Disney’s “The Lion King” strengthened its status as the frontrunner for Best Visual Effects with a terrific presentation by three-time Oscar-winning VFX supervisor Rob Legato at the Academy bake-off. He entertainingly touted the breakthrough virtual production along with its stunning, faux live-action aesthetic. 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” on the VR stage.
Additionally, Disney franchise heavyweights, “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” and “Avengers: Endgame,” also boosted their prospects for nominations, thanks to presentations boasting their cutting edge, high-octane work. In particular, Industrial Light & Magic (under the supervision of Roger Guyett) was innovative in its use of both digital and practical creature effects for the Skywalker finale, including Babu Frik, the tiny droidsmith puppet that’s become an instant fan favorite. And the Battle of Exegol required enormous animation and simulation work, with more than 1,000 Star Destroyers and 16,000 Galaxy ships locked in combat.
Jonathan Olley /Lucasfilm Ltd.
Robert Rodriguez’s “Alita: Battle Angel,” another Disney contender (as a result of the Fox acquisition), also performed well at the bake-off, thanks to Weta Digital’s impressive humanoid cyborg (Rosa Salazar). “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. There were new skin benchmarks and her eyes were very realistic. Weta also built a doll body with 8,000 different pieces of rigid geometry, and a warrior body with a more organic construction.
Ang Lee’s high frame rate “Gemini Man,” though, offered a high watermark in digital humans for Weta (under the leadership of “Life of Pi” Oscar-winning VFX supervisor Bill Westenhofer). 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. There was more realistic skin simulation and detailed eye work, and the development of a procedural software for pores along with robust modeling.
Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” offered an innovative approach to de-aging screen legends Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci. ILM undertook a two-year, NASA-like science project (supervised by Pablo Helman), developing a markerless, light-based performance capture software called FLUX in concert with a special three-camera rig (in collaboration with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and ARRI). The before and after demonstration proved very illuminating in how they used deformation on the mesh models instead of animation to preserve the career-capping performances of the three actors.
Tom Hooper’s “Cats” remains a dark horse, considering the controversy surrounding his demand for post-release VFX changes in a highly unusual display of perfectionism. Still, the innovative furry body-replacement work turned out pretty well. Performers wore gray pajamas, dots on their faces, and face makeup, which matched the coloring of the characters, and then roto-tracked full-CGI furry cat models onto the plates. In final composites, they maintained the eyes and mouth and sometimes a bit more of the face of the performers from the original plates.
Photo Credit: Universal Pictures
However, Best Picture momentum after its Golden Globe win has given a boost to “1917” in the VFX race. Sam Mendes’ intense World War I thriller (lensed by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins) required a unique VFX collaboration in stitching together the sequences as one continuous shot. In addition, there was plenty of standout practical effects. For example, the dazzling nighttime village sequence boasted an assortment of specialized magnesium flares, which traveled 170 feet, every 22 seconds. The work was supportive yet noteworthy.
Contenders listed in alphabetical order. No film will be considered a frontrunner until we have seen it.
“The Lion King”
“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker”
“Alita: Battle Angel”
“Terminator: Dark Fate”