This season’s VFX Oscar race features bold, innovative animation, led by Jon Favreau’s “The Lion King,” the all-CG photoreal breakthrough by MPC Film, Ang Lee’s “Gemini Man” (October 11), which boasts Weta Digital’s most fully convincing digital human with Junior, the younger clone of Will Smith’s aging assassin, and ILM’s digital de-aging experiment with Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci in Martin Scorsese’s highly anticipated gangster epic, “The Irishman.”
Additionally, Weta took facial capture to the next level with “Alita: Battle Angel,” the manga-inspired sci-fi adventure directed by Robert Rodriguez and produced by James Cameron and Jon Landau, while Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, “Cats” (December 20), delivers digital fur for its cast of felines (led by Jennifer Hudson, Idris Elba, Judi Dench, James Corden, and Taylor Swift), which has a built-in creep factor to overcome, based on negative reaction to the first trailer.
But “The Lion King” blockbuster’s tactile photo-realism will be the one to beat, crossing the line between live action and animation with its stunning illusion of reality. Favreau and his team created a virtual production game changer with a new way of shooting in Virtual Reality with a live-action crew (including six-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer Caleb Deschanel), and making use of life-like animated characters and environments from MPC. The result transports us to Kenya, which served as the inspiration for Pride Rock, the Elephant Graveyard, and the other iconic landscapes. And by staying in accordance with actual animal behavior, the animation team created the ultimate in naturalistic character performance, requiring improvements in the simulation of skin, fur, muscle, and joints.
Impressive early footage of “Gemini Man” (shot in 3D at 120 frames-per-second and 4k resolution by cinematographer Dion Beebe) revealed Will Smith vs. Will Smith as something more significant than digital de-aging. This represents Weta’s next evolution in performance-captured animation beyond the simian Caesar, necessitating the New Zealand animators to up their game, led by Oscar-winning production VFX supervisor Bill Westenhofer (“Life of Pi”) and Weta VFX supervisor Guy Williams. The 23-year-old Junior appears in more than half the movie, and expresses a range of emotions performed by Smith. Weta’s new methodology involved separate mo-cap shoots for Smith switching back and forth, and new animation based on the morphology of aging. The benchmarks included more realistic skin simulation and detailed eye work, and the development of a procedural software for pores along with robust modeling.
Meanwhile, Industrial Light & Magic’s work on Netflix’s “The Irishman” has largely been kept under wraps, but the teaser trailer showcases a big leap beyond the de-aging for “Rogue One.” The brief glimpses of the younger De Niro as Frank Sheeran, hitman for mob-connected union boss Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino), looks good, as well as de-aged Pacino and Pesci (crime boss Russell Bufalino). Because the de-aging is central to Steven Zallian’s complicated, non-linear script, much will be riding on the success of the VFX.
“Why I’m concerned, we’re all concerned, is that we’re so used to watching them as the older faces,” Scorsese told Joanna Hogg (“The Souvenir”) in an A24 podcast. “When we put them all together, it cuts back and forth. Now, certain shots need more work on the eyes, need more work on why these are exactly the same eyes from the plate shot, but the wrinkles and things have changed.”
Niko Tavernise / Netflix
The rest of the contenders include the MCU’s “Avengers: Endgame” (ILM perfected Mark Ruffalo’s Smart Hulk), “Spider-Man: Far From Home” (the VFX team made a meta movie about the craft of illusion with trippy effects), and “Captain Marvel” (featuring the noteworthy digital de-aging of Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury without the use of a digital double); “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” (containing a rogues gallery of darker-looking, modernized, Titan-like monsters for Godzilla to battle); “Ad Astra” (September 20), James Gray’s space epic starring Brad Pitt, which attempts to raise the VFX bar after the Oscar-winning “Gravity” and “Interstellar” (with MPC providing greater realism for this latest travel across the solar system); and J.J. Abrams’ “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” (December 20), the final battle between the surviving Resistance and the First Order, which promises to be a summary of ILM’s franchise work along with a few new wrinkles.
Lastly, there are two other impressive CG-animated hopefuls intending to enter the VFX race, too: “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World,” which boasted tech advancements at DreamWorks for more detailed and tactile surfacing and more believable light as it behaves in the real world (courtesy of the new Moonray path tracer); and Disney’s “Frozen 2” (November 22), which opens up the fantasy world with the elemental forces of Air, Fire, Water, and Earth, requiring elaborate effects simulation advancements to meet the ambitious look of the sequel.
Contenders listed in alphabetical order. No film will be considered a frontrunner until we have seen it.
“Alita: Battle Angel”
“The Lion King”
“Godzilla: King of the Monsters”
“How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World”
“Spider-Man: Far From Home”
“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker”