The Impactful 8: Ranking the Top Contenders the VFX Oscar Race

1. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”: 
It’s “Star Wars” 30 years on, with the original cast passing the torch to a new generation and J.J. Abrams going after the original George Lucas vibe, utilizing the best tech (both high and low) at ILM—so, of course, it’s the frontrunner. Everything relates back to “The New Hope,” whether it’s a ship, a set, a matte painting, or a location. They even reverse-engineered the VFX to accommodate 2D forced perspective backings rather than relying on CG set extensions. But for all of the old-school methodology, you can be sure there’s plenty of CG characters, environments and mayhem. Yet only when expedient. This back-to-basics, hybrid approach should be as much a summary statement about the franchise as it is about ILM. It’s all about maintaining continuity.

2. “Jurassic World”:
 It’s ILM again and it’s all about building the mother of all dinos, the Indominus Rex—a T-Rex/raptor hybrid, able to use her hands and tail more effectively while running swiftly and having a ferocious bite. Meanwhile, they used mocap for the four raptors, which provided a lot of the primary action and quirkiness. Performances are better than ever, thanks to new rigs, new skin and muscle systems and new lighting and rendering. This also played into the Indominus being partly albino. Then there’s the return of the original T-Rex from “Jurassic Park”: her design is exactly the same, even down to the scratches she has on her neck.

3. “The Martian”:
Ridley Scott’s best film in years contains a bronze Mars (MPC) as well as the impressive Hermes space ship (Framestore). MPC referenced NASA archives and then matched the location shooting in Wadi Rum in Jordan (“Lawrence of Arabia” country) by adding a more alien touch to the sky and landscape applied during the grade. MPC additionally created created a full-CG version of the Wadi Rum Hab environment using high-resolution photography taken on location in Jordan, adding extra rocks, craters, mountain ranges and a view of a distant Olympus Mons to create a grander landscape. The gigantic dust storm was created through a series of fluid simulations. 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.

4. “Avengers: Age of Ultron”:  ILM made its most elaborate robot yet for the Avengers sequel, modeled after James Spader’s haughty performance. In fact, there are two Ultrons: the early defective version, and the sophisticated Ultron Prime. Facial performance was vital, and Ultron’s face had about 600 controllers to capture Spader’s nuances, including his lip curl. But they couldn’t make it look like skin, so the rigger set it up so that the plates of Ultron’s face slid under one another.The breakthrough came when ILM showed Joss Whedon the first close-ups of Ultron talking and it changed everything: Ultron could be Ultron without holding back.

5. “Ant-Man”: The challenge here was pulling off a 21st-century version of the “Incredible Shrinking Man” gag, and so they created a Macro Unit that worked on its own sound stage at Pinewood in Atlanta. There was a dedicated art department that made tiny props, a camera crew that shot and played with forced perspective and a VFX team at Double Negative that captured all of the photographic environments with its Jigsaw tool. But it had to be flexible enough to move the camera anywhere and it had to be photoreal. That meant using motion picture macro-photography, still macro-photography, and mocap suits, tiling all of the surfaces to make them tactile, and then stitching it all together and moving the virtual camera in sharp panoramas. In other words, it was Marvel’s version of “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.”

6. “Everest”: 
Director Baltasar Kormakur smartly wooed Dadi Einarsson away from Framestore (after the Oscar-winning “Gravity”) to run his VFX company, RVX, and come up with the best solution for “Everest.” Einarsson utilized 360-degree virtual sets along with a combo of practical locations, stage, and green screen. They built the set in a tank at Cinecitta so they could have a wall of green screen rising up around them. They blew a lot of snow on the actors, providing a good base layer for the CG snow. Never has ice, snow, storm, avalanches, and cold breath been depicted so believably and terrifyingly.

7. “Ex Machina”: The sentient Ava (Alicia Vikander) from Alex Garland’s Pinteresque sci-fi fable is a remarkable achievement. Double Negative and production VFX supervisor Andrew Whitehurst eschewed previs and performance capture so Vikander could perform unencumbered and instead used body capture and tracked her performance with precision. Many of the shots were 200 frames (and the longest was 1,600) The design was inspired more by Formula One car suspensions and high-end road bikes than robots. It took six months of post-production to marry Vikander’s performance with the VFX team’s rendering to create the remarkable Ava, a machine we believe that Domhnall Gleeson could fall in love with.

8.”The Revenant”: ILM is the lead studio on Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning “Birdman,” the year’s most anticipated best picture contender. Naturally everything’s under wraps, but MPC, Cinesite, and Gradient FX are also involved—you can be bet the bear that mauls Leonardo DiCaprio is CG, along with the buffalo herd, and that those long takes by Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki (using the new Alexa 65 with natural light) will require some virtual stitching as well.

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