Disney dominated Saturday’s Academy VFX bake-off with five out of 10 contenders, but Jon Favreau’s “The Lion King” stole the show with the best presentation by three-time Oscar-winning VFX supervisor Rob Legato. He entertainingly touted the stunning, faux live-action aesthetic. Disney franchise heavyweights, “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” and “Avengers: Endgame,” also did well in boasting their cutting edge, high-octane work.
Faring surprisingly well, though, was Robert Rodriguez’s “Alita: Battle Angel” (which Disney acquired from Fox), thanks to Weta Digital’s impressive humanoid cyborg (Rosa Salazar). However, there’s plenty of character competition from Weta’s breakthrough CG human (the young Will Smith clone) in Ang Lee’s “Gemini Man,” Industrial Light & Magic’s innovative de-aging of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci in Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” and, yes, even the ambitious furry body replacements in Tom Hooper’s much maligned box office bomb, “Cats.”
In fact, “Cats” was the wild card of the night, considering the controversy surrounding Hooper’s demand for post-release VFX changes in a highly unusual display of perfectionism. Although the reel showed off the CG character work pretty well (minus any updates), the presentation was very awkward. First, unlike the other contenders, there were no before/after comparisons, and VFX supervisor Phil Brennan was put in the uncomfortable position of trying to explain the nature of the changes.
20th Century Fox
“Visual effects are never done,” Brennan insisted, “and we had a director particularly keen to make them better, better, better….It wasn’t any night and day changes, just continuing to refine. It was tweaks, basically.”
Still, the 1,765 shots (done by Mill Film and MPC Film) touched every part of “Cats,” which attempted a unique human/cat hybrid, live recording of the Andrew Lloyd Webber songs, and creating a CG-enhanced feline world. Yet the body replacement had to be spot-on while preserving the live-action eyes, mouths, and hands. “Every frame was compared to the original plate — like a lot,” added Brennan. “To blend properly with the live action, every nuance and every furrowed brow, twitch, smile, and frown had to be precisely matched. Basically, the character tracking had to be absolutely perfect, with at least 15 in a shot across thousands and thousands of performances.”
Performance was central to “The Irishman,” with ILM’s VFX supervisor Pablo Helman spearheading the markerless de-aging with the help of new capture software and a special camera rig consisting of two infrared witness cameras tethered to the production camera. “We didn’t recreate young versions of the actors the way we remember them but new designs for younger versions of the characters,” he said. “It took two years to write proprietary software called FLUX [which captured textures and lighting on set]. The result was a fully rendered CG mesh [based on deformation]. All the performances were achieved through 3D muscle simulation and blood flow, and [we] developed an AI system of library reference called Face Finder that helped with the renders.”
Legato followed Helman with a funny impression of Pesci and also joked about Donald Glover’s Simba having to be de-aged (“He was not interested in dots on his face”). But he expertly summarized the live-action vibe and the importance of the photo-realistic aesthetic: “We were visualizing the movie as we were shooting it…using every tool that you would use on a live-action set.”
MPC upped its animation game considerably, and it didn’t hurt having legendary cinematographer Caleb Deschanel as part of the live-action crew, shooting a cross between a nature doc and “Lawrence of Arabia.” Added Legato: “Every element in this frame is not real, but it’s real because of the way it looks, the way the MPC pipeline created it.”
Weta made crucial developments in humanizing its characters in both “Gemini Man” and “Alita.” The 23-year-old version of Smith benefited from a procedural pore distribution system, and two types of skin coloration. Meanwhile, “Alita” marked the first time that Weta created both an actor CG model along with a character model to convey every nuance and quirk of Salazar. Alita also displayed a doll-like body with 8,000 different pieces of rigid geometry and a warrior body with a more organic construction.
The bake-off also revealed insights into the making of two year-end releases: J.J. Abrams’ “Skywalker” finale and Sam Mendes’ single-shot World War I thriller, “1917,” lensed by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins. “The 1,900 shots cover all aspects of the visual effects spectrum, with significant practical elements,” said “Skywalker” VFX supervisor Roger Guyett. “And, in the rich tradition of the ‘Star Wars’ franchise, it also gave us a chance to innovate.
“One of the challenges was how we were going to include Princess Leia [the late Carrie Fisher] in the story,” added Guyett. “Ultimately, we built her performance by blending out from previously shot live-action elements of her face with digital hair, body, and costume. The creature team designed and built a huge range of practical characters, more than any other ‘Star Wars’ movie, including the tiny puppet Babu, with an animatronic head, hundreds of dancing Akis in the desert, the new single wheel droid, D-O, the Ewoks, and more. There were also many collaborations between practical and digital approaches, and fully digital creatures too, including the horse-like Orbak, Palpatine, and the Vexis serpent.
“On the digital side,” Guyett said, “a new pipeline was written for us to create more photorealistic environments. The Battle of Exegol required a great deal of animation and simulation work to create with more than 1,000 Star Destroyers and 16,000 Galaxy ships locked in combat.”
Although the VFX work on “1917,” was supportive, it could land a surprise nomination because of the unique collaboration in stitching together the sequences as one continuous shot. In addition, there was plenty of enhancements involving VFX and special effects. The nighttime village chase included pyro effects from a burning church and an assortment of specialized magnesium flares, which traveled 170 feet, every 22 seconds. And the rigorous, long distance battlefield run also included pyro effects.
“The special effects and visual effects played an integral role by continually following our characters on their epic journey through the battlefields of World War I,” said production VFX supervisor Guillaume Rocheron.
“The Lion King”
“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker”
“Alita: Battle Angel”
“Terminator: Dark Fate”