There’s little doubt about James Cameron’s “Avatar: The Way of Water” (20th Century/Disney) winning the VFX Oscar, even though it doesn’t arrive until December 16. Not when it has the makings of being another industry game changer.
That is, unless it turns out to be a major disappointment. Otherwise, the state of the race will focus on winnowing the other contenders, of which there are several Marvel and DC films, a few sci-fi thrillers, and other assorted action-adventures and fantasies.
On the Marvel side there’s Ryan Coogler’s transformational “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” Sam Raimi’s trippy “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” and Taika Waititi’s imaginative “Thor: Love and Thunder,” while DC offers “Matt Reeves’ noirish “The Batman,” and the introduction of Dwayne Johnson as the roguish “Black Adam.” But keep in mind that there hasn’t been a superhero VFX Oscar winner since “Spider-Man 2” in 2004.
In addition, there’s the franchise finale “Jurassic World: Dominion” (Universal), Joseph Kosinski’s high-octane “Top Gun: Maverick” (Paramount), the Daniels’ surprising multiverse of “Everything Everywhere All at Once” (A24), the flipped-out spectacle of Jordan Peele’s “Nope” (Universal), and Baltasar Kormákur’s survival thriller “Beast” (Universal).
At this stage, early frontrunners include “The Batman,” “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” “Jurassic World: Dominion,” and “Top Gun: Maverick.”
20th Century Studios
Welcome back to Pandora
With the original “Avatar,” Weta Digital (now Wētā FX) revolutionized virtual production and 3D spectacle, shooting in the volume with a lightweight virtual camera and a “director-centric” workflow created by Oscar-winning Rob Legato (“The Jungle Book,” “Hugo,” “Titanic”). Under the leadership of senior visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri — the four-time Oscar winner for “Avatar,” “King Kong,” and the two “Lord of the Rings” sequels, “The Two Towers” and “The Return of the King” — the wizards of Weta rewrote the photoreal playbook for character animation, world building, lighting, and rendering.
Letteri reunites with Cameron on “Way of the Water,” where they explore new frontiers of Pandora, particularly the sweeping oceans, which take up a large portion of the film. The oceans contain innovative water development, including first-time underwater performance capture, for which Wētā developed a new system blending underwater photography and performance capture using hundreds of cameras and markers. The actors learned how hold their breath and were joined by aquatic performers. But there were several obstacles to overcome, including shielding the light from above by placing small white balls on the surface. They also had to prevent reflections in the water from the dots and markers because of a moving mirror effect. Judging from the impressive animation in the teaser, Wētā appears to have rewritten the photoreal playbook once again.
Marvel vs. DC
“The Batman” utilized ILM’s StageCraft LED volume to add unfinished skylines to a reimagined Gothic-nightmare Gotham. ILM set up a customized pop-up StageCraft volume set in London, which meant the CG content had to be ready to go, powered in real-time by Epic’s Unreal engine, and projected on the LED wall screens behind the actors. The highlight was the gorgeous sunset shot behind Batman (Robert Pattinson) at the end of the film, inspired by the breathtaking lighting in Wong Kar Wai’s “In the Mood for Love.” In addition, Wētā used its virtual production prowess to complete the rainy Batmobile freeway chase with Penguin (Colin Farrell). Aside from recreating cinematographer Greig Fraser’s in-camera lighting effects through virtual cinematography in comp, they were chiefly tasked with working out timing, composition, and action beats of the all-CG portions of the chase — though they also had to digitally replicate the globs of silicone the cinematographer added to the filters.
“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” allowed Raimi to channel his B-movie “Evil Dead” horror side while going psychedelic in the manner of Jack Kirby’s comic book art. Wētā, ILM, Framestore, Digital Domain, and Luma Pictures were among the VFX studios that contributed to the multi-dimensional and character mayhem. Framestore contributed the opening Vishanti temple fight between universes with a fiery ribbon demon; Luma created the tentacled Gargantos creature; ILM did the Illuminati headquarters battles, climaxing with Scarlet Witch’s (Elizabeth Olsen) take down of the group’s members; Digital Domain handled the ruined, Victorian-looking New York City; and Wētā made Zombie Strange (the re-animated corpse of Benedict Cumberbatch’s titular wizard) for his final battle with Scarlet Witch (see standout characters below).
Judging from the trailer for “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever,” the sequel will pit Shuri (Letitia Wright), Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), and Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) against the underwater kingdom of Talocan, led by Tenoch Huerta as Namor the Submariner. Joining the fight for Wakanda is Dominique Thorne as Riri Williams/Ironheart, a genius inventor who creates a suit of armor similar to the one worn by Tony Stark’s Iron Man — which should be one of the VFX centerpieces along with the thrilling car chases and explosive fights, done with Coogler’s preference for as much in-camera work as possible. Collaborating on the VFX (production supervised by Geoffrey Baumann) are Wētā, ILM, Digital Domain, and Cinesite, among others.
“Thor: Love and Thunder” is definitely more complex than its predecessor “Ragnarok,” with contributions from Framestore, Wētā, Luma Pictures, Method Studios, Rising Sun Pictures, and ILM. Method provided the floating, low-gravity debris and volumetric shadows of the film’s standout Moon of Shame sequence, and StageCraft was used for the first time on an MCU film (as an interactive lighting tool with most VFX finished downstream). But the big “Love and Thunder” advancement was the development of the Platelight lighting rig by Satellite Lab for the Moon sequence, in which multiple strobe-like lighting passes were captured on the actors simultaneously from six different angles with a high-speed camera, oscillating between black-and-white and color, and controlled in post as separate bits. (This basic time-multiplexed technique was invented by Paul Debevec’s research team at USC’s Light Stage lab, and introduced to Waititi and production VFX supervisor Jake Morrison.)
Still to come from DC: the “Shazam!” spin-off, “Black Adam,” starring Dwayne Johnson as the titular Egyptian warrior-turned superhero, who’s recruited by the Justice Society of America to combat the villainous Sabbac (Marwan Kenzari). His strength is visualized by electrical power simulations; Wētā, Scanline VFX, Digital Domain, Rodeo FX, and Lola VFX worked on the film.
Other noteworthy contenders
“Top Gun: Maverick” became a global box office sensation with the help of Tom Cruise’s amazing aerial work in the jet fighters for the training dogfight scenes and the climactic bombing mission. The secret weapon was the innovative Sony Rialto Camera Extension System overseen by cinematographer Claudio Miranda, which fit six 6k Venice cameras inside the cockpits. But in tandem with the thrilling in-camera work was essential supporting VFX for the dogfights and explosive raid (principally from Method — now part of Framestore — under the production supervision of Ryan Tudhope). It was a seamless blend, with the CG-heavy attack on the uranium-refinement facility serving as an ode to both the “Star Wars” Death Star raid and the World War II drama “The Dam Busters.”
“Nope,” which deconstructs the UFO film as the ultimate IMAX spectacle about our addictive, thrill-seeking gaze, makes great use of VFX (led by MPC’s production VFX supervisor Guillaume Rocheron). The work includes the mysterious alien entity, Jean Jacket, hidden behind the clouds that subsequently unfolds into an a unique wind creature, and the cloudscapes, which were treated as modular CG sets using hundreds of geometric approximations of clouds positioned and animated with volumetric simulations alongside the UFO. The film also demonstrates a new approach to converting plates shot during the day into night-time, in conjunction with cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema’s innovative technique for shooting large format day-for-night. This consisted of shooting each sequence on an infrared digital 65mm camera synchronized with a 65mm Panavision System film camera. They then blended this seamlessly with footage captured through the traditional camera lens. This enabled the post-production crew to manipulate colors and visibility, crafting vast “nighttime” scenes and skies. MPC additionally did the animation for the chimp, Gordy (see standout characters below).
“Everything Everywhere All at Once” contains its own array of impressive supporting VFX to depict Michelle Yeoh’s multiverse-hopping kung-fu star, Evelyn. The work was performed by a small team of artists supervised by Zak Stoltz, a friend of the Daniels. The wide-ranging martial arts fight scenes in the IRS office or the Benihana-style steakhouse contained a unique ’80s effects aesthetic — the antithesis of Marvel — in which they “banged out successful shots using more traditional principles of image making and painting without having to go through the processor-intensive world of full 3D and CGI.”
Courtesy of Marvel Studios
A few standout characters
Great performances from photoreal characters often anchor Oscar wins: Think the animals from “The Jungle Book,” the tiger from “Life of Pi,” the titular gorilla from “King Kong,” Gollum from “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, or the dinosaurs from “Jurassic Park.” Here are few cutting edge standouts:
Zombie Strange from “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” is a ghoulish sight, with Strange’s decaying flesh and a sinister version of his magical Cloak of Levitation made of demonic black creatures. For Wētā, it was an opportunity to explore kitschy horror and figure out character beats with director Raimi wanting to shake up the MCU. The concept was prosthetic zombie makeup and partial CG (for face, teeth, hands, chest wounds, and rib cage). The makeup had a green screen section of his left cheek where part of his face was meant to have rotted away. As for the spirit cloak, this was a combination of character animation, FX simulation, and a CG garment. The effect was sinewy, smoky tendrils emanating from Strange’s hands, which turn into black skeletal spirits of the underworld. Strange corrals them to form a cloak made of souls.
The newest baddie from “Dominion” is the Giganotosaurus — the franchise’s largest carnivore, and derived from an actual dino. It was created as the franchise’s most animatronic/CG hybrid, overseen by FX supervisor John Nolan and ILM’s production VFX supervisor David Vickery. The Giga began as a CG character, but director Colin Trevorrow wanted a practical creature on set to enhance the realism that wouldn’t have to be replaced in post. The practical rig was 20 meters long and weighed 9 tons and took six hours to move from one set to another, de-rigging and re-rigging over night. For ILM, the Giga was the crowning achievement of the franchise — a lumbering yet powerful force, ready to take on the rejuvenated T-Rex in the final battle.
The most shocking and violent scene of “Nope” takes place during a sitcom shoot gone awry, in which the chimp Gordy attacks his human co-stars. Showcased entirely in IMAX from a child’s POV through a semi-transparent tablecloth, Gordy was portrayed by Terry Notary (the “Planet of the Apes” franchise) on a set that was 30 percent larger so he could perform and interact at chimp scale. The mocap data was translated onto a CG chimp by MPC’s animation team, using an array of witness cameras. A fully detailed digital chimp was then created, including the clothes, props, and blood to match precisely how they looked on the actor. For Gordy, as with the UFO, obscuring the threat was integral, yet was challenging to render diffusely through layers of transparent fabric.
The titular rogue lion from “Beast,” which stalks Idris Elba and his two teenage daughters (Iyana Halley and Leah Jeffries), was created by Framestore (under the production VFX supervision of Enrik Pavdeja). It’s like the “Jaws” of the African savanna in its unrelenting pursuit to kill humans after the slaughter of its pride. The smart, calculating predator was inspired by the massive Barbary lion, with a body the length of a car and paws the size of a soccer ball. The challenge was figuring out the dynamics of a realistic attack, and cinematographer Philippe Rousselot (who consulted with director Alejandro González Iñárritu on shooting the CG bear attack in “The Revenant”), created a constant sense of anxiety and fear with long takes from Elba’s POV.
“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” (Marvel/Disney)
“Jurassic World: Dominion” (Universal)
“The Batman” (Warner Bros.)
“Top Gun: Maverick” (Paramount)
Note: Only films that the author has seen will be named frontrunners at this time
“Avatar: The Way of Water” (20th Century/Disney)
“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” (Marvel/Disney)
“Black Adam” (Warner Bros.)
“Bullet Train” (Sony Pictures)
“Everything Everywhere All at Once” (A24)
“Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” (Warner Bros.)
“Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile” (Sony Pictures)
“Sonic the Hedgehog 2” (Paramount)
“The Northman” (Focus Features)
“Thirteen Lives” (Amazon)
“Thor: Love and Thunder” (Marvel/Disney)
“Three Thousand Years of Longing” (UA)