'Benjamin Button' is VFX's Holy Grail


Taking home the Oscar for visual effects, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" has set a new benchmark in the VFX community.

A believable synthetic human had long been considered the industry's Holy Grail, and the most recent developments in that area allowed lead actor Brad Pitt to, convincingly, age in reverse.

The win also delivered lead VFX facility Digital Domain its first VFX Academy Award in a decade as well as its first since Michael Bay and Wyncrest Holdings acquired the privately-owned company in 2006.

Founded in 1993 by James Cameron, Scott Ross and the late Stan Winston, DD last won Oscars for achievement in visual effects in 1997 for "Titanic" and in 1998 for "What Dreams May Come." (Over the years, it also won four Sci-Tech Academy Awards.)

DD VFX supervisor Barba had a succint take on the night's win: "We are back."

In "Button," visual effects played a key role in the storytelling, enabling Brad Pitt to appear as an aged little man for the first 52 minutes of the film. A body actor did the performance from the neck down, and his head was replaced with one that was computer generated and based on Pitt's performance. The character was created using a combination of VFX tools and techniques, some developed for the project at DD.

Andy Serkis, the actor whose performance drove the tragic, computer-generated Gollum in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, paved the way.

When "Rings" was released, there was a camp that felt Serkis should have received an Oscar nomination for his performance as Gollum, which sparked much debate since the on-screen character was a CG creation. This year, that debate seemed to fall by the wayside when Pitt received a best actor nomination even though his character also owed a heavy debt to CG.

"When I started working on Gollum, there was no benchmark set for an actor driving a digital role," Serkis said Saturday night at the Visual Effects Society Awards. "With Jim Cameron's film ('Avatar') coming out, with 'Beowulf,' with 'Tin Tin' that we're working on, there is a much wider understanding. It's a very exciting time. Some actors think this is taking work from actors -- that's a fallacy. It will enable actors to engage in the craft of acting on a much more unlimited scale and enable them to play characters beyond what they are physically."

Sunday's VFX Oscar was the first Academy Award for all four recipients, as well as the first nomination for Barba, DD animation supervisor Steve Preeg and special effects super Burt Dalton. Craig Barron, VFX supervisor at Matte World Digital, was previously nominated for "Batman Returns."
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