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Visual Effects Society Awards Preview: The Changing State Of The Art

THR talks with nominees from "Gravity," "The Hobbit," "The Lone Ranger," "Pacific Rim" and "Star Trek Into Darkness."

Accepting the American Society of Cinematographers Award for Gravity on Feb. 1, director of photography Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki said, "I share this with my friend and teacher Alfonso Cuaron and (visual effects supervisor) Tim Webber and the visual effects team." And he went on to thank additional collaborators, including the film's colorist, Technicolor's Steve Scott.

After the ceremony, numerous guests commented that VFX-driven Gravity seems to have become the model for where collaborative filmmaking is heading.

This week, some of the nominees for this year's Visual Effects Society Awards, which will be handed out Wednesday at the Beverly Hilton, discussed this topic with The Hollywood Reporter.

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"I'm definitely seeing a slow and gradual change, particularly with cinematography. And I think there is further for it to go," said Framestore's Webber of the level of collaboration with other departments on films where a large amount is created in the digital realm. "There's traditional VFX movies where it's only happening to a certain extent, whereas on a movie like Gravity there was a need for almost an absolute merging of the departments. I have never been so involved in the cinematography as I was on Gravity; and Chivo was very involved in the VFX (Chivo is actually one of the members of the Gravity VFX team nominated for the VES award for virtual cinematography).

The space-set film leads the VES feature competition with eight nominations, and additionally, its director, Cuaron, is scheduled to receive the Visionary Award. "The amount the VFX on Gravity is talked about is a good example of how people are accepting VFX as a true filmmaking tool. A lot of that comes down to Alfonso making sure that it gets the recognition it deserves."

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Industrial Light & Magic animation director Hal Hickel described the collaboration on Pacific Rim, saying "chunks of our work was all digital with the battles between Kaijus and the Jaegers, so the relationship with (director) Guillermo Del Toro and (cinematographer) Guillermo Navarro was very tight."

For one uninterrupted shot, a damaged Jaeger made its way to land, the camera moves in to show the actors and then pulls out again to a fully CG shot. "That shot used all the different departments for what they are best at," said Hickel. "It was tight coordination with what Guillero Del Toro was shooting and what Guillermo Navarro has set up in terms of lighting.  Lindy Dequattro was the on-set supervisor. There were a lot of moving pieces."

"I see a resurgence in collaboration all the way down the line," said Tim Alexander, ILM's VFX supervisor on The Lone Ranger. "On our film, we were following the lead of [director of photography Bojan Bazelli] in terms of the look of the film because we were trying to capture at least half of the frame of every shot in camera."

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Addressing what this means for ever-tightening budgets and schedules, he said: "I think the pre-planning route can help out in terms of budget because you are not just throwing everything into postproduction. You are making sure that every step of the way you are spending your money wisely."

Added Industrial Light + Magic’s Luke O'Byrne, VFX producer on Star Trek Into Darkness: "There’s no perfect recipe to how to make a VFX film a sound business model. But the more information you have, the better. Then you are not trying to put out fires for things that you could have avoided. The creative process is always going to be that, and the more that you can bring to the table in an informed position, I think the better off the projects and the businesses are going to be."

Nominees also talked about the VES category for best animated character in a live action feature, whose wide ranging list of nominees includes Gravity’s Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock, who is vying for a best actress Oscar); the China Girl in Oz the Great and Powerful; the Kaiju, Leatherback, in Pacific Rim; and Smaug, the dragon in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

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In the scenes set in space, Bullock's face is live action and her body is hand animated. "[An animated character] is a hard thing to define these days; ‘hybrid’ is becoming such a common term in many areas of filmmaking," Webber admits, adding of Bullock’s character, "there's a massive amount of animation talent going into that character and it’s all led by Sandra's performance. The animators take that performance and interpret it into zero gravity and yet keep it true to her original, emotional performance."

In recent years there's been a lot of debate about who drives a motion capture-based performance, particularly surrounding Gollum in The Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit and Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, both played by actor Andy Serkis. "There’s no question that motion capture [characters] should be considered an actor’s performance," asserted Webber. "You have to be able to give a great performance, but know how it is going to work through a more complicated technical process, so mocap is extra challenging in many ways."

"I think animators used to fear mocap, because it does take away creative choices about acting," said Hickel, who won on Oscar for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, which featured a CG Davy Jones (Bill Nighy). "But I think when you get a really interesting character that is hard to do well and you're working with a great actor who is the heart and soul of it, it’s really rewarding."

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Weta's four time-Oscar winner Joe Letteri, who was the VFX supervisor on The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, observes that the use of digital characters is only expanding. "A lot of attention, goes on the Gollums and Smaugs, but we have something like 60 digital characters in Smaug if you include digital doubles for the dwarfs and humans, and digital elves and Orcs. There was a lot of action and we needed to create characters and put them in these scenes. This is us stepping into the next realm of maybe the non-featured character work, but it is still there throughout the movie."

Sums up Hickel: "There’s still plenty of creatures where the best thing to do is still one hundred percent key frame animation (hand animation); in fact all of the work in Pacific Rim was key frame. Then there are the Davy Jones' and Gollums' where an actor plays a primary role in creating them. Then Sandra Bullock in Gravity is something else entirely.

"And there’s always fun new challenges. I think [fully] digital humans still has not really been cracked. I think that will take exactly the right project," he said, adding that that needs to be driven by the story. "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a great example where there was a need to do a realistic human face."

E-mail: Carolyn.Giardina@THR.com

Twitter: @CGinLA