Awards Watch: Special effects

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Talk about intense competition: Thursday, the members of the Academy's visual effects branch will file into the Samuel Goldwyn Theater and have their minds blown in seven 15-minute segments.

That's how long each of the shortlisted films vying for this year's VFX Oscar has to make its case, each presenting a blindingly vivid reel of rapid-fire CG montages of explosions, creatures, set extensions and digitally enhanced stunt work. When voters emerge, heads spinning, there will be three final nominees chosen for the final Oscar ballot.

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Even for grizzled industry effects veterans, the wow factor is likely to be high. Each of the seven films is out of the sci-fi/fantasy genre, which translates into glory days of aliens, spaceships and wizardry -- plus hundreds of hours of work from VFX supervisors and staff. And this year, VFX technology has made an evolutionary leap forward, thanks to a little film called "Avatar."

Still, nominees insist that sheer spectacle and obvious dollars on the screen aren't necessarily what sway voters.

"In past years, I've seen films that maybe didn't perform well at the boxoffice or seemed like they might not be awards-worthy get a nomination, just because when you separated the work from the movie and looked at it on its own, you saw how good it was," says two-time Oscar-winner Charles Gibson, VFX supervisor for the shortlisted "Terminator Salvation." "I'm not saying that's the case with 'Terminator,' but I feel like our reel plays well."

Impressive as the reels may be, they might have difficulty conveying the many months, sometimes years, of painstaking work by armies of artists that went into their creation. Industrial Light & Magic's Oscar winner Scott Farrar, VFX supervisor for "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen," says it would take 16,000 years to render all of the effects from that film on a modern home PC.

As it was, the process of rendering the 52,632 pieces with 6,467 textures that make up the giant Devastator robot for the film's Imax sequences took up to 72 hours per frame, adding up to a year and a half of his life, the average for a "Transformers" film.

"It takes easily 15 weeks to build a character and then at least that amount of time to rig a character, so it's 30 weeks before you can even put that character in a movie," Farrar says.


"Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen"
 
ILM was the main VFX vendor on "Revenge of the Fallen," responsible for 51 minutes of screen time. But work on the film's 600 effects was shared by a number of other companies, including Digital Domain and Asylum. In the final, frenzied months of postproduction, the number of effects staff working on it swelled to 350.

But that's not a particularly large number, in the context of this year's Oscar race. For the global disaster epic "2012," VFX supervisors Volker Engel and Marc Weigert used 15 companies (including their own, Uncharted Territory) to create the film's 1,400 effects shots, which take up 77 minutes of screen time.

More than a dozen companies were employed to create the 2,000 effects shots in "Avatar," which occupy 117 minutes of the film's 162-minute running time, making it nearly as much an animated film as anything from Pixar.

"The jungle (on Pandora) was all done digitally, with the exception of some plants and things that were on one or two of the sets," says VFX supervisor Joe Letteri of WETA Digital, the movie's primary VFX vendor. "We had 900 people working on the film at WETA alone."



"Avatar" remains the story of the year on a number of levels and its production history stretches back over a decade and a half: The initial 83-page treatment was written by director James Cameron in 1994, and he began developing the 3D camera system he used with Sony in 2000. In 2006 he brought on motion-capture specialists Giant Studios to help bring the alien Na'vi to life.

Cameron wanted to take the mo-cap process one step further and not just digitally transpose real-life body movements into CG animation, but facial expressions as well. So he worked with Giant to create a camera rig that could be mounted to the heads of actors playing the tall aliens, capturing every intimate dart of the eye. They also developed a new system that rendered the creatures and their virtual world in real time for Cameron as he filmed actors on the mo-cap stage in Playa Vista, Calif.

"It's just enough to give you an idea of what they're doing, so anyone that's directing virtual characters would actually be able to judge their performance as they directed," Letteri says.

Of course, all the technical innovation comes with a high price tag. "Avatar" reportedly cost upward of $310 million and some have placed the price tag as high as $350 million.
Sony's "District 9" cost one-tenth of that, and first-time feature director Neill Blomkamp had to rely more on his digital animators to provide the subtle acting nuances for "District 9's" aliens.

"There were (many) scenes where it was really necessary for the animators to put a lot of their own emotion in," says the film's VFX supervisor, Dan Kaufman. "They'd videotape themselves and look in mirrors."


"District 9"
 
For some shots, the movements of "prawns" (as the aliens are called by the humans) were brought to life by actors in motion-capture suits, shot on a stage in Vancouver. But the bulk of the extraterrestrial action was filmed on location in a ghetto in Soweto, South Africa, with a single actor in a gray suit (Jason Cope) portraying most of the aliens; his image was replaced digitally in post via the roto-mation process.

In a few cases, like the poignant final scene in which an alien is seen making a metal flower, the animators crafted performance sans reference footage, using nothing but good-old-fashioned computer key-frame animation.

For "Terminator Salvation," the key reference footage used by Gibson to bring to life the T-800 cyborg (originally portrayed by Arnold Schwarzenegger and puppeteers from the late Stan Winston's studio) came from the first two installments of the sci-fi franchise, which were directed by Cameron. ("Salvation" was directed by McG.)

"In certain cases, we were able to reference them directly and say, 'We want to capture this beat or that beat,' " Gibson explains. "In other cases, we had stunt performers on set that laid down the base performances. We could direct them to sort of be more like Arnold -- 'Do this, do that' -- and we could track it later on in postproduction."

Re-creating Arnold (who briefly appears fully fleshed-out in CGI form in the film) was just the tip of the "Terminator" effects iceberg. The movie contains close to 1,300 VFX shots, created by eight companies (primarily ILM, Asylum and Rising Sun) that were used to do everything from converting a deserted railyard in Albuquerque, N.M., into post-apocalyptic Los Angeles, to turning actor Sam Worthington into a T-600 robot with an exposed mechanical chest cavity.


"Star Trek"
 
With a sequel, there is always the fear that voters will assume VFX artists are merely expanding on someone else's inspired ideas; but the visual effects team on "Star Trek" had six months to execute more than 1,000 CG shots in the film, about 800 of which were handled by ILM, with 150 done by Digital Domain. Some of the film's bigger effects sequences -- colliding spaceships, a virtual Starfleet Academy in San Francisco, a fight to the death atop a giant Romulan drill and the subsequent destruction of planet Vulcan -- are obviously of digital origin. Others are utterly invisible, like the virtual decay applied to the teeth of Nero (Eric Bana), which sometimes required a full CG mouth replacement.

The filmmakers had to tread lightly when dealing with iconic elements from the original "Star Trek" TV series, such as the design of the Enterprise and the look of warp speed and transporter travel, but "You don't want the movie to look like 1966," says VFX supervisor Roger Guyett of ILM. "It would have appeared in many respects campy and maybe like it was parodying itself."

"Harry Potter" has a long history in both print and film, but there was little need to look backward for VFX supervisor Tim Burke, who joined the franchise with the second installment and is working on the final two films in the series.

"('Potter') has become an endless piece of work, in a way," he says. "For me, I'm in preproduction while I'm still in postproduction."

"Prince" boasts 1,400 effects created by five primary vendors: ILM, Moving Picture Co., Rising Sun Pictures, Double Negative and Cinesite. For the VFX team, the most challenging set piece was a scene in which an army of undead creatures known as Inferi attack Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and drag him underwater.

"Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince"
 

Building zombies in CG is challenging enough, but adding in some ordinary H20 is another story. Just ask Engel, who takes out India with a mile-high tidal wave in "2012," helped by water effects specialists Scanline.
With CG water, "You need computer power to have these absolutely irregular organic shapes," Engel says. "Also, you need to create fine mist, and liquid mixing with the white water from the crashing of the waves, which is billions and billions of particles."

Unfortunately, no matter how well rendered, this year water, prawns, zombies and spaceships apparently can't grab audience attention the way tall, blue, buff aliens projected in 3D can. That's one special effect likely to be on everyone's mind today.

Admits Gibson, "I don't think anyone feels great about being there the same year as 'Avatar,' but it's always nice to be invited."
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