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Oscars 2021: Best Visual Effects Predictions

It's a race between "The Midnight Sky" and "Tenet," but can dark horse "Love and Monsters" pull an upset? Constantly updated.

The Midnight Sky features impressive VFX work

“The Midnight Sky”

Netflix

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Thanks to the pandemic and the absence of VFX-intensive MCU or DCEU contenders, this season offers the most wide open race in recent memory: George Clooney’s sci-fi “The Midnight Sky,” Christopher Nolan’s time-inversion “Tenet,” Disney’s live-action “Mulan” remake along with the studio’s “The One and Only Ivan” hybrid zoo drama, and upstart monster mashup, “Love and Monsters.”

“The Midnight Sky” Framestore team created high-level CG facial replacements, built the Aether ship and interior. To emulate zero-G and help to sell a pregnant astronaut floating in space (Felicity Jones was actually pregnant at the time of shooting), digital face replacements were required for the wide, full CG shots required for the walk in space. For the Arctic observatory exteriors, Industrial Light & Magic provided a pop-up version of StageCraft, its LED volume stage used on “The Mandalorian.” The highlight, though, was the “Dance of Blood” airlock death sequence, requiring a combination of face replacement and intricate fluid dynamics.

While “Tenet” only required 300 VFX shots, the limited work was predicated on Nolan’s insistence on starting with shooting in-camera, comping practical models or CG elements, and only using full-CG when necessary. But the time inversion element of moving forward and backward for fights and car chases was integral to DNEG’s experimental work. They utilized previs to help figure out how to execute the the timing of the inverted action later in post. Also helpful were rehearsals with the stunt department. For the car heist, they made the dust suck into the wheels instead of spitting it out, and when a car explodes, they pushed back on the explosion and also sucked it back into the car.

“Love and Monsters”

Paramount Pictures

“Love and Monsters,” the sci-fi comedy from Michael Matthews, is about humanity’s attempt to survive a monster apocalypse. It’s a $30 million nod to Ray Harryhausen, containing an infestation of giant reptiles and insects. The work was a combination of practical and CG effects (principally by MillFilm) with The HellCrab as the standout with millions of pieces.

For Niki Caro’s “Mulan,” Weta Digital created the massive environment of the principal Imperial City (based on one of the largest cities of the 6th century, Chang’an). They researched historical maps for the layout of the nine districts and the architecture of the buildings and how they they were divided by class. They were able to build it all procedurally using Houdini software and upgraded their real-time raytracing ability. Also important was the large crowd scenes, which required refinements to the creation of more realistic-looking digital extras.

“The One and Only Ivan” leveraged MPC Film’s Genesis virtual production toolkit for combining the live action and CG elements for the zoo and animals (including the titular gorilla, which was motion captured). As with “The Lion King,” they used Virtual Reality to capture the data through the eyes of a virtual set of camera tools.  Using dolly’s, camera heads, cranes, and steady-cam, the team was able to shoot the master scenes on a stage and view the pre-recorded animation clips from any chosen perspective.

With no clear frontrunner, it’s a race between “The Midnight Sky” and “Tenet,” but don’t be surprised if dark horse “Love and Monsters,” the retro throwback, pulls off an upset.

The Academy’s visual effects branch currently has 630 members, of which 588 are active and 42 are retired. The Visual Effects Society, which has more than 4,000 global members, often diverges from the Academy in its top award. Last year, for instance, “The Lion King” won, whereas the Academy at large voted for Best Picture contender “1917.”

Key Dates

Monday, March 15, 2021
Oscar nominations announced; VES online viewing and voting (members only) begins and runs through Monday, March 29.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021
19th annual VES Awards (date subject to change)

Thursday, April 15, 2021
Oscar Nominees Luncheon
Final Oscar voting begins

Tuesday, April 20, 2021
Final Oscar voting ends

Sunday, April 25, 2021
Winners announced at the 93rd Academy Awards (Oscars)

Frontrunners
“The Midnight Sky”
“Tenet”

Contenders
“Love and Monsters”
“Mulan”
“The One and Only Ivan”

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