Oscars: How 'X-Men: Apocalypse' Destroyed Cairo and Other Secrets From the Academy's VFX Shortlist

11:00 AM 12/15/2016

by Carolyn Giardina

The teams on these 20 films created monsters, giants and aliens — and gave filmgoers several white-knuckle moments in 2016.

'The Jungle Book' director Jon Favreau (center) shot Sethi, as Mowgli, and a puppet stand-in for Baloo on a bluescreen set.
'The Jungle Book' director Jon Favreau (center) shot Sethi, as Mowgli, and a puppet stand-in for Baloo on a bluescreen set.
Courtesy of Disney Enterprises

Comic book heroes (and villains) dominated the VFX shortlist announced by the Academy on Dec. 2 in the guise of the films Doctor Strange, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad, Captain America: Civil War and X-Men: Apocalypse. Also making the list were such visually dazzling films as The Jungle Book and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and the sci-fi pics Arrival, Passengers and Star Trek Beyond. Even Kubo and the Two Strings made it through — a rare animated film to make the shortlist.

  • 'Alice Through the Looking Glass'

    Disney

    Disney

    Based on Lewis Carroll's characters and directed by James Bobin, this film involved more than 2,100 VFX shots covering the "design and creation of even more new and unseen worlds, where we had to walk that fine line between impressionistic fantasy and photo reality," says VFX supervisor Jay Redd.

  • 'Arrival'

    Paramount

    Paramount Pictures

    To create an unexpected look for Denis Villeneuve's sci-fi film, VFX supervisor Louis Morin designed a CG spaceship that was as sleek as a polished stone. "The Montana base camp was extended virtually and populated by a CG battalion," says Morin. "CG aliens were created to have whale-looking skin, no anthropomorphic features, seven legs and to float and interact with their misty environment and communicate using liquid shapes."

  • 'Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice'

    Warner Bros.

    Courtesy of Warner Bros.

    The VFX work included the final battle in which Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman team up to defeat Doomsday, a fully CG character. To ground the film in reality, the team combined practical stunts, sets and filmed locations with the visual effects, including a 3D version of Gotham City. To create Doomsday, the 3D model included exposed muscles, tendons and bones.

  • 'The BFG'

    Disney

    Courtesy of Storyteller Distributuion Co.

    The key to the film was the bond between young orphan Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) and the Big Friendly Giant, a fully CG character based on Mark Rylance's performance capture. Says VFX supervisor Guy Williams of Weta Digital: "Mark was shot using our 'Moody Mocap' on a stage with complex lighting, texture and terrain to more closely approximate a full production shoot. Artists manipulated a facial model with more than 1,000 expressions to re-create even the smallest details of Mark's acting."

  • 'Captain America: Civil War'

    Disney/Marvel

    Zade Rosenthal/Marvel 2016

    "The biggest challenge was keeping the visual effects believable in a superhero world," says VFX supervisor Dan DeLeeuw. "We wanted the effects to be invisible even though a 50-foot Ant-Man is fighting in a CG airport with Iron Man and a web-slinging Spider-Man. Ant-Man was motion capture combined with a six-camera rig to capture Paul Rudd's facial performance." The team also digitally enhanced Robert Downey Jr. to create a young Tony Stark.

  • 'Deadpool'

    Fox

    Joe Lederer/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

    The most challenging character was Colossus, a CG creation, who in the film appears as a large metal man requiring a reflective surface and complex muscle system. He was made from a combination of key-frame (hand) animation as well as facial- and body-capture techniques. That's not to say Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) didn't pose challenges, especially creating his digital double for stunt work.

  • 'Deepwater Horizon'

    Lionsgate

    David Lee/Summit Entertainment

    To make this Peter Berg film, VFX had to believably put the actors on the infamous oil-drilling rig, which was done with a combination of sets and extensive CG. "Some of the main VFX challenges included a complete CG underwater environment, simulating tens of thousands of pounds of mud in a high-pressure blowout, over 30 minutes of story where the entire rig is constantly erupting in flames as well as a fully realized CG oil rig set in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico," says VFX supervisor Craig Hammack.

  • 'Doctor Strange'

    Disney/Marvel

    Courtesy of Marvel

    For the film's 1,450 shots, the VFX team had to design all types of magic — including "changing environments or playing with time or dimensions," says VFX supervisor Stephane Ceretti. "It was about making aspects of everyday life behave in a different way, in a way that's not natural."

  • 'Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them'

    Warner Bros.

    Jaap Buitendijk/Warner Bros.

    The work on this J.K. Rowling-scripted film included designing and animating 17 types of beasts, such as bowtruckles, nifflers and the largest creature, the rhinolike Erumpent. Key was making them "feel both tangible and characterful," say VFX supervisors Christian Manz and Tim Burke. "For one of the many digital characters, Gnarlak, played by Ron Perlman, we utilized performance capture nuanced with layers of animation."

  • 'Independence Day: Resurgence'

    Fox

    Claudette Barius/Twentieth Century Fox

    In the 1996 sci-fi predecessor, which depended heavily on miniature models and practical effects, there were just 430 VFX shots. In this follow-up, the team led by VFX supervisor Volker Engel (who also was the VFX supervisor on the original) used the latest cutting-edge digital technology to bring the number of shots to a staggering 1,750. This included some fully CG shots featuring aliens, spacecraft and outer space.

  • 'The Jungle Book'

    Disney

    Courtesy of Disney

    Shot on bluescreen stages, the movie's only live action is Mowgli (Neel Sethi) and whatever small piece of set he stood or climbed on. The rest is a rich, photo real CG jungle, a VFX collaboration with production design and cinematography, says VFX supervisor Rob Legato. About 70 different species of CG animals were created for the production, including the key characters of Baloo the bear, Shere Khan the tiger and Kaa the python.

  • 'Kubo and the Two Strings'

    Focus Features/Laika

    Courtesy of Laika Studios/Focus Features

    "Everything is rooted in a live-action VFX workflow; we are shooting real sets, real puppets and real-world lighting," says VFX supervisor Steve Emerson, explaining how Laika's "hybrid" film combines live-action photography with digital effects. This included set extensions, digital skies, CG crowds and water.

  • 'Miss Peregrine's Home for Pelicular Children'

    Fox

    Jay Maidment/Twentieth Century Fox

    Visual effects supervisor Frazer Churchill helped create the look of the species known as hollows, "tall, emaciated figures with sharp teeth and unhealthy looking skin, but lacking a face, all of which looked like something from a child's nightmare," he says. "We wanted them to look not too distant from the humans they once were. They are just 'monster' enough to be scary."

  • 'Passengers'

    Sony

    Jaimie Trueblood/Columbia Pictures

    Roughly 1,500 VFX shots were created for this sci-fi film — environments that involved set extensions and bluescreen. Sometimes stars Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt wore space suits that actually were CG creations; other times their digital doubles were used in space. A zero-gravity pool sequence was especially tricky, according to VFX supervisor Erik Nordby of MPC: "We studied how objects behave in zero-G, and the elements relied on fluid simulation."

  • 'Rogue One: A Star Wars Story'

    Disney/Lucasfilm

    Jonathan Olley/Lucasfilm

    [SPOILER] The most talked about digital effects work since Rogue One opened has been the return of some iconic Star Wars characters including the late Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin and a New Hope-era Princess Leia, the character played by Carrie Fisher, who died last week. In all, the film's 1,700 VFX shots include numerous CG characters and environments (including the planets Eadu and Jedha, as well as Yavin 4, the jungle-covered moon where the Rebel base is located as first seen in A New Hope). Robot K-2SO was played by Alan Tudyk using ILM's on-set performance capture.

  • 'Suicide Squad'

    Warner Bros.

    Photofest

    VFX was used for everything from CG characters and environments to set extensions, fire and destruction. Action sequences included thousands of destruction effects, for example the battle between the Squad and the Demon Soldiers, or the rooftop escape that involved a virtual environment surrounding the Madison City Federal Building. Additionally, artists created CG doubles of various body parts for the transformation of June Moone (Cara Delevingne) into Enchantress.

  • 'Sully'

    Warner Bros.

    Courtesy of Warner Bros.

    To re-create the landing of an Airbus on the Hudson River, VFX combined portions that were shot in New York with some filmed on a lake on Universal's backlot. Some shots involved the digital replacement of the river's surface, the ferries, people, floating debris and even the plane itself. The opening dream sequence of a jet crashing into New York's skyline was made with a CG version of Manhattan, along with simulations of explosions and smoke.

  • 'Warcraft'

    Universal

    Courtesy of Universal Pictures

    The orcs required some tricky VFX. "They share narrative importance and screen time with humans," says ILM VFX supervisor Jeff White. "And they are characters that have as much dialogue as the actors, so making them believable with a full range of emotions was a big challenge. The idea was to have orc performance capture on set with the human performances so it could happen together." The VFX work also involved world-building, CG environments and set extensions.

  • 'X-Men: Apocalypse'

    Fox

    Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

    There's plenty of destruction in this film, including the final battle in which the X-Men fight against Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) and his four horsemen. This involved the creation and destruction of a fully digital 3D replica of Cairo. New York and Sydney also get destroyed. Mutant skills on full display included Storm's control of the weather, Archangel's wings, Psylocke's psionic sword and whip, and Quicksilver's extreme speed.

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