG also recreated in CG Apollo launch footage shot by NASA.
The VFX highlight of “Black Panther” was bringing Wakanda to life (created by Industrial Light & Magic and overseen by production VFX supervisor Geoffrey Baumann). They translated production designer Hannah Beachler’s 500-page bible into the urban design of the whole city. ILM modeled cityscapes for districts associated with four of the five tribes (River, Merchant, Mining, and Border), as well as exterior and interior shots of the palace. ILM devoted the most attention to detail to Steptown, the hipster cultural center and the epitome of Afrofuturism. It’s dry and dusty and yet urban with lush elements around it. Dirt streets coexist with 1,000-foot high rises, but materials and building structure go all the way back to traditional African aesthetics.
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture
For ILM, realizing the virtual reality of The OASIS from Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One” became an eerie trip down memory lane. But while it was difficult building the diverse virtual worlds and animating the avatars so they believably resembled their real-world counterparts, the geekiest part was reconstructing the interior of The Overlook Hotel from Stanley Kubrick’s horror fave, “The Shining.” This animation was spot-on.
However, the mix-and-match digital trickery also involved shooting real actors as doubles, such as the Grady twins and the lady in the bathroom, who becomes a CG zombie. Recreating the gushing blood from the elevator was difficult, too. ILM’s sim team had to make it look exactly like “The Shining” blood in a tricky collaboration between effects and animation.
Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures
Every year, the VFX branch tends to go for the most elaborate and obvious over the wonderful “invisible” work on such films as “Mission: Impossible — Fallout.” Christopher McQuarrie’s latest franchise installment featured the most dangerous and thrilling stunts of Tom Cruise’s career, which DNEG accomplished in stealth-like fashion. This included stitching four action takes into one HALO jump and the more complex helicopter chase/crash. For this sequence, Cruise actually flew a real helicopter through enclosed canyons and along cliff-edged runs. The trickiest part was matching a six-camera array of clean plates shot from a helicopter on location, providing hours of moving footage that could be panned around and added to the action.
In “Fallen Kingdom,” director J. A. Bayona (“A Monster Calls”) channeled classic horror in collaboration with ILM, especially during the final battle in a Gothic mansion between Blue, the heroic Velociraptor, and the new weaponized monster hybrid, the Indoraptor. While the most important elements for the Indoraptor came from animal references (dinos, cats, dogs), they also looked at “Nosferatu” for the the claws, Also, the design of the arms were very long. That made it creepy and almost human.
And rounding out the year are several noteworthy contenders: “Welcome to Marwen,” “Mortal Engines,” “Mary Poppins Returns,” “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald,” and “Bumblebee.”
Robert Zemeckis returns to performance-captured animation with “Welcome to Marwen,” inspired by the true story of Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell), an illustrator who, after surviving a violent attack, heals himself through his artistic imagination. Atomic Fiction/Method Studios and Framestore deliver facial performances that blend doll and human traits, while evoking the look of Hogancamp’s photography.
Universal Pictures and MRC
For the post-apocalyptic actioner, “Mortal Engines,” (directed by Weta artist Christian Rivers and produced by Peter Jackson), Weta delivered mechanized city chases, airship battles, a full-CG villain, Shrike (Stephen Lang), and an alternate future earth. Weta built a new hierarchical layout puppet system that bridged the gap between its urban detail tools and traditionally light vehicle assets, treating London like a vehicle. Shrike, meanwhile, benefited from keyframe animation to create shifts in emotion to accentuate his machine-driven locomotion.
For Rob Marshall’s Depression-era “Mary Poppins Returns,” starring Emily Blunt as the beloved nanny, Framestore was instrumental in creating not only fantastical environments but the supporting VFX for the choreography of the musical numbers, including the making of the CG music hall stage and forest (integrated with hand-drawn animated characters from L.A.-based Duncan Studio).
Courtesy of Disney
In the “Fantastic Beasts” sequel, Framestore brings the 1920’s Wizarding World to life with 40 creatures, including the giant, lion-like Zouwu and Irish phoenix, the Augurey. Additionally, nearly 100 locations were scanned and texture photographed and combined with 2nd unit plate photography and production designer Stuart Craig’s sets to create Hogwarts, London, New York, and Paris.
In the “Bumblebee” origin movie (marking the live-action directorial debut of Laika’s Travis Knight), ILM was required to make the Autobot as emotive as possible for the 1987 coming of age story starring Hailee Steinfeld. As a result, there’s a lot more human/Transformer interaction, with Bee looking as photo-real as possible. Crucially, ILM went back to the G1 look, and the main challenge was turning the simplified toys into realistic-looking characters and finding ways to use new tech to achieve the vintage effect. They also introduce the “triple changers,” Transformers that turn from bots to ground craft to aircraft.
“Avengers: Infinity War”
“Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom”
“Mission: Impossible — Fallout”
“Ready Player One”
“Mary Poppins Returns”
“Solo: A Star Wars Story”
“Welcome to Marwen”
“Ant-Man and the Wasp”
“Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald”
“Isle of Dogs”
“The Nutcracker and the Four Realms”
“A Quiet Place”